How to Survive a Comedy Competition

Comedy competitions are weird beasts.  You are asking people to evaluate you as a comedian on criteria that is totally subjective.  What one person thinks is a funny joke, another person may see as a stinker.  Competitions can be stressful and pit you against people you thought you liked.  It can also bring out the best…or worst in people.  I will help you survive this upcoming competition season.

I think it is important to know, going into a competition, that losing doesn’t mean you are not funny, or a comedian, it just means through the process of elimination, you were not good enough to defeat people who were also being judged subjectively. Another thing that you MUST NOT do, is walk into a competition already counting the money.  This is putting the cart before the horse!  You still have the actually competition to go through, and you have already put yourself in such a corner.  Don’t think about the money or the prizes just yet.  Think about your performance.

A lot of people think there are prime spots in the line up that can increase your chances of winning.  I am here to tell you that is false.  Going first is not a death sentence and going up last doesn’t mean you are perceived to be the headliner.  It all depends on the comedian.  In competitions I have participated in, I have gone first many times and I have won, and lost.  It has nothing to do with your order and how the audience or judges perceive your order in the show.  It has more to do with how the audience and judges are feeling.  Did the show start on time?  Did the host do a decent set? Is it hot or cold in the building?  These have more to do with how a judge will perceive you then the order in which you are.  If anything, going first would be a great advantage.  You are the first comedian so you set the tone.  If you come out and light a fire under the audiences’ ass, then that can play with the rest of the comedians’ heads.   Going up last can have the opposite!  What if all the other comedians have done really well and now you go last?  There is no way to tell, so don’t worry yourself about the order.

Competitions are graded in different areas.  Some just leave it up to who’s friends can yell the loudest.  Some just pick random audience members and then others like to use a panel to do the judging.  I have personally competed in all of these types and I will tell you that the one that is the least scientific (for lack of a better word) is the audience response.  It is hard to judge who got more noise slung after their name was read.  I have seen people so butt hurt over this and I can see being competitive, but it isn’t worth it.  Just bring more friends next time.  Random audience members come next and they are better than just yelling, but not by much.  You don’t know if the person that was given the task of judging has ever been to a comedy show before.  This type of judging can be most influenced by biases.  The best type of judging in my opinion is the panel.  These people have usually been briefed on how to judge and because they are there to do that, they have a tendency to take it seriously.  When you just leave it to any old audience member, they may have gone out to smoke, or they have a tiny bladder meaning they miss parts of the show.  There are variants of all of these. Like some competitions have all the audience members judge.  This is better because the odds are better that a comedian hasn’t filled the ENTIRE room with just their friends or family.

Comedy competitions should be fun!  There is money or work at stake, but you should be walking into it thinking of what it can teach you about yourself as a comedian.  Do you go over time a lot? Well, competitions will cure that right up! Do you have jokes with way too many words in them?  That will disappear soon!  Do you spend the first 30 seconds asking the audience how they are doing? You will see how redundant that is at a competition.  Some comedians are not built for competitions.  Do you tell big epic stories?  It is tougher for you because you’re stuck on one thing for the entire allotted time. Do you have a dryer sense of humor?  That is tough because it may take awhile to get them accustomed to your way of joke slinging. If you are a nervous Nancy (sorry Nancy) and it takes awhile to shed that when you are up there, then competitions will only magnify this.  These are just my opinions from what I have witness.  There are exceptions to everything.

I can not end an article (or blog post if you must) about comedy competitions and not talk about some things.  If you are thinking that the best way to advance your career is to do competitions, then you will soon see that it is not.  They can be expensive and time consuming, and there is only a payout to a select few.  I performed in both the Seattle and San Francisco comedy competitions, placing 6th and 7th respectively.  All told, I spent about three grand and received about two grand in prize money.  I was able to afford it, not everyone can. Don’t go broke thinking that winning a comedy competition will put you in a spot to make more money.  That is all up to you as a person.  Some of the best comedians in the world apply to these competitions, and you have to be aware that you may end up on the losing end more times than not.  That’s even if you get accepted.  Competitions are looking for the best, but they are also looking to create a great show for people to see.  If you have been doing it four years, understand that it is harder to get in than someone that has been doing it ten and has done other competitions, and has a lot of credits to their name.

Have fun and be nice to all the competitors.  These guys are you competition today, but may be a booker tomorrow.

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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.

Comedy and Your Significant Other

Comedy is a tough beast.  It’s even tougher when you are in a relationship.  I know comedians that have been with their spouse for decades and I know comedians that are on spouse three or four. This article will discuss ways to at least attempt to have a successful relationship.  I am not a marriage counselor so if you and your love are having issues, please seek one out.  I am just a guy that has seen and been through stuff.

