For the three years I was a doorman at the Columbus Funnybone (2000-’02), there were a handful of headliners and even features who used sound cues. A few even had light cues on top of that. The club had an excellent system with multiple doormen and managers for those things, yet we still messed up at least once or twice a week. Some comics brought in their guitars, amps, etc. Let’s just say that at least one $800 amp was blown up preshow because we plugged something into the wrong kind of outlet. Again, this is at one of the better clubs.
So can a comic trust a one-nighter at a bar with his or her equipment? Sound cues? Light cues? Actually, at a lot of bar shows you’ll be lucky to have a spotlight on your face during the show. The point is this, stay low maintenance. The more things you have, the more things can go wrong. Don’t be dependant on props, sounds, lights, or anything that adds another variable. It’s too much stress. Yes, there are a few comics who can get away with these kinds of things, but most of them have one thing in common…they rig up the cues themselves. For example, Heath Hyche, who’s a very funny comic with props and sound cues, has a way of controlling things himself. He has a device that starts and stops his music that he controls during his show from the stage. Heath also has the benefit of being able to work great clubs now (he gets standing ovations all the time).
Every time I start what people call a “real job” which is currently teaching, I dread all of the paperwork and forms I have to fill out. Even going back to get certified seemed like such a bureaucratic mess. One of the things I love about stand-up is that in an email, I’m booked. I show up when I’m supposed to, perform, and get paid (occasionally there’s a tax form to fill out but that takes 30 seconds). So if you’re just starting out and debating on adding additional elements to your act…don’t. Maybe later on down the road when you’re making the jump to headliner you’ll have a better idea, but for now enjoy the luxury of not stressing about all of the extra things you would have to take care of.
Now, if we just didn’t have to drag around our merch…speaking of, order my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.
This week I fell into some headlining spots at the St. Louis Funnybone (Wednesday and the Saturday midnight show). And before I even get into this entry I’m not claiming I am one, especially at an A room. It just made me wonder what steps I needed to take to get to that point. The first thing is that I need to be comfortable doing at least a strong forty-five. As a feature you can get away with a “solid” (insert time), but as a headliner it has to be strong. So just like in the jump from MC to feature, it’s not just a quantity of minutes, it’s the quality of what you’re giving the audience. Over the years though, I’ve worked with a number of headliners who weren’t any funnier than me or a lot of the other comics at my level. But what’s the one thing they have? Experience.
So the first step to being a headliner for a week at a comedy club is getting a lot of time as a headliner at one-nighters. I don’t have a ton of experience with that so I went to someone who did, Steve Sabo. Steve also books dozens of rooms so he was the perfect person to ask about what bookers look for when promoting features up to the headlining spot. He also mentioned what doesn’t work so I’ll talk about those things first.
When a venue calls to give feedback on the show and the manager says, “That middle guy should headline!” bookers can tell the manager was instructed to say this from the feature as a favor. Managers don’t talk like that in bars who host these shows. They simply say if the person was funny or not. He also advised against trying to be hard to follow by being extremely filthy and talkative with the crowd. As a feature, you shouldn’t be relying on any crowdwork in your set (there’s much more about this in my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage). There are better ways to become tough to follow.
It’s a tough leap to make because most of the headliners out there aren’t going anywhere. There’s no higher level so the market becomes saturated and competative. Sabo stated that a headliner’s set needs to be more than just jokes. It has to have that extra layer. I’ve seen a lot of headliners have a theme, message, or some extra variable that makes their show more than just 45-60 minutes of jokes. Even the setups need to be funny. No matter how funny a comic is, they have to have experience to get by and make an audience laugh under any circumstance. There are tough spots a comic just won’t experience in his or her first five years. Today’s headliners are prepared for everything. So how does Sabo personally start considering someone to bump up? He waits until he has three different venues rave about the feature.
