Comedian Tools Of The Trade Part 2: The Stage

Ok, so I kinda remembered that I have talked about everything else so I made up a part 2 on the spot.  I have talked about cars and freaking notebooks, and I ran out of things I could call tools.  So I thought that I would lump the stage as a tool so I could at least get a part 2 done and the 12 of you reading this would say, “well, he did promise a sequel.”

All fourth wall breaking aside, the stage is the second most valuable tool a comedian has.  You can write all day long, but if you do not get on stage and try what you wrote out, you will not know if it is actually a good joke.  If you are within driving distance of a place to get up on stage and perform you are already there. Now, all you have to do is get there and actually get on the damn stage.  I have heard so many people after a show say, “Well, I’ve wanted to try it out, but I just don’t even get a chance to come.”  That, my friends, is an excuse, and excuses will have you saying you never did stuff you wanted to do when you are about to die.  Getting up on the stage is like cracking open an egg.  Once you do you either bake a cake or you leave it under someone’s car seat in the summer…that was a terrible analogy.

A lot of people look for comedy open mics to get there start.  You don’t need that though!  You can ask the local band if you can get up and warm the crowd up.  You can host local events.  You can go around town and see if any trivia nights need a host.  There are many ways to get seen in front of people.  I know what you may be thinking, well the stage isn’t really important than it’s the people and this article is totally stupid.  Well, to that I would say, hey!  You know what I mean!

Anyway, the point of getting on stage is to work on the craft.  See comedy isn’t like acting and music.  You can be an overnight success as an actor or a singer, comedians have a longer road, and the reason is because a jokes are just written they are born and grown.  Most of the comedians you see on TV and film have been doing it a long time.  They didn’t get on late night TV after a couple of open mics, it takes years to craft enough jokes to be seen at that level.  That is why stage time is such a great tool for comedians.

If you live in a big city, than you are in luck because there are many more places to get up on stage. When I was in Seattle, there were a ton of open mics every day of the week (sometimes twice a day).  That gives you an awful lot of time to work on your material.  There is a downside to so many stages and so many comedians wanting that time.  Bigger cities usually have all kinds of ways to keep the amount of people getting stage time on a given night down.  Now, that is not their fault.  If you didn’t have a cut off or a time in which comedians should get there, you would be there all night long.  The complaint I have is that with so many comedians wanting that stage time, a lot of bookers will take advantage of that.  They will not pay an MC or short change a feature act because they say they are doing them a favors, when in reality what they are doing is taking advantage of people that what that stage experience.

Spokane is different.  We have enough stages and enough comics that it is an almost perfect situation.  One open mic does have a cut off, but that is because it is the most popular open mic in the city and they have to do something.

My advice to those that are starting out and looking for stage time is make sure you have a plan when you do get up.  If you only have five jokes, work on those five jokes until you feel they are good and then move on.  It is a process being a comedian.  You want to work to a point where you can present a show.  If you are not taking advantage of the time on stage to work on crafting new jokes then you are wasting everyone’s time.  The stage is suppose to be a laboratory where you bring your experiments and test them out on real people.  At least that’s how I look at it.  Don’t be afraid to see what works and what doesn’t.  That is how you will develop as a comedian.  If you are great at writing dick jokes then you might want to see where you are at with kitty material. I have seen some brilliant stuff on many a stage and some weird stuff, but you don’t know what you got until you try it out.  And that is why I think the stage a a valuable tool for comedians…man, that end there sounded like a school report.  I hated do those things.  I never like writing about things other people tell me to write about.  One time a teacher wanted me to write about the correlation between childhood neglect and criminal behavior.  I’m a rebel!  I write what I WANT!! So I wrote a 5 page “report” on who would win out of a badger and a hedgehog with the ability to shoot a gun.  I got a D.  Hey, I didn’t get an F so she must have smell my rebel side.  Half of this paragraph was meaningless.