I think it is important to sit your significant other down and have a discussion.  Let them know what to expect.  If you are a person that isn’t pursuing comedy that hard, then just let them know that it is a hobby of yours and you will be out on certain days.  If this is your dream and you are chasing it hard, you have to set them up for a lot of stuff.  It’s important to let them know what comedy entails. We as comedians, just assume that everyone knows what we do.  They don’t.  A lot of the time, laymen assume we walk on stage and just produce these organic dick jokes.  This is why you have to approach your mate, and tell them the truth, those dick jokes take a lot of writing and performing.  That means late nights at comedy clubs and bars.  It seems like a no brainier, but I can tell you of many instances where comedians were surprised that their lover didn’t know what dating a comedian meant.  If you are actually performing and making money, you have to let them know that the pay is low and the travel is aplenty (at least over on the west side of the country).  What this does is prime them.  They can then make the decision to continue a relationship with you if it means that you may not be around a lot.

Another big thing, I feel, is letting them know comedy show etiquette.  I have seen comedians come in with their spouse and they will raid the green room of all the consumables.  You have to be the one to tell them how to act (not everyone was raised right).  You should tell them that just because you are on stage or on the show, that they should not be causing a disruption to the show.  That free booze for you, the comedian, does not usually extend to free booze for your significant other as well.  I haven’t had an issue with this.  I have had an issue where my girlfriend at the time thought it was weird that I was in the green room before the show instead of chilling out in the audience with her.  What I did, was I sat her down, and told her that it may seem like I am making things up as I go, but I have actually plotted the course for the show (sometimes, I never said I was a great comedian), and I need the time to gather these thoughts.  See to your love one, it may be a night out, but to you it is your job.  Letting them know how you work before a show also keeps them from thinking that you get weird whenever you are about to perform.  Some comedians can just hang out right until they have to get up on stage.  Some need to be in a pit and raised by a series of ropes and pulleys unto the stage. Whatever it is let them know.

I travel a lot as a comedian, and I think a lot of people can not handle this aspect of comedy life.  You have to know if your mate is fine with being alone a lot of weekends out of the year.  Social media also gets in the way a lot as well.  If they can not handle you having your photo taken with a bunch of random people then you may need to go your separate ways.  I was dating one young lady that assumed I was just a party animal.  I am not, but if people pay to see you sling dick jokes, you better at least appreciate them.  So, when she saw a photo of me and some lady smiling, she assumed it was something nefarious when all it was was someone who gave me 10 bucks for a CD that they were probably never going to play.

Comedians are weird creatures.  We have a weird sense of humor and we tend to analyze a lot.  That is our make up.  If your significant other can’t handle these things, then it may be best for you two to call it.  I have told every lady I have been in a relationship with since starting comedy, that this is my first love.  I love writing and performing and since I do it to pay the bills, they have to understand that I will not cancel a show because it is on a Saturday and we were going to go to the beach, or because it’s your grandparent’s anniversary.  If you are going to treat it like a job then that means you may not be there for everything.  Being open and clear is the best way to have a happy, healthy relationship…I should have just written that instead of all this.

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.

Comedic Styles: The Clean Comedian

We will continue our series on comedic styles with the clean comedian.  Some would probably say this isn’t a style, but I think it is.  Being a clean comedian or telling “clean” material is about more than just not cursing.  A lot of people associate this type of comedy (or they used to) with the boring comedian that tells jokes in front of a conference room full of people.  That stigma has changed in recent years because of comedians like Brain Regan and the fact that writing clean comedy is the fastest way to get on network TV, which leads to possibly getting booked in comedy clubs. So without further ado… let’s get into it!

Pros:

The ability to perform anywhere.  No one has ever kicked a “clean” comedian off the lineup (unless they are just not good).  You have the ability to perform in all group settings, so if there is a mixed aged audience (like with children) you will not worry anyone with your presence.

The ability to quickly advance.  If you are a clean comedian, you have that ability to work as a host much sooner because you won’t turn the crowd as quickly as someone that may be little more coarse. This is great if you are trying to get into clubs.

The ability to make more money as a corporate comedian or maybe on cruise ships.  There is so much money out there for a comedian that works clean!  If you can show promoters that you have quality clean material, you can book these gigs that my not be on the radar of people looking to get into clubs, but pays way better.

Cons:

Bar shows can be hard.  A rowdy bar may not pay attention to the clean guy if he doesn’t have a couple of jokes that can get their faces out of their beer.

Depending on you joke writing talent, writing clean material can be harder.  Not saying that curse words or dicks are essential to making a joke, you may not be digging deep enough into you mind to find material that can work out as clean.

I think every comedian should have a clean set.  Whether that means pulling curses and the more lewd details out of your existing jokes, or writing an entirely new set of jokes just for those cases, I think if you are trying to get work as a comedian, you should be as flexible as possible when it comes to your content.  When I am booking a corporate show, it is much harder to suggest comedians that I know are funny, but can’t do solid clean time.  If you don’t care about paying your rent with comedy then that is cool.  I don’t want you to sacrifice your beliefs just for money, but isn’t it cool to be able to get paid doing something you love?

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.