The Myth of the Golden Age of Comedy

I love myths.  I love legends.  I love urban legends.  I also love getting to the grit of the situation and seeing why we believe what we do.  The myth that I am tackling today?  The myth that we are in another golden age of comedy!

We have already had a golden age of comedy.  Depending on who you speak to, they will say that the first golden age of comedy was in the 70’s and some will say the late 80’s through the mid 90’s. This was during what many would consider the height of SNL and other sketch comedy shows, some of the greatest comedy movies of all time, and some of the best stand up specials ever.  This was also the era of Live, local, stand up comedy, when people went out to see live comedy and everyone was doing well.  This all changed by the turn of the millennium.  Comedy clubs started shutting down and it was much harder for an MC or feature to make it.  I came along in the mid 2000’s and I was able to see the trend in real time.

Now with companies like Netflix and HBO shelling out big bucks for comedy specials, and the arrival of entire platforms to deliver comedy (Seeso, Laugh or Die, etc.), many are saying this is the second golden age of comedy.  I do not believe that.  There are many factors for this perception in the rise of comedy, one of them is that viewers are moving from the television and cable box, to the internet. That means that you can consume as much as you want, as long as it is out there. All you have to do is type in “comedy” into YouTube and you are able to watch tons of clips. Comedy specials are a great thing for content companies to invest in.  They typically have low budgets, they are a one off, so you don’t have to be invested in a story line, and a lot of the time, you will watch it multiple times. This means that the amount invested goes a long way! It also doesn’t hurt that with the advent of the internet, it is much easier to find and follow your favorite comedian, and it could seem as though we are seeing an uptick when in actuality its access to comedy content.

In the 90’s comedy was everywhere.  All you have to do is sit down with an older comedian and they will tell you about all the places in the area that had professional comedy.  I think that is why we think comedy took a dip.  It wasn’t that comedy was no longer popular, it was because comedy having such a low bar of entry, anyone could call themselves a comedian and start selling comedy to folks that just wanted to go out and have a good time.  Consumers started to wise up and that is how you get our current situation.  It’s much harder now to sell just generic comedy.  What I mean by that is, people are much more reluctant to just watch comedy, especially if there are better things to do.  That is why the industry is such a credit drawn industry.  People want to know if you are good, and the only way to see that is if they know you have done some things.  So, for the middle guys like me, comedy has actually shrunk.  Those bars and seedy hotel parlors are gone, so it is much harder to be on the road as just a feature act.  More money is going to comedians, but only the top 1%.  Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock are making 40 and 50 million for specials that will be on Netflix, but if you are hosting at clubs you will not see much difference.

This is not to bag on anyone or any system.  I am just stating that it is not a rise in popularity, but a rise in the availability of stuff that people always wanted.  Ten years ago, if you wanted to watch that new special, you had to either have HBO or Showtime, or you bought the DVD.  Now, you can go to a myriad of places to find great, funny content.  Add to that stars that you have seen on TV now coming to comedy clubs, and it could seem as though everyone is back into comedy.  People have always loved comedy.  Who doesn’t want to laugh? The problem is that there are a lot of things that can hinder a person wanting to go see stand up.  Is it in my area?  How much is it?  When is it over?  Will they make fun of my head?  These things keep people away from comedy.  Now, if you see that funny guy from that funny thing is coming to town, then you may forgo all those negatives and check it out.  So, instead of saying comedy is in another golden age, it would be more accurate to say that the lay person is more willing to come out and see the popular people.

So no, comedy is not going through a second golden age.  Like everything it ebbs and flows, but it has always been a popular form of entertainment.  There are many factors for the perception that comedy is gaining in popularity again.  Mainly, the internet.  There may be more money being handed out, but it is only to the top percent of comedians, and that is because that is what people want to see.  I am not saying that if you are a feature or a MC, to hang up your mic.  If anything that means keep pushing so you can work with these kinds of acts!  What if they are looking for someone to feature or MC for them all the time?  If you have your shit together, you could be that person and you could benefit from their ability to get into more clubs, which means more money in your pocket.

