Comedian Jeff Dunham has a sophisticated and developed merchandise line available at all his shows. (Courtesy UTA)

Like everything in the touring world, merchandising at touring comedy shows has evolved from a T-shirt table at best to online stores and full-fledged product lines including hats, pins, CDs, downloads and books. Based on conversations VenuesNow had with agents and promoters, it’s clear that merch has become a big revenue generator for acts hitting the road in 2018.

The revenue is split in a similar fashion to a music show, with the venue getting the standard merch rate.

“It’s a substantial business,” said Matt Blake, head of CAA’s comedy department. “Often the artist just brings the merch with them. The artists make the majority of the merch money and it’s a good thing for the artist, and the fans get to take something home with them.”

“Merch is big part of the comedian’s package, “ said Andrew Russell, a WME comedy agent. “Comedians often have a punch line they can put on T-shirts and hats.”

Live Nation artist Brian Regan directs people to his online store and “a lot sell their books at the shows,” said Geof Wills, president of comedy touring for Live Nation. “Gabriel Iglesias does a ton of merch. Louis Black travels by bus and brings his merch with him and sells a lot of it.”

Jeff Dunham has a “full-blown store,” said Nick Nuciforo, a UTA partner and the head of comedy touring for the agency, “There are so many items,” he said. “It’s really sophisticated and developed merchandising.”

Some acts have merch reps, which shows how much has changed, Wills said. Wills recalled that 20 years ago Chris Rock tried a merch rep, who followed him around with duffle bags of merch and quit five nights into the tour. “Merch sales have followed the comedy trend and have gone from almost nonexistent to a huge part of the haul,” he said.

In discussions on comedy touring, the merits of pairing headliners for tours, a popular trend among musical acts, was another hot topic.

Combination comedy shows are a small percentage of what was sent out in 2018. “You want to make sure that 1+1=3, not 1 1/2,” Blake said.

“It’s act pending,” said Russell. “Some comedians want to create shows and go out with their friends. Others only want to fly solo.”

“We did a show with Bill Maher and Adam Corolla, in the height of the political season, and it was perfect,” said Mike Goldsmith, senior programming director for Nederlander productions.

Guest artists are trending, according to Steve Levine, co-head of concerts for ICM. “It’s pretty exciting when you go to see Chris Rock perform and out walks Arsenio Hall and Dave Chappelle to do a set.”

A more contentious issue for the agents and promoters is the fees imposed on online ticket purchases and how to keep prices low enough to get fans through the door.

Ticket prices for comedy shows are generally less than those of a big music tour, with the average being anywhere from $20 to $250. VIP packages are regularly offered, with meet and greets and other perks attached, and can run as high as $1,000 or more. Audiences can range from a couple thousand to 10,000 for a healthy show. Big acts play anywhere from 50 to 150 shows a year.

Russell is concerned about the fees that the big ticketers, such as Ticketmaster, are charging on top of the price of the ticket. “A $25-$30 ticket often adds $9 in fees, which is on top of the ticket price and adds up real quick. Ninety-nine percent of the ticket vendors are doing it, and it’s turning off the customers. The artists do not see that money.”

Levine spoke of wanting to be “ultra-sensitive to the low-income families. Pricing them out is not good for anyone,” he said.

Nuciforo provided a counterpoint. “Comedy is still under the average of what people pay compared to Broadway and musical artists,” he said.

Scalpers are another problem, just as with music shows. “The secondary market has glommed on to the comedy trend and are scooping up tickets for the in-demand acts and selling them at higher prices. This will come back to bite us if the industry doesn’t take control,” Russell said.

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