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!

Why Being A Great Show Producer Is Important

It may seem easy to just throw a couple of your funny friends on stage and rack in the millions, but it is much more difficult than that.  If you are going to put on shows there are some things you have to be aware of.

You would think that being a comedy show producer is all about gathering talent and making a flyer, but that isn’t the case.  At the very start, the producer has to make sure that the place they are performing is suitable for what they envision the show to be.  Are you looking for intimacy? Then doing it in a large theater is not going to work.  Are you planning on bringing a person that has a following?  Then you will be be served to not pick your uncle’s bar and try to charge people $25 bucks.  The venue is very important to how people perceive the product before they even get to actually witness the product.  It’s important that the producer see the venue.  That is hard to do if you are several states away, but if you are producing a local show, it is pretty simple to just walk into the place and see if it has functioning lights, or if the stage has dark spots (places left unlit on stage). Does the audience sit far away from the stage?  That is important to who you bring in.  Does the venue even have a stage, or are you just huddled in the corner of a dark ass bar?

When it comes to talent on the show I have always been of the mind set of leaving them wanting more.  There is no need to have 10 comedians on a stage if three or four will do. When you load a show with talent, it does several things to the audience.  It can wear them down because they are seeing comedian after comedian, and it makes it seem as though this is the only way this show could have been pulled off is with a bunch of comedians doing five to ten minutes of material.  You want to make the audience want to see your next show, not wish the current show is over.  Make sure you know the talent getting on stage.  Don’t give someone you have never seen before enough time to tie a noose around their neck.  Don’t pad the show with a bunch of open mic comedians thinking that it adds value to the show because it doesn’t (not ragging on open mic comedians, but they tend to be less experienced and thus should be dealt with carefully).

If you are going to do advertising, please ensure you proofread!  I know this blog has mistakes in it all the time, so I am not saying I don’t do it, but when you are making something that is supposed to attract people to your event, you have to make sure that the venue’s name is spelled right at the very least!  Do you have everyone’s name spelled right on the flyer?  Does it have the date and time?  These are things that separate the  professional from the unprofessional.

Let’s talk about the show itself.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine, but START THE SHOW ON TIME!  If you say 8pm and you don’t start until 8:30, you now have an uneasy audience that has probably been drinking for those thirty minutes and by the time the last comedian gets up, people have been waiting to leave.  Don’t do your audience like that!  They made it to the show.  The least you can do is give them the show in a timely matter.

I think the last thing to discuss is compensating the comedians.  There are a myriad of ways to go about paying comedians, but one thing is for sure: Pay the comedians!  Nothing will shorten your comedy producing career faster than not paying comedians.  That is why it is important to tell them up front what they are going to get.  Do they get a couple of drinks or a meal?  Let them know beforehand.  You are the producer it is your job to make sure the talent feels like their time was valued.  We had an incident here where there was bad communication between us, the show producers, and the talent.  They thought that a guest set pays, and they were upset that we did not pay them.  I offered to pay the person because they do not live nearby, so they may not have wanted to do it if they knew they would not get anything like gas covered.  I also let them know for future reference what a guest set meant.  These are things you have to do because nothing spreads faster than negative news.  You want to make sure you have a good reputation with comedians so sometimes you may have to take a bullet, but it is better than being the type of person that is screwing over the talent.

Finding Your Niche In The Market

If you are just starting out on your comedy journey, then you may be trying to find ways to target the people that will enjoy your comedy.  This is why I am here.  I will try my best to help you.  I am using demographic and niche kind of interchangeably, please don’t get too butt hurt.

Here is the thing you have to learn first of all.  When you are just starting out.  You will usually have no clue the demographic that will enjoy your material.  This is completely normal. Don’t sweat this too much.  The more you write and the more you perform, the more you will get a grasp on who in the audience is enjoying your material.  Another thing to take into account is that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE falls into some sort of niche or category and sometimes you will be able to operate in multiple niches.  Even someone like Kevin Hart, arguably the hottest comedian on earth right now, falls into a niche.  His niche seems to be very large, but it is still a niche.

Some people have an idea of where their material is taken them.  There is a comedian I know that has a large chunk of “drug material”, when he is getting booked for shows, he is usually getting booked on shows where drug use is the theme or in places that are a little more “loose”.  This is not his only niche however, because he is a talented comedian, he can do other stuff.  This is important when you do not have a large fan base because it allows you the ability to work more often.  If he could only tell jokes about drug use, then he would be extremely limited, especially in an area of the country that is a little more conservative, and frowns upon that sort of stuff.