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Why Merchandise Is Important

If you read last week’s article, then you know that it is already very hard to make a living as a stand up comedian.  One way to balance the low pay is to sell stuff.  I have been doing this for awhile now and I will tell you want I have learned doing this.

When I first started going out on the road, I had nothing but jokes.  I was in Montana working with a comedian, and he told me simply:  You need to sell stuff!  As time went on, I went from CDs I would burn hours before the show to having them professionally produced.  Now, I let other comedians (especially feature acts) know how important it is to have something to sell.  Not only does it add to your base income, but it allows you to engage audiences and form a following.

At first I never had anything to sell, just like any other comedian out there, I was just happy getting paid.  It then became clear that the money I was getting from the performance itself, was not going to pay the bills.  So, I produced a DVD of a performance I recorded in a dimly lit room.  I drew the artwork myself and begun to sell it.  The thing was I would be standing there with other comedians, trying to sell my stuff and they had shrink wrapped, professional looking CDs and I had a walking etsy store.  That is the first thing you need to know about selling merch:  Make it look nice.  Just because you are in the basement of a Holiday Inn, doesn’t mean you have to skimp on the presentation.  I learned that spending a couple of bucks to make things look professional and nice paid off because it showed that I was really a comedian and not a guy just trying to take your money and move on to the next town.

Why did I pick a DVD at first?  It was the thing I had.  I later took just the audio and sold that because I figured that I was not important enough for someone to sit in front of their TV for 50 minutes, but they may listen to me while on a road trip.  The sound quality sucked so I had to get a real recording of my act.  I had a friend (shout out to Will Gilman) produce and edit my first real recording.  It sounded great and I had better cover art, so I did not feel weird selling the stuff.  It sold really well but I learned a couple of things from having a real product to sell.  First, I had to get over selling things to people.  Not everyone will enjoy your material enough to want to take it home, but they will not buy it if you are not telling them about it.  I had to ensure I was setting stuff up and at least presenting my product.  Second, A lot of people just wanted to talk after the show and if I was posted somewhere they could come by say hello, and most of the time they would buy something!  It was odd to see people who didn’t have money out all of a sudden laughing with me and now they are buying multiple CDs!

Now, just because you have a product to sell, doesn’t mean you will all of a sudden start making all this extra money.  I have been selling merch for awhile now, and I have no idea from show to show who is going to buy something and who isn’t.  I’ve had shows where I thought they really liked me and not sell anything, and then shows where I thought I was not my best and leave selling stuff.  The only way to be increase your odds of selling stuff is to have more stuff for sale.  That is why I made a t-shirt (not the whole shirt just the stuff on the front).  CDs are a hard sell nowadays.  I have a CD player in my car, but I haven’t used it!  That is why I also have download cards that they can get instead of just the CD. T-shirts sell well because it is something you have to wear anyway, so might as well have something funny on it!  I have seen comedians make thousands in a weekend from just their t-shirt sales.

Maybe you don’t want to sell a t-shirt or a CD (maybe you don’t have an hour of material).  Well, you can go with just about anything!  The idea is to sell things that are easy to carry around, and that will make people think of you.  I have seen everything from buttons to baby onsies!  What is important is having something that when someone looks at it they say, “Damn, I want that!”.  Now, instead of paying for things like gas and meals with the money I am getting for the show, the merchandise I sold can pay for it.  I am not saying just slap your name on a shirt and then you can lease a cigar boat, but when it comes to road comedy, every little bit helps!

Making Those Summer Moves

Summer is approaching and that means the kids will be getting out of school, bathing suits come out of the closet, and you…will not be getting much work.  It happens.  There is this thought that no one wants to see a comedy show because the weather is so good.  I talked about how it is pretty much a myth here, but if you think it is a thing and have to keep the money coming in so you can feed your slurpee diet, then I will tell you things that I have seen that work pretty well.

If you don’t have any shows lined up during the summer months and you want them, then you may have to line them up yourself!  The summer is a great time to plan a tour.  The weather is good, so you can drive to the snowy parts of the country, and because people are usually looking for spectacles during the warmer months (movies, concerts, monster rising from the ocean to devour a famous landmark), you can go and make a nice little chunk of money.  Here is the thing though, you can’t aim for the big cities.  You have to look toward the smaller towns in the country.  Why?  Because everyone ignores them.  While all the bigger comedians are playing a show in a big theater in some fancy city with their fancy motor cars, you can be in a bar in a small town making a nice little bit of money because when the sun goes down, people still want to do stuff, so that means being there with your notebook full of cat jokes.

You can also try to diversify yourself, and target niche markets that you never thought of going after before.   I have a number of shows during the summer that would be considered corporate gigs.  I looked at retreats and ceremonies that may be happening and I put myself out there and I got a few bites from people that are looking to spice up that boring ass summer team building meeting you always see signs for in hotels when you are there to bang in the swimming pool.  They pay pretty well, and depending where you have to go for the gig, they may be willing to pay for travel expenses (YAY!!).  It’s not all bubble gum and hover boards though, you will have to be working in the PG or PG-13 area of content.  Remember, these are stuffy suits, not cool ass trend setters like you, so if you want this work you might have to lay off the taint talk for a bit.

Both of the above methods of keeping money in your pocket this summer involve a lot of prior planning.  I didn’t plan the stuff I got, it just worked out with the first couple then I started to move when I saw that it was a thing.  Another method, that may not require as much work is starting up a show in your area.  Try to make it a big deal.  The old club here in town would close during the summer, but once or twice a month would put on a show and a lot of people would turn up and money was flowing like Pepsi through the streets. You can do the same thing.  Do you have a comedy club nearby?  Ask them if you can promote a show on one of there off nights.  You may have to rent the room, but if you try to sell it as a great event, and an awesome way to get out of the sun for a bit, you may see a nice turnout.  It beats having a bar give you a set amount because you may make enough money that those one nighters seem silly (for now at least).

If your area is having an event, then you could piggyback off that and produce a show.  In Spokane, WA, there are a couple of events during the summer:  Bloomsday and Hoopfest. Both of these days brings in a lot of people and when they are done running and breaking things on their body, they will want to be entertained.  That is where you can slide in and help them.  The amount of promoting will change because if you do a little footwork (maybe flyers where the event is going to take place) then you can have a nice turnout which means cold hard cash in your pockets.

I hope this helps you out.  I had to suffer many summers before I got information and started seeing what other comedians were doing.  If you are not a name where you can just go anywhere this summer and keep the lights on, give it a try and let me know how you do.

Successfully Running Your Own Show

I have been involved in the running of shows in the Spokane area for about six months and from my experiences with that and my observations with other independently ran shows, I have seen what works and what doesn’t.  Here are some of those observations.

Everyone needs to be on board: If you are running a theme show or just a normal comedy show, everyone that is participating needs to on board with what you are trying to do.  If you are doing a show where you tell jokes and then dress like a dinosaur and then tell more jokes, you need everyone to be comfortable with putting on a dinosaur outfit.

Promotion: If people don’t know you are doing a show about telling jokes dressed as a dinosaur, how are they gonna pay you to see you tell jokes in a dinosaur outfit.  This goes with the first point:  Get people on your show that are excited to do the show.  That way, they will want to let their fans know about it.  This also means that you as the show runner need to be on top of things.  That means getting flyers ready and the events made.  Comedy is filled with folks that just want to get up on stage in front of a sold out crowd, and not do the little things to ensure there is a sold out crowd.  Don’t book those people!  Book people that will work with you to make sure it is a success.  I don’t know how many times I have worked with someone that did no promotion for the show, but then sat there and wondered why the pay was low.  This does not apply to out of town comics because they may know less people in that area than comedians that work in that town.

