Are You A Comedian?

Yes.  Yes you are.




Damn.  You want more than just that…alright.  I already told you all you needed to know, but if we must.

I suspect every scene in the country, if not the world, has to deal with this question from time to time.  What makes a person a comedian?  How many open mic nights must you attend to be designated a comedian?  Is it when you get paid for comedy?  Is it when you get paid more than once?  Is it at a certain amount earned a year?  You see how silly this can get, right?  The reason it is so silly is because there is no education or class needed to make people laugh. The title of comedian doesn’t hold the same weight as calling yourself doctor or lawyer, or hell even plumber.  Those people have to take classes and train.  All a person has to do to call themselves a comedian is…well…nothing really.  I haven’t seen too many people just calling themselves comedians because they make people laugh at the monthly meeting, but there is really nothing stopping anyone from calling themselves a comedian, and I think that is what bothers a lot of people.

Think about it.  If you sit down and write jokes and try to work on them, it may seem unfair that someone that comes signs up for a couple of open mics are now calling themselves a comedian.  I don’t know why anyone would be bothered, but people get really upset about it.  That is why some will start placing people in this order so they can classify folk.  You will hear open micer said a lot, usually not in a great way, to describe someone that is mainly doing open mics and not really getting paid work.  Then there are things like MC, feature, headliner, that may be used as positions in a show, but can also be used to place you on a comedian totem pole.  Why do people do this?  Because it places class structure on people in a situation where class doesn’t really exist.  It can be used to separate, and belittle people.  You know, all of the already terrible stuff we are doing everywhere else.  That is why a lot of people get hung up on the notion of what is a comedian.  We want to get recognition for what we do, and we do not want others to claim the same recognition if they have not done as much as us (even if what we do isn’t much).

I said all that and yet I do believe that you have to do something to be considered a comedian.  Yeah, you can set up a Facebook page, and call yourself a comedian without stepping foot on a stage, but that would make you seem like a weirdo.  I don’t care if after one open mic and nothing else, you want to think of yourself as a comedian.  It has no bearing on me and my life and the comedy dreams that I pursue.  I don’t want to get hung up worrying about who is and isn’t a comedian because I still have a dream that I am chasing and do not have time (other than writing this) to consider these things.  I say worry about your goals and leave questions that divide people alone.


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.


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!

You Are Not Owed Anything

This may seem harsh, but I will keep it short so it stings a little less:  You are not owed anything in comedy.  There.  If that surprised you, or got your heart rate up, that means you are the perfect person for this blog post.

I think what happens is we take what we know from other industries, and assume it should work that way in comedy.  Longevity does not equal experience.  Experience does not equal ability.  Ability does not equal employ-ability… None of these things mean you are a shoe in for certain things.  This isn’t like working down at the docks, where if you were there for five years you get promoted.  You don’t get promoted in comedy just because you have been going to open mics steadily for five years.  If that were the case a lot of people would have HBO specials.  When someone tells me that they have been doing comedy for x number of years, it means nothing because you can get on stage once, never get on again for 10 years, and still call yourself a comedian.  Have you been writing?  Have you been performing?  These are the things that I think are more important than just how many years you have called yourself a comedian.

Just because you have been on showcases a bunch of times doesn’t mean you should be featuring at a club.  I see it time and time again.  Someone has been getting spots on shows, and now they think they are ready to feature.  Getting on stage is good experience, but that doesn’t mean you have the ability to perform for 20-30 minutes.  Ask a comedian that has been doing it for about six months to a year how much time they have, and most will overestimate.  Why?  Because open mics and such may give them  the impression that they have a lot of material that works.  That is not the case.  Once you get in front of a paying, attentive crowd, they are not going to let things slide because “everyone is just working on stuff”.  Get honest with yourself.  Do you have 20 quality minutes, or 10 decent minutes and 10 minutes of bonus ramblings.  Getting honest with yourself will help you not burn yourself when you are trying to get work.

