Why “the road” isn’t the ultimate goal

For years comics work and work to get “on the road” full-time.  As soon as we get a few weeks strung together we feel like seasoned pros and start big-shotting our way around the open mic scene name-dropping clubs and pretending that most of them don’t involve at least two shows during the week that have less than thirty people.  Then after a few years most of us realize the road sucks.  The diet, the travel, the way certain clubs treat us, the lack of money, the time away from loved ones all gets to be too much.  I only work a few clubs now and as some of you know, have accepted another full-time teaching job at a high school.  My act is really good for a feature (congrats Rob, it only took twelve years) and I could tour full-time, but I have chosen not to.  Other friends have made the same choice .  So is it really that bad out there?  I think what happens to some of us is that we reach an age where we can no longer tolerate all of the little things.  In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage you can read about the exact moment I realized it was (it involves an ankle and my car).  Some might not understand, but I’m not alone on this.  It’s kind of like drinking…in your 20s you can bounce back from anything no matter how rough it is.  In your 30s it becomes more painful and smaller things get to you.  I can’t imagine how it is by the 40s and 50s.  My hat goes off to those who do it.  Making headliner money obviously helps, but if you talk to a lot of those headliners, they’re not the happiest and healthiest people on Earth.

So here’s an old blog I dug up from my livejournal from the last year describing some of the little things that built up and got to me.  Call it whining if you want…I call it motivation to find other outlets.  If you had been working at a job for twleve years and your company sent you to this hotel, didn’t pay for your food or travel, ignored any hope of a raise year after year, and considered it normal you’d be whining too.

I checked into my hotel at four in the afternoon after a half-day drive only to have to wait another ten minutes in the lobby for them to “finish up the room.”  I walked over to a nearby Wendy’s and ended up paying almost $7 for a salad because at the sight of my $2 off coupon the manager told me, “We don’t take those.”  I finally check in, drag my bags upstairs and get to a door that doesn’t open with my keycard.  I drag my bags back downstiars, get stuck in line behind a family reunion who is checking in (this family has lots of children) and wait another ten minutes before I get a keycard that works.  I walk back up the stairwell with my bags.  The stariwell smells like piss, as in someone actually peed in the bottom of the stairwell (at least it was outside), and notice a smashed cricket (science class disection size) on the steps who happens to stay there all week.

I finally get to my room, set my bags down and lie down on the bed.  I grab the remote and turn the television on, or at least try to.  Nothing’s happening.  I call down for new batteries and am told I’ll need to come get them because she’s “on her own, honey.”  I walk by two maids and a maintainance guy on my way down to another five minute wait at front desk.  That was Thursday, day one.

Friday morning starts at 5:30 a.m. when the couple next door has smoke chat just outside of my door.  This of course includes the ceremonial morning hacking that a lot of smokers experience.  When I finally fall asleep later on, a nearby car alarm takes its turn as my snooze alarm.  The free hotel breakfast has been taken over by the family reunion and why wouldn’t you let an eight-year-old use a waffle iron?  And sure, have someone even younger pour his own milk.  I always get my mini-yogurts, generic cereal, and stale muffins to go.  What’s better than carrying your breakfast through piss corner and my little cricket friend pictured above?

I get a bottle of water out of the micro-fridge and after just one night it’s frozen solid.  That’s okay, I’ll make coffee and drink it–nope!

The cup is pre-sliced like a loaf of bread.  I didn’t realize this until coffee was spilled everywhere which soaked my audio-recorder that I had spent $50 on.  Day two is awesome.

