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:
Credits can get you on certain stages, but they won’t do anything for you once your act begins. In fact, the more the audience is aware of your credits, the higher their expectations are set.
In one of the first shows I hosted back in 2000, a guest set had writing credentials for some episodes of Seinfeld. He didn’t tell me to use this as his intro, but I did anyway (erroneously), and according to the doorman, as soon as I said it the comic swore under his breath on his way to the stage. Then he bombed.
During open mic when I’m trying new stuff, if the host asks if I want a special intro, I decline.
The most common type of credit is “he/she has opened for (famous person).” It sounds impressive to your friends—and sure, other comedians become jealous, but a lot of the time you only land those gigs from being in the right place at the right time. I worked with a lot of big names during the first and worst five years of my career when I probably didn’t deserve to.
“Opened for…” credits are overrated. You know the booker, not the famous comic (or perhaps said famous comic knows you’re easy to follow).
Non-stand-up comedy credits are another illusion. What can you do off-stage that possibly translates to being good at stand-up? Writing? (see above example) Acting? (There are a lot of actors who suddenly think they’re comics).
*The only exception seems to be pro wrestlers. I’ve heard they’re doing great.
Credits can intrigue some people enough to look you up and see if you’re worth giving a chance. Or they can even help you raise your price…but once you’re on that stage, you need to be able to back it up or the people without credits will be the first to mock your pseudo success.
Until the venue needs you more than you need the venue, your credits aren’t that important.
So what credits really matter? The ones that are never announced or posted. Bookers who say you’re funny and tell each other. Their word is trusted more than any comic’s testimonial. They’re always going to be more honest.
It’s okay to be proud of what you’ve done, but it doesn’t mean you’re a better comic than the one people haven’t heard of. It’s how you do on stage that really matters. Keep that in mind next time you get jealous.
For more tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, available on Amazon, Kindle, Nook, iTunes, etc.
- Be awake and have plenty of energy. Give yourself at least an hour to “wake up” before you go on air. Coffee, obviously. Be able to match the enthusiasm in the room or you’ll struggle to get a word in.
- Listen to the show on the way there. This allows you to blend in with their style a little easier. See if there’s a topic you can callback. You’ll also learn their names, and hosts respect this.
- Be prepared with material. Most deejays will ask you ahead of time if there are topics you want to talk about, so be able to lead the conversation into some of your quick punchlines.
- Don’t press the envelope on content. They have much stricter regulations, and if they’re worried about what you’ll say, they’ll wrap up your airtime early.
- Ask to play along with whatever games they have. Their listeners love their regular bits, so have fun being a part of them. Add your own touch to it for easy laughs and to stay on the air longer.
- Take the initiative to get on the air. Sometimes clubs organize appearances for you, but not always. Send out some emails on your own or use social media to reach out to the on-air personalities. If they can’t fit you on, sometimes they’ll at least plug the show or let you call in. Look up addresses of the stations too. A lot of times they’re all located in the same building, so you can cover a wide variety of listeners.
- Plug all your info. Be sure you’re aware of showtimes, promotions, and anything else you can say to attract people to the show. Include your web page and social media handles too.
- Send a thank you note and stay in touch. This will help you for next time through. Radio can do wonders for filling the seats.
Radio isn’t just for headliners, clubs will often send the feature too. Building a following is a great way to get re-booked and move up the ranks.
For more tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, order my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage. It’s also available in ebook format on Kindle, Nook, iTunes, etc.
In the last few years some of my highest paying shows have come from performing at fundraisers. How do you get booked by people outside of the comedy business for fundraisers? Be funny at other fundraisers. The same audiences are going to the same types of fundraisers. These are community volunteers or organizers of whatever small-to-mid-level association or town. They’re not comedy bookers, but I’ve heard numerous times: “We wanted to try something different this year so we thought we’d give comedy a chance.”
The challenge is that you’ll be performing in a venue often not suited for comedy, in front of a crowd who isn’t a regular at the comedy club. You cannot rely on these organizers to decide how much to censor yourself. They know little to nothing about stand-up.
The common organizer thinks very linear as to what “crosses the line.” If there’s a limit, they often say, “No f-bombs, but everything else should be okay. We’re all adults here.” They’re thinking strictly about cuss words, not subject matter. They can’t even begin to imagine some of the creative descriptions you’ve derived from words that, by themselves, are much more innocent. Your act has words and phrases they didn’t know existed, and they’ve underestimated your “creativity.”
As a comic at one of these gigs, you must use toe-in-the-water jokes to see exactly where the line is. If they cringe at something instead of laughing, you need to be able to laugh at your own mistake, acknowledge it with a smile, and adjust accordingly. If you continue to push, you’re going to lose them for the remainder of your set and possibly destroy any chance of comedy ever returning to their venue.
Some of you might be thinking: So what? I still get paid. They said no f-bombs and I didn’t say one. That’s their problem for booking comedy. I’m never coming back to this crap town anyway.
As I mentioned earlier, the people in these crowds are often the ones who organize their own fundraisers or know of people in neighboring towns with similar needs. Sometimes I exchange information with two or three people after each gig. A few months later I’m contacted for “something like you did for so-and-so back in November…”
Or, if you’re an opener, think about how you’ll affect that headliner’s set. Is he or she going to bring you next time? Or suggest you for someone else’s opener?
For those who want to make comedy their career, these one-nighters are going to become more and more of your income. Clubs are becoming tougher to get into because the trend is to book big-name headliners while only choosing local openers (to save on costs). Accept early that the business is bigger than you and your First Amendment Rights. Until the clubs need you more than you need them, you don’t get free range.
For more tips on making money in stand-up, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage available on Amazon, iTunes, Nook, etc.