What to do when they “normally just have karaoke…”

One of the challenges of doing stand-up is performing at venues that aren’t comedy clubs.  Most of us can’t be that choosy with our stage time, especially if it’s going to pay money (or at least free drinks).  What people fail to realize is that a successful show is dependent on more than just the comic.  The crowd takes on a responsibility for the show’s success as well.  If they’re not up for a comedy show, it can fail no matter who’s on stage (and by stage I mean corner of the bar by jukebox).  There are even some instances where you should not take the gig.  I list and describe these types of challenging venues as well as how to make the best of them in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  No one likes to be “high maintenance” but here is a small checklist of things you can ask the venue’s manager to take care of before you perform.

1.  Have the bar televisions and all music turned off.  You’d think this would be a given…nope.

2.  Make sure the only lights on are for the stage.  Dimming the house lights is extremely important.

3.  Have someone (the DJ or bar manager) introduce the first comic onto the stage.  No MC should have to go up and interrupt conversations from the patrons to start a show.

4.  Make sure all audience seats are facing the stage.  You’d be surprised how many backs I’ve performed to…even in the front row.

5.  Ask the manager to regulate hecklers.  They’ve known them since they were kids, and you don’t want to take on an entire room/town of rednecks.

6.  Be sure the staff knows how long the show will run (anything past 90 minutes is pushing it but sometimes they have illusions of three-hour shows).

7.  Get paid in cash.  Checks from Mikey’s Pin Haven don’t always clear.

These are just a few of the guidelines to follow when performing at a place other than a comedy club.  Most of them will be small bars in small towns who don’t exactly understand comedy, but if you can get the room in the ideal condition, these shows can be some of the most fun in your career.  Small-town hillbillies can make you feel like a rock star just as easily.  (Rock star treatment = buying you a pitcher of Busch because they think you like it too and letting you line-dance next to the blonde with 80’s bangs).

If it’s a venue’s first time hosting comedy, expect a few bugs.  The good news is that the longer a venue hosts shows, the better (and easier) they’ll become.  The St. Louis open mic scene has skyrocketed in the last year with shows every night of the week.  (Click on that link and scroll down to evening hours).  Over time, a lot of these rooms have developed regulars which are often the best thing to have at a show.  By the way, if your city doesn’t have an online open mic calendar, get around to making one because strengthening your scene strengthens you and builds your stage time.  Here are other examples… (I’ll add as I get them, please feel free to submit.)

D.C. area comics stay in touch here.

San Francisco Bay Area: http://sfstandup.com

Kansas City area: www.kccomedy.com

What to do the other 23 hours

Last week I was on the road working at Crackers in Indianapolis, Wednesday through Saturday.  The hotel is a lot nicer than most, but whether your gig gives you a hole or luxury it’s important to figure out how to spend your time wisely when you’re not performing.  In fact, I think the 23+ hours you’re not on stage can be just as important to your career as your stage time.  Instead of sitting around watching premium cable while surrounding yourself with different sauces to dip your chicken nuggets in (something I learned from another comic called the “nugget buffet” which is actually really fun), try to improve your act and yourself.  Trust me, you have the time (seriously though, nugget buffet can break up a bit of the boredom so don’t rule it out).

1.  Find a gym–Almost every city has a nearby place to workout.  The club or hotel often provides passes so be sure to pack a few days worth of shorts and t-shirts.

2.  Listen to your act–record and listen to your sets.  It can be boring (I’m so sick of my set by 2nd show Saturday) but you’ll be surprised how much more “aware” you are of every little detail in each joke.  This can be the difference between a good and great set (and a good and great comic).

3.  Read a book (NSFW sound).  <—-Not a link to my book, I promise.  It’s a youtube video my students directed me to last year.  Reading allows you to think like a writer.

4.  Write a at least one new joke and incorporate at least a little bit of it into one of your late shows.  If a set is going great or bad, it allows you to take a little risk.

5.  Send out your avails.  This is best to do while you’re working because bookers see that you’re busy and not desperate.

6.  Get into an internet fight.

7.  Be a tourist.  Find something free in the town you’re in via Google and go to it no matter how boring it is.  There’s a joke there waiting for you.