So, you have been doing it for a while and have the chops.  You feel you have what it takes to start working.  What’s this though?  No one wants to work with you?  You can’t get booked anywhere even though you are funnier than all the other comedians that get booked?  Have you ever thought that maybe you’re an asshole?  Close you eyes (later, not now), and think of all your interactions with other comedians. Is it you and a bunch of probably skinny white dudes running through a meadow?  Or, is it a bunch of arguments and Facebook post telling comedians to eat a dick?  If it’s the latter, than that is your answer to why you are not getting booked.  You can not expect to be a piece of shit, AND be booked.  It may seem like the world of comedy is this large expansive network, but it is much smaller than that.  There are only so many comedy bookers and the odds that they have dealt with someone that has dealt with you is probable at the least.  If you have a great set, a set that makes bras fall off and guys get tramp stamps, but you can’t be worked with than people will just leave you off of shows.  There is a limit to this though.  If you are in the upper levels of comedy, like the Tom Seguras, and Phillip Kopczynskis  of the world, then you may be able to get away with not being the coolest person to work with, because you are putting asses in seats.  If, however, you are trying to get booked on your local show, and you are a total asshat, then why would anyone put up with that, no matter how funny you are.

Just remember that just because someone was doing it for 6 years and got on SNL doesn’t mean that is the trajectory for you.  Things happen to people differently.  I know comedians that started after me and are all over the country.  That doesn’t mean I deserve to be there as well.  That means that they may have had more connections, or were more personable to people, so they could network easier.  Maybe their material isn’t 80% dick jokes.  You have to be honest and look within when things are not going the way they should.


How to Take Advice/Constructive Criticism

Comedians get and give advice all the time.  It is constantly a learning process, and not one person knows everything about comedy.  How you take advice and/or criticism is important if you want to grow.

Advice can come in many forms, but no matter how you get it make sure you understand the source.  I am not saying that only famous people can give advice because a lot of the time it was just blind luck that got them famous!  You have to weight what advice from a certain sources means to you.  I am nowhere near famous, and I have dispensed advice on this blog for three years now.  You reading this are the only ones that will know if what I say applies to you and your career.  If you are headlining clubs every weekend you have no business here.  I will add hardly anything to your overall understanding of the comedy industry.  If you’re an open mic comedian, that is trying to move up the ladder, then maybe you can get something from all of these scribbles.  There is also nothing saying you can’t take bits and pieces of advice and make it something that can help you grow.  If someone tells you, “You need to get on stage more and face the crowd.”, but the persona you are building on stage is one that is stand offish to the audience, then maybe just take “You need to get on stage more.” and leave the rest to the winds.

Criticism is hard for any entertainer.  Who wants to know that you are not making 100% of people laugh? I have been doing this for twelve years, and I still get down whenever I hear someone tell me that.  I will tell you the same thing I told you in the paragraph above:  understand the source! Criticism coming from a drunk person may not be the same as it is coming from your buddy.  Is this person just trying to hurt your feelings?  That is something else to take into account.  I am not saying that anyone that has a criticism about you is a hater, but listen to the criticism.  Is it constructive?  Does it give you a starting point in which you can improve, or is it just tearing you down just for the sake of it? Constructive criticism is almost always trying to negate negativity by instilling a positive aspect. Here is an example:  Someone comes to you after a performance, and says, “I think you should shed some details in your stories.  The end is funny, but it takes to long to get there.” They are telling you that the stories you are telling on stage are too long, but they are giving you a way to change it.  If they approached you and just said, “Your stories suck.” you just have the negative and no way of changing anything for the better.  You also have to understand that there is no way 100% of people are going to find what you do funny.  You are not looking for 100% anyway.  You are looking for enough people that will fill up a room.  I am not saying don’t try to make the person that doesn’t like you laugh, but don’t kill yourself trying to do it.

It is important to note that not all advice and not all criticism is good.  I once had someone after a show tell me, “What you need to do is get on Comedy Central!”  That is advice, but I can not do anything with that!  I had someone just a couple of hours ago say they have never liked my material (the inspiration for this post), until recently.  That’s all they said.  That is criticism, but since they gave me nothing else to go off of, there is nothing I can do to see if it is something I can fix.  There is nothing wrong with going head first with our vision of what you want to do on stage.  The thing is, we are trying to entertain others, and if we are not trying to do the best we can to do that, then we are just amusing our need to be the center of attention when we are on stage.