Properly review the venue: I have helped put on shows that were not suited for the venue we had access too.  If you have hints that your show involving dressing like a dinosaur and telling jokes is gonna be a small event, then putting it in a 600 seat theater is not good.  You loose money and you give off the impression that it is not a success.  If you would have just locked up a nice place that had 70 seats and you sold 50, you look better, and you don’t have the extra cost involved with renting a large venue.  Make sure that the venue has a competent staff.  The last thing you want is to have a great show, but the bar didn’t make money because the staff was too slow.  Can they handle an influx of people?  If they can’t then you might have to look elsewhere.

Keep your promises:  If you promise to pay everyone a certain amount, then you better have the money to pay them!  Nothing kills your rep faster than telling people one thing and then doing another. Not ever will be in it just for the dinosaur suits. I would rather leave the show with no money in my pocket then to short change the performers and have them tell people that I can’t give them what we agreed upon.  The reason this is an issue is because most people that are putting on shows like this have high hopes that it will sell out and they can pay people well.  What I have learned is to expect the worse and be surprise if it turns out different.

Make it an event: Make it seem like this is the show that you want to see.  Make it seem as though those are the only dinosaur costumes in the state and they will be set ablaze after the show.  You have to SELL the show!  If you are not excited about it, then why should someone that has to pay five bucks to get in?  Sometimes you have to put your modesty to bed and pull out your inner cheerleader and pom pom the shit out of your show.  The best promoters make their monthly shows seem like events that will rock the town to its core.  That is what you want.

I hope this helps.  I am not an expert promoter at all.  I just observe and see what works best and what doesn’t.  The biggest take away is that if you want to run your own shows you have to treat it like if you don’t make it a success, they will take your kidney.

 

Comedy Clubs Changing Philosophy And What It Means For You

Many comedians try to break into the comedy club circuit.  I mean why not?  That is where the comedy happens, right?  Here’s the thing, comedy clubs as we have romanticized are for the most part over. Bad business dealings, terrible customer service, and total lack of comedic knowledge have left a lot of clubs scrambling to find ways to get people back in.  Some have found it, and that doesn’t mean that you are getting a call anytime soon.  It’s the celebrity comedian.

When I say celebrity comedian, you have to understand what I am trying to say.  Dave Chappelle is a celebrity, and a comedian, but he is not a celebrity comedian.  When I say celebrity comedian, I am talking about celebrities that later decided to become comedians to supplement their income.  Let’s take for example Steve-O.  We know and love him from the Jackass series.  It wasn’t until later that he turned up in comedy clubs across the country.  His celebrity means he can fill a comedy club, and that attracts club owners who are trying their best to get people into the club.

You may be thinking, what does a celebrity comedian have to do with me?  A lot if you are trying to increase you work by getting into comedy clubs.  It is already a struggle to get into most club in the country because of the lack of knowledge from the casual comedy audience. Clubs want people that the audience either knows or is assured can make them laugh.  You have to be a proven entity to even get a feature spot at most clubs.  You may have an easier time getting hosting work, but you will have to pay a lot out of pocket for the possibility of coming back in the future as a feature performer.  Clubs like to see that you have done something in your career.  That is why so many comedians scrabble for the limited number of tv spots so they can have that on their resume.  That shows clubs that you have been “filtered” and makes it (a tiny bit) easier to break into the comedy circuit.

Now, you factor in that there are not many spots in comedy clubs, and the fact that there are even fewer when you start adding in celebrity comedians, and you can see where this can be a problem.  If you are a comedian, your potential work shrinks because those spots are taken by a celebrity that has decided to become a comedian because everyone knows that they can sell out a club for a weekend.  It’s like watching an exotic animal.  You don’t know what they might do, but you want to see it when it happens.

So, if you are like me and are on the cusp of headlining smaller clubs and featuring in the larger rooms, this can be a big problem because now that a celebrity is taking the spot, everyone drops down. A headliner will probably agree to feature (especially if he can’t find some other work for that weekend) and that feature drops to maybe a MC if he gets that spot at all because it is difficult to make money driving across the country hosting, and you can see where this can be an issue.

