If you gave an open mic comic and a headliner the same joke in front of the same crowd, the headliner would be able to perform it much better using almost exactly the same words. The difference is this: A headliner will say the same words in a funnier way. (Saying funny words is not the same as saying words funny.) To do that, you need to show the audience what’s happening instead of telling them. I’ll use an old bit of mine as an example (it’s not gold, thus I’ve dropped it, but it works for the point I’m making).
Telling: I walked into the bedroom the other night and my wife had the space heater and the ceiling fan on at the same time. What is she thinking? That’s a warm front and a cold front, she’s going to start a tornado!
Showing: I walked into the bedroom the other night and my wife had the space heater and the ceiling fan on at the same time. “What are you thinking?! That’s a warm front and a cold front, you’re going to start a tornado!”
When I originally ran this bit by my wife years ago, she told me it wasn’t funny. She’s right because it’s not, on paper. Yet, I was determined to show her I could get laughs with it and I did. Here’s how:
In the 2nd example, I address my wife as if she’s there, thus putting the audience in the scene with me. They’re more connected to my point of view and emotion. It’s also a lot easier to add more energy and emphasis to the punchline. Also, I would point down and then up for the space heater and ceiling fan, adding to the visual.
It’s the difference between telling and showing/performing. When you show the joke you can perform with real emotion. It doesn’t need to be an angry rant to have energy. Anger is easy to show, but you can add goofiness, fear, confusion or anything else depending on the context. You don’t need to be a theater major to portray any of these emotions.
Odds are you’re already doing this in some of your best material. That’s the difference, you’re putting the audience in the scene with you and letting them witness whatever it is first hand. This is part of the margin between beginner and more advanced bits.
Next, find a way to make your setups shorter and funnier. Is there a one-liner you use elsewhere that you could include here instead? If not, skip the setup (especially if it’s asking the audience if they’ve heard about or are interested in whatever the topic is). For the above joke I set it up this way. “We have a hard time agreeing on bedroom temperature. Especially during those 3 days we refer to as “spring.” (Yes, a cheap weather joke, but people can relate because we never get spring in the Midwest, so they laugh.)
Finally, tag lines. The best tags often come from other comedians’ suggestions so be willing to listen. We all need a little help. See if there’s a tagline that relates to a previous joke and make it a callback. For the example joke I never did have a great tag, thus it’s not in my headliner set anymore. Instead, I had another bit about other arguments we’ve had.
It’s really that simple. At the next open mic, watch the comics who headline and notice the difference from showing vs. telling (by the less experienced comics). You’ll also get much closer to finding your “comedy voice” because it makes you use your own emotion rather than that same dry, uptalk delivery 75% of open mic comics use today.
I’d like to add that I’m considering writing Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage 2.0. It would have a different format, and while a lot of the information would be the same. This would also include a lot of updates on things I’ve learned since publishing the original book in December of 2011. I’m also going to add a memoir element to it, giving stories and anecdotes from when I learned these lessons which would paint a better picture of what the business is really like. A lot has changed in the comedy industry in the last decade, so I hope to share more that I’ve learned. It’ll be awhile (at least a year or longer), so if you want to grab the first book, it’s still available here as an ebook or paperback.
Shares are always appreciated!
In the comedy hierarchy, feature act is a spot of 20-30 minutes during the show’s sweet spot (crowd is settled in with booze in their bloodstream, but they’re not obnoxious or paying their check yet). Back in the day, you could be a feature act and full-time comic. It’s rare now as many clubs don’t have a place to put out-of-town feature acts (they do, they just don’t want to pay). A feature act usually makes anywhere from $50-$100 for a club show which is the same crap money they’ve made since the 90’s.
If you somehow get promoted from MC to feature, here is some advice:
- Don’t marry the label—Comics who wear it like a badge come off as trying to hard to establish they’re above MCing. Your act should establish this, even if you’re only doing a few minutes at an open mic. Don’t bring it up in comic conversations.
- Don’t record an album—Trust me, in a year or two you’ll cringe at half of your material. It’s not ready to be mass produced and sold at shows. If you’ve got a cheap way to slap it up on Spotify, it’s probably still not worth it.
- Don’t go overboard on merch—Selling merch is necessary for sure, but don’t order thousands and thousands of something you’re sure will be a hit. I’ve seen too many ideas fall short and comics getting stuck with boxes of merch they’ll never get rid of and then become too ashamed to even sell. Also, it’s a courtesy to ask the headliner if it’s okay that you sell merch. If they say no, they’re an insecure, selfish jerk OR your merch is so obnoxious (racist t-shirt anyone?) they don’t want to share a table with you.
- Don’t quit your day job—Featuring isn’t a profitable career. Find other means of income when you’re not on the road. I think 2020 made it apparent how important a backup hustle is.
