Pushing Through No

People are always trying to find out what the difference is between them and their favorite comedians.  I hear it a lot when talking to comedians and they wonder why they have been doing it for five years and still hosting, but some guy they saw on TV has been doing it just as long and…well, they are on TV.  I have written before about the ways these guys are different.  Today I am going to write about one way that stops many people, including me at times, and that is “no”.

See, what separates us from most of the comedians, actors, and singers you see is that they don’t take no as a final answer.  No is more of a stop gap than anything.  If you are a comedian reading this, think of the times you have been told no (in one way or another).  The local booker doesn’t reply to your emails.  Clubs don’t want you for anything other than hosting.  Your family thinks its a phase.  Instead of just letting that get to them and keep them from progressing, these people are pushing.  Why?  Because they know that no isn’t the end all be all!  That is just one person, controlling a small bubble of the comedy landscape.  So instead of letting it eat them alive, they push on past that person and go to another, and another, and another, until they get to the next step in their career.

It is not easy to do this.  If it was, I wouldn’t be at an open mic right now writing this.  When I first started trying to branch out, hearing no from someone would obliterate my self-esteem.  Now, it is just part of the process.  This is the way this industry runs.  Is it fair?  No, but the way I see it is like this:  Everyone is trying to either maintain or make more money and gain prestige.  If they just allowed anyone in that could hurt that without making absolutely sure they could at least keep the status quo, then that means loosing a room, or a valuable client.

Ok.  So you’ve read all that and you think that you are one yes from being Tom Segura.  Wait.  Not letting “no” stop you is just one part of a whole.  You still have to write you ass off and get on stages and maintain relationships with people.  Every comedian out there has another comedian or booker or someone believe in them and help them and you need that as well, just don’t let disappointments get you down.

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Dealing with Depression As a Comedian

I have been dealing with depression since my military days, and it has taken me many years and many ups and downs, to come to terms with it and live with it effectively.  My strategies and experiences will differ from many of course.  All I am trying to do is give insight into how I deal with this and how it has, and continues to affect, my comedy.

What some people get wrong about depression is that they think that the only way to feel depressed is to have either a rotten life or something bad happen.  Most of the time, for me at least, it just hits.  I will be doing well, and then all of a sudden a curtain comes down and I don’t feel as well as I did.  Sometimes I will go to bed happy as hell, and I will wake up feeling miserable and not wanting to get out of bed.  Things that I had planned I just sort of push to the side and even things that I like to do (like photography and video games) I will forgo so I can just curl up.  Its not just feelings though.  Sometimes I will be more tired than I usually am.  I will go to bed earlier and stay in bed later.  As you can see this can have an effect on a comedian.

Don’t get me wrong, depression can make any profession tough to pursue, but comedy is a crazy one because everything else is always moving.  Here is an analogy:  If you have been to an airport, they have those conveyor belt like things on the floor that will just take you down the walkway.  Well, that is most comedians.  They are doing shows, and networking and pushing to get more shows and get more recognition.  Then you have the people that are just walking normally.  Those are the hobbyist or the slackers.  They are moving, just much slower.  Then you have the person curled up in the middle of all this.  Using their luggage as a really uncomfortable pillow.  That is how I feel.  Depression can creep into every aspect of your comedy career.  It makes you not want to chase the club spots because your mind is flooded with thoughts of what’s the use.  It makes you not keep up with opportunities that most people would gobble up.  Projects get delayed or outright canned.  And that is before you have written a joke!  Depression can affect your comedy on stage in a variety of ways.  It may sap your confidence to try that new joke.  It can keep you from really selling a joke to make sure it works, or it can keep you from even getting out to work on your material all together.

Over the years, I have come up with ways (with help from professionals of course) to deal with my depression.  One of the biggest things I try to do is when that cloud finally lifts, I make sure I get as much done as possible.  I do this because I know that cloud will come back and hold back my progress, and since I don’t know when it will hit again, I have to make sure I get stuff taken care of.  That means once I feel better I hit up all these bookers and promoters and I contact people that are doing stuff and I try to book myself up.  That way I don’t fall into an even deeper depression when I am down and on top of that, I have no shows on the calendar because of it.  I try to keep things consistent in my life.  So, I try to hit a couple of open mics a week and stick to it, so when I am down it is such a habit I can barely break from it (I do more often leave earlier when I am depressed then when I am not though).  I try to talk to, and hang out with, people that bring positive vibes in my life.  So, my kid and my girlfriend, and a couple comedians that always make me laugh (I don’t want to say their names because the ones that don’t will probably feel bad). When I am depressed and I have a show, I try to stick with jokes that even depression can’t convince me isn’t funny.  I had a show this past week and just getting up on stage kind of pumped me with enough feel good juice that I forgot about everything for an hour.  That maybe why I have stuck with comedy for as long as I have because when I am feeling down, I can get on stage and turn my thoughts into jokes and it gets the adrenaline pumping (because I don’t know if it will work or not) to the point that I feel a bit better.

All I can do is tell you what I do to combat depression in my life.  One thing I don’t do is use alcohol and drugs, so I can’t tell you what that will do, but I do have friends that it has negatively affected.  Look into anti-depressants and try to have a network of people that give a shit about you.  Comedy is my drug, and even depression can keep me from pursuing that fully.  It has affected my career.  It has kept me from traveling and networking as much as I should.  It keeps me from applying to things that could help my career.  Only when I am feeling better do I look and see the opportunities missed because of it. This blog has been affected by depression (that is why sometimes you will see a surge in articles from time to time).  I have to live with this as best as I can, and at the same time be the best comedian I can be.  It is hard, but with the right tools anyone can get through 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.

 

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.

 

Comedian Pet Peeves: The Third One

If you haven’t read the first one, or the second, you should check those out to see if I hit something that bothers you as a comedian.  Here are some more of not just my pet peeves, but a lot of comedians I have talked to over the years.

The Attention Whore:  We are talking about audience members with this first one.  This is the person that can’t stand that their friends are enjoying someone other than them.  They always thought they were the life of the party, but are too chicken shit to get on stage.  They will do any and everything to get inserted into the show even if it means making an ass of themselves.  They don’t care that they are embarrassing their friends because fuck their friends who suddenly paid money to hear this person tell jokes!

The No Notice Cancellation:  This sucks donkey balls.  This usually happens with bar shows where they either don’t give a damn about the entertainment, or the establishment caught the manager embezzling money and they are so busy with that they forgot to tell you they don’t have money to pay you.  It sucks more if you are trying to connect shows together so you don’t have to sleep in your car or call up that one night stand from three years ago, and beg to sleep in their garage.

Over Promisers: That may not be a word, but this is a thing.  Usually involves a promoter that has never promoted anything before.  They want you on their show because you are one of three comedians they know.  They say you will get a meal and a ton of money and a BJ, and 400 people said they were gonna show up.  You get there and there and only his family shows up, you get a lukewarm redbull as a meal and the BJ he promised was from is asthmatic aunt.  You have to blame yourself a little bit for this. You got suckered in by the promise of sexual favors and now you have to drive four hours back home.  At leas the redbull will keep you up.

The Promise Of Exposure: Can’t pay your rent or car payment with it, but people love to try to pay you with that.  I am not getting exposure from a bar in the remotes of South Dakota.  A talent scout isn’t coming to Medford Oregon. Some times it is a real possibility that something else will happen if you do the show, but mostly it won’t. People who ask you to work for exposure must have the largest assholes.  Only someone with that much shit in their lives can possibly think that exposure is this thing that artist eat up like Ramen noodles, which is what you will be eating a lot of if you keep doing all this work for exposure.

 

 

How Your Mind Can Sabotage Your Stand-up

Comedians are a curious bunch of people.  They stand on stage, usually by themselves, and say things that you would think they are totally confident in.  This can’t be further from the truth!  While a comedian is on stage, their minds take several fallacies to convince them that what they are doing, or want to do, is not worth it.

Let’s start at the beginning.  It takes a lot for comedians to just convince themselves that they are funny enough to get on stage.  A lot of us have to build up courage and talk ourselves into doing it.  That is why so many times you see drunk people on stage their first time.  They are trying to calm their nerves, but even more so, they are trying to drown the mind.  This is not the best way to go about it because you may end up thinking that is the only way you can get on stage, and that will lead to other issues.

