Stand Up and Economics

Who would be a perfect partner for a tub of Popcorn and a day drowned in gloom? For me, it has always been Kenny Sebastian cracking jokes on coffee or biscuits. Not just Kenny Sebastian, but as a matter of fact, stand-up comedians in general have been my saviour in times of crisis. The giggles and the laughs indeed help one escape from reality and live in the moment. However, there is one not so known fact about stand-ups - they share a close relationship with everybody’s favourite subject, economics.

This relationship between Economics and Stand Ups is bilateral, and however funny and astonishing it may sound, we have someone with the title of 'Stand-up Economist'. Yoram Bauman is deemed to be the first Stand up Economist in the world. He is a microeconomist and his key focus area is the environment. He once wrote a parody on the 'ten principles of Economics'  by N Mankiw which kick-started his side-career in comedy. Now, he regularly performs at colleges, clubs and institutes. "The difference, of course, being that microeconomists are people who are wrong about specific things and macroeconomists are wrong about things in general" was one of his lines at a 45- minute comedy show performed at Mission College which made the audience burst into laughter.

Moving ahead, while we look at the first half of the relationship, we will be looking at stand-ups as economics. A lot of people have drawn similarities between jokes and currency. Some went overboard and termed jokes as a 'Strange Currency'. The value of this currency rests on a shared agreement and it keeps fluctuating, i.e., increases or decreases, over time. Moreover, if we visualise stand-up as a market, the market does have a point of saturation wherein the joke becomes so diffused that it no longer pleases the audience. 

And again, like everything else, jokes react to the principles of supply and demand. Jokes, in this market, are characterised as investments. Not everyone can wake up one day, go on the stage and become a stand up comedian. There’s a lot of refinement and honing that goes behind a successful joke (or investment) which can be presented to a paid audience and in turn yield money. Mark Normand’s line “If I can get a joke to work on [a free] show, that joke is worth money” sums up the idea pretty well. These jokes have a lasting or terminal value like any other investment. However, when does the value of a joke fade away? The lasting value depends on the person who’s making the joke. For example, stand-up comedians who have been in the business for as long as decades can dig out old jokes and please the audience with the reference. Thus, the jokes still have a lasting value for them even after decades. Generally, it is considered that non-conventional jokes have a longer lasting value than the conventional ones. 

While we have walked through the streets of the stand-up industry, there’s another visualisation of the joke market which was proposed by Yoram Bauman. Instead of considering jokes as a currency, Bauman considers jokes to be like public goods such as fresh air, water, etc. If one of the members enjoys the joke, it doesn’t take away the right of enjoying it from any other member. However, even estimating the value of a public good is difficult, as no one puts equal value on a nice view or a nice joke. Again like any other goods, jokes face saturation in the market. If a comedy show has the same specific bit of jokes about the same things, the value of the jokes would reduce. Ultimately the audience would refuse to buy these jokes by either not laughing at them or worse by heckling. However, one fundamental question that still remains is how one puts a value on a creative intangible hobby because a lot of stand up comedians don’t really want money in exchange for their “goods” but are satisfied by the giggles.

Now exploring the second half of the relationship, a lot of stand-ups have economic concepts entwined in them. Stand ups provide a really holistic view of human behavior. Since most of the jokes are centered on everyday life; these comedians analyze our behavior to derive jokes out of them. Hence, economics lovers should definitely watch stand ups apart from reading the usual microeconomics textbook. As was noted in one of the articles by Mint, there are various instances where stand-up comedians have explained complex economics issues through jokes. For example, when in one of his gigs, Abhishek Upmanyu said that, in his childhood, on his grandmother’s death anniversary, his mother used to request him to offer food to poor people. While he agrees that it is a noble deed to do, he also states that it creates an unwanted incentive. If poor people get to know that elderly people dying means food, they’ll start hurting elderly people. This, in economics, is called ‘The Cobra Effect’. 

While it’s stand-up comedy in economics or economics in stand-up comedy, there’s one thing clear that there is a relationship between the two. So, the next time you sit with a tub of popcorn and Kenny Sebastian, you can skip your microeconomics tuition!


Shiksha Mody

Currently an undergraduate student at Shri Ram College of Commerce with a keen interest in behavioural Economics. In my free time, you can either find her playing with colours or reading the latest romantic fiction.

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