Comedy clubs need to make money.  They are businesses, and if they want to stay afloat they have to have people coming in and buying drinks.  There can be a negative to this if no one is coming out except to see the one guy from that movie, but that isn’t your concern.  You have to worry about how to make a living knowing that with the increase of celebrities turning to comedy clubs to make money.  One thing you can do is turn to theaters.  There are a lot of tiny theaters all across the country that are looking for events to put in them.  You can just google these places and see what they can offer.  I have done 300-400 room theaters and walked away with as much money as I would make in a weekend at a comedy club.  The thinking is simple.  Small towns get passed over for entertainment options.  If all of a sudden the town’s theater is gonna have a comedy show, you will get interest.  A lot of comedians have turned to this as a way to deal with losing dates because a celebrity took their spot (or they can’t get into many clubs like me😭).

Instead of getting mad that a club wants to bring in Screech from ‘Saved by the Bell’, use it as a chance to probably make even more money by going to these theaters that are starving for a way to stay relevant.  I have been in discussions with people that get so angry about losing work to a wrestler that decided he will go to comedy clubs.  I don’t see it as a club not wanting me.  If they could get the same interest with a comedian like me (that they don’t have to pay as much) I wouldn’t have a free weekend ever.  That is not how it works though.  Everyone is trying to feed their families and we all have to adjust.

 

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Are You Ready?

Am I ready? This is probably the question I get asked the most from comedians just starting out.  There are many reasons for that.  They could be anxious to get to a place where they can make money doing what they love.  They may NEED it to start making money with the amount of time they are putting into it.  Or, they may just be looking at everyone else and assume that since others are getting paid to do comedy that they should as well.  I will tell you, the reader, the same thing I tell them, the comedian:  I can’t decide that.  I can make an opinion, but it is just my opinion. So, I decided to make it the topic for this week’s article.  Are you ready?  Ask yourself these questions and be honest with yourself.  That is hard to do, but I promise that being honest with yourself is better than having a booker or audience be honest with you instead.

The Time: People are always so worried about the time.  How long they have been doing it, How much time they have, etc.  The problem is this fluctuates depending on the person and type of comic you are.  If you are a one-liner type comic, or a comic that adheres to their material religiously,  just having 30 minutes worth of time may not be enough. What happens if a series of jokes falls flat, or you are in a town where you can’t joke about bear attacks because just the other day a bear ate 3 kids?  Whatever time you have you have to have an overflow.  That means if you are trying to be a host and you think you have a solid 15, think of it as a solid 10. Solid 25? 20. This has been evident in every aspect of my comedy career.  When I started, I thought I had 30 minutes.  I tapped out at 18 and just blabbed for the next 10 minutes.  Just timing yourself isn’t enough either because you may be in a favorable situation.  Time yourself in multiple locations and see how you fare.

You also can’t think that because you put x amount of time into it that it is time to get paid.  Not everyone develops the same.  I wrote a lot of jokes and liked to wing it on stage.  Not everyone is me, so not everyone will be able to do that comfortably.  Some people have been doing it for 3-4 years and haven’t gotten paid to do it.  That is because they don’t have quality time.

The Basics:  I have discussed this in other articles, but it bears repeating.  You need to have certain things before you can just start getting work.  You need a headshot!  I am not just saying that because I charge great rates to get yours done by me (wink, wink).  People need to know your face.  You can’t just have a flyer with your name and think people will just flock to that.  You also need a professional headshot.  When I say professional I am not speaking about $1,000 headshots.  I am talking about photos of yourself free from grain that comes when someone is snapping your photo with a smartphone or a compact camera. There is a reason that after all these years, cameras and lenses are still so big.  It is because you can’t substitute light! And that does two things for you.  A great headshot lets bookers and promoters know that you are serious, and it ensures the audience that you are a “real” comedian.

You also need things like a bio.  That give bookers a little bit about yourself and you need a great video.  Now, I have done articles on all of this so please read those for more detail on what you should be doing.  These things are what serious comedians have.

