Show business is a rough business. Acting, comedy, and music are probably the toughest careers in which to succeed, with the exception of wasp farming (the current wasp farmers have a serious monopoly on the business so don’t even bother.)
That being said, there’s one thing I’ve heard about show business that I’ll never forget. It was said by a late comedian named Patrice O’Neal. “You can’t get by in show business without owing,” he said in a rant which railed against Hollywood and the way it shuts down performers who step out of line.
When you think about it, it’s true.
You can’t become a huge star in the entertainment industry without selling out a little. The box you’re going to have to fit into is a tight squeeze if you’re hoping to “make it.” Patrice went on to use Mel Gibson as an example. The star of gigantic films such as Mad Max, Lethal Weapon, and Braveheart and the director of one of the highest grossing films of all time, The Passion of the Christ. Gibson truly was at the peak of success in the industry. After the racially charged phone conversations between he and his ex-girlfriend were leaked, Gibson was essentially banished from Hollywood overnight. Studios refused to hire him, filmmakers refused to work with him, and even fellow actors threatened to walk off set if he was going to be a part of a film they were in. Gibson had proven the fragility of success in that industry.
Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of public opinion. You can imagine how tricky this makes the life of a comedian. Of all the denominations of show business, stand-up comedy is the one that can be the most slippery when it comes to saying something that can get you in to trouble. To be successful as a stand-up, you are required to speak what are, presumably, your own thoughts for an hour and be funny while doing so.
If people think you’re funny, they will come to your shows, they will buy your merch, and they will probably show their friends your Comedy Central special. You will have fans and you will make money. Simple enough. However, to get a LOT of fans and a LOT of money, you’re going to have to be a little more than just ‘funny.’ You’re going to have to sell-out a bit. You’ll need to: avoid saying everything on your mind, be careful of what you tweet, apologize for any off-color jokes made while you were 4 years into the business – being filmed at The Chuckle House in Pittsburg, and steer clear of topics such as race, politics, religion, sexual orientation, and anything else that HR would tell you not to speak of if you’re working in an office. Some comedians learn this the hard way. Tracy Morgan, Gilbert Gottfried, Michael Richards, and Joan Rivers just to name a few. (By the way, I almost named this article “The Serious Business of Comedy” how horrendous would that have been?)
Patrice O’Neal was well aware of why he was unable to make it higher in the entertainment industry. He was unwilling to live a dishonest moment. According to his fellow comedians, he had many opportunities that he had turned down because he was asked to not use certain words or behave a certain way. There was no question that he was funny. His last filmed performance Elephant in the Room is considered the greatest stand-up special of all time by many comedy fans and comedians, including Louis C.K.
As a fan of the medium, I’ve seen many comedians refuse to change how they perform and refuse to alter the subject matter they cover, as well. This has resulted in the business saying “No, thank you” to many of them. I’ve also seen comedians change when they get scared of losing all the fame and wealth they’ve been given by the business.
Take Amy Schumer for example. I remember the first time I heard her and how hard she made me laugh. It was on St. Patrick’s Day in 2010. I was listening to Opie and Anthony on Sirius XM and there was a young Amy; shooting off Helen Keller and molestation jokes that had me in tears. After that, I was all in.
I watched her specials and I enjoyed her comedy. Her material was edgy, dark, intelligent and most important of all, it made me laugh. I’m not going to tell anyone how to enjoy comedy or what makes a comedian a comedian, but it seems like the general consensus from people who enjoy stand-up comedy is that if you can make people laugh, you’re doing it correctly. The box you need to fit into has very simple dimensions: if you’re funny, you fit. Amy was in. She quickly and easily made it onto the extensive list of comedians that I enjoyed.
That was 5 years ago. Since then, Amy made it. Her show got picked up by Comedy Central, she starred in a huge film – Trainwreck, appeared on the late night talk shows, did roasts on comedy central and was basking in the glory of success in the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, this meant the dimensions had to change. It was no longer good enough to just be funny.
In mid 2015, an article was published in The Washington Post which brought attention to a racial joke that Amy had made two years prior. She immediately came under fire on Twitter. Her followers and reporters for numerous blogs with tens of twenties of followers bombarded Schumer on the social media site demanding to know if she was truly a racist.
At that point, there was a fork in the road: Amy could apologize and say she’s changed, she will take responsibility for her fan base and that she will limit what she says on stage to only what people would prefer to hear, or she could say that she’s a comic and she makes jokes. The first option would allow Amy to keep all her success. The second option would allow her to keep all of her dignity. Amy chose the first option.
It’s unfortunate. I enjoyed Amy immensely, but her comedy is crippled without her freedom to talk and joke about what she wished. An audience is not owed anything for hearing something they did not like. This is what Patrice O’Neal would refer to as “The Belly of the Beast.” You owe this business and they own you. I have never been in Amy’s situation so I don’t know what I would have done in her shoes. All I know is that I miss her comedy. Since this incident, she has received lots of media attention for a few things. Amy has gone on to say that she was playing a “racist, white Republican” character for the first part of her career, she has called for tighter gun control, she has gone on talk shows to speak on the topic of body image, and she has become a huge player in the modern feminist movement.
All of these are well and good, but none of them made me laugh. This is the image she has to maintain if she wants to keep all the success she’s earned. She is no longer simply required to kill on stage. She is required to have an agenda. I hope the business will let her be funny again but as long as she owes them, that decision is entirely up to them.