The best and easiest way to get into a new club is to feature for a headliner they know and trust. Here’s the thing, if you’re a strong feature act, a lot of headliners aren’t going to want to follow you night after night. Yes, the great ones with large draws have the courage and ability to do so, but think back to how many not-so-great features you’ve seen open for big-name headliners who are more famous than funny? What I’m saying is don’t feel bad if no one ever takes you on their tour.
Going to a club’s open mic night often doesn’t help much either. If it’s a bigger room, the manager/booker isn’t there scouting new talent (Hell, you may not even get on the list!) If he/she is on location, they’re probably taking care of paperwork in the office. Your goal should be to try and get a guest set during one of their actual shows. Since the economy (and comedy club) crash of ’07, it’s rare to find a room that has shows Wednesday-Sunday (Some clubs used to even do Tuesday-Sunday). Your best bet is to aim for Thursday or Sunday night if they’re open on those evenings. If it’s a struggling weekend-only club, you can do a spot on a show, but probably the late one with less people. This is where your networking with headliners can be beneficial. Check out a club’s schedule, see who you know on it, and if they respect your act, ask them about doing a guest set during the week. If they respect your act, they’ll do what they can to get you on stage. If not, their effort will be slightly lower or they’ll make an excuse about it. To feel this out, start by asking them if they’ll give you the manager/booker’s email address. If they offer more help than that, you’re in good shape. Do this around a week or so out. Don’t try to book a guest set 4 months ahead of time; that shows an empty calendar. It always helps to phrase your email to make it sound like you’re on your way to or from another paid gig.
If you don’t know a headliner on their upcoming schedule, call the ticket office or find an email address on the webpage and start this process half a week earlier.
Having a great guest set does not guarantee any sort of work. You’ll be lucky if the right person even sees it. The key is hanging out afterward (OVER-TIP), being remembered as a normal person (not one of those random weirdos with no social skills), and then doing another guest set in the next month or so. A lot of clubs have to know you as a person in order to leave a good impression on them. It’s just like a regular job in that a lot of places don’t hire strangers. Your second time around the manager is more likely to watch.
Even if you’re dirt poor, make it a goal to do at least one guest set a month outside of four hours from your home. This is the financial sacrifice you have to be willing to make to get work at a new club. So instead of buying all of those beers on open mic night, tacos on the way home, and video games, put it towards finding new work. Club work can grow exponentially because that’s where you’re going to have better odds of working with helpful people (comics or club managers). You also get a lot more stage time and can develop a rhythm while performing in the same setting every night.
I used to get so frustrated when I’d drive for hours to do an open mic and they’d put me up first before most of the crowd even got there, and then apologize afterwards. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were an actual comic. I wasn’t watching but I heard you did well.”
It’s really a tough process. Getting into a new club can be as hard as landing a new job, but once you’re in, that club can really build you up as a comedian and who knows, maybe it’ll lead to you finally headlining some year.
For more on the entire process of going from your first open mic to surviving the road, please read my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage. There are a few discounts on it right now via Amazon. (Also available on Kindle, iTunes, Nook, Kobo, etc.)