Sometimes, You Have to Bet on Yourself

I wish I could tell you that there was an easy way to comedy stardom ( or at least the ability to pay your rent with it). Just show up, blow up, and glow up. That isn’t the case though. Everyone’s career has a different path. No two people will achieve their comedy goals the same way. There is one thing I can tell you though…sometimes you have to believe in yourself enough to put your money behind it.

Don’t Depend On Others For Your Living

Depending on clubs to accept you, or waiting for someone with a bunch of bar shows to put you on is not a good way of making comedy work for you. I know this because that is what I have done. If no one was calling me for a weekend at their club or a couple of bar dates then I just didn’t do comedy for money that month. It left me feeling hopeless and that I had no chance to succeed at this. You should never wait for people to pay you. Pay yourself, but to do that you have to put money out there.

Ways To Make It Work

If you are someone that is mostly doing bar shows or one nighters, then you should be selling merchandise. I have a whole article on selling merchandise, but I will say it again. SELL SOMETHING! Bands do it. You can do it. T-shirts, stickers, coasters, hats, lighters, socks, just sell something! Now, you are not just dependent on the money you are getting from the show, and that can go towards paying bills.

You not getting booked enough? Then you do the booking. Call up your favorite bar and ask them to let you do something. You may get a “no”, but you may also get a “yes”. Don’t want to perform for the bar crowd? Find a venue that you can perform in. A lot of times a venue will charge you to rent it. Save up and buy the place for the night and push it.

I have friends that have set up months of work by just calling and seeing if they can perform in a venue. They work out the details so they can make some money and they are out performing, but they usually pay for the rental of the place or clean up after the show, and they usually do all their own advertising. They put money in, betting that they can make a return on their investment. They did that because the investment was in themselves.

Why A Lot Of Us Don’t Do This

There are many reasons to not do this. You could lose your shirt if you bet too big (don’t rent a thousand seat theater if you are just a no name like me). That’s the thing though, believing in yourself has to go with a little bit of foresight and reality. If you have been performing for a month and think you have enough time to headline your own show, you may come crashing down to reality.

If you are one of those that sit around, emailing clubs, and messaging your buddies that book one nighters to see if they have anything for you, this could work for you. It is all about taking that step. Take a couple hundred dollars and get some shirts or something made for selling after a show. Book a venue and advertise it and see if you can make some money. It seems daunting because it is. We all want to be able to have our talent equally judged, but that isn’t the case. Not every club booker or every hole in the wall promoter will see you the same. These people don’t care that you put in hours a day writing and you line up at the open mics and you do your two to three minutes and you rewrite and you drive hours and you sleep in crappy motels where you stay awake to listen if anyone smashes your car window. The only one that cares about that is you, and if you care then you should care enough to want to get to the places you think you should.

Why Do I Tell You This

I tell you this because the first twelves years of comedy I did this. I would send email after email to clubs and bookers just hoping that they would enjoy my video and headshot enough to see that I was serious and I was funny enough to pay. I would sit here in this chair wondering what was wrong with me and my act. Is my headshot blurry? Is my video submission not loud enough? Not sharp enough? Did I curse in it? I never took that effort I spent worrying and using it to look for places that I could book myself and making money when I wasn’t doing something for someone else. I didn’t look into the adjacent things I could be doing like submitting to commercials and TV shows. I just sulked.

Then one day I stopped. I got tired of the “We can’t use you” email replies and I took some money and invested in some merchandise and getting myself booked at more private events. Then my attitude started to change. I wasn’t so saddened when a club told me they were booked up because that meant that was a weekend to book a private event. When a bar show fell through I was not going to miss paying my phone bill because I sold enough shirts from the last show to pay it early. I’m not saying it is all sunshine booty rubs. Sometimes I don’t get that private event or I don’t sell any shirts, but that is just how it goes.