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Comedian Tools Of The Trade Part 1: Write It Down

This is the first part in a…I don’t know many part series about some of the tools that comics used to get the job down.  Every comedian, at one point or another, has had to write their jokes and premises down and we will discuss the most popular right now.

If you go to an open mic, the one thing you will  see a lot of is comics getting drunk, the next thing you will see though is that a lot of them are carrying notebooks.  A comics first notebook is one of the coolest things to look into. That is when you can see the chances they were willing to take and you can see who they were influenced by.  My notebook had a lot more political and current event stuff then I write nowadays.

A notebook is important because it helps you take that idea and do what you were taught since school, to write your ideas down.  Without a place to retain your material how are you gonna to recall it or go back to it later to polish it? I started with a notebook because when I first started I had a flip phone and a PDA, but I never thought about putting my jokes in any of those.

I went from a notebook to an electronic device after I saw comedian, and cool ass pimp, Nate Jackson using a Tmobile sidekick to write all of his jokes down.  I went out and got a sidekick because at the time those were the cheapest phones that would let you write notes into them.  A lot of comics say they don’t like to do that because there is a disconnect between the idea and then the typing.  I think that is because a lot of them don’t write other things.  I am a writer, and I love technology, so it doesn’t bother me to write my jokes into my phone.  The biggest problem that I experienced with writing into a phone  is how do you get your jokes if you happen to go to another phone.  I ended up having to send like 200 emails to myself when I left tmobile.  After that I looked for a way to keep my jokes in a place where I could control them.  That is when I discovered Evernote!  It is a program that is on computers, and mobile devices and you can manipulate your notes anywhere.  Your jokes are kept in the cloud so you can get them if you change services and devices.  The only downside is if you do not have a cell signal you can not get to all of your material.  That has happened to me a couple of times.  You can buy the premium service and be able to cache you material locally, but I have never really been that hard up for that.

Write now I use an iPad to do my joke writing into.  When I am out and about and I don’t have my iPad, I can just type out a joke into Evernote and be good to go.  I like that I can write whenever inspiration hits.

I have also used the Galaxy Note to write my jokes into.  The Note phones have big screens and a stylus and you use the stylus to write notes.  I think this is the best of bother worlds.  If you have to write a joke rather than type it you can and you have it in a device that you carry all the time.

Comics also like to write down their set list and that is a varied as the methods of writing jokes down.  I used to write the first line of every joke on a piece of paper.  Then, I stopped that and went to what most comics do and just write something to remind you of what to do.  I don’t write set list anymore.  I just put together a set depending on my mood and the crowd and go.  I have seen comics do everything from tape it to their beer bottle to write it on their hands.  There is no wrong way here just make sure to get your set list somewhere you can see it.  When I go to open mics, I like to just read right off my iPad.  You can also do that with bigger phones like the Note and the new bigger iPhones.

No matter what the idea is simple.  Get your jokes down and be able to work on them later.  Unless you are pure improv, you need to get your ideas in a place where you can look at them later.

The Problem With Local Shows

I am a regional comic.  What that means is that I make the majority of my money in about 4-5 states.  This means that local shows that are put on are a big source of income for me.  The thing about doing shows locally (I live in Spokane WA on the east side of Washington state) is that it is HARD to get people in those seats.  Now, I have had conversations at length about why this is so.  Theories abound!  Everything from people don’t know about comedy in the area all the way to it’s too expensive (if 5 bucks is too much then you have other issues).  I have my own theories.

We live in a post comedy boom.  Back in the 80’s and 90’s comedy clubs were as plentiful as zits on Kim Kardashian’s ass.  With every boom though there is a burst of the bubble and by the mid to late 90’s most of the good will stand up comedy garnered was wasted.  Why?  Because human nature that’s why!  Instead of establishing itself as a viable form of entertainment, comedy became more seedy as people who wanted to run shows, but didn’t have the capital to open a new club (especially after they ruined a couple already) just threw them up in bars and basements around america.  Think about it like this:  When is the last time you have been to a comedy club that wasn’t also a restaurant or a bar or a strip mall?  This is one of the reasons people turned away from live comedy.  No one wants to go to a comedy club when it is in the seedy side of town and you have to bring your own cups.

