Topeka — In tough economic times, people need to laugh.
Officials with Topeka's top two concert venues say that is why comedy concerts continue to be profitable at a time when a sluggish economy and high overhead costs are causing other performers to scale back their touring shows.
"The comedy is doing well because people want to escape," said H.R. Cook, general manager of the Kansas Expocentre. "They just want to laugh a little bit."
Expocentre marketing manager Phil Thompson said 6,980 people attended a March 5 concert put on at the Expocentre's Landon Arena by comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham.
Comedian Lisa Lampanelli for a May 20 appearance at the Topeka Performing Arts Center drew more than the national average attendance for her concerts, which is about 900, said TPAC executive director Barbara Wiggins.
Wiggins said comedians historically have been among the top draws at TPAC.
The venue's record for noncomped tickets sold for any single show — 2,432 — was set by comedian Jerry Seinfeld in January 2005.
Funny men Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy also have been among TPAC's most successful attractions.
Tickets went on sale recently for its next comedy show, a Sept. 23 performance by Lewis Black.
While no comedy concerts are set for the coming months at the Expocentre, Cook says he is aware comedy tours are "gearing up" despite — and perhaps because of — the rough economy.
Cook said promoters and building managers in the performance industry had predicted 2011 was going to be a "recovery year" for concerts, which had become less profitable amid recent tough economic times.
But Cook said the rise of gasoline prices in recent months prompted many consumers to pay for fuel using discretionary income they otherwise may have spent for concert tickets and concessions.
Likewise, he said, a rise in prices for fuel and other overhead costs has discouraged musical acts from going on the road, particularly to venues of Topeka's size.
Cook told Kansas Expocentre advisory board members in an April 22 memo: "Fairs, festivals and yearly concerts such as the Country Stampede must continue on with their talent purchases and may fare well. The individual concert touring will more than likely see a severe reduction for shows on the road. When there is a reduction of touring shows, those shows on the road have a tendency to play larger markets to maximize revenues."
Cook's memo said the exception to that rule may be comedy, as evidenced by the near sell-out of Dunham's performance March 5 in Topeka.
The ventriloquist appeared at Landon Arena with his "posse" of sidekicks, including Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Walter the Grumpy Retiree, the beer-fueled redneck Bubba J, the manic purple creature Peanut and the self-explanatory Jose Jalapeno on a Stick.
Forbes Magazine this past September reported Dunham was the nation's top-earning comic between June 2009 and June 2010, bringing in more than $22 million.
Dunham entertained 7,690 people at Landon Arena during his first performance there in May 2009. That was the venue's highest attendance over the past eight years, rivaled only by the audience of 7,500 drawn by Cher in March 2003.
Still, Cook said the audience of 6,980 people at Dunham's March 5 concert was "a surprise to us and a surprise to Dunham's folks."
Cook said Dunham had been seeing decreased attendance at his concerts and was considering planting his show in Las Vegas.
But as a result of the success of recent arena shows he has performed in Topeka and elsewhere, Dunham continues to perform on the road, Cook said.
Ticket prices were $43 for Dunham's March 5 show at the Expocentre, $35 for TPAC's Feb. 24 performance by Gabriel Iglesias and $35.75 for the May 20 performance at TPAC by Lampanelli.
Lampanelli is known as the "Queen of Mean" for the no-holds-barred comedy she has demonstrated multiple times on televised celebrity roasts.
Iglesias' comedy employs a mixture of storytelling, parody, characters and sound effects that bring his personal issues to life, including references to his considerable girth.
Though 5.5 inches of snow fell in Topeka on the day of Iglesias' concert, Wiggins said about 85 percent of those who bought tickets showed up.
Wiggins said a key reason comedy concerts continue to be profitable is because they involve fewer overhead costs than other types of performances.
"They're very inexpensive shows," she said.
TPAC's next comedy performance, on Sept. 23, features Black, a playwright turned comedian known for his angry rants about how the absurdity around him is driving him insane. Black appears regularly on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."