05.22.10

Why Comedians Have Short Careers

The shelf life of a comedy star is shorter than ever before. Kim Masters examines why.

When the new installment of Shrek opened this past weekend, audiences flocked for another fix of Ogre and Donkey.

Behind those beloved voices are Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy—comedy icons who have enjoyed long and rewarding careers.

When it comes to appearing as themselves in movies, however, both stars are ice-cold.

That Myers and Murphy seem to have more success playing animated characters than human beings points to a new reality in the fickle business of Hollywood: The declining shelf life of comedy stars.

An agent, who represents an array of comedy stars, says the days when a comedian could command a $20 million fee after a couple of hit movies are finally over.

Not so long ago, comedians could build a career that stayed strong for more than a decade: Ben Stiller, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler were all proof of that. Fifteen years passed between Murray’s Meatballs and Groundhog Day. Carrey broke out in 1994 with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and still got to a $100 million gross with Yes Man 14 years later.

But it is simply no longer possible for a comedian to achieve that kind of lasting success, says a talent representative with long experience in comedy.

“Zach Galifianakis and Seth Rogen will not have the same run that Jim and Ben and Adam enjoyed, and a lot of it is because of the nature of the audience,” says the representative, who blames the Internet, a 500-channel universe, reality shows and “a dumbed-down public.” Today, he said, there is not “the same premium on what it is to discover and develop a voice.”

The rise of the Internet has led to the decline of the big networks, which incubated mass-appeal talents, including Myers and Murphy as well as Murray, Carrey and Sandler. Those comics came up in a world in which “20 to 30 million people would be predictably around the TV,” says the talent representative. Television, in other words, gave them a chance to hone their skills, work together and build their fame.

Not only is that diminished but the warp speed of the Internet “goes to the staying power of voices—particularly comic voices,” he explains. Even before the Internet came into being, comedians generally had a shorter shelf-life than other performers. “It’s a tricky thing to be relatable over a generation or two,” he says.

And in the blink-and-it’s-gone world of YouTube and Funnyordie, no one of the same stature has taken their place.

An agent, who represents an array of comedy stars, says the days when a comedian could command a $20 million fee after a couple of hit movies are finally over. There’s always an exception and, in this case, it is Sasha Baron Cohen, who recently stunned Hollywood by scoring an old-fashioned $20 million deal from Paramount for his latest, still-in-the-works comedy project. But that’s a striking exception.

Producer David Friendly, currently filming Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son, says that "more than ever, the concept is becoming the star…We are in a world where there are new discoveries on the Internet every day.”

The agent doesn’t blame the digital revolution for the challenges facing comedy stars, though. He contends that the Internet supplements careers, though it may not build them.

The real issue, he says, is that studios are making fewer films. “When they were making 18 movies a year [each], there was a lot more opportunity,” he says. “There are fewer movies, so it’s going to take longer to elevate [someone] to international stardom.”

“Right now, we’re not in the era of mega comedy stars like we had with Adam and Jim,” concedes Doug Herzog, president of MTV Networks Entertainment Group, which includes Comedy Central. “People cycle through content faster than ever before so [comedy] careers might move faster.”

But Herzog says the lull may just be cyclical. He’s not convinced that guys like Galifianakis and Rogen are interested in “world dominion.” But others will be and they might be able to get there. “If Adam and Jim were Bird and Magic, Michael Jordan is coming along,” he predicts.

Meanwhile, Herzog points out, comedy is flourishing. “Comedy is dominant at the box office, comedy is very strong on television and comedy is one of the exciting growth areas on the web,” he says.

The public may be fickle when it comes to the stars. But they are true in their love for a laugh.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business, and the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.