Many a young comedian have asked me this question, and I have the same answer for all of them: I don’t know. This is a question when you should truly be honest with yourself. Sometimes we think we should get paid to do something because then it means we are validated. A lot of people may think they are not comedians until they get paid to be a comedian. Some may think that it is just a natural progression of things. You do something for a certain amount of time and then you start getting paid for it.
I am a photographer on the side. I started charging when I realized that people wanted me to take their picture more and more. By charging, people will realize that you are not just a free option they can run to when they need something done, and it covers expenses that you incurred while trying to become what it is you set out to be. In show business it is no different. When people start asking you to do time for them more and more you should then realized that you have become a commodity and that you should be charging for your services.
When I started out there were not that many opening acts in town so after about 3-4 months I started getting asked to do more and more time and soon enough I was faced with the decision of whether I should start asking people to pay me for my joke slinging. Here is the thing about that: Almost all non comedians think they are doing you a service by letting you get up and tell jokes for their little event. They will tell you things like, “Well, it is great exposure!” or “You will get more work out of it.” Don’t listen to those people. They didn’t do the things they did for free forever and neither should you. Here is a quick rule of thumb. If they ask you to do more than 10 minutes they should offer you some type of compensation. 5-10 minutes is usually a guest set, that is you do a little time before the people getting paid go up. Anything other than that is paid comedian territory and don’t let anyone tell you different. Also think about it from this angle, if it isn’t a charity event then they are charging people and if they are not doing it for free then neither should you.
You see, when I was started out, there was no one around to tell me which way to go. I would basically do my entire show at the time for free for anyone that would ask me because I thought that people would just start paying you out of the goodness of their hearts. We both know that is wrong. If you don’t put your foot down and ask to be paid to get on the stage then people, especially in comedy, will run all over you. When it came to a point where I saw people doing the same time as me, but getting paid at the end of the night, I knew I should be getting paid as well.
Now you may be asking, “Well, how much do I charge?” and the answer to that is different depending on many factors. Where you live, how much time you can do, and how much you are comfortable with are all questions you should know before you go asking people for money. In the one place we have here in Spokane, that can be confusing because that is how the owner of the one comedy club wants it to be. The industry standard for road gigs has been 100 for feature (20-30 minutes) and 200 for headliners (50 minutes to an hour). This isn’t always the case however. Some clubs will pay a reduced rate because they figure that you are not driving anywhere to the next gig. I have seen that rarely though. In Spokane, a lot of the shows that are put on are put on without much of a budget so you have to be aware that you may not get 100 bucks to feature. There was a place here opened for awhile that had a budget of about 80 bucks. Are you comfortable getting paid 20 bucks to do your 30 minutes? If you are then you will like these types of shows.
I have been headlining for awhile and people ask me to do private shows and shows in places that are not bars or comedy clubs. I was never quite sure how to go about getting what I thought I was worth. That is why nowadays I ask how much the budget is. They may still lie, but at least you know around about how much they are willing to pay you. I had someone ask me how much I would do for a college gig. Now, colleges have budgets for entertainment, so they have a number that they can pay you. You should always remember one thing when you are asking for money. You will get fucked. No one gets paid what they are actually worth. That is not how capitalism works. You get paid what they think they can get away with paying you. So, if you think you are worth 100 a night in some bar then that means you are probably worth double that. Ok, so the college asked me how much I wanted and I asked them their budget. They didn’t want to tell me, but they gave me a number. I thought it was too low seeing as how I knew what bigger comedians got paid to go there. I am not asking for what Jerry Seinfeld would get, I am not at that level, but I do have an idea of where I am in the pool of comedians. I countered and they accepted. So now I got 300 bucks and all the text books I can fit into the trunk of my car.
You have to be honest with yourself. If you have been doing it for 3-4 months and you live in a large city, you should not be trying to get paid for work. There are just too many people out there with more time. That isn’t to say it can’t be done. If you are a phenom, then you should ask to get paid, but you will know if you are or not if you are getting request for shows all over the place. If you only have 5 minutes then you should hold off on asking for money. Get more good material under your belt and then try again. If you are happy with getting a meal and a beer as payment then go for it! Nothing wrong with that, but don’t get mad when the other comedians are taking home money and you are taking home a half eaten Reuben.