Invest in Your Comedy Career

I usually start off an article talking about my thoughts and then I end it with my experiences.  I am going to do the opposite this time.

When I first started performing comedy for pay, I was trying to cut as many corners as possible.  I had just gotten out of the military, so money was really low.  So, every chance I could, I went cheap. No business cards, head shots done by my girlfriend at the time, and I had no website.  I would go from show to show and I realized that people would come up to me and ask me if I had a business card. I would direct them to my Facebook page, and would hear nothing from them again.  As I got more work, and saw that this could be a career, I realized that I needed to do things to help me look professional and get more bookings so I didn’t have to have a second job!

I think this is common for a lot of comedians to assume that you don’t need to really put much into your career because you don’t really need much!  95% of us only need an amplified mic. So, we go in thinking there isn’t much to enhance our careers other than better jokes.  I really wish that was the case!  There are a lot of comedians out there that have a great act, but because they haven’t done anything to make themselves look more professional and ready to work, they don’t get the gigs that they deserve.  On the other hand, there are plenty of comedians that have invested in their careers and they are working every weekend!

As soon as you know you are going to start performing for pay, you need to get some head shots.  I don’t mean getting your friend to take photos of you with their iPhones.  No dig against camera phones, but if you want photos that will look great no matter what promoters and bookers are doing to them.  Find someone in your local area that take head shots professionally.  I must add this disclaimer that I have taken head shots of comedians, actors, and other artist.  I am not trying to tell you to hire me (it would be nice, my prices are really reasonable), what I am saying is when bookers open your email you don’t want them to ignore your promo package (I have an article on that, but I am too lazy to find it…I have written a lot of these things!) because your photo can’t be used on promotional material. Depending on where you live, you may be spending some coin, but it is one of the first things people see attached to your name!  You want people to see you as a professional comedian, it will pay for itself in a matter of time.

It may seem dated, but a business card is a great way for people to remember you.  I know it may seem cooler to tell people to go to your facebook page or website (more on that later), but just being able to hand them a card that has EVERYTHING on it is great!  That way when they are not within eyesight of you, they can look down at your card and see how you spell your last name.  Business cards are a great thing to hand to promoters as well. The great thing about this is that it doesn’t cost that much, so you can buy some and have them on your just in case.

A website!  A dedicated Facebook page is one thing, but if you have a website, it kind of elevates you in the minds of people looking you up to see if you are a good enough comedian to blow 15 bucks on.  There are many places to get a domain name, and hosting.  You can also have someone build it for your from scratch.  There is a lot more flexibility in having someone build it (as opposed to just templates that do it yourself sites may have), but it will cost more.  If you want someone that is looking you up to at least have a passing impression that you may be worth the price of admission a website is key.

Investing in your comedy also means finding ways to get more money out of the shows you do get.  Maybe join a site like Gigmasters or Gigsalad.  These sites are a like a database for entertainment. Say someone needs a comedian for a private event.  They go to one of those sites and find you. Gigmasters is free to join, but you will only be able to get seen from people up to ten miles away.  For $269 bucks, you will be able to be seen by anyone in the country looking for a comedian.  I have gotten a lot of work from this site and I haven’t even paid a nickel to them (except for the booking fee that they both charge if you take a gig from their site).  $269 is not that much if you can get booked a couple of times.

There are also other smaller things you can invest in to help you along your comedy career.  Acting classes can help you a bunch, especially if you want to get work as an actor as well as perform stand-up.  Getting a fuel efficient car can cut down on  fuel expenses. Getting a camcorder or voice recorder to help you sharpen your act.  I am sure I am forgetting some, but you understand what I am getting at.  If you want this to be your career, you have to do more than just convincing people that you want to take this seriously.  You have to actually do the little things that shows people you are.

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.