Why The Feature Act is So Underrated

When an audience goes to a more tradition comedy show, they will usually see an MC or host, the feature act or middle, and the headliner. Out of all those spots, I believe the feature act is the most underrated part of the show. Now, let me explain why.

The “Middle Child” Effect

I am coining this term today! The middle child effect works like this. When the MC gets up, everyone is trained to expect that they are just introducing stuff. They are gonna talk about the drink specials and the comment cards and tell you who is on the show. They are not expecting much from the guy that just told them to turn their phones off.

A comedy club rarely puts a more seasoned person in this spot because of how the pay for host usually work. So, they get someone that hasn’t been doing it long, but shows promise to fill that spot. People can usually tell that this is a comedian’s first couple times on stage in front of that many people so their expectations drop a little bit knowing that the comedian may stumble a little bit and be a tad awkward.

The crowd expects a lot from the headliner. I mean, his face is on the poster, but because he is last there is the expectation that he knows what he is doing. He is usually a seasoned person that travels the world performing and so, for the most part, an audience is expecting to laugh.

The feature on the other hand has the tough job of going up after someone that may not even be a comedian. I have gone up as a feature after the cook has come up to the stage, grabbed the mic and cursed the guy who was supposed to be introducing me, and then mess my name up. When I used to do more shows in Montana, audiences were trained to not show up until thirty minutes after the show started because they figured the feature was bad. The “middle one” is never expected to do much, but people put a lot of pressure on them because they are the official start of the comedy show.

The Pay Makes it Hard to Stay a Feature

Most clubs pay feature acts enough to break even on a gig. You are not going to keep the comedians that are great features because no one can make a living as one. Everyone wants to be a headliner, but the problem is a lot of people have a great fifteen or twenty and the quality suffers after that, but instead of staying a feature act they have to write that next twenty minutes so they can actually make money when they go out.

Because clubs don’t pay enough for a feature to travel to them, that means they have to find features from the area. That is a good thing when you have a club in a larger city because you are sure to have features who can perform and you don’t have to worry about the cost of putting them up somewhere. The issues arise when you are in a medium to small area and the talent pool isn’t as large. Now you either have to have the “good” features perform a lot, or you have to promote comedians to feature when they should be hosting longer.

So because of the pay to feature and the audience’s expectations of the “second guy”, it is really hard to be a feature act. I seriously think most comedy clubs do not hold feature acts in much regard. Think of it from the business aspect though: They are not putting any asses in seats. They don’t serve a more central purpose like the host, and they don’t have the clout of a headliner who has TV credits and name recognition, so the feature is where a lot of leeway is afforded if you are booking shows.

This is how I see it though: (Remember, I am a feature is 90% of the clubs in the country so you can take this however you see it.) A show is only as good as the assembled pieces. If one of those pieces has been skimped on, it does the paying customer a disservice. Features are important because they lay the groundwork to make the headliner’s job that much easier. A feature that can hold their own is so valuable that a lot of bigger headliners just bring their own.

How do you fix this? The answer is simple. Venues need to make it so a feature can actually make money when they perform. That will keep a lot of good talent from leaking out to other places just because they want to get paid enough that they aren’t losing money when they perform. Maybe try putting them up in a hotel or condo (Clubs do this a lot, but some don’t). That keeps the cost of doing business way down (for the feature not the club). It will cost more money, but how much? Will it be offset by the fact that audiences will talk about how the entire show was awesome and not just “the last one”? This is a question only a person writing the checks can answer. All I can do is offer this suggestion as a way of making shows more entertaining.

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How The Economics of Comedy Clubs Make Stormy Daniels Possible

There are some comedians in the industry that are up in arms after exotic dancer and business woman, Stormy Daniels announced that she was going on a comedy club tour. There are many opinions on why it is wrong and many on why its no big deal. I can see both sides of this argument, and I will present to you why her doing this is even possible.

People like spectacle

I think it is obvious, but humans have been attracted to the odd and scandalous forever. So there is always a market for people on the “fringes” to make money if they know where to find people willing to see it. This is no different. She had sex with the President of the United States. People would pay to hear her talk about just that alone. Comedians need to understand that spectacle will put more asses in seats then a great, non famous joke teller.

Comedy clubs are the new vaudeville stages

For those that don’t know, vaudeville was like a travelling stage show for variety acts. They would play in theaters and you could see everything from comedians to singers to a guy that set his beard on fire (I made the last one up, but it could be true). Vaudeville disappeared roughly the same time comedy clubs started taking off. Comedians had a legit place to perform! Except that left a lot of other acts out in the cold. Vaudeville shows would have famous people that would basically sit on stage and talk about their life. So when those stages disappeared these people had to find a place to go, and that is when comedy clubs became that place. Most comedy clubs have comedy from Thursday to Saturday. What about those days when they don’t have comedy? That is a great time to bring in a popular person that may not be a comedian, but can put asses in seats.

When you combine the two…

So, you have people wanting to see certain individuals and a place with a stage that is empty sometimes three nights a week…that makes it pretty simple to see why a comedy club would bring in someone like this. Go to your local club’s website and I am sure you can find one date on their calendar that isn’t considered comedy in the tradition sense. Mike Foley, Jake the snake Roberts, male reviews, a podcast recording, all these things bring people into a club at times when no one would be there otherwise.

I wish it wasn’t true, but it is hard as hell to get people to just come see a comedian. I did two shows this past weekend, one in a legit theater, and the total number of people that attended these shows was probably 70 people. That is good for a person with no name, but a comedy club can not possibly sustain themselves on 70 people a weekend (depending on size of course). Comedy clubs are not like the Philharmonic, they are not just presenting art for artistic sake, they are trying to make money. They have payrolls and bills to pay just like anyone else, and if an exotic dancer can put asses in seats and get people to buy drinks then they will do that.

I don’t think most people care that she is an exotic dancer. At least I hope. I think there is a subset of comedians that think comedy clubs should only be for comedic acts and that isn’t the case. With the increase in other forms of entertainment, a club has to rely a lot more on food and drink to make it and so they have to open their stage to a larger variety of entertainment. It is cost effective to the act because they don’t have to rent a theater that will have you paying a bunch of money and not do much to promote your presence. It works for comedy clubs because they may not have anything going on that night and it only helps their bottom line to have someone with a following come stand on their stage. Since the person putting on the show may only get paid based on the amount of people paying to see them, it makes sense to have them if there is no risk to the club.

I hope this helped those that do not understand the issues at hand. I think comedians need to not worry about acts like this because they have no impact on comedy as a whole. I think the average adult is not thinking less of a comedy club because they had a male review there last night instead of some comedy act. The average person will only go to anything if they have an interest in that thing and no matter what you do, you will not be able to force them to see comedy for comedy’s sake. It doesn’t hurt women comedians because her presence doesn’t mean they will not hire another woman, it just means that date is no longer available to anyone.

How I Make Money in Comedy

I get asked a lot about how much money I make doing comedy. Mainly because I pursue comedy full time and I don’t have a full time job. Well, with this article, I will try to tell you how I make the money I do and about how much I make. Now, before we go on, I will state that all of my income does not come from just comedy. That would be a rough way to live for the level I am at. I am a disabled veteran so I get VA compensation. That is a check every month due to injuries I acquired while in the military. This gives me more leeway then other comedians at my level because I don’t have to fill in my income with normal work. Now lets get into it!

I am at the level in comedy where I can feature a weekend in a large, what comedians would call an A room club, or headline smaller clubs and bar shows. This means in any given month I can go from A room to corporate event, to a sleazy bar. It does put things in perspective when you are playing for a room of 200 people that are laughing their asses off and then go to a bar where they won’t turn the TV off because they can’t find the remote.

I am not in a position to ask the clubs to pay me what I am looking for. Clubs usually have a set rate for MCs, features, and headliners that are not so well known, so make sure you know what that is before you take a date. I usually try to make a little more money off of selling merchandise like t-shirts and copies of my comedy albums. This can be a big part of your income as a comedian at my level. I have had times where the merchandise I sold was two or even three times as much as the pay I was getting from the club! There are some industry “standard” pay when you are dealing with bars and the like. Usually I can get between $150-$300 for those kinds of performances. Corporate shows are a little different. I try to get a sense for who is asking me to perform. Is it a fortune 500 business or a local mom and pop? How long do they want me to perform? Will there be children? Basically the more I feel like it is going to suck the more I feel I should be paid.

Now, comedy isn’t like a normal job where you show up and then you are working. You either have to know people or know how to get in touch with people. About 80% of my work is from people I know. They will either hire me themselves or they will tell the person looking for entertainment about me. That is the biggest struggle at this level, trying to get noticed by the right people. If you have read this blog, then you know one thing I harp on a lot is getting to know people and networking. This opens so many doors for you that will eventually lead to more work. I get to work with John Caparulo because someone I knew thought I would be a great fit.