The biggest challenge or concern I have when headlining is, “Can I fill my time?” I tend to slow down (which I actually need to do anyway), but I sometimes put in older jokes that I shouldn’t really rely on anymore. Usually I get the five-minute light and I still have fifteen minutes of better material that I can no longer fit in left on my mental setlist. So my next goal is to become comfortable with how a solid forty-five minutes feels (I’ll work on making it stronger as I write more this year…I have a strong thirty plus, but not 45). I have a few chances coming up this fall so I’m excited about that. If you have questions, ask a booker or club manager. There are a lot of other factors that go into it but this should be a start. Good luck.
Years ago when the Bengals were actually good, an improv group I was in was booked for a Monday night show at the Cincinatti Funnybone. Before the show they had the game being projected on a large screen at the back of the stage. It was getting interesting when…showtime! Game off! Here’s 6 white boys from Columbus! Obviously it took awhile before their minds were off of football.
As you travel the road in the fall you sometimes have that inevitable gig that happens during or right after the big game. In Topeka I once performed in front of a dozen people while the next room over, the sports bar, was jam packed for a Chiefs game. Of course the ultimate challenge is performing on Super Bowl Sunday…or is it? If everyone else is watching the game but you still have any kind of an audience, assume they really like comedy. I still consider that show in Topeka my best set with less than twenty in the crowd. Take the attitude that these people are really interested in your show.
So what can you do in other circumstances when you’re competing with football? If you arrive early enough to the gig, have them turn the television off or at least put the game on in the bar instead of the showroom. Let people decide where they want to be.
If it’s after a big game (a loss), it’s okay to mention it to the hometown crowd that yeah, the game sucked, but drink up and forget about it for a little while. Never taunt them about a loss! (This includes years later as I learned in Huntington, WV when bringing up the OSU vs. Marshall 57-yard FG game 4 years after it happened) If they won the game, mention it for an easy way to get them on your side.
Avoid wearing a shirt from your favorite team unless you’re in ground zero of their territory. Even if you don’t mention it, it could invite heckling, especially if it’s an NFL shirt.
For more tips involving sports and comedy (and wardrobe advice of course!), check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.
Last Sunday I was trying to check into my hotel room at Lake of the Ozarks when there was a small problem. The front desk gave me the phone and said it was the guy who runs the room and booked the hotel. “Hey Rob. Are you just going to pick up the keys for everyone?” For some reason he thought that I was touring and good buddies with Rob Schneider, the headliner, and that Rob Schneider would be okay with sharing a suite with me. Ten years ago I probably would’ve thought that was cool, but as a grown man I don’t want to share anything with anyone, nor does the headliner…especially if he’s famous like Rob Schneider. I got a different room.
The only reason I got to work with him was because I have a reputation for working clean. When a headliner has pull, he can request that (I mention all the other benefits of working fairly clean in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage). Schneider ended up walking through the back of the room halfway through my set which distracted the crowd somewhat, but with headliners who are famous, especially in smaller towns, the room will be filled meaning I could sneeze and get a laugh. Record your sets with someone famous. They make good demos, however, don’t get inflated by how well it goes because those people are excited for someone after you. It’s also okay to joke about that. “Hey, we’re all excited to see (headliner), I am too. But let me help you get a few drinks down before that.” Acknowledge, but don’t apologize for going first.
Your interaction with the famed headliner is important too. Exchange a hello after your set if they make eye contact, and let him/her compliment you. Instead of trying to blab that you’re a fan let him or her speak, record all that in your head and use it as a quote (stick it next to a picture with him on Facebook or your webpage and watch those oh-so-validating “likes” come in). If you’re working with him/her the entire week or weekend, wait a couple shows before holding a conversation. They’ll listen to at least a little of your set and be happy to chat if they respect it. Keep it brief and let them be alone if that’s what they prefer. A lot of them aren’t used to the road full-time so they’re weird about interaction. If they like you, you could get future work with them. Other than that and the great crowds, it should be just another gig. People think we get to work with big names because we’re special…nope, just lucky that week.