8.  Prepare for your show by having your merch organized and your outfit ironed.

9.  Sleep at night, get up in the morning…at least while the free breakfast is still out.  The danger of reversing your days and nights is that you eliminate a lot of your downtime options, so stick to a normal schedule that won’t have you awake at 4 a.m. with nothing to do.

10.  I’ll leave #10 for you…comments, suggestions?  I’d like to include more tips for those on the road.  This helps to give a taste of the future for those working hard to get to this point.  I find that I’m still learning something new every week on and off stage and still making a lot of mistakes.

These tips were rather basic, but there are a lot more detailed tips and inside info about what the road is like in my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  C’mon buy it!  It’s a worthwhile investment to your career and a tax write-off.  If you want to learn the steps and keys to becoming a paid comic, order my book.

The positives about comedy contests

In the last decade we’ve seen shows like Last Comic Standing, America’s Got Talent and Star Search butcher the idea of comedy competitions.  A lot of their finalists are predetermined and they often only allowed for two-minute sets.  In 2003 I drove five hours for a 90-second audition and got nothing.  For this reason, I say don’t waste your time with television competitions.  They’re meant for the more experienced professionals.  However, a local comedy contest can benefit your early career.  I’ll admit, they’re never 100% fair but then again, this is show business so that’s appropriate.  Get used to it.

In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I describe all of the pros and cons of a contest and how to handle certain situations (like following the freak, the first-timer who eats it, or the high energy guy who kills it).  I also describe how the order of comics influences judging and give special tips on what to do to increase your chances of winning.

My free advice this week has to do with why you should enter.  Don’t enter to win the contest, but instead, enter because you’ll get a chance to perform your set in front of a hot crowd.  Too many comics post youtube clips of themselves in front of less than ten people.  That’s not something you want to share.  If you must have a clip, film on competition nights when you’ll have a crowd of laughs instead of individual chuckles.

Obviously you want to bring as many people as possible to watch you.  There’s no secret in that strategy.  St. Louis Funnybone manager Matt Behrens stated that judges can see when only someone’s friends are laughing for them.  However, when a group of people laugh it gets the whole crowd laughing and that momentum makes anyone seem funnier.  Club managers take notice of these sets a lot more than open mic night.

My warning to the comedy community is this…just like yourself, don’t take a competition too seriously.  Feelings are going to be hurt and someone who you think isn’t as funny as you is going to place higher.  It’s really the luck of the draw and how many friends you can get to show up.  In 2006, I went from winning the semi-finals (I had about 15 people in the crowd) to placing 5th out of 6 in the finals (I had one in the crowd).  So if you’re going to be too proud to try and stack the crowd, don’t whine later on when you don’t win.  It’s also important to remember that the results of the contests are not going to make or break your career.  In another month no one will care who placed ahead of whom.

(I write this entry also to help promote the St. Louis Funnybone contest which starts in May.)

Bring people, record it, stay under your time limit, and read my book for many other tips!

5 quick tips for writing your first bio

So you’re finally getting some paid shows and you’ve got a webpage or at least an “about me” section somewhere that let’s people know you’re a comic (because you took my advice and removed “Comedian” from your Facebook name).  Just like the advice in my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, I’m not going to tell you how to be funny (there are other books that attempt to do this, mine covers everything else), but instead give you some guidelines and include a few things to avoid in your bio.

1.  Do not include the words brutally honest.  It’s the most overused phrase in bios.  All of our acts are brutally honest.

2.  Write in third person but don’t acknowledge that you feel uncomfortable writing in the third person (we all did this on our MySpace profiles because we thought we were funny and original back in ’04).

3.  You don’t have any real credentials yet, so don’t try to make anything you’ve done sound important…winning a local contest isn’t going to impress bookers.  I learned this the hard way when a headliner laughed at one of my early bios while reading it off of his laptop in the tiny green room at Joker’s in Dayton (may it rest in peace). 

4.  Self-deprecation is good but don’t just bash yourself to the point of sounding pathetic.  Lean towards subtle and avoid trying to be over the top with anything.  Perhaps you could even mock a credential if you feel you must include one.