- Don’t stop writing—If you get complacent with your set as a new feature, it’s going to age way too quickly. Odds are you’re in your 20’s, so a lot changes during this decade. Keep performing at open mics just as often as before so that your act won’t grow stale.
- Don’t turn down MC work—If a new club lets you host, don’t blow them off because you’re above it. They might be checking to see if you are capable of featuring. Perhaps another comic suggested you. While it used to be true, clubs will not pigeon-hole you into MCing anymore. They’ve got comics who will work for free a lot of times.
- Don’t do crowd work—You’ve only got 20-30 minutes, and it still bothers headliners when you teach the crowd that their interaction is vital to the show. The headliner has to entertain these people for a longer time 2 or more drinks after you were performing, so leave it up to him or her as to how much the crowd will be involved. While I’m at it, don’t get super-filthy either.
- Don’t become high maintenance—The first thing I did when I began featuring was make the sound guy play a CD as I took the stage (cringe). Featuring doesn’t give you a right to taking advantage of a club’s free-drink policy. Stay out of the way, don’t mess up the green room, don’t ask any special favors, and if you’re comping friends at the show make sure they behave.
- Don’t go over your time—Common sense, but nothing is worse than headlining a drunk room after a show started 20 minutes late, the MC did 15 minutes, a guest set killed for 10 minutes and the feature is still on stage at 9:15 at a show that was supposed to start at 8:00. Audiences have 90-100 good minutes in them, so be aware.
As things have reopened, I’ve managed to work a few paid shows and test stuff at open mic. This last weekend I had my first week at a comedy club in about a year consisting of 3 days and a total of 5 shows, but the late show Friday was the worst paid set I’ve had as a headliner and one of the top 3 worst sets I’ve ever performed.
On Thursday, we only had 8 people in the crowd, so my set was shortened. For the first show Friday, we had some guest sets, so I did about 40 minutes. During that one I found myself struggling to automatically know which joke came next. I’d written some new material in the last year and hadn’t fit it permanently into my set. Still, first show Friday was relatively fine.
For the second show, I faced a perfect storm and only made things worse for myself. Here’s how:
The second show on Friday is almost always the toughest show of the week at a club. People are tired from working all day and they’ve typically been drinking for hours. Add a full moon, and you’re going to get a tired, drunk crowd who might not be used to being out and about that late.
My friend Reggie Edwards absolutely killed it for 10-15 minutes before me. No matter the demographic, Reggie can pull of a great set.
I didn’t take any of these things into account and went up like it was just any other show. As I was being introduced “He’s published 5 books and tours clubs and colleges…” I heard my first heckle, “Read us a book…” It wasn’t that loud or direct, but it threw me off and I wasn’t even on stage yet. I also had to replace the mic condom with a new one and didn’t do that very smoothly. This means I got on stage and didn’t speak write away. A major error. In the opening moments of my set, I let the crowd recognize silence—a complete juxtaposition from the last 10 minutes. Unless you’re a master who they’ve come to see, that’s hard to overcome.
I noticed right away that my jokes about teaching weren’t hitting very hard. I should have jumped straight to the edgier side of my act. I work pretty clean, but I do have jokes about sex which I should’ve gone straight to. I tend to do my sets in the same order so I can remember what’s next and because there are several callbacks that depend on ordering. As I learned the hard way, a drunk crowd doesn’t want to back up and learn about the frustrations of teaching.
When laughter is decreased a comic has less time to think about “What’s next?” and “Where do I go from here?” Those thoughts led to more silence which eventually led to drunk people taking it upon themselves to fill it. I was asked where I taught and told them, and the drunkest table there happened to be from the neighboring rival school. Why high school sports rivalries matter to grown adults in a comedy club is beyond me, but alas, they made a big deal about it.
The first third of my set was still okay, considering. But around the midway point the checkdrop happened and I never recovered. The guy who was laughing loudest on the “good” side of the room was no longer listening. He must’ve inspected every drink on his receipt because he wasn’t even watching anymore.
Around this point I did a darker joke which usually hits, but they somehow took offense to. Moaning is common (and has been since around 2012 for some reason), but I wasn’t even getting the “Oh no he didn’t!” moans. I got a response of “We’re legitimately offended.” On a late show Friday? Yes, somehow.
I made things worse by jabbing back at tables. I had a couple walk out from the front row after I made fun of the woman when her cellphone went off. Who still uses ringers? They made a 5-star production of getting up, putting coats on, finishing drink, and slowly walking from near the front across the room. I know from experience you can’t start a new joke while this is happening as the crowd is more interested in them. This was with about 5-10 minutes left in my set. I did my book promo half-assed figuring no one was going to even look at me afterwards (I sold one that show), and then finally got the light, did my closer to minimal laughter, got off stage, put my mask back on, and swore under it for the next 5 minutes.