I can’t tell you what you should do, but what I can offer you is this. When it is all said and done, do you want to say that you wasted your time chasing after clubs and bookers that had no time for you or do you want to say you gave it your best shot and you bet on yourself. Only you can answer that.

Worst Pieces of Comedy Advice I Ever Received

As an entertainer, you will be given advice from damn near everyone. Other comedians, singers, DJs, your mom, your uncle, the local methhead, they all think they have the advice to get you going. The problem is, not all advice is good. It may seem good, until you think about it for more than a minute. Here is some of the advice I have received and why I think it is terrible.

Always have a street joke ready to tell (in case you lose the audience etc.)

No. I don’t (intentionally) tell street jokes. Why? Because any comedian can memorize a street joke. The audience is there for my take on familiar topics, not to hear a joke that their dad can tell during a barbecue. I think this sprung up from the early days of comedy when there was just a bucket of jokes out there, and comedians would just pull from that bucket and tell those jokes. Nowadays, no one wants that. Even if the crowd is about to decapitate me, I would rather get them back by telling jokes I wrote then by a worn out joke that most comedy fans have heard.

You should get on “Name of TV competition”.

That sounds like a great idea! How did I never think of that? I mean I was telling jokes in this bar with hopes that a drunk TV exec would see me and give me a million dollars and my own TV show. EVERY comedian has thought about getting on ‘Last Comic Standing’ or ‘America’s Got Talent’ to jump start their careers. That’s the problem though, EVERY comedian is trying to get on those shows, so it is not just a case of walking up to the set and getting a moneycheck. TV producers know this so they have lots of measures to make sure only the people that make good TV get seen. So, you either have to be unique in say background (first female lesbian brown bear) or have an agent that can arrange to get you on these shows. If you are just a white guy that tells funny jokes about the internet, it will be really hard to get on these types of shows because white guys are everywhere. If you are other than white, it is still difficult because you are now competing for a limited number of spots. I did a showcase this month for Just For Laughs. There are only so many spots for no names like me and they auditioned a couple thousand comedians. This isn’t even advice, it’s just a statement. It’s like saying, “you should fly like superman” or “You should buy a castle.”

Don’t tell the audience sad stuff

There is a limit to the amount of sad shit you want to hear from a comedian, but there is something to telling an audience something so personal about yourself and being able to make light of it. When I was in the military, I had to take all these test to see if I had some kind of cancer. It turned out to be lupus, but the result of that was about five minutes of material about the experience. I did it one night at a show and it received a lukewarm response. Later a veteran comedian came up to me and told me this piece of advice. It wasn’t that audiences didn’t want to hear my misfortune. The best jokes ever told on stage are about mishaps. I just wasn’t skilled enough to make it palatable for a bunch of strangers on a Sunday night. Audiences will more than likely ride with you on almost anything if the payoff is worth it. 60% of my last album was me talking about my heart attack and the struggles afterward. It can be done if you know how to approach it.

I think that is enough of me banging at this keyboard, I may do another one of these if this one gets the clicks. Hit me up on my website harryjriley.com or on all the social media stuff. I can be found under KingPeppersnake damn near everywhere.

The Grind Never Stops

There is no end when it comes to comedy.  The road narrows more and more.  You are either chasing the next great joke or chasing the next big payday.  Every conversation I have had with a comedian that I see in an enviable position is looking to get out of it.  They are always looking for that position that will bring them either more fame or more money.  It is hard to explain these things to those that just have to show up and work to get that steady paycheck.  Comedy is full of ups and downs, and every comedian is trying to achieve less downs and more ups.

No level of stand-up comic is immune to the grind.  If you are first starting out, you are looking for more stage time and jokes that work more often then not.  When you get a suitable amount of time, now you are looking for places that will pay you something, anything.  Once you get a couple bucks here and there for performing, you want to see if you can make it more of a full time endeavor.  You contact your comedians friends you’ve met along the way and try to set up enough shows to pay the rent.  You drive countless hours for little pay in hopes that these are the dues that are paid, and you will, by the end of this, be paid handsomely.  You perform in dimly lit bars and wine cellars and comedy clubs where the only requirement was that you had reliable transportation.  You sleep on floors and live out of a suitcase that is precisely 25 lbs.  You send hundreds of emails and receive two replies both saying they don’t have any use for you.  When you to start performing in more clubs, the only thing you want is to be the headliner so you can afford dental.  Then you start headlining and now you look to be a “special event”.  Maybe you want to be in movies, TV, have a successful podcast.  The grind never stops.

You wonder why that narrow road has so few people traveling it?  Because the grind can cause people to lose hope.  The grind of constantly swimming upstream can cause some of us to drown.  I don’t see it as a weakness, but a resolve that the heartache of the extracurricular of comedy outweighs the comedy itself.  Not everyone can take rejection email after rejected festival invite.  Just maintaining a career is a grind.  I don’t want to seem as though I am complaining, most of life is a grind, I just wanted to illustrate why even though you think you are going to be great when you achieve that goal, there is always another one just a little further down the road.

Keeping Yourself Motivated

When you are first starting your comedy career, there will be a lot of ups and downs.  You will be working one week and may not work again for another two weeks or so.  This can have a negative effect on comedians, especially those that suffer from other mental health issues.  Let’s go over some ways to keep you motivated when the downs happen.

Be around comedy  What happens with comedians sometimes is they will only come out to perform when they are getting compensated.  This may work for the upper levels of comedians that are booked virtually all year, but if you are just starting or beginning to get paid, coming out to comedy shows and the like can be a great boon for your career and your mind!  When you are seen out at open mics and shows, it lets the people in the local area know that you are still pursuing comedy, and that increases your chances of getting booked.  If you have a local club and you are always going in to check out the shows, the management there will know that you are around and that opens the door for being put on shows.

Let them know you are looking for work  Look at the months coming up.  If you don’t have anything lined up, then start contacting those you know to see if you can be apart of a show.  This doesn’t mean just the normal format of show.  There are all kinds of special shows going on where you may smoke weed after your set and get back up, or drink and argue with other comedians.  These shows have the benefit of having a lot of other comedians there and networking with them can benefit you when you have another dry stretch.  If you have worked at clubs or know of bookers that are booking rooms, make sure you send them those dates that you are open.  Keep it up and that can help close a lot of those holes in your schedule.

Networking  This is kind of a combination of the first two steps above.  Go to your local club and rub elbows or butts or whatever with the other comedians.  Comedy is a very small community.  Knowing enough people can keep you busy!  You don’t have to kiss ass or anything either.  You can just approach comedians after the show and introduce yourself.  It helps even more if you are on a show together.  That way they can vouch for you.

Keep writing  I see this so much.  A comedian will start getting a little bit of work and then they stop really writing material and then the work dries up and they are left scratching their head as to why that may be the case.  Your one weapon to keep you relevant is your material.  If you only have twenty minutes and you have performed at your local club they can’t really use you as much as the person that has a bucket full of jokes to pull from.  I think one of the worst things someone can say about a comedian is, “I heard all that last time they were here.”.  If you keep working you will keep working.

Engage in other creative endeavors   The worst thing to do when the shows slow down is to stop being creative.  Just maintaining yourself in creative task can jolt you out of a slump and keep your mind on task.  I like to write and take photographs so I will write a couple of sketches or go out and photograph some stuff, anything to keep my mind working and that usually keeps jokes coming to me and keeps me out and about.

Don’t let it define your worth  This is an important one.  When I first started out, if I had a couple weeks of no work I would let it get to me big time.  My mind would just go nuts and I would assume that it meant I wasn’t funny if I wasn’t getting work.  That is usually not the case for most comedians.  Sometimes it is just a matter of the ones that are better at networking will get the work.  It took me many years to realize that having jokes and sitting in your house are not how you get work as a comedian.  I still have a ways to go, but I am not so down in the dumps because I haven’t had a working weekend in three weeks.  I see that and I hit the pavement.  When you are feeling down about your comedy is when you should strive to fix it.