5.  Keep it brief.  The less you write the less there is to mess up.  Five to seven sentences is plenty early on in your career.  Remember, you don’t want to take yourself too seriously at this point.  You simply want the reader to chuckle a bit and see that you can, in fact, be funny.

Writing a bio can be tough and I should point out that I hate mine.  My bio (it’s the 2nd paragraph under all the book stuff) isn’t going to get me any extra work, but it’s good enough to where it’s not going to lose any either.  It lets people know my age (if they do the math), a few modest credentials (name-dropping), and a few topics I cover in my act.

That concludes this week’s advice (and overuse of parenthesis) .  Here are a couple announcements…Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage is now available on iTunes, and I’ll be working with Moshe Kasher at the St. Louis Funnybone this week.  I’ll be selling and signing books after the show.

Why I encourage you to do it for the money…

Someone from afar (Texas actually), emailed me about my book and asked why I encourage people to do it for the money when comedy is an art.  Though I don’t think I previously said, “Do it for the money,” I am now.  Here’s my response…

I think some (just some) of the controversy about the alternative comedy scene versus doing things that work for the mainstream clubs has to do with comics considering the sacrifice in art in order to make money.  What’s overlooked is the sacrifice of pride (there’s hardly any money) you have to make if you’re going to be in this business professionally no matter what scene you’re in.  Alternative or mainstream, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of crap from other people in the business…and pretend to like it.  For example, a year and a half ago I was supposed to work a one-nighter at a bar with a booker/comic.  $150, ninety minutes away, chance to sell merch (t-shirts) after the show (so probably around $200 for that night).  One week before the show I emailed him to confirm and verify showtime.  He wrote back that he accidentally double-booked me and would have to get back to me for a future date.  I was mad because I had turned down some other work for that weekend.  I found out that he replaced me with a female comic he was trying to sleep with.

So do I burn the bridge?  No.  I don’t take it personally, I stay in touch and months later I get a closer gig from him for just as much money.  I’d say double-bookings are one of the biggest problems in the business.  It hurts your feelings when you learn that someone booked you and someone else because they forgot about you.  It happens.  Show details get altered, people get screwed over, money is taken away from you but you still have to take it and like it because it’s show business.  This is just a minor example of the many ways you’re going to be disrespected as you go through your career.

The email I received from Texas and a few other conversations have made me realize that I had made a false assumption that people are in this with money as one of the motivations.  Thinking back, I would have emceed for almost free starting out at the Columbus Funnybone so money wasn’t part of the equation for me either at the start of my career.  So no, don’t tolerate all of the politics and BS that goes with working a club for the money (MC pay is usually around $25 a show anyway), but tolerate it for the massive amount of stage time you get in front of hundreds of people.  As far as learning and improving, it’s the equivalent of when someone is just learning a language and they take a trip to that different country where everyone else speaks it.  By the end of the week, it’s so much more natural.

Now the part where I encourage you to do it for the money…

Performing in front of real crowds will lead to you becoming a skilled enough comic to start making money at other venues, alternative or not.  By then you’ll be in love with comedy enough that you’ll want it to be your only job.  Vince Morris, a very successful comedian who I worked with quite a few times while starting out, would always tell me, “When you rely on other means of income whether it be your day job or your parents, you will fail to reach your full comedy potential.”  My biggest year for improvement was 2005 shortly after I had turned down a $7,000 raise and promotion at a bank which I quit completely to make comedy my only source of income.  I lived at a poverty level for a good chunk of that year until I finally made myself get a job subbing that fall, but it’s still the busiest year of my career.  This is why I encourage people to “do it for the money” at some point.  You’ll hit your “comedy puberty.”

Don’t worry about thinking there is such thing as “selling out” in comedy at this level because selling out means you’re living comfortably and none of us are there.  Yes, you might have to drop a few of your favorite lines (I did this and looking back mine weren’t funny anyway), but it forces you to continue to write better material.  Success in this business comes from and along with sacrifice, ego-bruising and all around pain.  You don’t get to pick your path to success, it just happens to you.

If you’d like to hear more stories of me getting screwed over while paying my dues along with other great advice I learned from professionals, please check out a copy of Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.