As a comic, when you have a bad set, acknowledge it. If you act like a bad set is normal, the club will know you’ve set the bar too low or you’re used to failure. I’ve had plenty of great sets in that room over the last 15 years, so it’s not like it’s the end of my time there. One of the servers even joked with me about it. I recovered last night and was happy with both sets to cleanse the palate. I talked with the manager and we rehashed what I could’ve done differently. He understood that we’re all a little rusty during this period as well.
So let me summarize what I could’ve done to avoid this catastrophe:
- Taken the stage more aggressively.
- Adjusted setlist to get to dirtier stuff right away.
- Avoided edgier jokes that might produce moans or turn people off.
- Reduced time in between bits to almost nothing (plow through the set if you have to).
- Ignored drunk heckles. It became me vs. them instead of them seeing me as one of them.
It was a learning experience for me, and a warning for you. So if you’re doing longer sets and you haven’t been working much lately, run through that setlist until you’re back into auto-pilot on which joke comes next.
As comics, we tend to dwell on the negative. During a great set, we notice the one person not laughing. During a great week, we remember the one show that didn’t go as well. I’ve got to move on as I have two one-nighters the next two weeks. I couldn’t even get myself to make a video about all this. Venting and writing about it was therapeutic. Pretending it didn’t happen would only give it a chance to happen again.
For more tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, available in paperback and ebook. (And help me get my self-esteem back!)
Here’s some advice based on my experience…
10. It’s our only job. Almost every comic has some other side hustle to help pay the bills. Substitute teaching, tutoring, driving Uber, commercial work/modeling, voiceovers, or any of the other freelance type of moneymakers are almost always necessary when you’re a comedian. My “side hustle” of substitute teaching turned into my primary career and now my career as a comedian benefits from the constant public speaking and the health insurance.
9. There’s a circuit. This assumptions seems to be mentioned by middle-aged men after every show. People imagine a comedian’s schedule magically appearing like an MLB schedule with gigs lined up in various cities for us. Yes, comics may get help from bookers or managers, but you have to achieve quite a bit of success for that to happen. Most of us work our way into a club in the same way someone gets a new job. You have to know someone, reach out, and if you’re lucky they’ll let you do a short set without pay, and if you do well enough then maybe you’ll get 3 nights there per year.
8. “You can use this in your act.” No. We can’t. It’s a story in context from your perspective. We can’t use your anecdote in our act. Great, your family is crazy, but no one else wants to hear about them. Also, we’re probably just laughing along to be polite.
7. Comedy is a good way to impress the opposite sex. Until they sober up. There aren’t comedy groupies out there like what guitarists might experience. People come to comedy shows on dates, and then they go home. The comedian goes back to his or her hotel alone. Comedy groupies are not the type you want to date either…especially if your comedian buddies work that town too.
6. Touring full-time is the ultimate goal. This might be true for the first part of your career, but then you get old and tired of traffic and flight delays. Ask a veteran comic and they’ll tell you they’d rather have a writing deal or act on a sitcom. Movies and television syndication is the ultimate goal, not to mention being able to turn down gigs you don’t want to take. When you reach that point, you can still tour, and you don’t even need to be as funny to sell tickets.
5. Comedians only work one hour a night. The ones who do are no longer in clubs. They’re doing the same tired act at bars for much less money. Comedians have to write, revise, listen to their own recordings, attend open mics, promote, organize touring, drive hours and hours, and (see #1).
4. The comedy club feeds you. If you’re working an A room, then yes, you get 1 free meal a night. For the other 20+ hours of the day, you buy your own food. If you’re staying at the comedy club condo, stock up on groceries. If it’s a hotel, take advantage of the free breakfast…and the lobby apples…and the lobby cookies.
3. The gig pays for travel. If only. Until you’re a big-time headliner with a sweet contract, you pay your own way. We drive and pay for our own gas knowing that the profit isn’t much, but it’s an opportunity we answer for some reason. Flying is expensive, and if the show gets canceled, too bad.
2. It doesn’t feel like work. Sometimes it doesn’t. When I’ve done nothing else in the day and the gig is well organized and packed, performing is easy. But after I’ve taught 5 classes a day or driven for hours to a show, I’m tired. There are gigs outside of comedy clubs where it takes every ounce of focus and experience to be successful. While it may look like the comedian is having the time of his or her life, sometimes all the comic is thinking is, “How much longer until this set is over?”
1. Heckling helps comedians be funnier. They might bring a funny moment, but we’d rather not deal with them. First, it’s definitely work. Second, we have our act planned out and a heckler takes away from material that we’ve crafted and find important enough to put in our sets. Third, drunk people shouldn’t be rewarded with attention, nor should they think they deserve any credit ever.
Feel free to share and add any other myths I didn’t mention.
For tips of how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Nook, etc.
I’m going to start posting video advice on here too. Subscribe to my channel and check out new tips. They’re quick, but helpful. Here’s the first release: