Don’t Go “Cheap” With Your Comedy Career

A lot of us are not making bank with our comedy careers.  That does not mean, however, that you shouldn’t seek out quality when you are getting promotional materials made.  Technology has made it that we can do a lot of stuff ourselves.  We can design posters, shoot head shots and film and edit videos for submission.  Well, I am here to tell you that going cheap will make you look cheap in the eyes of those that are booking you.

Lets talk about posters first.  It may seem like all you need is Photoshop and pictures of who is going to be on the show, and BAM! Poster.  Designing posters is an art form in itself!  Do you know the techniques it takes to make an appealing poster?  Are you just making a wall of text with a couple of tiny, blurred photos?  These are things to take into account!  I like to make my own posters, but not because I am cheap, but because I like to do stuff like that.  The problem is that I am not that good at designing something appealing to people that are jaded with advertising as it is.  So, if it is an important show, I like to make sure someone that is well versed in creating posters creates mine so it looks as good as possible.

Comedians just starting out don’t realize how important head shots are.  They are the first thing bookers, promoters, and your potential audience will see of your face.  What people fail to understand is that there is a difference between a head shot and other types of photos of your head and neck.  If you are on stage performing when the photo was taken then that is considered more of a candid photo.  You may not want to lead with that for many reasons.  The light may not have been the best so you look like you have a triple chin.  One of your eyes were slightly closed when the photo was taken so you look like a knock off Pop-eye.  You should be getting your head shot as soon as you think you want to make money doing comedy.  It doesn’t have to be in a studio, but you do want it to be a structured environment so the photographer can get the best version of you on the sensor that they can.  You also want to get them redone every couple of years or when you change something significant about your face (beard, no beard nose ring, face tattoo).  I take head shots so whenever I talk about this I have to make sure that I say I don’t care who you go to for your head shots.  I care that you take good head shots because bookers get tons of emails with a ton of promotional material and the last thing you want is for them to ignore you because you had your friend take a photo of your head with their iphone.

A lot of comedians just starting out also tend to forget another important part of your promotional materials and that is the video.  I have a couple of articles that you can read about why video is important.  I have seen comedians ask if anyone has a camera to film their set.  If you are using it to send to bookers (as opposed to just uploading it to YouTube), then you should be asking more questions.  Do they have a decent camera?  You want something that can take good video in low light.  Do they have a lens that can record you cleanly on stage?  If they are in the back of the room with a 35mm lens or an iphone, you will look tiny and promoters don’t want to see a bunch of silhouettes and your tiny ass up on stage.  You want someone that can get you from roughly the waist up.  Do they have the ability to get good sound?  Do they have a way to either get the sound from the soundboard or are they using just the camera’s mic?  If they are just using the mic on the camera, then you are gonna get everything AND your set.  That is distracting!  Are they gonna color correct the video or just give you what came off the card?  This is where it pays to pay someone some money to film you! If you look like a smurf because the white balance was off that tells the booker that you most likely just sat a camera in the back of the room and hit record, so you aren’t really trying that hard to get work.

Here is the thing.  I learned all these lessons the hard way.  My first head shots were taken by my girlfriend at the time.  She didn’t know anything about photography.  We just took them around Eastern Washington University and sent them to bookers.  I would set my camcorder up in the back of the room and send that video to comedy clubs.  It would be all dark and I was so far away that you could tell I just sat it and forgot it.  I didn’t get a lot of work because I was trying to go as cheap as possible.  Now, it is worth it to me to pay someone to design a poster or my t-shirt.  I charge comedians to record their sets and take their head shots. The thing is, I did not go to school for this stuff, so I encourage them to seek out someone else if they are not happy with the results I provide.  If you want to make a go at comedy, give it a good go, and don’t go cheap!



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!

Why It’s Hard To Break Into Comedy Clubs (For Some)

I hope everyone had a happy New Years.  Now it is time to get back at it.  With this one let’s talk about the difficulties of getting booked into comedy clubs.

If you think about it, comedy clubs are very unique.  Comedy is the one of the few performing arts that basically has its own space.  There is not a ballet bar, or a poem emporium.  This obviously means that if you want to ply your trade in stand-up this is one of the first places you would look. You would think it would be as simple as emailing the person who books talent at the club and if they see a use for you, then you are good to go.  Well, it is not that easy.  Let us talk about the simple fact that there is only so many comedy clubs in the country.  Sure some cities like Chicago and New York City have several, but a lot of places may have just one club, and that one club has between 48 to 52 weekends (depending on things like when holidays fall and such) in which to fill.  Most comedy shows have a MC, feature, and headliner.  So at most, a club needs three comedians a weekend.  Now I hope you see that there are a ton of people that have the capacity to fill these spots, so that makes comedy clubs sort of a gate keeper.  If they want to have people return, they want to put on the best show they can afford.  That means they have to be a little more picky then say the sardine factory that just needs to fill five canning positions.

