Stephanie Courtney, Flo in the ubiquitous Progressive Insurance ads, says she's OK "as long as I get to do my improv shows."
Stand-up comedian Pete Holmes had an audience of more than 100 million people last month. As the snarky voice of the stock-trading baby in commercials for the online trading site E*Trade, Mr. Holmes and his two recent Super Bowl spots were part of the most-watched TV event in U.S. history.
Normally, when Mr. Holmes performs, it's for audiences of hundreds—gigs at New York comedy clubs, colleges or the occasional taping of a Comedy Central special. He doesn't do finance.
"I know about as much about investing and banking as an actual baby," he says.
Across the country in West Hollywood, seven members of the Groundlings improv troupe dash onto a bare, tiny stage, and Stephanie Courtney announces to the 90 or so people in the audience: "Welcome, everybody! It's Wednesday! That means it's time for the Crazy Uncle Joe Show!"
Ms. Courtney looks vaguely familiar, but only vaguely. Without the maraschino red lipstick, bumped-up hair, head-band and clinic-white apron, she doesn't bear an especially close resemblance to "Flo," the insanely perky hostess she plays in ads for Progressive Insurance.
Mr. Holmes and Ms. Courtney live a double life in show business. The pop-culture icons they portray are known to more people than many movie stars. But in their chosen fields, as actors or stand-up comics, they are still struggling for recognition, roles, and a living wage.
The commercials are steady work and steady money—six-figure money, in fact. Mr. Holmes says the year before he booked the E*Trade gig, he went on the road to do 60 colleges over five months, "sleeping in different hotels in Iowa, driving through the snow" of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. That whole tour, he says, "paid roughly one third of what I've made from E*Trade in a year."
But these performers also face the danger that their corporate celebrity will overshadow the work they care about, or even detract from it. A 2007 obituary for Canadian actor Dick Wilson, who played Mr. Whipple in hundreds of Charmin commercials, said he was making $300,000 a year, working just 12 days. But as he rose to become the third best-known American (in one poll) behind Richard Nixon and Billy Graham, the once-prolific actor essentially stopped winning roles. "I've done 38 pictures and nobody remembers any of them. But they all remember me selling toilet paper," he said.
There was a time when a comedian's route to the top was well marked: Work the club scene, strive for years to get on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, then hope you kill—and your life changes. Steve Martin broke on Carson, then "Saturday Night Live," put out a platinum-selling comedy LP, and for a time was packing large arenas.
Now, cable and the Web have fractured the comedy scene into a million funny pieces. Not all are profitable. Many aspiring comedians produce Web videos at their own expense, hoping it leads to something that pays. Doing ads can pay the freight along the way.
"The industry's almost backwards in a way. There's no defined path anymore," says Matt McCarthy, a 31-year-old, burly, red-bearded New York comedian who portrayed a constantly outdone cable installer in commercials for Verizon FiOS TV service.
At the Groundlings show, Ms. Courtney is wearing a black v-neck Journey T-shirt over snug jeans. Her hair is completely normal—flat and wavy with a glint of red. Over 90 minutes she'll pretend to be an elderly British lady building with an erector set, a cross-dressing Army commander and an unconscious 1980s prom date who awakens singing the Thomas Dolby song "She Blinded Me With Science." During one improv, a phone jingles in the audience, and without breaking character she tilts her head and says to her stage partner, "Does your neighbor play the xylophone?"