The answer to the title is: You can!..If you work at it. Being a feature act is hard. You travel a lot and you are usually tasked with warming the crowd up, and at the end of it all, you get paid a tiny amount of money. It is hard to make the money stretch to the point that you can make a living off of it as a feature, but I am here to give you some ideas on what you can do to help make it happen.
If you are a feature act and you want comedy to be your career, then I suggest getting things to sell after the show. I sell CDs and buttons, but you don’t have to do that (especially if you don’t have the material to record a CD). Do you have a cool joke that would look good on a t-shirt? What about bumper stickers? You have to be smart though. Don’t just sell a shirt with your name on it because people may not want to wear that. The reason you want to sell stuff is simple: the pay is crap, so you need to supplement that income as much as possible. You can easily double or triple the money you are getting from the venue by sales of merchandise.
When I first started out, I got this advise from a great comic Morgan Preston. He was selling t-shirts and making hundreds of extra dollars. He knew how much feature acts were making so he told me to get something to sell or I would be doing this for nothing. Now, you can’t be 100% sure that you will get that money every night, but it will help in the long run.
RIDE SOME COATTAILS
If you are a feature act, the BEST thing you can do is work with a headliner that has a lot of shows and is willing to take you along. Headliners are peculiar creatures. They like to be comfortable in knowing that the feature is not going to crap the bed and mess the show up. So, if you help make the show great, they may be willing to take you along. What this does is keep travel cost down, if you are travelling together. If they are really big comedians then they may get travel covered so that is more money you don’t have to spend.
For the past four months, I have been the feature act for John Caparulo (off and on), and it is pretty sweet. Having money for travel means more of the money you make from shows stays in your pockets. The fact that John is a big name helps me sell more CDs which means even more money to keep in my pocket.
BOOK YOUR OWN STUFF
If you are mainly doing bars and the occasional club, you may want to think about booking your own shows on off nights. There are many bars that have nothing going on so you may able to sell them on doing a show. More shows equal more money. This is more work for you, but if you are looking to fill dates this is a great way to go about it. And it is not just bars! Look at wineries or coffee shops and well.
Being a feature act is hard, but you can make it work. Get out and talk to comedians and don’t be afraid to ask headliners to think of you when they are in need of an opener. I just went to do a show with John Caparulo and he asked me if I would be willing to feature for him more when his regular can’t do it. I said yes because why not. He is a great comedian, and a really good dude. I did not know that it would change my income. With the pay and selling merchandise, opening for John pays more than being a headliner in a bar! This will not work for everyone because not everyone knows a John Caparulo, but get out and see, and hopefully you can make a nice little living being a feature act.