How to get from MC to feature…

A lot of comics agree that the toughest leap to make is from going from MC to feature at comedy clubs.  Granted, there are a few who were “blessed” enough to get there in the first year or two. (Please refrain from pointing out how quickly you were able to do it in the comments section on here or Facebook, good for you.)  It took me around six years, but by the time I did, I actually had a feature-length set (25-30 minutes) of feature-caliber material.  A lot of comics make the mistake of thinking that having a half-hour of material makes them a potential feature act.  In St. Louis, I think the community who works the clubs knows better than to be delusional about this.

So why can’t you get past MCing?  In some clubs, a good MC is hard to find.  If they’re comfortable using you as an MC, and there’s a healthy supply of other features, you’re pigeon-holed.  Venture out to other clubs around the state or region.  Here’s the mistake I made while doing that.  I labeled myself as an MC at these other clubs.  I would have great guest sets and then “proudly” stated how I MCed for all these big names at the Columbus Funnybone which did nothing but backfire.  Remember, your home club is the usually the last one to promote you.  If you truly believe you’re ready to feature, then sell yourself as one to clubs who don’t know any different.

If you’ve been in comedy for over 18 months, your writing has definitely improved.  Ask an experienced comedy peer which bits/jokes you should get rid of.  Sometimes it can be one or two stupid jokes that you consider reliable that are actually holding you back.  I’ve heard managers and bookers even say, “Yeah, so-and-so is okay, but they’ve got that stupid joke about…”  Find out what you need to drop, and then work hard fill it with something better.

Along those same lines of jokes, maybe your material needs to grow up some.  Clubs make a lot of their sales on date night which is the first show on Saturday.  Have your jokes evolved past your mid-20’s so that married couples in their 40’s or 50’s can relate?  They don’t have to be cleaner, but it doesn’t hurt to class your set up a bit.  We get it, you’re single and you smoke pot. Older married folks aren’t and don’t.

So how do you even get a chance to do a longer set?  Probably the easiest way is to organize your own show at a local bar with a promise to fill some seats.  Whether you can get much of a crowd or not, it at least shows you what it feels like to be on stage that long. The second best way is to talk to a comic who does mostly one-nighters and ask him or her if you can feature for them sometime (offer to drive!).  They might be able to arrange it as many of them book their own shows at bars.  Finally, look at the calendars of some of the smaller comedy clubs.  If their headliners are comics who normally feature, there’s a chance that they’re a low-paying club who can’t afford the average headliner.  They probably don’t pay well for features either, but that means they aren’t as picky.  You’ll get your first shot at a club like that.  Mine involved a club that is notorious for having the worst condo in the country, had me do 6 nights of shows (including a midnight show on Saturday), and paid me $300 for the week.  However, the stage time I racked up that week was well worth it.

For more tips on making money in stand-up comedy, check out Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage on Amazon (paperback), Kindle, iTunes, Nook, or just about any other e-format.

5 traits headliners look for in an opener…

Lately I’ve been booking fellow St. Louis comic, Nathan Ortan, to open for me at various one-nighters.  Opening for me is no great honor, but what I look for when I ask someone to work with me translates to others as well.  One-nighter gigs are often good money, especially when they’re local and don’t drain your gas tank, plus they make you a better comic which is explained in my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  They can be quite different than working in a comedy club.  So here are the reasons I can count on Nathan to be a solid opener for me.

1.  He can get there on his own.  I text him the address, he uses technology we’ve had for over a half-decade, and confirms the location with me the day of the gig along with the time.  Most importantly, he has a vehicle that will get him there and back.  He shows up on time every time.

2.  He can clean it up and limit crowd work.  This isn’t always a must, but recently Nathan did 10-15 minutes without disgusting or offending the crowd.  Nathan usually works with very little crowd interaction which is appropriate for short sets up front.

3.  He realizes the crowd is going to suck but still works through it.  There is no tougher spot than opening a show in a room that isn’t expecting comedy.  Usually they’re not seated, listening, or even facing the stage.  The introduction you get is awful and the sound system is even worse.  This happened and Nathan didn’t complain once.  Afterwards he was positive and thanked me for the experience and compared it to comedy weight-lifting.  Each one of these hell gigs gets a little better as you get used to them.