Now the above tries to explain why its hard to get booked into comedy clubs on just a numbers aspect.  The thing is you have another hurdle, the booker.  There are men and women all across this country that book these shows and because they are human and have particular tastes, they will make decisions for a variety of reasons.  I have heard them all.  From just not that funny to you live too far away and we don’t want to house you.  Also because they are human, they are not immune from just grabbing what is nearby.  Why book a comedian for a show in Atlanta when they live in Portland?  Why not just look in your immediate vicinity.  Especially for features because there are a ton of people that can perform between 20-30 minutes of comedy.  It is less stress to know that most of your talent is in town.  That is why it is really hard to get booked as a MC or feature the farther away you look.  They can just grab a local comedian to MC and save money and hassle.  They don’t have to worry about comics changing their minds at the last minute because they can’t afford to come perform.  You also have to think about the booker and the amount of inquiries they receive on a day to day basis.  I can only imagine all the emails and packages they get from comedians that want to work their club.  They can’t possibly get to it all.  If you receive 200 emails a day, it will get to a point where you will ignore a ton of emails and base your decisions on what your peers are telling you.  Then there is just plain ole biases.  They may not like musical comedians, or comedians that wear hats on stage.  They won’t tell you this outright, but it could keep your from getting work from them.

Here is another thing.  Comedy clubs are businesses.  They are not non profits that are putting on comedy shows for the good of the community.  They are trying to get the audience to buy food and alcohol, and your quips about Tupperware is what is keeping them there.  These clubs are looking for people that can put asses in seats.  It is not so much how funny you can be, but an as of now undiscovered equation between funny and popular.  Why do you think your local club has that former porn star coming to town next week?  Because they are popular enough, and sometimes funny enough, to put asses in seats and make the club some money.  If you can’t offer them that, then it is hard to break in.  This is not so much a concern of MCs and feature acts because they are seen as younger, less experienced comedians, but headliners have to worry about this a lot.

So, how can you increase your chances you may ask.  Well, the thing you have to remember is persistence. You have to be able to accept that you will get turned down a lot and keep trying to get in contact with these clubs.  You will send out hundreds of emails and you may get one response back.  It’s important to know that you can not guess what is going on on the other side of email.  The booker may be ignoring emails.  They may be seeing it and not responding because you do not fit their place.  I will say this, if you got a response and they say no, then you should not keep sending them emails.  Accept the no and when you have a new headshot or new video for them to take a look at, then you should probably give it another try.  If they say contact again in six months, then do that. I have an spreadsheet (I know!) where I can check off who I have contacted and if they responded to me.  I don’t use it as much as I should, but it is helpful in keeping track.  You can also hit up the club’s open mic.  This is a great way of getting in front of people that can get your booked.  Don’t see it as a guarantee that the booker will be there though.  If I can get there, I like to do that because networking and getting to know bookers and what they are looking for is a great way to improve your chances of getting work in the future.  You can also try booking independent shows in clubs during off nights.  Some clubs will let you rent their spot on a night where they are not doing a proper show and you can show them that you have enough pull in the area to be brought back for a weekend.  You can also try this with a specialty show.  We have a show in Spokane called Drink N Debate, and it is put on at the Spokane Comedy Club every month.  The bookers get to see a lot of comedians and can evaluate them for potential work.

The key is being persistent and remembering that it is an uphill battle, but one you will have to go through if you are trying to get into comedy clubs.


Those Who Have Inspired Me (2017)

As the year winds down, I have been thinking of those that have made me want to work harder at what I do.  I will leave links to their social media or websites so maybe you can gain some inspiration from them as well.

Dan Cummins:  Dan has always been an inspiration for any comedian coming up in the Spokane area.  He is typically seen as the one that “made it”.  He has a Comedy Central special and a very popular podcast.  His drive is what inspires me so much.  I think what keeps me from working even 50% as hard is my bouts of depressions (A very lame excuse).  He is also a really nice person and someone worthy of admiration.  Check out his podcast, Timesuck, when you get a chance.  It is really good.