I hope this helps.  Being motivated is one of the ways to turn comedy from a part time job into a career.

Lets Just Talk

When I started this blog, the goal was simple:  Give people that are just starting out a guide so that they can be as successful as possible.  I can not tell you how to get on Conan or pitch a TV show because I have never done that.  I have spent over a decade in shady bars all over the country and I have dealt with the ups and downs of climbing the comedy ladder.  When I was starting out, there wasn’t anything online to help you.  You just walked on stage and made mistakes until you learned it.  This may seem like a good method, but what it does is make it extremely hard for some to even attempt comedy.  Not all of us can just collect ourselves and get up on stage.  Some need that confidence that something like this blog can provide.

I will never charge people to access what I have written.  I like to make money, but I want these tips available to those that are actually trying to find something to help them get to that next step.  One thing that has to be remembered though when reading this is that these are my observations and experiences.  Yours may differ.  With any amount of advice, you can take all, some, or none.  It wasn’t until I was doing it for a while that I had people that actually steered me in a direction that helped me get better and get more work.  Not everyone will have access to important mentors like this, so hopefully this will help at least a little.

Comedy has to be entered into with a passion and a persistence that is not like many things in this world.  Comedy is a long, painful, embarrassing, journey that many will just simply give up.  For those of us that continue to grind and persist, and struggle, it may seem at times to not even be worth it. That is where the passion comes in.  There are plenty of funny people out there, but there are not that many that can get on stage and articulate that humor to the masses.  It is also a business and if there is one thing I have learned its that many human don’t like to take chances when it comes to their money.  It is hard to get up on stage night after night to sculpt a joke that will work most of the time, but it is even harder to then go to someone and tell them to give you money for those well-crafted jokes.  A lot of people just can’t do it.  I have had to get part time jobs in between dry spells.  I have had to pawn almost everything in my house at one point to keep this alive.  The thing is, some people don’t want to go through that.  Does that mean they were not passionate about comedy?  No.  It means that comedy is a great way to see how far you are willing to go for something.  Before comedy rewards you, it will ask: What are you willing to give up?  Some give up their friends.  Some give up their marriages.  Some give up great jobs.  It will ask how hard are you willing to work.  Will you go to every mic in your town?  Will you spend three hours in a bar for three minutes on stage?  Will you drive across the state for dinner and gas money?  It will ask for more and more, and when you have given all you have to it, it may give you what you sought out.  You may be a working comedian, or a get commercial work, or appear in shows and movies, or you won’t.  Comedy will ask so much from you and still there is the chance that you will end up at the end of the road empty handed and broke.  Most passions are cruel that way.  Not every painter gets to live on just the sale of their paintings and not every singer gets paid for their songs, but we all pursued the thing that makes us feel alive and whole.  These things that we pursue are what gives this human experience meaning.  It makes a life worth living.

I knew when I was getting out of the military and pursuing comedy, that it may end up with me at the end broken and alone.  The thing is, I had nothing else to lose.  I was getting medically discharged from something that I was planning on making my career.  I was already spat out of something, and had no fear.  Would I have gone after comedy the way I had if under better circumstances?  I don’t think so.  I think I was looking for something to make me feel as though I wasn’t as broken as they told me I was.   I wanted to care about more than a paycheck.

I would not call myself a successful comedian, but I can call myself a working comedian.  It takes work and luck to make comedy something more than just pocket money, and I hope this blog does that at least a little bit.  I hope that even though I am not a successful comedian, you will look at what I have been through and help it guide you so you can achieve what it is you are looking for in comedy.  Comedy is hard, and that is why you need as much help as you can get along the way.

Moving to a Larger Comedy Market

Spokane is rarely the last destination for a comedian.  Historically, comedians discovered that they love comedy here and then go somewhere else to actually try to make a go at it.  Recently, we have had an exodus of sorts, and it got me thinking about things that comedians need to take note of before moving to a larger market.  This is not to discourage anyone.  This is to try to help those that are in smaller markets make the right choice so they can succeed in their new cities.

