Author Archives: Rob Durham

About Rob Durham

With an English Degree, three years as a doorman at the Columbus Funnybone, over a decade of stand-up experience, and a recent certification in teaching high school English class, writing a book seemed like the next inevitable step for Rob Durham. The son of a coach, Rob has an excellent ability to teach and explain things in the easiest and most direct way possible. His (often labeled ridiculous) memory allows him to think of every possible situation that a new comic might face because at one point he was there too. Rob gives an inside look at comedy that doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges every performer faces. Without ego and the myth that “anyone can do it” Rob gives the reader a true feel of what living the so-called dream feels like, from preparing for that first open mic night to touring the country.

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.)


Avoid these 5 comedy bio clichés…

Writing a bio is painful.  Yes, we often like attention but most comics wish they could just post a picture from their Instagram to serve as their bio.  “Look at me, I’m bacon.”  You want to be funny enough so that the reader chuckles a little bit, but you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard.  You know those headliners who give the MC an intro that includes a lame joke in it?  Avoid stuff like that.

You should at least try to write an original bio, so avoid these clichés that we’re all guilty of at some point in our career.

1.  Brutally honest–Pretty much all comedy is “brutally” honest.  You’re not George Carlin.  They’re still going to moan at your edgiest stuff despite your bio’s warning.

2.  He/she doesn’t normally refer to himself/herself in the third person.  You don’t want to seem pompous for writing in third person, but it’s part of the process.  Enough people have pointed out how awkward they feel.  Just pretend and the patrons who actually read these things will have no idea they’re your own words about you.

3.  Finalist in the 2007 Springfield Comedy Festival… Unless you’ve won anything recently in a city with over several million people, your credentials will get scoffed at.

4.  Quit his/her cushy day job to do comedy full-time… It’s amazing how many of us had “cushy” day jobs.  Like we were sitting in a cubicle with a massage chair making $80K a year building our 401K and stock portfolios while sipping bourbon like the cast of Mad Men.  Yes, many of us have put an end to our office jobs, but that’s usually because those jobs weren’t worth our sanity.  I think it’s just the word :cushy” and how many times I’ve read it over the years.  You’re not a hero.

5.  Young…  If you’re in your mid-30s you’re not young anymore.  Time to admit it to yourself and your headshot (writes the guy whose headshot turned 10 last month).

I’ll admit that my bio is far from perfect.  They’re hard to get right until you get to the level where you have management who writes them for you.  One last tip: When a booker asks you to send your bio and headshot, do it immediately.  This isn’t your high school term paper, it’s your career and they’re trying to promote it (think back to how on-the-ball you were at that cushy office job).

For more advice on how to write your comedy bio and other tips to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Nook, etc.


Headliners: Stop going over your time…

Depending on fame, experience, contracts, etc. either a headliner or the club manager determines the amount of time a headliner’s set will be.  Typically it’s 45-60 minutes.  The best shows at a comedy club are often first show Friday or Saturday.  If the headliner has established that they’ll do a longer set, the other acts’ times are reduced so that the show doesn’t go too long.  Personally, I don’t care when my time is cut all that much–especially on multi-show nights.  It allows me to condense my set into only the best material.  So yes, the headliner has paid his/her dues and deserves the right to name the time.

However…

When a headliner does more time than what he/she established with the club, it has a negative effect on others.

1.  In every comedy club, servers are told when the headliner is supposed to come off stage.  They then calculate when last call and the check drop will be.  When the headliner goes over, the servers can’t re-open tabs and print up new checks.  Instead, it makes them look like bad servers and can hurt their tips.

2.  When a crowd gets tired and their buzz starts to wear off, they’re less likely to buy merch on the way out.  This can hurt the headliner if they’re selling, but definitely the feature act who seems like a distant memory and needs that supplemental income.  A lot of people “crash” after drinking and a lot of times they don’t even make eye contact on their way out.

3.  Back to the staff–They have other jobs most of the time.  Maybe a kid at home, maybe a shift next morning.  Keeping them at work an extra 20-30 minutes is ignorantly cruel.  Do they need to suffer?  The fact that you’ve “paid your comedy dues” has nothing to do with them.  Can you imagine that desk job you gave up making you stay an extra 20-30 minutes because of someone’s ego?  Also, on multi-show nights, the people waiting to get in for the next show may not get their drinks on time because the whole club is playing catch-up.  Again, less tipping.

So here’s the deal headliners…If you need want to do more time, just let the manager know ahead of time.  This way the servers can squeeze in that extra round of drinks.  The MC can do 8 minutes instead of 15.  The feature can do 20 instead of 25-30.  Even though it’s your show, it’s not all about you.  If you need to do well over an hour, you’re good enough to book theaters.

For tips on how to how to make money in stand-up comedy.  Check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  Also available on Kindle, iTunes, Nook, etc.


