Does it matter who you’ve opened for?

For most comics their first credentials will be getting the chance to open for someone famous.  It sounds like a big deal.  I can namedrop with the best of them.  Joe Rogan, Jeff Dunham, 2 of the 4 Blue Collar guys, 2 of the leads on Full House, etc.  You know who these impress?  The high school kids I teach.  You know who they don’t impress?  Club managers and bookers.  They know anyone can MC for anyone.  I’m not saying that club managers are just giving those weeks to anyone, but it certainly isn’t the honor that it sounds like.  Bob Saget wasn’t sitting around in his office in L.A. making calls in 2003, “Who’s going to MC for me at the Cleveland Improv next month?  Never heard of him…next.  Never heard of him…nope…who else?  Durham?  Rob Durham?!  Yes, that’s the guy I want!  This handpicking selection process is grueling!”

Sure, you have to be good enough for a club manager to trust you to host shows that will bring new customers to his or her club, but it’s not something that will impress other bookers.  By “opening” for someone it doesn’t distinguish between featuring and MCing either.  Most of those bigger names were just MC weeks early in my career.  I was fortunate enough to work often at an A room for my home club.

So what credentials are club managers really looking for?  The list of clubs on your schedule.  If you can pack a schedule with great rooms that are known around the country (not Corky’s Saloon and Grill), bookers will reward that much more than who you’ve opened for.  A lot of us don’t have that schedule and it would be absurd for this week’s advice to be:  Get a full schedule at all the great rooms!  Duh!  So what do we do about credentials in the meantime?  Go ahead, namedrop for the youngsters and the drunk girls at the party, but let your act prove how good you are.  In other words, don’t go around thinking you’re better than your are (someone should’ve told 23 year old Rob this) just because you’ve worked with bigger names.  As comics, it’s not hard for us to find reasons to dislike each other.  It’s okay to share stories about famous guys with your friends, but don’t overplay it.

Rob, didn’t you post a picture of yourself with Rob Schneider and his compliments this summer?  Yes I did.  That was more to break up the monotony of pet pictures and ecards, not a credential.  It was a really cool night that I was proud of, but I would never use that trying to get booked anywhere.  We can all pretend to our fans and family that the famous person has a say about who opens for them, but the real truth is that most of the time they don’t.  Almost everyone, including myself, loves working with famous comics because of the crowds, and it’s always fun to get to talk to a celebrity, but let it be humbling, not an ego booster.

*Thank you to a comic buddy for asking about this topic.  If anyone else has any questions please feel free to email me about them.

For other tips on how to make sure your entire comedy community doesn’t hate you, order Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage (now available on Amazon Kindle at a discounted price!)

Should comedy always come first?

This might be another yes and no answer.  When you’re a working comic, you have to do shows instead of the normal things a person would do.  Be prepared to miss important moments like weddings, birthdays, holidays and other events that you would normally make a Facebook album of pictures for.  Ask the comedians who tour full-time how many New Year’s Eves or Valentine’s Days they’ve spent with a significant other over the years.  Actually, a lot of them don’t have a significant other because of comedy.  So in that aspect, yes, comedy should come first.

When should it not come first?  A lot of comics start in their early to mid-twenties with nothing else going on in their life.  No spouse, no kids, no career, so comedy seems like the natural fit.  It doesn’t even have all that messy paperwork.  I talked with an old comic buddy of mine, Bob Cook, who could relate to how we all felt back then.  We discussed how a lot of us were not socially successful in high school and felt the need for that validation.  With a little success on stage we easily fell in love with the idea of being a popular comedian.  Bob summed it up really well by saying, “A lot of people jump in and prioritize comedy above logic.”  With that first taste of validation it’s easy to go crazy and even get cocky from a little social success.  What people overlook is that you need to have the rest of your life in order if you’re going to make something of yourself in this business.  Once Bob finally got a few paying gigs he ended up having problems getting to them because he didn’t have a reliable car.  Reliable cars usually take a full-time job to afford, so those who want comedy to be their full-time job are stuck working elsewhere in the meantime.  Slow down.  Make sure you’re financially and emotionally stable enough to start road work.  Bob even told me the old line around Columbus, “Don’t answer a call from an unknown number, it’s probably just Bob needing a ride.”  He said it was not the best reputation to have.