Some comedians don’t have no clue who will like their comedy so they bounce around until the hole in the market opens allowing them to fill it.  This is what happened to me about six years ago, when there were a lot of corporate comedy going on and they wanted comedians that could perform relatively clean.  It was something I didn’t want to do because I enjoy cursing and doing what I want on stage.  The thing that got me doing it was because of all the benefits of doing these sorts of shows.  You usually did one show and they feed you and paid for travel expenses and the pay was really good.  I figured since all I had to do was not curse that much, I could do it since there weren’t that many comedians in the area that could.  It helped me earn a good deal of money and because the market is still in need of that type of comedian in Eastern Washington I can get a lot of work.

I would not say this is the only niche I can fill though.  People want to put me on shows because I am black, or because I am a veteran.  Sometimes you have to use your life experiences to your advantage. I know of former teachers turned comedians that are now performing at corporate events for teachers.  Former drug addicts that go around and perform for others to put a lighter spin on a serious issue.  There are many niches in the market that can be filled if you know that it exist and that you can target it appropriately.

How do you find these niches in the market.  Well, if you are a comedian then go to Facebook and find a area page for comedians.  Every area has one.  Join it, and see what bookers and comedians are looking for.  If you fill that need then go after it and network seeing if it is a market that you can use further down the line.  Another way is going to a site like GigMaster or GigSalad and signing up (you can sign up for free, but they usually want your money), you can then observe the types of shows people are putting, and then you can hopefully go on to fill.  I do a lot of private shows during the fall and winter and it is because of sites like these that I know about them.

If there is one more piece of advice I can give you it is this:  Don’t pin yourself into one corner!  Just because you like video games, doesn’t mean that everyone on the planet will want to listen to that.  Write what you like, but keep yourself open until you gain a following and can afford to do what you want.

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.

Treating Comedy Like A Full Time Job

If you are looking at a career in stand-up comedy, you have to realize that there is more than just writing and getting on stage.  Those are the fun parts!  The tedious parts, the parts that separate the successful comedians from the ones that never get it together are not fun at all, and can be down right embarrassing at times.

Unless you lucked out and got picked up by a touring act after your second open mic, you will learn that being a full time comedian means talking to lots of people.  Bar owners, promoters, bookers, event organizers, you will be talking to all of them.  Most comedy is booked because you have a relationship somehow with the people putting on the show. You meet them at a festival or competition.  They saw you perform and wanted to add you to their roster.  80% of my work comes from people that know me and my work before hand.  20% is generated by me without any prior knowledge of the other party.  That can be private shows, or special events.  It can be a spot that I contacted about comedy and they thought it was a good idea.  No matter what, you will be answering emails and taking calls.  I usually prefer emails to calls because then you have all conversations in writing. Trust me, this can save your butt.  This is at least 3-4 hours a day of me returning emails, or sending emails and playing phone tag with folks.  This is a big part of comedy for the non agent, non sought after comedian.  You have to generate the work.  It doesn’t come to you.

Then there is the driving.  All the driving.  Unless you live in a congested area, you will probably have to travel to a lot of shows.  I am not a big time comedian getting big time money so there are not that many plane rides in my budget.  The longest I have driven in a day was 13 hours, and it was during a snow storm.  It has gotten to the point now that a two hour drive is a plenty little Sunday stroll.  This adds a lot of time to your “work week”.

And with all of the above, you still have to keep writing new jokes and staying relevant.  The last thing you want to do is start getting your career going, but the one thing that is feeding you slowly starts getting more and more dated.  I feel it is important to remember why you wanted to be a professional comedian.  You wanted to be one because you liked to tell jokes.  If you liked to drive or answer emails for a living, then you would have gotten you CDL or kept your day job.  It is important to keep these things in mind because it is a tough road from getting booked every other month to trying to pay your bills with the money you get from performing.  I am lucky in that I can barely get by on the money I make from comedy, but that comes from a lot of work, and I have much to do if I want to feel good about my comedy career.

Why Open Mics Fail

Open mics are supposed to help comedians gauge jokes and build acts.  For every open mic that last for years, there are about 5 that fail after a couple of months.  Why? I will give you my opinion.

Let us start from the top.  There are many reasons someone will want to put on an open mic.  They need one in an area that has a lot of comedians, or maybe they are tired of the open mic they have been attending. Whatever the case, a mic could fail if the person that is running it isn’t paying attention to it.  Just walking into a place and asking to let comedians try their jokes there isn’t enough.  You have to be willing to let comedians and audience members know that there is an open mic.  That means weeks and months of social media work.  You have to remember that the average person may not have open mic comedy in their list of things to do with their leisure time.  They have to be told and reminded that there is an option that they can partake in.

If your mic has no comedians then it is just a really sad meeting.  A lot of times I see a mic get started and it was totally because the person that started it wanted one closer to their house and didn’t bother asking any other comedians if they wanted to go to another open mic.  If you are a fresh comedian, a bunch of open mics are great.  If you have been doing it a while you may not want or need another location to perform. Open mics can be a chore, especially in large cities.  You may have to sit through two dozen people before you get to go up for three minutes.  Not everyone wants to go through that almost every day of the week.  I feel a lot of these mics do not take that into account.  They just open thinking that comedians will just blindly show up and that isn’t the case a lot of the time.  Years ago, we had someone open a mic across town from where most of the mics were located.  It lasted all of three months.  One of the reasons it lasted three months was because people didn’t really live in that area and were not inclined to drive all the way over there.

