Stand-up Comedy May Not Be For You…And That’s Alright

I love stand-up comedy.  I love watching it and I love performing it.  I love pouring over my jokes trying to come up with a set that will appease a group of people that paid a nominal fee to see it.  There are hundreds of people out there just like me.  That may not be you, and that’s alright.

Stand-up comedy, I would argue, is probably one of the hardest ways to entertain people.  Most of the time, you are the writer and the actor.  You do not have a cast of people to blame for any mishaps, if you messed up YOU messed up.  No best boy or gaffer to point at and accuse of trying to ruin your career.  If the jokes don’t work then it means, most of the time, that you are not writing good jokes. There is more to stand-up than just writing jokes and then getting paid.  You have to sit at open mics and develop your material three to four minutes at a time.  You are sitting somewhere a lot looking over your jokes like they are a Rubik’s cube, but instead of colors, there all the other things you could be doing instead of trying to make a room full of people that don’t know you laugh. Let’s not forget that if you are trying to make a living at it all the obstacles in your way!

You may ask yourself, “why would anyone that doesn’t want to do stand-up go through all of that?”.  There are many answers to that.  One is that it is simply the lowest entry point into entertainment.  If you want to act, you have to find a theater and try out.  If you want to perform comedy, all you have to do is find a place that is already letting people do that.  There are no auditions, or test, or pokes and prods.  So, this allows people who want to entertain, but don’t yet know what they are good at try something out.  More rare are those that assume that stand-up is the easiest way for truly talented people to get noticed, so they go into it thinking that their immense talent will over shadow all the talent-less grubs fighting for $25, and they will soon be whisked away to Hollywood, or Vancouver, or wherever they film things now.

Then reality sets in.  They realize that because stand-up has a lower bar, it means it takes longer to prove you are capable of consistently making people laugh.  They talk to the grizzled vets, that have, “stand-up is hell!” tattooed on their foreheads, and find out that most of these performers have been doing it for years!  Still searching for that one joke that will catapult them into the next rung of the stand-up hierarchy, where they will have to fight tooth and nail to maintain what they worked so hard to obtain.  This can shock many an aspiring entertainer who thought they would stand out in a sea of plebs.

It hits a lot of people that looked at this as maybe an easier way to their end goal, or as a way to achieve fame hard.  Going out multiple times a week for a little sliver of stage time can wear on you. Not to mention dealing with the many different personalities that you meet while performing (great article topic by the way), and a lot of people can see it as just not worth it.  So, they stop coming out as much, and anyone who goes to the gym a lot and stopped for whatever reason, can tell you:  It is so much easier to not do stuff than to do stuff.  Next thing you know, you haven’t been out to comedy for six weeks and you feel like a failure.

There is nothing wrong with finding out this isn’t the route you want to take to get to your end goal.  If your end goal isn’t: Stand-up comedian, then doing stand-up is not a great way to venture into other things.  Some people find out that stand-up isn’t for them after the first couple of times getting up there.  They notice that they get a little too nervous when they are on stage, or they have to drink a lot of calm their nerves, and that bothers them.  Nothing wrong with finding a different way of getting your creative soul out there.  Maybe you just want to write, or you want to perform sketch comedy.  There are many ways to be funny without getting up on stage by yourself.  If you thought that stand-up was the best way to advance because you believe in yourself so much, maybe just try auditioning at your local theater, or try improv.  Those things may be more of what you are looking for.  However you go about it, just try to get that creativity out because those who don’t end up being the Unabomber.

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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.

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!

Why Getting What You Are Worth Matters

It is always weird to me when I hear comedians talking about getting paid and they are so comfortable with just taking whatever they can get.  It may be due to their awkwardness in asking someone for money, but I think it is due to something much bigger:  not knowing what they are worth.  You can sit down with a comedian and tell them how much everyone else is getting, but if they don’t know why it matters it will go in one ear and out the other.  I will try to explain as best as I can.

Now, your worth as a comedian changes from place to place.  In the Midwest, the money comedians are getting is different than in the Northwest.  It can also vary depending on if it’s a one night performance in a bar or if you are at a comedy club.  It can also change depending on demand.  If you have a market that is flooded with comedians, it may be harder to get as much as say, someone who lives in Spokane, WA.  So, the very first thing you need to do if you are a working comedian (or trying to be one) is that you need to ask other comedians what is the going rates in your area.  That way you are not undercutting yourself out of ignorance.  It is important to know that, for example, if you are tasked with hosting a show at a bar, it usually pays a certain amount.

Okay, now that we took care of that, let’s look at why it is important to get paid what you are worth.  If you ask any comedian that has been doing it for 20-30 years, they will tell you that the pay hasn’t really increased since they started.  With the price of inflation, that $100 that was seen as great in 1990 is almost $200 in today’s dollars!  That means that the market has not kept up with inflation.  Why?  Because so many comedians are insecure and love comedy so much that they will take the $100 and be happy.  A lot of comedians think it is weird in the first place to get money for something that they enjoy, and that gives the people handing out the money an advantage in that they use this against you. They know that the average comedian will take that $100 bucks and if that one doesn’t then the next one will.  Because there is no union and for a lot of comedians, work so infrequent, they think it is better to get something rather than nothing.

This is all well and good until you think about all the other aspects of comedy other than just performing.  You have to get there.  That cost.  You have to eat.  That cost.  If you take that $100, after you have paid for gas and food you maybe down to $60.  Now, that means much more work on your part.  This is why there aren’t that many touring feature acts. You can’t afford to travel and perform.  If you are traveling and performing in comedy clubs, that may soften the blow because you don’t have to jump in your car each night, but a lot of clubs don’t give features hotel rooms, so that means you will either have to have a friend in that city, or get a hotel room and that eats into more of your pay.

Getting what you are worth is important because if you want to do it full time, you will have to maximize your pay while minimizing the cost.  So, if it cost you $150 to go perform, you may want to make sure you are getting enough that you are not constantly doing expensive open mics.  It is also important because it adds value to not only your comedy, but comedy as a whole.  Some of the worst crowds I have ever perform in front of are crowds that got in for free.  They see no value in it so they don’t care what they get out of it.  If a booker knows he can pay you $25 to feature, he is not thinking of your comedy as a valuable product.

People make fun of me because I am always trying to get more for my performance.  The reason I do that is because I feel like even though I am not a big comedian or famous, my time and my comedy are worth something, at least more than what others are getting.  I know I am not going to raise the amount everyone gets paid because it is only me looking for more pay, but it does add value to my comedy.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to make it seem like while others get $100 I get 400, but I try to make sure I am getting what I am comfortable with so that after I am done paying for expenses, I have money for silly shit like bills and drones.  That is also the reason I have kinda moved away from mostly bar stuff to corporate stuff.  I can get paid what I am comfortable with and I don’t have to drive all over the place.  Getting what you are worth is not greedy.  It’s just smart.

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.

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.