Dave Chappelle:  I am not going to add his site because you know who this is.  I watched both of his specials and the amount of writing and culling he must do amazes me.  I write a lot but not at that level.

Anthony Jeselnik:  Another known guy if you are into comedy, I saw his show live and I could not get over how he basically did an hour show with one liners.  They were not obtuse in nature either.  His punchlines usually end in something terrible, but he is able to keep an audience enthralled the entire time.  Almost every comedian has a one liner or so, but to have so many, in a unique voice was a sight to behold.

Phillip Kopczynski: This is a local guy that I admire as much as all of the guys above.  Why?  Because I can see the gears moving.  I can see the things he is doing in real time, so it keeps me wanting to do the same.  He has developed a show that he can sell.  He books it himself.  He is not just waiting around to get work.  He makes his chances and that is awesome to see.  Too many of us spend our time emailing clubs and getting no where with that.  What Phil is doing is putting himself out there and doing the heavy lifting himself.  He has the balls to invest in himself, and it has been an inspiration.

Lance Paullin: He has been a buddy of mine since I started comedy.  We would film sketches together, but he left for LA. He has since done the things that I knew he could do.  He is a talented guy and he inspires me that if I take a leap that I too may land on my feet.



Big Idea Comedy Vs. Small Idea Comedy

For lack of better terms, I tend to look at comedy in two very broad terms, that can be elaborated on later.  Big ideas and small ideas.

Big idea comedy, at least in the way that I think of it, are premises that try to tackle the big issues in our society.  Poverty, inequality, women’s issues, race, are what I would call Big ideas.  These are things that people have an idea about, but may not have thought of them in a comedic way.  I think a lot of comedians start out writing material with these ideas in mind. Why?  Because it can be easier to grasp for both the comedian and the audience.  We have been confronted with most of these ideas, so there is not much set up required.  As soon as you start going into the bit, everyone more or less has an understanding of the topic at hand.  This does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, big idea comedy writing is usually the hardest to write effectively.  There is a reason they are ideas that still linger in our society, and there are many different ways to fail an idea you are trying to get out to the audience.  I have sat at hundreds of open mics where the person wants to say something witty about these issues, but instead comes off as offensive or tone deaf.  If that is the idea then, to make it seem as though you have no idea what is going on, then exaggeration is your friend.

Newer comedians tend to want to go  after these topics for another reason, they have seen their favorite comedians knock these topics out of the park.  The problem is that we tend to not see the work that is involved with crafting a joke so it seems easy when in actuality it is quite difficult.  So, how would I advise a new comedian to go after these big ideas?  I wouldn’t.  I would tell them to go after things that others can’t duplicate (this is where small idea comedy comes in).  If they really want to though, I would tell them that saying the same thing that every comedian in the world is already saying is not a good way to differentiate yourself from the masses.  That is why blue collar comedy is what it is.  It says something completely different from what hundreds of other comedians are saying.

Small idea comedy may sound like the opposite, and you would be partly right.  Small ideas, as I am writing them, are things that are happening to you directly.  It is not as big as race relations, but it can be, just as long as it is happening to you.  This seems to be how a lot of comedians progress as they get more comfortable with the way they write. They start off talking about really heavy ideas, and then they look within their own lives to find humor.  To a lot of newer comedians, this seems daunting.  You may be young and thing the things that are happening to you directly would not be funny, but have you sat down and thought about it?  Have you taken time to assess situations in your life that could be funny?  When you start thinking about comedy differently, you start to realize that you can find a lot of good material in smaller ideas.  How does going out in public make you feel?  Do you hate your in-laws?  These are things that do not affect the lives of many, but can still be funny.

How can you get to these small ideas and write effective material about them?  First, think about the things that bother you.  The things that make you laugh.  These are things that a lot of other people may find weird enough to laugh at.  Some of the greatest comedians ever made their names from looking within and being able to articulate it in ways that made others laugh.  What is great about this material is because it is more personal, it is harder for others to duplicate.  This is the material that audiences will remember you for.  Do you have funny stories?  That is small idea comedy!

I hope I was able to get these idea across in an effective manner.  If not please let me know in the comments.  While you are at it, go here to pick up the new book from my friend Andrew Oullette.  Thanks!