What to do when you’re hosting and the headliner bails early…

This is a rare situation as headliners are often known for doing more than enough time, but occasionally one will abandon his or her set early.  It’s very rare at a one-nighter because it’s likely that the owner of the bar will greet them with, “Get your ass back up there or I’m not paying you.”  At a comedy club it can lead to a major problem…the checks haven’t been collected yet.

Granted, headliners should be able to look around the room and see when the servers are handling the checks, but sometimes they still bail.  It can even be on purpose because they’re not getting along with the club.  If there are 200 people at a show and a dozen checks are still out while the show ends, that sends the staff into a panic. So what should the MC do?

After giving everyone another round of applause, announce that you’re still aware that some of the checks are still out and the server will be right with you.  Do ALL of the announcements over from tipping to upcoming acts–really expand on the plugs.  If you didn’t cover birthdays or other celebrations earlier, get to those.  If you did cover them earlier and you’re out of announcements, do some crowd work with those people.  You pretty much have to take one for the team.  The manager won’t care how you’re doing up there, as long as the servers have time to collect everyone’s tab.  They’ll give you a light when that happens and then you can finally end the show.

Hosts normally don’t like to listen to the headliner every minute of every show.  If you’re sitting out at the bar waiting for the 45-minute mark, here are some clues that the headliner might bail early…

1.  It’s the first or last show of the week.

2.  They went way over their time in a previous show.

3.  They don’t get along with the club.

4.  They’re a big name known for something else other than stand-up comedy and haven’t paid their dues on the road.

5.  They’ve been bombing all week.

6.  They’re drunk.

For more tips on how to become a working comic, try reading Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage in paperback or ebook format (Kindle, Nook, iTunes, etc.).


3 tips for corporate Christmas parties

‘Tis the season It’s time to finally chip away at those credit card bills by booking a few corporate Christmas parties.  Not everyone can do these well as they’re very challenging.  If you’re headlining Christmas parties, you probably don’t need this blog.  If you’re an opener, follow these tips:

1.  Ask for a little more if a headliner asks you to open.  In other words, $100 or even $150 is probably way less than the close to $1000 they’re getting.  These gigs are challenging and you should be compensated for that.

2.  Stay clean and universal.  This month alone is the main reason to have a clean set in your notebook.  If you can establish to a headliner that you can work clean, the gigs will keep coming.  Also, during a work party, a lot of people won’t laugh at something they think will offend their boss or coworkers.  It’s not just material about sex–talking about politics, homosexuality, race, religion or anything edgy is going to make them feel uncomfortable.  Even if it works at every other show during the year, this crowd will be tougher.  If you can, write some quick local humor.  Stay away from making fun of the boss.  Save crowd work like that for the headliner.

3.  Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go well.  It probably won’t.  That’s why headliners set such high prices for these. They’re almost secretly hoping it’s declined.  You were brought to break the ice for them, not to kill.  The conditions you’ll perform in are often the furthest thing from a comedy club.  The headliner will understand this and appreciate you being the sacrificial lamb.  If you do somehow do well, great!

I wrote about several of these experiences in my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage including the time I did a noon gig in a break room with no mic for $50 (there are at least 4 things wrong with that booking).  It also discusses how to handle a lot of other types of shows you’ll perform at over the years.  Today is cyber Monday, so pick one up on Amazon, iTunes, Nook, Kindle, etc.


5 things to tell your friends at your open mic

If you can get your friends to come watch an open mic night, that usually helps you and the show quite a bit.  At a lot of clubs you have to bring friends (usually 5) just to get on the show.  Other clubs understand that part of the reason you’re a comic is because you don’t have a lot of pals.  While friends always mean well, unfortunately they can do a lot of damage to your reputation, so it’s important to talk to them ahead of time about a few things.

1.  This isn’t the music industry.  They don’t need to worry about promoting you and talking you up ahead of time.  You’re not ready to be promoted yet, so tell them they can relax and…

2.  Enjoy the whole show.  Even if it’s a contest, they should laugh for everyone they enjoy.  No comic wants to win a contest that he or she doesn’t deserve to win.  Usually it’s just open mic night, so there’s no contest at all.  The better the other acts are doing, the more energy and show momentum you’ll have from the crowd during your set.  Stay the whole time.

3.  Do not complain about anything.  Did you order a margarita and get a rum and Coke?  Too bad, suck it down and like it.  Let this be a small metaphor for the showbiz industry that your comic buddy is about to take on.  And tip, a lot, obviously.

4.  Wait until after the show to talk with you about your set.  There’s nothing worse than when a group of ten sees their buddy do well and then feels the need to hold a congratulatory meeting right there in the show room.  Or, sometimes half the crowd will go out to talk with him/her at the bar leaving a void in the audience.

5.  Friends have the potential to ruin your future at this venue or others.  Think about that.  If they get too drunk/stupid and the staff connects your friends with you, it can get you left off of the list in upcoming shows.  A lot of this goes back to #3.

For other tips on how to survive and eventually make money in the comedy industry, order my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  (Available on Kindle, Nook, iTunes, and in paperback as well.)


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