When I get back to my room after an afternoon out on day three I noticed they’ve cleaned it.  I didn’t notice that my iPhone plug adapter was missing (until I got home).  Also, my room suddenly smells like a cigar.  Neighbors again, at least it’s during daylight hours.  I’m about to hop in the shower (that’s right ladies, I’m naked at this moment) when I realize I have no towels.  They cleaned my room, took my towels and failed to replace them.  (I’m not naked anymore)  I call down to get towles and of course, she’s the only one there who is qualified to carry towels so I have to get dressed and go get my own.  It’s now pouring rain at this point and oh, the irony of carrying towels back to your room in the rain.  I stride by Squishy McCricket and shower after a natural prerinse from my journey.  After my shows, night three ends with two TV dinners in the microwave I have to reach back, unplug my lamp and fridge for, and plug in.  Mmm MSG.

I spend most of day four away from the hotel as I have given up on ever getting in the pool.  It’s packed with loud kids the entire time I’m there.  I come back to my room which has been neglected.  Not a huge deal except that I’m out of shampoo (another too-late-I’m-naked discovery) so I get dressed and head down to front desk for that because I know better by now that calling would do anything.  I have a theory that maybe the hotel was filming a reality show and I was playing some sort of role.  Did they need a reoccuring guest to keep coming to front desk and asking for things just to fill the hour? (Yes, for some reason my imaginary show “La Quinta Chronicles” is an hour long).  It’s possible, the woman up there was on a first name basis with me by day three.

Anyway, I grab what should’ve been a cold bottled water on my way out to my fourth night of shows only to realize that I never plugged the fridge back in after I used the microwave.  At least nothing was frozen except another MSG dinner, just room temperature warm.  Also an excuse not to have to eat night four’s microwave meals.  I walk in the rain to my car which is parked on the other side of the hotel because when I got back the previous night the whole lot was filled on my side.

Did any of these things kill me?  No.  Can I change my own roll?  Yes.  The point is that week after week little things like this tend to wear on someone.  It’s not a tour bus and four star treatment.  I don’t blame the clubs, most of them aren’t making much money right now.  I’m at a point in my life where I enjoy doing shows just enough to put up with this stuff for a few weeks a year.  I’m fortunate enough that the club that uses me the most, the St. Louis Funnybone, is eight minutes from my home.  So unless I magically become a headliner with a demanding contract, I’m content with just a few weeks away from my comfortable life at home.  I just turned thirty-five (on Sunday) and am apparently a big baby when it comes to travel now.  That’s fine, it leaves more weeks for you.  So when you get on the road, use that free time to work on other projects or improve your act so much that you can write your own contracts with clubs.


3 Facebook promo suggestions not mentioned in my book…

We helped ruin Myspace.  Everyone thought they were going to market like Dane Cook and become famous to millions via the internet.  We didn’t even really post anything funny, just pictures, our schedules (remember the guy who would post all three Saturday shows on his calendar to make it look fuller?), and the invites.  Oh, the invites.  The one major thing flaw has carried over to Facebook.

1.  Stop inviting everyone to everything…

Be selective with who you invite or your friends will use the greatest Facebook feature ever created, Ignore all invites from (open mic comic from NY city who’s never performed in a paid show).  I estimate over a hundred people who I’ve added to this list (which also includes garage sale invite lady from the Midwest).  I understand you have bringer shows in some cities but if you want your friends to come, call them and invite them like an adult.  If you’re not close enough friends to call, they probably don’t want to see you do four minutes of “gettin’ better!” anyway.  Always avoid inviting people who live in a different city/time zone.

2.  Be funny on your own with pictures and status updates…

Yes, occasionally you see a funny meme, but sharing a half-dozen e-cards that some stranger (also from the Midwest) thought up bragging about how early in the day you’ve started drinking doesn’t make you a comedian.  Anyone can share material that someone else thought up, write your own funny captions or status updates.  If you can’t, then you probably know why none of your friends are coming to see you at open mic.  I understand, sometimes a meme makes a point or political statement that you want to share, but the allout-wacky-for no-reason stuff…no.

(Side note: Your political statements aren’t changing anyone’s mind, you’re just causing more anger and polarization amongst your following).

Sorry, I’m starting to sound mad, I’m really not.  I’m venting on behalf of the dozens of friends and fellow comedians who also mention these things.

3.  Tone down the show posters…

Your audience has become numb to these as well.  Anytime there’s a flashy poster in my Facebook feed I immediately ignore it because it’s one of dozens.  It’s overcompensating.  I’ve heard a lot of the headliners in the business (the guys who you want to respect you so they’ll help you out later on) mock these as they skim through Facebook in the green room.  I know they’re not hard to make, but spend that time writing new material or improving what you have.  Artistic promo isn’t going to make your career.  Also, if you want your show to sound professional, don’t title it, “The Broken Tampons of comedy proudly present…The Shit-Slackers!”  Be funny during the show and people will go to more of them.  Who do you want as your following?  People with money…or Beavis?  Respect your career without taking yourself too seriously.

Remember when you used to scan through your feed and stop and look at pictures?  It’s gotten to the point where I’m skimming through the abundance of pictures and actually stopping when someone actually writes something because it’s so rare.

Here’s a tip for promoting your show.  Mention it in a status update along with a mildly witty comment.  It doesn’t have to be hilarious, just something cute and modest.  Overdoing marketing voids the amount of Facebook friends you have because they’ll ignore all of your updates.  It’s a fine line, I understand.  I’ve felt the backlash from selling books and giving free advice every week.  My excuse is that I’ve received a lot of positive feedback and I’m actually making money…and I fancy myself a decently funny status update writer so I get to scatter in a few commercials as a trade-off, right?  And all this free advice that isn’t even from the book.  Anyway, order Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage here…

www.robdurhamcomedy.com  or click the icons in the right margin.


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What if they mess up the light?

Note to non-comics:  The light is a signal from usually the back of the showroom to the comic telling him or her their time is almost up.  Most comics get this signal with five or ten minutes left to go depending on what they setup ahead of time with the club.

In one of my shows this summer I saw the light around six minutes into my set.  I had been doing twenty-five minutes all week so I was thoroughly confused.  I did twenty and went straight to the manager to asked what happened.  He was furious at a doorman who was “playing with his flashlight” for no reason.  The light was a mistake and I shorted myself five minutes.

I was talking with Jeremy Essig (yes, I get my advice from the same 4 people in all these posts) about it and he said that if there’s a light that confusing he’ll pause and actually address it.  This is probably something I should’ve done  because between every joke I was looking back to see if another light was coming or worrying that I was supposed to be off ten minutes beforehand.  It really threw off my timing and concentration.

I was a doorman for three years and sometimes the light is messed up (not by me of course, but by my fellow doormen).  For a five to seven minute set I’ll get a light with two minutes left, but if it’s anything over that there’s an easy way to make sure that I stick to my time.  I’ll tell the club that I don’t want a light because I have my own timer on my phone.  Doormen seem to have a two to three-minute margin of error and you don’t want to risk that so it’s best to be in charge of it on your own.  The important thing is that you ask the manager within ten minutes of your set how long he or she wants your set to be.  That way there can be no confusion.  It’s important to remember that if you’re ever given a second light, get the hell off the stage, they want to move the show on. 

With smartphones it’s easy to set a timer.  If I have to do twenty-five minutes, I set my phone to vibrate at twenty with the automatic snooze reminder five minutes later.  That way at twenty, I’m notified I have five minutes left.  Then at twenty-five I know exactly when to wrap it up.  Leaving it to a doorman as most clubs do can be risky as they often have other matters to tend to (although with this week’s comedy club national controversies it sounds like some aren’t doing their job!). 

For more tips about the previously unwritten rules of comedy, please check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, which is available in multiple forms from Amazon, iTunes, Kindle, Nook, or straight through my webpage for an autographed version.

Must the show go on?

Over my twelve year career I’ve been lucky enough not to have too many crisis-type situations during a week that I’m working.  Things in life pop up though, and as comics we can’t exactly phone in sick.  People get hurt, people fight, people run out of money, people develop problems, people have surgery, people die.  Sometimes these things happen right before showtime.  Either way, the comic has to put it all behind him or her and make people laugh for the entire set.