What I Learned From A Comedy Class

The local comedy club had a comedy class and it was revealed later that it was mandatory if you wanted to work at the club.  I was going regardless, but a lot of people wondered what a class like this would entail.  Would it try to sway the way we write jokes?  Would it try to brainwash us?  Would the lunch be satisfactory?  These were just a few of the inquiries that were floating around before the date of the class. I just wanted to go over some things that I got out of a class of this nature.

The class was ran by comedian Cory Michaelis.  I’ve known him for several years, and he is a former teacher turned comedian.  That background helped him build a class to teach those looking to give comedy a shot. The class he was teaching us was a bit more advanced. What I thought was really cool was how, at the very start of the class, he told us that he was not assuming to be an expert, just someone that through experience as a teacher and comedian, could deliver it in a fruitful way.  That is how I run this blog.  I am not a big time comedian, just a guy that has seen a lot of stuff and wanted to share that information.  I think a lot of people were wondering what gave him the right to teach a class when he doesn’t have whatever credit needed to be seen as a “real” comedian.  He was headlining the club this past weekend, but I got the feeling that a lot of people wanted appearances on late night and stuff like that.

He started off with the simple stuff.  Premises, punchlines, tags.  The stuff that people claim to know about, but when you ask them about it they don’t have a firm grasp of these concepts.  We saw videos of people using techniques that were taught, giving you thorough understanding of each thing taught.  He then went into hosting, and asked for any questions.  I thought it was a great class and I took away quite a lot of information.

I am always trying to write more material.  I got a couple of tips on how to make that happen more than just those eureka moments.  I learned more about hosting (one of my many weak areas), and what is required of a good host.  I was able to see techniques applied to actual jokes, and I learned a lot more about why my emails probably were not getting answered.  All in all I think it was worth my money.

Sadly, I also learned some not good things from this comedy class and it has nothing to do with the club, or the teacher.  Spokane, like I have said before, is pretty much an island when it comes to performers.  We are here with no other large cities around for hundreds of miles.  That means that a lot of people have a warped sense of where they are in the grand scheme of the comedy landscape. Before the new club came to town, if you just kept doing alright for a couple of months, you could get paid to perform.  That means that we have a lot of people who have only been doing this for a couple years that have gotten paid and now they think they can take on the world.  When the club came to town a lot of those same people wondered why they were not getting the same work, and instead of turning the critique inward, looked out and tried to find the reason for these failings elsewhere.  When the class was announced a lot of people chimed in that it was fishy because it was aimed at comedians.  Not thinking that maybe it was the club’s way of saying that we were not up to the standards that they are looking for, and that the class could help.  When it became known that the class was needed in order to work a the club, you got a lot of defiance.  This perplexed me.  As some one who has had to sit through orientations and training meetings, it is not unheard of to ask your employees to sit down and see what is required of you.

I was asked why I, a comedian of 12 years, would attend a class on comedy and I think the answer should have been obvious.  I am not an expert at comedy.  I don’t know every single thing there is to know about comedy, so I want to know as much as possible in order to become better. To see fellow comedians look at it not as a chance to get better, but as an attempt to get $25 dollars from them (the discounted price to attend, from $125), seemed short sighted and pretty egotistical.  To assume that you need no direction because you have been paid, or have been doing it for some time is just a weird thing to me.  How do we get better as artists if we don’t sharpen our skills?  How do we move from just getting paid every so often, to having comedy pay our bills, if we are not trying every thing possible to make it happen.  I also think that getting upset over the date (the weekend before the 4th) or the cost, or the fact that it was mandatory, was just a cover for something larger. Comedians are some of the most sensitive people I have ever met, and any affront to their ability to make people laugh is an affront to them and their very being.  So to some, to have someone come in (mind you someone that has a successful club that is one of the best in the nation), and tell them they need to work on their comedy is a slap in the face, and that saddens me.  It saddens me because I am a champion of a lot of the comedians in this city, and to see that they don’t want every little edge possible to be the best they can be is disheartening.  It’s not the fact that the class cost money, someone had to spend their off time to teach it so it should cost something.  It’s not the fact that it is a class.  We take classes for all sorts of other things and pay way more money for it.  It’s not that it was mandatory. We have all worked places were we had to sit there and listen to someone tell us not to talk about our co worker’s tits, and to not steal the bandages (this was orientation for a job I had at the VA).  It’s about comedians who do not want to admit that they can work on being better then they currently are.  So, one of the biggest lessons I learned is that you can not drag people to their potential. The only career I can control is my own, so I will continue to write, perform, and get better.

Oh, and the pizza we got for lunch was pretty good.

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!