When the Wilbur Theatre reopened as the pandemic subsided in the summer of 2021, more than 22,000 fans filed in over the course of two weeks to see the comedian John Mulaney. The shows — 21 in all, a Wilbur record — were billed as Mulaney’s return to the stage following a well-publicized rehab stint.
But they also marked the beginning of a new surge in demand for tickets to see big-name stand-up comedians in Boston. More than two years after Mulaney’s Wilbur run, the appetite for comedy continues unabated. In mid-October, Dave Chappelle sold out TD Garden on consecutive nights. Days before that, Iliza Shlesinger, the Emerson College alum who has six Netflix specials, brought her “Hard Feelings” tour to the Garden. Across town, Brett Goldstein, the comic actor who played Roy Kent on “Ted Lasso,” was performing the first of his four sold-out dates, totaling 14,000 tickets, at the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre.
And while Mulaney’s Wilbur run eclipsed Bill Burr’s previous record of 19 sellouts at the theater, Burr went on to set a new benchmark: In August 2022, the Canton native became the first comedian to headline Fenway Park.
“Comedy has gotten very hot,” said Bill Blumenreich, the event promoter who got his start in entertainment as cofounder of the now-defunct club the Comedy Connection. “The money they’re making today is ridiculous.”
Blumenreich placed a big bet years ago that comedy audiences would maintain an upward trajectory. It was a gamble that has paid off handsomely. In 2008 he signed a 20-year lease at the 1,100-seat Wilbur. In 2017 he signed a five-year lease with Medford for the historic Chevalier Theatre, capacity 1,900. (Both venues host live music as well as comedy.) Last year Blumenreich renewed the agreement with Medford.
This isn’t the first time the comedy world has felt so flush. In the 1980s, stand-up graduated from hipster enclaves to the suburbs. Comedy-specific nightclubs sprang up across the country, and many of the performers who achieved headline status eventually landed Hollywood sitcoms, or tried to.
The digital generation helped spark a second comedy boom, Jesse David Fox writes in “Comedy Book: How Comedy Conquered Culture — and the Magic That Makes It Work.” He points to 2009 as a benchmark, when Marc Maron launched his “WTF” podcast, Rob Delaney joined Twitter, and offbeat sitcoms such as “Parks and Recreation” and “Community” debuted.
Post-pandemic, all of those freshly paved inroads to comedy success — podcasts, alternative television and streaming platforms, the self-promotional benefits of social media — have amounted to enormous pent-up demand for the stars of live stand-up. To name one example, the 40-year-old Chicago comedian Andrew Santino knocked around on the nightclub circuit for years before his chatty podcast, “Whiskey Ginger,” and his recent Netflix special “Cheeseburger” broke through. In early October Santino sold out the 5,000-seat MGM Music Hall at Fenway.
Comedy is settling in at the Garden, too. After hosting two shows each in 2021 (Joe Rogan, Sebastian Maniscalco) and 2022 (Kevin Hart and Denis Leary’s Comics Come Home), the arena has presented five comedy shows this year (including Bert Kreischer and this year’s edition of Comics Come Home). And the venue already has two on the books for 2024: Jo Koy and Nate Bargatze.
Blumenreich, who brought Dane Cook to the Garden in 2005, when such a thing was unheard of, has some ideas about how this all happened.
“We used to advertise in the newspaper, on the radio. Now it’s all online. It’s all viral,” he said. “Thirty-five years ago, if a comedian played ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson, that meant they could sell maybe another 300 to 400 tickets in Boston. Now it’s all online, all viral.”
Contemporary comics who have amassed huge social media followings can translate those connections into significant ticket sales. The fast-rising comedian Matt Rife, who has more than 17 million followers on TikTok and nearly 6 million on Instagram, has already sold out almost every date on his 2024 tour, including six shows over three nights in April at MGM Music Hall.
When Rife was 15 — he’s 28 now — he saw Cook headline an arena in his home state of Ohio. He sent the comedian an email, and Cook told him to come to Los Angeles after he graduated from high school. Eventually, the mentor began inviting his protégé on tour as an opening act.
“Not only was he extraordinarily funny and fast with crowd work,” Cook said, “but he was starting to use social media in a real honest way.”
It was Cook, the Arlington native, whose own savvy cultivation of his fan base — by using the platform available to him at the time, Myspace — transformed him into one of comedy’s biggest stars in the aughts. In 2005 he headlined two in-the-round shows at the Garden, which were taped and released the following year as his first HBO special, “Vicious Circle.”
At the time, no other comedians were reaching those kinds of heights. Steve Martin rose to the arena level in the 1970s before setting aside stand-up for his film career, and Andrew “Dice” Clay briefly reached mega-stardom in the late 1980s.
“At that moment, I really felt I was on a solo adventure,” said Cook, who headlines the Wilbur for two nights this month. “Nobody had broken through using technology. Part of the hoopla was, ‘Who is this guy who’s doing this?’ That’s not so much the question today, when it’s almost expected that you’re going to take your stand-up to the arena level.”
Boston-based comedian Emily Ruskowski finds the recent spate of large-scale comedy shows to be a boon for the business, with a trickle-down effect for club comics like herself.
“Any time people level up to bigger venues, it opens up space for other people to also level up,” said Ruskowski, who plays Laugh Boston in December. The utility of social media has helped create a broader diversity of voices and a diminished reliance on “gatekeepers” such as booking agents, she said. “I don’t like it when any opportunity is dependent on the whims and preferences of one person.”
Cook thinks of the latest comedy boom as another “gold rush.”
“I’m sure the heaviness, the gloom and doom of the 24-hour news cycle made people want to get out and be a part of something uplifting,” he said of this post-pandemic phase. “But I honestly think more of what has spawned this era has to do with the entrepreneurial nature of stand-up” — the viral posts, the mutual back-scratching of comics making appearances on each other’s podcasts, the direct-to-consumer model of releasing your next special on YouTube.
In October, Cook returned to the Garden to make a surprise appearance at one of his old friend Chappelle’s shows.
“There’s only so much revenue to go around,” he said. “But if you’re good enough, if you keep growing with honest, enthusiastic entrepreneurship, I still think a lot of people will get to that arena level.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @sullivanjames.