My worst case of this happened near the beginning of my career when I was emceeing a three-show Saturday in Columbus.  One of my best friends was in a bad motorcycle accident and our mutual friend informed me by phone ten minutes before the first show.  I’ve witnessed other comic pals handle hardships and still perform as well.  I can’t really give you advice on how to “put it all away” for however long your set is, but I’ve found that performing is actually a nice distraction from dealing with reality.  This was especially true the year I suffered through teaching in the inner-city (I really hated life but my stand-up really improved).

Bookers and club managers seem to understand about the death of a loved one.  A week off isn’t asking too much in those situations and with everyone sharing their losses on Facebook, no one dares to fake anything.  Anything short of death, and I advise that you somehow try and perform through it.

Here’s a quick little tip I learned from Rahn Ramey this week.  He said he never talks to anyone on the phone two hours before the show (unless it’s business related).  By doing this you can avoid conflicts or Earth-shattering news before you take the stage.

And finally, to those who keep bitching about my book plugs, stop reading here.  God forbid there be a small advertisement for all of the free advice I’ve shared with you.  For the rest of you who don’t feel physically violated by a hyperlink click here to order my book off of Amazon or the links to the right to get a signed copy straight from me.  For those who already have, thank you, and please leave a review (but only if you enjoyed it!).

20 steps to writing a book

Since publishing Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I’ve had a lot of questions from other people on putting a book out.  In this entry I’ll break down the steps I took to make it affordable and profitable.  I did a lot of research on the Internet and I only found that message boards can be annoying because something can go from being the best to worst idea depending on which stranger you believe (I usually agree with the one with the fanciest icon).

Step 1…Write for years ahead of time.  No one is born a good writer.  I got my college degree in English with a focus on creative writing.  Then I spent my entire 20s writing garbage that no one would ever read on livejournal and a myspace blog.

Step 2…Find an idea that’s interesting enough for an audience to want to read.  Be an expert on it, or if it’s fiction, make it more than entertaining and interesting.  Read books on how to write whatever it is you’re writing.

Step 3…Write.  I wrote the bulk of my book on the weekends of my teaching job.  I would do 2,000-5,000 words per weekend until I finished my first draft in July of 2011 (I started in February and ended up a little over 71,000 words).

Step 4…Revise.  I went to UMSL (University of Missouri- St. Louis, where I got my teacher certification in ’09) because I still had free printer access and broke their “20 page maximum” rule by 291 double spaced pages.  Not many people can properly revise straight from a screen so print it out.  Read your words out loud and listen to how they sound.

Step 5…After making adjustments from first revision, revise again.  More printing!  Reword the weak parts, add things you forgot.  Strengthen the opening paragraphs and make sure it’s organized correctly.

Step 6…Get some feedback.  This was one of the hardest steps because not many people like to tell you what’s wrong with your book (until it’s published).  Reading takes time.  People barely like to read shiny new paperbacks let alone bulky three-ring binder manuscripts.  Most of the people who read mine said, “Yep, looks great.”  So you may end up having to pay someone with experience at this sort of thing to take the time to give you a valid opinion.  (Here’s where the cost starts to come in.)  $50 is typical for a read through.

Step 7…Revise again for content and then proofread for grammatical mistakes.  You’ll be amazed how many mistakes you overlooked in previous readings.  It’s hard, but your red pen can’t catch everything.  If you’re really struggling, read the entire draft backwards one sentence at a time.  That will certainly prevent you from breezing over silly mistakes.  The more you correct now, the less you’ll pay for editing because they start at $25 an hour while most are a lot more.