4.  As mentioned in #3, he’s thankful.

5.  He wears appropriate attire.  At a recent gig we did, I texted him that jeans weren’t allowed because it was at a country club.  No problem.  (No, he didn’t wear shorts either.)  Be sure you can clean yourself up and wear bigboy outfits when the time comes.

Note:  I’ve had a lot of other great openers as well who also were good examples of the above (this post wasn’t to suggest that any of them weren’t).

For more tips on how to make money in comedy, check out Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage on Amazon, iTunes, Kindle, Nook, etc.

What’s the Deal with Young Crowds?

Because you needed another opinion on the whole Seinfeld thing, right?  This is kinda about that, but at a different angle.  Two weeks ago I performed at the Valley Park Funnybone.  It’s summer and it’s not the busiest club, but we had around 35 for the second show Friday.  It was by far the youngest crowd of the week.  That club typically has a demographic of 30’s-50’s and it’s a good room for laughs–pretty typical.  However, the show I mention on Friday was 80% under 30 and the “edgy” jokes in my set (my friends who know them roll their eyes) that got laughs all week, received a different response:  “Oooohh’s” and such.  So is this a sign that they’re too PC and a bad crowd?  Here’s my take on it…


As comics, we like laughs.  Laugh at us and then you can even applaud should everyone deem it appropriate.  The younger generation just makes a different noise.  Those “Ooohhh’s” that you hear aren’t as bad as you think.  The studio audience for Tosh.0 does the same thing.  Does that mean they don’t like the joke?  Of course not, they’re his fans and they know exactly what they’re getting there.

I once read that laughter is a very strong and primitive form of communication with the other person.  It tells them, “I connect with you.”  What’s happened is that these young moaners and groaners are trying to tell us that same message, but with a different sound or expression.  If a crowd really doesn’t like your joke, more likely than not they’ll let out a little gasp and quietly look to the faces of the people at their table.  For proof of this, watch what happens at open mic when a rookie tries to pull off something edgy and it comes off completely racist.  They don’t even give the performer the courtesy of the moan most times because that would subconsciously suggest that they’ve connected with them.

When you get groans (which are as contagious as laughter among audience members), you’re at least getting a response.  It’s just throwing us comics off because we’re used to the traditional laugh.  Groaning and “ooooohhhh’s” have climbed their way into our natural responses.  People have this as a new way of responding that they’re shocked by something.  It happens in other forms of entertainment as well.  Watch old highlights of Dr. J dunking on people.  Now watch modern clips of LeBron.  The responses from the fans and players are completely different thirty-some years later.  Today’s players have a completely body language which says, “I’m surprised and impressed by what just happened,” than those from Dr. J’s time.

I’m like you in that I’ll admit that I get frustrated when I don’t get the traditional laugh, but those same people who moaned and groaned at my jokes during that late show did nothing by compliment my set on their way out afterwards.

Oh, and as far as why college kids suck as audience members?  It’s very simple.  They can’t put their cellphones away.

For more advice on stand-up comedy please check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage on Amazon (paperback), Kindle, Nook, iTunes, etc.).

Should you cancel another gig for a better one?

Obviously it’s not a good idea, but what if you have a one-nighter booked and you’re offered a week on top of that?  In St. Louis we usually have the luxury of having someone cover us for a show, but in a different town you probably don’t.  It’s best just to say you can’t do the week.  Bookers understand and it shows them that you’re a working comic.  They hate it when comics back out on them, so they shouldn’t hold it against you.  You should be offered another week in the future if you have to say no.  Just like when you send avails, you want to show them you’re busy and at least somewhat in demand.

Here’s what else can happen–you cancel one gig for a “better” one, and then the new one gets canceled and now you’re out both gigs.

So when should you?  Consider what’s going to lead to a better future.  Will it affect future working opportunities?  Are you willing to burn a bridge with whoever you’re canceling on?  99% of the time it just isn’t worth it.  If it’s a working comic taking you on the road with him or her it might be considered a wise choice because it will ultimately result in a lot more work.  Just be sure.

Some comics swear by never canceling.  This is probably the best way to go, but if you’re financially pressed or have the opportunity of a lifetime, it’s hard not to.  Big names do it often, but they’re benefited by the club needing them more than they need the club.  There have been a lot of big-named headliners who I was supposed to open for who canceled for TV appearances, etc.  (The biggest being Jim Gaffigan back in ’03.)  They have that luxury, most of us don’t.

