2 of the last 4 one-nighter’s I’ve done have had less than 20 people at them. It’s October, baseball playoffs have been in full swing (which was weird for Illinois people), and bars aren’t great at promoting their shows (thanks for that black and white promo taped above the urinal in your restroom). In fact, it’s a running joke among comics about how great a booker may make a gig sound, but then when you get there the manager says, “Well, we had 200 last week, but this week we’re up against (high school football, chili-fest, first day of hunting season, etc.), so numbers are a little low.” So other than the money you’re promised, what’s at stake?
Obviously, we can all say, “I’m still going to give it my all every show–I love comedy so much–blah blah blah.” Yes, do that…of course. But here are three things to do on top of that.
- Stay “excited” in front of management. Last night I did a gig where they didn’t separate the bar of 60 from the room of 9 we had watching. There was a roar the entire show, but it had to do with the Blues game the crowd of 60 was watching. I told the manager I would pretend there were a 100 people there. Managers talk to bookers, and if you don’t give your best effort (or complain, or belittle the gig), it gets back to the booker. They want comics who don’t complain and bitch and make them look bad.
- Sell your merch! There have been so many shows where I’ve seen headliners not even bother to sell their merch because they think it’s demeaning to sell anything with such a small crowd. Great–take advantage. A lot of times crowd members buy merch out of sympathy rather than actually wanting whatever tee-shirt you’re selling. If they see that you’re trying, they treat merch like a tip. Sometimes a crowd knows when it’s a bad crowd. (Ever notice how many people say, “Well we thought you were funny,” on their way out?) They feel your pain and feel guilty on behalf of the bad crowd. Cash in and at least make the rough set worth it.
- Realize that private gigs are at stake. Last month I was in Breese, Illinois. The crowd was great, but there were only 15 of them. I headlined, but they money was the average feature pay. Is it worth going to the middle of nowhere (no offense Breese), to be underpaid? Turns out, yes. A few days ago someone from that crowd emailed me about a Christmas show at the casino 10 minutes from my house. It’s going to pay marginally better.
So even when a gig seems like it will have zero effect on your career, you might be wrong.
For other tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.