Comedians love to go with what works.  So, if they find material that is getting laughs they may never want to put it away.  There are comedians out there still doing jokes that they wrote in the 90’s!  Why is that?  They have convinced themselves that there is nothing new that they can write that will get them laughs like what they are already doing.  This can become a big problem when their livelihood depends on it.  If you are not performing new material, bookers may see you as a stalled comedian and just stop booking you.

Sometimes we have to deal with what we want to do on stage.  Sometimes the jokes we wrote seem good, but we decide not to do it because we are sure that the people that are in the audience will not laugh at it.  I see this a lot with comedians that haven’t been doing it that long.  They have ten good minutes, but are sure that the audience doesn’t want to hear their new stuff.  This is when you have to be a performer and decide to take some risks.  The problem is that even then, subconsciously, we will wreck the joke by not selling it, or not doing the act outs, just so we can later say that we gave it a try and it isn’t working.  That is why I usually give myself a couple of times to perform a joke.  That way I can account for maybe not feeling well on stage, or me trying to sabotage myself.

Next week I will get into how we will mentally sabotage our careers.

 

Successfully Running Your Own Show

I have been involved in the running of shows in the Spokane area for about six months and from my experiences with that and my observations with other independently ran shows, I have seen what works and what doesn’t.  Here are some of those observations.

Everyone needs to be on board: If you are running a theme show or just a normal comedy show, everyone that is participating needs to on board with what you are trying to do.  If you are doing a show where you tell jokes and then dress like a dinosaur and then tell more jokes, you need everyone to be comfortable with putting on a dinosaur outfit.

Promotion: If people don’t know you are doing a show about telling jokes dressed as a dinosaur, how are they gonna pay you to see you tell jokes in a dinosaur outfit.  This goes with the first point:  Get people on your show that are excited to do the show.  That way, they will want to let their fans know about it.  This also means that you as the show runner need to be on top of things.  That means getting flyers ready and the events made.  Comedy is filled with folks that just want to get up on stage in front of a sold out crowd, and not do the little things to ensure there is a sold out crowd.  Don’t book those people!  Book people that will work with you to make sure it is a success.  I don’t know how many times I have worked with someone that did no promotion for the show, but then sat there and wondered why the pay was low.  This does not apply to out of town comics because they may know less people in that area than comedians that work in that town.

Properly review the venue: I have helped put on shows that were not suited for the venue we had access too.  If you have hints that your show involving dressing like a dinosaur and telling jokes is gonna be a small event, then putting it in a 600 seat theater is not good.  You loose money and you give off the impression that it is not a success.  If you would have just locked up a nice place that had 70 seats and you sold 50, you look better, and you don’t have the extra cost involved with renting a large venue.  Make sure that the venue has a competent staff.  The last thing you want is to have a great show, but the bar didn’t make money because the staff was too slow.  Can they handle an influx of people?  If they can’t then you might have to look elsewhere.

Keep your promises:  If you promise to pay everyone a certain amount, then you better have the money to pay them!  Nothing kills your rep faster than telling people one thing and then doing another. Not ever will be in it just for the dinosaur suits. I would rather leave the show with no money in my pocket then to short change the performers and have them tell people that I can’t give them what we agreed upon.  The reason this is an issue is because most people that are putting on shows like this have high hopes that it will sell out and they can pay people well.  What I have learned is to expect the worse and be surprise if it turns out different.

Make it an event: Make it seem like this is the show that you want to see.  Make it seem as though those are the only dinosaur costumes in the state and they will be set ablaze after the show.  You have to SELL the show!  If you are not excited about it, then why should someone that has to pay five bucks to get in?  Sometimes you have to put your modesty to bed and pull out your inner cheerleader and pom pom the shit out of your show.  The best promoters make their monthly shows seem like events that will rock the town to its core.  That is what you want.

I hope this helps.  I am not an expert promoter at all.  I just observe and see what works best and what doesn’t.  The biggest take away is that if you want to run your own shows you have to treat it like if you don’t make it a success, they will take your kidney.