So when the temptation comes, don’t cancel a gig for another one.  It’s easy to get a bad reputation for this.  Give the booker other available dates and be persistent on following up to get a different date.

For other tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage (available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Nook, Kobo, etc.).

Off topic but not really…

As comics most of us have a reason we’re a comedian.  It has to do a lot more than because we’re funny.  It often stems from something negative.  Over the years I’ve worked with and met a lot of dysfunctional comics who cheat themselves due to whatever misery they’ve had to deal with.  Here’s how I avoided that…

The “Final Exam of Comedy” Gig

Last Saturday I worked one of the toughest gigs of my career.  It wasn’t in an unruly bar where bottles were being tossed or in an urban room after following a great high-energy urban comic; it was a rather innocent sounding fundraiser for a local school district.  In fact, nearly half of the crowd was either a teacher or working in the education field I was told.  I’m a language arts teacher and a good chunk of my act is about the classroom.  There were around 150 120 there when I got on stage.

I call this the final exam of comedy because it took almost every aspect of things I’ve learned in my total of 15 years performing to pull off what I felt was a good set.  So much of what I’ve blogged about on here or written in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage came up, that it felt just like a test.

As mentioned before, the risk of these fundraisers (though they pay well) is that they don’t know how to run a comedy show.  The MC has no idea how to host and the room is never properly set up.  If I made a mistake, it was not getting more involved with the setup, but then again, is that really my job? (it’s up to you, you get paid either way.)  I got there a half hour early and the crowd was eating a buffet.  My feature act arrived too and we asked about what was acceptable as far as content.  Though she answered us, if you think about it, a woman in charge of fundraising does not know what’s honestly acceptable.  The crowd determines that.  She told us, PG-13 and don’t drop the F-bomb over and over.  “They’re all adults, so they should be fine.”

Should be, but weren’t.  I noticed the bar wasn’t really busy at all and a lot of the crowd’s makeup was older women who were very concerned about the silent auctions going off to the side.  So my first thought was about which jokes I needed to edit out of my 45 minutes.

The room setup was awful.  There was a large stage, but there was a lot of house lighting (on the buffet and gift baskets) so I asked her about dimming the house lights which she was able to do.  The biggest problem was that the tables on the right and left side of the room had about a 30-foot gap between them leaving the center of the room, where everyone could’ve fit, completely empty.  None of the tables on stage right or left were very close either.

Here’s the most relate-able and common problem with one-nighters:  The MC has no idea how to run a comedy show.  He was nice, but he dropped the ball numerous times.  Assume your MC knows nothing at every one of these gigs.  Explain things to him in the most dumbed down way you can.  We gave him our most simplistic intros.  Clubs and college, yada yada, and explained that no one really cares about intro credentials so please just bring us up.  He interpreted that (as many have) as beginning with our names, stumbling through our full bios that he got online, and then “Here he is.”

I brought my sacrificial lamb buddy to do 15 minutes ahead of me.  Always bring an opener!  They serve as a sound check and a buffer for all of the other things that need to be corrected.  I suffered through the years of this role, performing to bars with the lights/TV still on, feedback from hot mics, crowds not listening, etc.  The MC was supposed to wrap up the silent auction and then bring up my opener.  Guess which order he picked to do that in?  So as my feature began his set, a bunch of soon to be retired librarians and school teachers battled it out for the Bath and Body Works gift baskets.  When a good chunk of the room isn’t listening, those who are seated assume that they don’t need to listen and that pretty much wipes out a set.

The MC went back up and finally closed the stupid auction and then announced the 50/50 raffle which would be taking place right in front of the stage…”And now for your next comic…”

This is where it’s okay to step in and own your show.  I told him, “No, you need to let them finish their sales, and THEN I’ll perform.”  He honestly was going to let it go on with people talking right in front of the stage.   I repeat:  Assume the MC knows nothing in most places because it’s often true.  The DJ even dimmed more lighting and played two songs to which a few of the “I gotta dance” girls came up and shook for those 6 minutes.  In a firm, professional manner I explained what I needed him to do and what the room needed to do for a successful show.