Step 8…Put it away for a few weeks and look for an editor.  There are plenty of professional freelance editors on Craigslist but it’s best to find the writing community in your city.  I started attending monthly meetings with the St. Louis Publisher’s Association.  I couldn’t afford anyone there and I actually found my editor via a professor I had at UMSL in ’09.  He referred me to her and she worked incredibly cheap and did a lot more than just basic editing.  She knew how to format and design a book.

Step 9…Format your book.  You can’t just send in a Word file.  Hopefully your editor has one of the professional publishing programs (they cost hundreds of dollars) and can help you design your book.  You need to pick out multiple fonts as well as decide on every other little detail.  Headers, footers, lines, title font style and size, etc.  There’s so much more to book design than any of us ever imagined.  Do you know what it means when a sentence is an orphan?  I didn’t either, but they’re very bad.  Also, in a book, each sentence only has one space after a period. Weird, huh?

Step 9B…Add dedication, acknowledgements, table of contents, index, and all that other fun stuff.

Step 10…After a few weeks of not reading your manuscript, look over what your editor has done with your work.  Odds are you’ll realize you have no clue where a comma does or doesn’t go.

Step 11…Consider publishing options.  No one’s going to publish your manuscript and if they do it’ll take 18 months only after you spend a year trying to find someone to be your literary agent through query letters.  If you’d like to skip this step and all of the con-artists that come with it, self-publish.  I used Createspace.com for mine.  They have customer service by phone 24-7.  They print on demand so you don’t have to order hundreds at a time.  Whether you order one or a thousand, each copy costs the same to you (it’s based on page number so mine’s only a few bucks).  They also put it on Amazon and other networks for free.  Amazon then takes 40% of my royalties on each copy because they’re terrible people.

Step 12…Design a cover.  Actually, pay to have an expert do it.  Once again I was fortunate to have my brother, the great Dave Durham, do this for me (those are his legs on the cover).  He has an Art degree, a Canon 60D and a lot of talent.  Createspace has a cover template so he made the design based on their format.  Make sure your title is awesome and that your blurbs on the back are brief yet effective.

Step 13…Read over and approve your final copy.  This involves a lot of back and forth with your editor.  Mine put the final copy into a PDF and I uploaded it.  It only takes about a week for them to “build” your book.  Yes, there are a few errors in mine but I’m not a perfectionist.    I corrected them for the e-book…

Step 14…Make an e-book version on Smashwords.com for free.  They have a nice long how-to-convert manual but it only took me six hours to convert mine.  It’s available on iTunes, Kindle, Nook, and every other main format of e-book.  (And though e-books cost my customers $6 less, I end up making more per copy).

Step 15…Write a weekly blog that relates to your book.  Don’t give everything away, but give your customers a sample of your writing and build trust with them.

Step 16…Promote it.  Message boards, the blog, facebook, twitter, etc.  Call local book stores and ask to do a signing.  No one comes to those but get pictures of the few who do, post them, and make it look like you’re a big deal on Facebook.

Step 17…Prepare for backlash and criticism.  Don’t take it personally.  Think of all of the books you’ve hated for being written.

Step 18…Send important people free copies in exchange for some promotion.  This works quite well though a few of them will screw you over.

Step 19…Be patient.  My tax bracket hasn’t changed with the money I’ve made from my book.  (And not just because I don’t report most of the sales.)  Publishing a book is like comedy, I don’t do it just for the money.  I honestly believe bringing a copy of my book to my last interview was what got me the job.  Everyone has a resume to their name, few have an ISBN number (you have to get one of those for your book, too.  It’s like its Social Security number).

Step 20…Answer questions.  People have come to me with a lot of questions.  Some for advice, some for debate, and some just to try and piss me off.  Any attention is good attention, right?

Hopefully this will help you decide if it’s all worth it or not.  It would be interesting to break down my hourly wage if I calculated my profits versus hours spent.  Either way, it was worth it to me.  This week at the St. Louis Funnybone I had twice as many sales with my book as I ever had with my t-shirts and it wasn’t even a busy week.