During this mean time of getting yourself a solid 25 minutes, make sure you’re working on getting the rest of your life towards the same consistent stability.  If you have a weakness as a person, the road will find it and make it your downfall.  Look what it’s done to even some of the most successful comics in history.  Learn things like responsibility, social skills (personal and business), budgeting, and saying no before you start touring.  One of the biggest criticisms of today’s younger generation is how they struggle to communicate.  It’s amazing how many people I encounter are still unaware of basic courtesies (to be fair, a lot of them are the freshmen I teach English to, but they’ll be adults in a few years).

For more tips on surviving the road (and getting there in the first place) read Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.

Does it matter how long you’ve been performing?

It should only matter to you.  As of last Tuesday I’m now at 13 years.  What’s gotten me through?  My other careers.  There was the bank, substitute teaching and now full-time teaching as well as a marriage.  Without the two things that are more important to me than working the road (my wife and my teaching), I don’t know what I would write most of my material about.  So yeah, thirteen years blah blah blah.

Anyway, I wanted to point out that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been performing.  There’s no way to gauge how far along you should be because of all of the variables.  Yes at 13 years I should be headlining, but instead of making headlining money I earn it from a different outlet so that doesn’t matter (as much) to me.  It took me six years to become comfortable featuring and another three to become strong at thirty minutes.  I’m a bit of a late bloomer.

This week’s advice is this…Don’t feel bad or good about where you are and how long/short it took you to get there.  In Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage I tell a story about a headliner who tries to subtly brag about how few years he had been performing by casually slipping it into the conversation.  It made him sound bad and I haven’t heard anything about him since.

On the other side, comics who try to brag about how long they’ve been at it can sound just as pathetic because half the time they’re doing it at an open mic show with no sign of any professional shows on the horizon.  What little respect you might hope to gain by telling everyone how long you’ve been performing will probably be lost in the judgement of the others listening.

How to tell you’re getting old…

The first time it happened I wasn’t even thirty yet.  I was working Sabo’s “Grumpy Dave’s” room in Bowling Green, Ohio when I had a room full of college kids.  This will be cake I thought.  The first time I ever did a feature set was a year or two before that at the Hokie House of Virginia Tech and it went well, so why shouldn’t this?  College kids are in their 20s, I’m in my twenties–what could go wrong?  A few missed 80s references later I realized that college wasn’t as recent as I thought.  I was getting old. 

I’m now 35 and there have been a few instances since then–college gigs, open mic nights, and bar shows with a much younger demographic.  Perhaps the pinnacle of that was last Thursday at Deja Vu on college I.D. night.  I probably had the worst set I’ve ever had on that stage in the eight or nine weeks I’ve worked there.  The doormen and MC had warned me that Thursdays were getting tougher/chattier/younger.  I stared into the back center of the room and saw at least a half-dozen faces glowing from cellphones right before the show started.  Opening with two quick jokes about marriage didn’t make things any better.  The weirdest part was how offended these kids got (they moaned and groaned at anything that wasn’t PC).  To the sides there were tables of adults who I ended up thanking mid-set for “getting” it.  They could see I was trying (I refuse to use the word battling when talking about performing) and I even got three applause breaks from them just to help cancel out the moans.  On top of that, the bouncers had to shush the back tables because God forbid kids shut the hell up and just laugh when they drink. 

So yes, it’s these damn kids I’m complaining about!  What can be done?  Well, there’s a reason comics get paid so well for actual college gigs.  There’s a certain style college kids like that some comics may consider a step down.  I’m not saying that great college comics aren’t good–some comics are just universally funny, but for the rest of us, we have to make a few adjustments.  First, realize ahead of time which references are outdated to people born in 1994.  Second, adjust your opening jokes to something they’ll laugh at right away.  How?  Use local humor (which is usually a good idea anywhere).  Third, be “louder” on stage.  Not by yelling, but just by becoming a bigger presence.  Treat it like you’re on a large stage at a theater gig.  Give them a chance to breathe less often so that they might go twenty minutes without checking their phones.  One of the nice things about Columbia is the shorter sets, so you can keep the rapid fire going.  College still kids like clever material as much as mainstream crowds, just be sure you own it unapologetically.  They’ll eventually catch on that their groaning doesn’t bother you.  Deliver those jokes slightly aloof to their response in other words.  I think groaning is now their way of letting you know they understand your joke and its cruel nature.  As comics we appreciate laughter more, but some of us swear that any response is a good response. 

For more advice on special situations like the above, check out Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  I appreciate any sharing of this blog as well.