Once I got on stage, I did the usual local humor, made fun of the venue, etc. and then went into material…clean, PC material.  I tried a little crowd work and the guy said he knew me from my ex-girlfriend of 9 years ago, so that got a few cheap laughs, but overall it was a successful set.  I made sure not to comment if a joke didn’t do as well, and I didn’t turn on them if they groaned.  It honestly was my best effort for a full set.  Just 2 or 3 years ago this kind of situation would’ve led to me bombing.  It shows that through on and off stage experience you can make the best of a challenging situation.  Some comics have the attitude of, “Well I get paid either way,” but honestly, who wants to be in a poor setup for 45 to an hour?  Plus it leads to better merch sales.  I chatted with the bartender (always a great barometer for what kind of crowd you’ll have) and she took my card for an upcoming gig she was hoping to book me for.  That’s another reason your attitude should be to always do your best no matter the situation.

Years ago (2007), an important booker declined to use me because he said I wasn’t 100% likable even during the tough gigs.  He needed someone who could do well even in a bad room.  I can honestly say I’m at that point (finally).  For a one-nighter it’s not just about what you say and do on stage–getting a show to run properly can be an even bigger difference.

For more advice on how to make money in stand-up comedy, try reading Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage via Amazon or any ebook format (Kindle, iTunes, Nook, etc.)

How do I get into new clubs without being someone’s opener?

The best and easiest way to get into a new club is to feature for a headliner they know and trust.  Here’s the thing, if you’re a strong feature act, a lot of headliners aren’t going to want to follow you night after night.  Yes, the great ones with large draws have the courage and ability to do so, but think back to how many not-so-great features you’ve seen open for big-name headliners who are more famous than funny?  What I’m saying is don’t feel bad if no one ever takes you on their tour.

Going to a club’s open mic night often doesn’t help much either.  If it’s a bigger room, the manager/booker isn’t there scouting new talent (Hell, you may not even get on the list!)  If he/she is on location, they’re probably taking care of paperwork in the office.  Your goal should be to try and get a guest set during one of their actual shows.  Since the economy (and comedy club) crash of ’07, it’s rare to find a room that has shows Wednesday-Sunday (Some clubs used to even do Tuesday-Sunday).  Your best bet is to aim for Thursday or Sunday night if they’re open on those evenings.  If it’s a struggling weekend-only club, you can do a spot on a show, but probably the late one with less people.  This is where your networking with headliners can be beneficial.  Check out a club’s schedule, see who you know on it, and if they respect your act, ask them about doing a guest set during the week.  If they respect your act, they’ll do what they can to get you on stage.  If not, their effort will be slightly lower or they’ll make an excuse about it.  To feel this out, start by asking them if they’ll give you the manager/booker’s email address.  If they offer more help than that, you’re in good shape.  Do this around a week or so out.  Don’t try to book a guest set 4 months ahead of time; that shows an empty calendar.  It always helps to phrase your email to make it sound like you’re on your way to or from another paid gig.

If you don’t know a headliner on their upcoming schedule, call the ticket office or find an email address on the webpage and start this process half a week earlier.

Having a great guest set does not guarantee any sort of work.  You’ll be lucky if the right person even sees it.  The key is hanging out afterward (OVER-TIP), being remembered as a normal person (not one of those random weirdos with no social skills), and then doing another guest set in the next month or so.  A lot of clubs have to know you as a person in order to leave a good impression on them.  It’s just like a regular job in that a lot of places don’t hire strangers.  Your second time around the manager is more likely to watch.

Even if you’re dirt poor, make it a goal to do at least one guest set a month outside of four hours from your home.  This is the financial sacrifice you have to be willing to make to get work at a new club.  So instead of buying all of those beers on open mic night, tacos on the way home, and video games, put it towards finding new work.  Club work can grow exponentially because that’s where you’re going to have better odds of working with helpful people (comics or club managers).  You also get a lot more stage time and can develop a rhythm while performing in the same setting every night.

I used to get so frustrated when I’d drive for hours to do an open mic and they’d put me up first before most of the crowd even got there, and then apologize afterwards.  “Sorry, I didn’t know you were an actual comic.  I wasn’t watching but I heard you did well.”

It’s really a tough process.  Getting into a new club can be as hard as landing a new job, but once you’re in, that club can really build you up as a comedian and who knows, maybe it’ll lead to you finally headlining some year.

For more on the entire process of going from your first open mic to surviving the road, please read my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  There are a few discounts on it right now via Amazon.  (Also available on Kindle, iTunes, Nook, Kobo, etc.)


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