The last reason I feel a lot of open mics fail is a biggie.  The establishment doesn’t understand what is going on.  Someone wants to start a mic.  They go to a bar that looks like it has a stage.  They tell the owner/manager that they want to do open mic comedy there.  The owner/manager is hesitant.  The owner/manager then gets told that it is free.  Then when the owner/manager actually sees what is going on, they want it to end because it drives away the customers they did have, and/or they are not making any more money with a bunch of comedians taking up space.  There is a disconnect between some open mic runners and the staff.  You have to lower expectations.  Tell them that it could take awhile to get an open mic up and running where comedians and audience members show up.  Let them know that there will be people there that may not know a joke from a taint.  That way when the people that own the bar sees someone up there talking about punching the elderly that they don’t freak out and shut everything down.  This is the job of the open mic runner.

The job of the staff of the open mic spot, need to understand that if they only had eight people in there on that night, they can’t expect 70 to show up for open mic.  They have to be just as willing as everyone else to let it grow.  Customers may not want to hear comedy so they may not want to come in those nights, but that is something that will happen if there has never been live entertainment there before.  Either the customers learn to like it, or they don’t show up, and they get replaced with people that want to see comedy.

Open mics will fail.  Just like a business or a marriage.  I think everyone involved with an open mic should be willing to do a little bit to ensure the success of it.  That means every so often letting people know that there is an open mic that they can see comedy.  You don’t have to put that on your social media all the time.  Just inform those you know and try to grown it through word of mouth.  Having open mics benefit everyone.  It is a place to have new comedians try it and a place for the rest to work and improve.  It can be a generator of income for a business.  Which makes the owners happy and leads to them not going crazy when they see a new person talk about dropkicking baby seals.

Following Your Dreams Is Not Enough

You hear it all the time:  “Follow your dreams!”  “Do what you love!”.  It is such an empty statement.  Following your dreams isn’t enough, and if that is all you are doing then you will most likely never achieve them.

We will look at this saying from a comedy stand point of course, this is a blog about comedy (and photos sometimes).  I see it all the time where someone wants to be a comedian, but then there are a lot of stipulations to when they want to be a comedian.  They come out to an open mic once and now they plaster their social media accounts with the label: comedian.  That isn’t enough if you REALLY want to be a comedian.  What people learn quickly is that there are a lot of funny people at the bottom and a lot of not as funny people at the top.  Comedy is not an empirical discipline where the funniest get the great stuff and the not funny remain at the bottom.  That means that if you want to be a comedian, it takes more than just the thought of being a comedian, and it frustrates me when I see comedians that are “following” their dreams when instead they should be fighting for them.

Every successful comedian’s story is full of times they had to fight to keep doing what they love.  They didn’t sit at home because it was cold outside. They jumped on a greyhound to get to a show.  They sat around all night to get that three minutes at an open mic.  They kept getting on stage and proving to management that they were good enough for more than just last minute replacement comic.  They sat their asses down and wrote and wrote and wrote.  Then they got lucky enough to be seen by the right person, but that also meant sleeping on couches and in their car.   The thing is, when I say successful, I am not talking about just the ones you see on TV.  This is the story of all the guys you see come through your town to perform on a given weekend.  That is what it takes to do this.

It frustrates me when I am talking to local comedians and they will give me so many excuses to why they can’t come out.  They have class.  They have a job.  They have a child.  These are all things that I personally have had to deal with, and you have to make some sacrifices.  When I was in college, I would get my class work done and then I would get my ass to the local open mic.  It was harder to get work, so what I did was only take stuff where I could get back home the same day. I had a job after class as well.  It usually meant being tired some nights, but I kept doing it because it was something that I truly enjoyed.  When I started my kid was three, so that meant that if I could not find someone to take her I could not go, but I did sacrifice a lot of time with her to pursue comedy because I felt I could make a living at it and she would benefit. Before college, I spent a lot of time driving for hours for shit pay so I could one day be able to do the shows I want for the money I want. Not everyone has my exact situation.  I’m just giving an example of some of the things you have to do.  After all of this, no one knows who I am.  I am not a nationally touring headliner.  I don’t have TV credits.  This is what I had to do to get this far.  And this isn’t all of it.  There was homelessness and overdue bills and all that, but it is what I loved so I fought to keep doing it.  Look, if you just want to come out every once and a while and dabble in comedy, then go ahead and do that.  Nothing wrong with stand up as a hobby, but I am talking about those whose dream is to do this for a living.  If you are not fighting for those dreams, then you can not be shocked when they do not come true.