Then let’s not forget the actual people putting on these shows.  They were either wannabe comics who failed miserably to make it in a time when anyone with a hook could make money or they were shady businessmen that saw a quick buck (sounds a lot like the housing and internet bubbles).  These people would charge money and threw anyone on stage that said they were a comic.  Since there were so many comedy clubs and not enough quality acts to fill them, people got burned one too many times and the clubs just dried up.

The comics actually performing back then didn’t help either.  These guys were snake oil salesmen.  They would flash a grin and show a comedy booker a bag full of trinkets that they were gonna make fun of on stage and they got a lot of work.  The problem is they were not that good.  Look at all the stereotypes of comedians.  Its always a guy telling terrible jokes that have been driving into the ground (see last week’s article on hack).  He always looks like a used car salesman.  This was even worse in smaller parts of the country because quality acts were in the big cities and comedy clubs needed acts it was easy for these people to go from small town to small town for years before they either got one too many DUIs or they opened up a subway that is connected to a conoco.

What does that have to do with comedy in Spokane (and probably your little neck of the woods).  Well, Spokane is one of those cities where these exact things happened! People started doing comedy in any place that would let them.  Comedy clubs were doing great in the area.  Then the people running the bars noticed that the same 5 acts were coming back over and over again.  The audiences noticed that they were paying more to get in and more for drinks and getting a guy that was telling all of Eddie Murphy’s old material, but in a british accent.

So what happened?  Well, the bar owners kicked the bookers out and refused to pay that much money for an inferior product.  Audience members decided to spend their money on known quality (that is why clubs all across America will not put you on unless you have TV credits, that is to let the people coming to the show know that you have been vested already and deemed funny) and just stopped coming to comedy clubs unless they could prove they could consistently bring in funny people.

So, comedy in Spokane has stagnated for about 6 years with one club and a lot of one nighters that pop up from time to time.  I am a believer that it is because of the (perceived) quality of comedy in the area and the lack of promotion that is making local shows suffer.  Even when you get out on local TV and advertise your event you may get a lukewarm response and that is because people have been burned before and people remember the bad experiences more than the no so bad experiences.

Another issue that is fairly recent is that comics (me included) have gotten lazy with promotion.  We will make a flyer and put it up at the venue and then post it online and then call it good.  Just because you have 500 friends on facebook does not mean you will get 500 people to your show.  For every 100 people you have to assume that only 1 of those people will be persuaded by your advertisement.  If you put on shows then try this experiment.  Send out an invite to your next show.  See how many people say they will or might come.  Then check the amount of audience members you get.  You will see that a lot of the time the number of people that saw the ad and then said they were coming is much larger than the amount of people that actually showed up.  I mean you can post it a lot and get people used to the fact that a show will be going on.  That is the only way I have seen it consistently work.  But the numbers will almost always be lower than what you planned.

I think in this area, the biggest problem is that people don’t think of Spokane as an area where good comedy can come from.  I think the reason for that is that Seattle and Portland are not that far away and people’s perception is that it makes no sense to do comedy here unless you are not good enough to cut it on the west side.  That is why shows do really well here when they are being performed in theaters like the Bing Crosby Theater or the Fox Theater.  People will come see those because again, they believe that those people on that stage have been vested and they believe they are getting a quality product.

I have gone about my career here the long way. I just try to put on the best show possible and gain enough of a following that when I do perform I can have a number of people come to that show.  It is not the cool route because at times there are a lot of empty seats in the crowd, but it is one that allows the people paying to get in a chance to trust that you will take care of their entertainment needs.  Now, I would love to get a TV credit and make it easier to get asses in chairs, but that is a process.  If you have read my blog, you will notice that is a ongoing theme.  Process to success.