I send a lot of emails to a lot of clubs around the country and right now my percentage rate for responses is about 1%. Out of that 1%, about 75% of the responses is a no. This can wear on you, but you have to understand that these clubs have hundreds of comedians and only a certain amount of them can actually put asses in seats. I know I am not a household name, so I can understand that they will be hesitant to have me at their club. Besides, most of the time they are looking at me as a feature, and for a lot of clubs they see the feature as an expendable piece of the comedy show puzzle. They would rather cultivate their own local batch of features that will be cheaper to hire and more loyal, so I am also fighting with that.

So, you read this entire thing and am now wondering how much I actually make. Well, feature work is not what it used to be, what with the cost of living rising, but the pay for features (and headliners and MCs as well) has remained more or less the same. I have been doing comedy full time since about 2013. I have been a comedian for 14 years, but I spent a lot of that time in college and the military. I was actually able to start paying bills with comedy in about 2016 when I started getting more than a show a month. 2017 was my best year (also the year I got to feature for John) when I mad in the five figure range. 2018 was a down year mainly because I didn’t get to play in a lot of the bigger rooms with John Caparulo (going in with a comedian at his level meant I got paid more). I didn’t break the five figure barrier for another reason and that was because I had less corporate shows during the holidays. I make a lot of money during the fall when there are all kinds of parties going on. I may have priced myself out of the Spokane market by charging more, but that will be something I will write about in a future article.

2019 is looking up, but the summer is approaching and it is always pretty slow for me. I have more stuff on the calendar this year then I have had in awhile. It could be from the Comedy Competition, or it could be that I am gaining some traction in the industry. My income is not just purely comedy though. I get paid to take photographs and I appear in TV shows, commercials and movies. If not for the VA though, I would be working if I wanted to keep the life style that I have. It may seem bleak, but the way I see it I am living pretty well. No, I don’t have millions of dollars in the bank, but I get to do the things that I want and not stress to much. I hope this gave you a clue as to what a low level comedian like myself is making and I also hope it helped you decide not to leave your day job until you are making enough that you can afford to get a cavity fixed. Until next time!

HAPPY 300th blog post!!

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.

So, You Want to Produce Your Own Show…

So, you have been beating your head against the wall trying to get into your local club (other than at their open mic nights), and now you think you should produce your own shows.  Not so fast power ranger!  There are a lot to take in before you start performing in the corner of your friend’s bar.

The Proposal:  You can’t just walk into a bar and say, “Give me 9,000 to perform here!”.  You have to be prepared to answer questions and dampen expectations.  You have to understand the business in which you will be intruding upon.  They will look at it like this:  Will I get a return on my investment?  These are businesses, not charities.  If you are charging an amount they can’t possibly make back then they will not want to do it.  How many people can the bar hold…comfortably.  If you want the show to be a success, you have to ensure that everyone can enjoy it.  If you have 30 people standing, that is the area in the room that is gonna get loud and cause a distraction to all the other audience members.  When you speak to the manager or owner of the place, you have to make sure they understand that just because you put a show on in their establishment doesn’t mean they will get a new customer base.  The people that come into their place of business will be there for between one and half and three hours and that is when they have to sell their product to them.  After that those people may never come back there again.  Don’t tell them that they are going to make X amount of money.  You can’t guarantee that and that will make it seem like you lied to them if they don’t.  Let them know your job is to keep them there and their job is to sell their product.

Comedians: If you are planning a long term comedy spot, then you have to have a stable of comedians.  If you live in a place with a small comedian pool, it may do you well to reach out and see if you can wrangle comedians that may be passing through, or looking to pick up extra work.  The last thing you want to do is have the same comedians come through time after time.  I have seen so many comedy spots rot and die away because the producer had such a small group of comedians to choose from that people were no longer interested.

Other Tidbits: Start on time!  Don’t have people waiting for that imaginary audience.  When you are talking price, make sure it is enough to attract people to the gig.  If you charge too little, only the people in the immediate area will be able to do it, leading to your running out of comedians quickly.  Try to get enough money to invest in advertising.  That extra money could mean a couple more butts in seats. And finally, always remember to have fun!  You are performing and getting paid!  Enjoy it!

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.

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!