Can you find a job?: This seems like something of a no-brainer, but I have seen comedians leave the place they started comedy, get to the new city and realize they can’t find a job.  If you can’t get the basics covered, how are you going to pursue your comedy career.  This may be easier for those that have a profession, or a degree in a certain field, but if you don’t you may want to make sure you can get a job.

Do you have money?: I have read articles where they say have three months of savings just in case you can’t find a job that fast.  I will say, you may need 4-6 months if you are going from a lower cost of living area to a higher cost of living area.  If you saved based on Spokane’s rent market, but you are moving to LA, that three months savings is now only about a month and a half.  The cost of living in some of these cities are one of the reasons a lot of people abandon comedy.  It is hard to pursue comedy, when you have to work all the time.

Got a place to stay?: You may want to check and make sure your married high school buddy (and their partner) are cool with you sleeping on the floor of their nursery for a bit.  You don’t want to get to a new city and learn that your living arrangements went from “house” to “not a house”.  If you are moving in with roommates, try to see if they are not going to be moving out anytime soon.  That way you do not get to a new city and now you have to find new roommates so you can afford to stay in that place.

Are you a piece of shit?:  If you are lazy in your smaller market, you are not all of a sudden gonna work hard to make comedy work.  Comedians are rarely realistic about what they are willing to put into stuff.  It’s easy to fall into that trap as well.  If you live in a small town it may just be easier to be on shows because there are not that many comedians to begin with.  You can not take that approach when moving to a larger area.  Take LA for example.  You can’t throw an old timey mic without hitting a comedian.  If you are not writing, and showing up and networking, you will not see any success.  If you are a piece of shit.  You will not become a saint all of a sudden!  This is the internet age.  Your baggage goes with you.  If a booker in a new city wants to know about you, they probably know someone that knows someone that knows you.

Moving to a new place is exciting and can open all sorts of doors, but only if you are prepared and willing to fight for it.  The best will always surface, and a larger city helps those surface sooner.  Just make sure you are ready when your time comes to shine.

Why Stage Time is Important

I see this a lot.  A comedian will get their 20-25 minutes or maybe they will get a solid 45 minute set, and then you never see them unless they are getting paid to perform.  Then, more often then not, you watch them struggle on stage and they blame everything, but the most obvious:  You are lacking stage time! Stage time is more then just getting up on stage and working towards new material or sharpening old stuff.  I look at stage time like athletes look at practice.  You go over the stuff you plan to do so when you are in a real situation it comes out more natural.

Getting up on stage regularly helps “knock the cobwebs” off of material.  Sometimes you have a joke that you are really comfortable with, and so you stop performing it at open mics.  Then, you get on a stage during a show and try it out and you lose your place and forget where certain parts go into the joke as a whole, this can be diminished with trying that joke every so often.  Here is something I do:  Every so often, when I’m at an open mic, I will just do material that I haven’t done in a while, but I really want to keep in my set.  That keeps it fresh in my mind so when I do want to use that material in a show, I am not lost.

Stage time also keeps that “comedic edge” about you.  Comedic edge is the ability to make the funny seem natural.  The best comedians in the world keep their comedic edge easier because they work more often then comedians that only get a couple shows a month.  They are able to control the room because they are so confident in the material and where it is going.  This is important for all comedians, especially those of us that play in bars a lot.  You need that edge to keep the crowd on your side.  If you are fumbling around, how are you gonna convince the audience to keep listening to you?

I get it.  Comedy can be a drain sometimes.  You are out at open mics for hours for three minutes of time.  If you get a guest set, you have to drive down to a club and pay for parking and all of that, but if comedy is important to you as an art form and as a means of income, then you owe it not only to yourself, but also the audience that paid to see you.  Don’t you want to be the best comedian you can?