I think the Spokane comedy scene would serve itself well to see a little deeper into why people are not showing up then just “its warm outside” and see that what people want now are what they have wanted forever.  A consistently funny show in an area where they don’t feel they will have to fight a bum to get to their automobile.

What Is Hack?

You may have heard someone say that so and so is a “hack” comic or that such and such tells a lot of “hack” jokes, but wondered what that meant.  Well, since I have nothing better to do I will tell you.  Hack is what comedians say when something has been done a lot.  Like for instance airplane food.  You may wonder why that may be such an issue for comics and the answer is rather simple.  Unlike musicians, or actors comedians rely heavily on unique aspects of life.  That is what make Louis C.K different from Chris Rock.  They are both funny, but they have unique outlooks on life.  Comics rely on this because unlike a singer or an actor the material is what makes the comic.  I would go as far to say that material is 90% of comedy and the rest is the stuff they score in comedy competitions, but the audience at large doesn’t really care about.  100 singers can sing the same song and it will sound different because the singer’s styles are different.  Some jokes (I would say a large amount) won’t even work with certain styles.  Could you imagine Chris Rock doing Mitch Hedberg’s material in Chris Rock’s classic style.  No!  It would not work.

So with that being said, when you do write jokes, it is advised to stay away from subjects that have been done a lot.  The problem with that is depending on who you talk to that could be anything.  Some will say don’t do airport material and some would say don’t do stuff about your kid.  I think when people talk about hack material what they miss is the fact that when you talk about these subjects you are supposed to be putting your unique perspective on the topic.  Louis C.K. does stuff about his kids all the time and no one would DARE tell him that he is a hack.  Why?  Because he goes at it from a different angle.  I believe that there is no such thing as hack material.  There are only so many topics in the universe and so many comedians that you are bound to encounter a subject that has been discussed a lot.  If you want to talk about airplanes then go ahead, but make sure you do something that make people laugh.  When the joke you are telling is about a much used subject and your punchline is basically the same things others have said, but with different words, then you are not showing the audience that you have a unique take on things.  So, there is no hack material.  There are hack comedians though!

Now a hack comedian is someone that goes through the “tropes” of comedy without really putting their unique touch on it.  I have seen plenty of comics just get up and do material that has been touch on before, and everything from the premise to the punchline is stuff that is in the common domain.  What I mean by that is, everything that they are saying is already known to the audience even before they says it.  What makes comedy cool is that what you begin with doesn’t always have to end the way people expect.  You don’t have to talk about relationships in a way that everyone knows every beat that you are going to hit on before you get there.  That is what makes things funny. You punched a hole in a common notion or you are pointing out things others take for granted.  I think hack comics steam from a couple of sources.  First, the person doesn’t know how to write good material.  Writing great jokes is hard.  And sometimes instead of digging deep and going for something, a lot of comedians would rather go an easier route.  Second, some comics out there see this as a job, and they just want to get through it and collect the check.  The thing is you can’t just collect a check after just standing up there for an hour in complete silence so they do material that is funny, but not really “going” anywhere and think they are good.  Lastly, I think hack comics just want people to laugh and so you go for what works.  If it is a popular subject people will probably laugh.  Like ex material.  Everyone has an ex they hate.  If you just say some stuff that has been said before you will probably get a laugh.  And sometimes that is all people want.

I would suggest that if you are worried about walking into hack territory to don’t worry about it.  If you are adding your uniqueness to your material people will see that.  I have seen some comics that are so adverse to talking about things that others have talked about a lot that they will go into the opposite direction and go so specific or abstract that a lot of people get turned off by it.  What you should want to do first and fore most is be funny.  You should want to be the funniest person on planet earth.  How you get to the funny isn’t as important as being funny.  So, focus on that first.  Talk about the stuff you want to talk about.  If you want to talk about your exes then do that.  Just make sure that you are adding something and taking your audience places that other comics can not.  Once you think about it like that you won’t worry about hack material.