The Confidence:  You can have all the jokes and the best looking headshot, and you can have your bio written up by JK Rowling herself, and it won’t do a lick of good if you are not confident enough to look people in the eyes and let them know that you are worth something.  I had trouble with this.  I loved comedy so much that I felt like it was stealing to ask for money.  The thing is, bookers know this!  They know that a lot of people like the attention of standing on stage and a lot of comedians are hungry so they want stage time.  You have to be confident in knowing that what you are doing is worth paying for.  This is not just for comics, but all artistic professions where people tend to undervalue it.  No matter if it is a drawing or a half hour worth of comedy, if you think it is worth something, then have people pay for it!

This is just three things I think you have to be honest with yourself about.  If you feel like you have all of this down then get going.  Start trying to host at your local comedy club, or set up a show in a bar.  If you think you are ready to get paid work, then you have to test the theory out.  Best of luck to you, and if you get that bar going give me a call.

The Exposure Myth

If you have dealt in anything artistic, you have had someone come to you for services and in exchange, they have offered “exposure” in return.  Let’s talk about it and why it isn’t a good idea to take them up on this offer most of the time.

When someone comes to you and ask you to do a show for them and they offer you exposure, or the promise of more things down the road, most of the time they will say, “We don’t have anything to pay you, but there will be a lot of people there.” or “I can’t give you anything now, but in the future we can hook you up.”  Think about that.  If they are a business or organization, they are paying people. Staff, vendors, coke dealers, even non-profits pay people to run the non-profit.  What they actually mean is, “Hey, we see you are a gullible comedian so we will make money off you while we can.”

Exposure is a myth.  It is a thing that people say to not have to pay everyone involved.  I have seen it from both sides and have experienced it myself.  I have had people come to me, wanting me to do a show and they were not willing to give me anything even though they were making money off of the endeavor. They wouldn’t be able to get away with that with the beer vendors.  They couldn’t ask the electrician to wire up the place and they will tell everyone who did it.  So why do they use this exposure thing on performing artists?  The reason is simple:  we are dreamers, and dreamers can be suckered easily.  We dream of walking into a show and getting discovered and then being whisked away to hollywood to star in a buddy cop movie opposite John Cusack.  What will more likely happen is they will put on the show, not pay you, and then either never call you again, or try to do the same thing to you in the future.

Another reason why we get hit with exposure instead of money is because a lot of people just do not value the arts.  When they see a band, they do not see the hours it took to learn the instrument and the hours that was put into practicing those songs.  When a comic steps on stage they only see a guy up there telling dick and fart jokes.  They don’t see the open mics and writing and all the damn driving.  They think it is easy, or that since you are local you are not really worth it.  Well, you are.

With anything there are exceptions.  I perform at a couple of charities a year. I don’t expect to get paid a nickel. There are also shows like showcases that many clubs hold so they can see what talent they may bring in. Those are really the only exceptions I see, and honestly I wouldn’t do a showcase unless I knew the details beforehand. You may think that a club that is offering you to do time in front of a big time comic is awesome because you think that something will happen that will lead to more work, but in all honesty it won’t, so get what you are worth now instead of hoping that you will get work from all that extra exposure you are getting.

When I first started out, I would do shows where the booker or whatever would say I would get seen by a lot of people and that will lead to a lot of work. It didn’t happen, and they made money and the other comics, who were smarter, made money, but I didn’t get anything and they never called to book me for that paid show they promised.  I had to learn quickly to ask people what it was paying up front, and if they told me it wasn’t then I just told them I couldn’t do it.  Now, if you are just starting out, you will feel like you have to do it because that is how you get in the door.  That might be true, but then a booker or promoter knows that is messed up and would ask you to do a five minute quest set, not do your entire show for nothing.

With all of these articles about comedy, I try to give it to you from my perspective, which may not be a good perspective for those that are working consitently in comedy.  I am speaking from the view point of a comic that gets work, but not enough to get a new car or buy a plane ticket a week before I am suppose to go somewhere (damn they get expensive).  I hope these things help, and if you need a comic, and are gonna pay more than in exposure…get at ya boy.