Comedy Bookers

Comedy bookers are the gatekeepers to a lot of paid work in the comedy profession.  Bookers are the people that are tasked with finding, and providing talent for those that want comedy entertainment.  Just like with everything there are varying levels and we will discuss them all (or the ones I can think of).

There are two broad types of bookers.  There are those that book comedy shows and other forms of entertainment as a profession and then there are those that are seen as more like part time bookers.  They book shows, but also have a career that they are trying to keep track of as well.  Professional bookers are usually the ones that have access to clubs and rooms that book comedy regularly (I should have warned you that I am going to be using some form of book a lot in this blog post), as part time bookers usually line up a lot of one off shows.  There are pros and cons to each though that we should go through.

One pro of the Professional comedy booker is that you can find a lot of work with them if you are deemed “good”.  Since there is no empirical way of knowing you are good enough for them to use your services, you just have to send out your promo package and see if it lands (I should do a post on promo packages!).  If you get in you can get decent work if you are available.  Most of my dealings with bookers like this involve me doing last minute shows where someone dropped out and I can do it.  That will usually build up a reputation that I am reliable and can be depended upon.  After that I can usually get on their regular rotation.  What I mean by rotation is the schedule in which he/she sends out their comics.  They usually keep a certain number of comics that they use all the time and if you can get into that you can get work on the regular.  That leads to one of my biggest cons about the professional booker though.  Because they have a stable of comics it can be pretty hard to get into it.  Especially if they book full time comedy clubs.  Everyone wants to work in a comedy club (almost) because you are in one spot for a couple of days to a week and you can make more money, and these bookers know that, so they have a lot of leverage when it comes to that.  Another con is that a lot of these guys are so busy that they can not possibly look at all of the submissions they get a week from comics just like me that want to work for them.  That means that you may go weeks or months before hearing from them.  If you keep at it though you may get a response.  That is where having a great promo package comes in handy. Most of the time they may not even watch your whole video so you can send them a portion of you set where you are slow to ramp up because they will turn it off and go to the guy that juggles chickens.  Some people would call them slack, but I will call them busy because I can only imagine all the people from all across the country (and out of it!) that want to be booked in a room have.  Another con is that because they are professional bookers they are not always in the comedy scene so they do not really know of the up and coming comic that they can have added to their roster.  Because of this sometimes a booker’s rotation can be…lacking.  I have seen bookers put on guys that have not written a joke in 15 years and are just going through the motions, but because they knew them when they were “hot” they keep giving them work.

The part time booker’s biggest strength is that a lot of times they have seen the comics that they are booking first hand.  That means that they have a better grasp on the acts and can book them more appropriately.  They may not have as much work, but if you are on their good side you will get all the work they have!  They are also comics a lot of the time, so they know what it feels like to be screwed over on shows or pay.  This can be a pro or a con sometimes because since they know they could also try to mess you over because they know how much you get paid.  The con to these types of bookers is that since they are also comics they will not always be working on getting new rooms or maintaing the rooms that they do have.  A lot of times they have decided to book a room because they were not getting booked enough by more traditional bookers.  What this means is that they will usually work the room first and sometimes often.  That is another con.  Because a lot of people aren’t sending them promo packages, they do not have the biggest stable of comics they will usually pick from the surrounding area which means that it can at times be slim pickings.  Take Spokane for instance, we do not have the biggest pool of comics that are ready to get paid to do comedy.  That means that you will see the same faces a lot in some rooms.  That also means that the owners of the rooms know this so they will usually cut the cord on shows.  That can mean not having that work to depend on.

You don’t have to decide one or the other. You can work with both of them and be successful.  Just remember that they are people so that means you have to be patient.  Hopefully you understand more about bookers.