What’s the Worst Thing that Happens to a New Comic?

The first time I took the stage, I stacked the crowd with supportive friends and won $30 in a clap-off at a weekly open mic in Columbus.  “This is easy!” I didn’t look at my set until the following week an hour before the show. It wasn’t easy that week.

I got to MC for a lot of really big names in my first few years in Columbus. The economy hadn’t crashed, so it wasn’t uncommon to have over 200 people on a Tuesday or Wednesday night (back then, some clubs often did shows Tuesday through Sunday with no problem).  I’d get a week (9 shows!) of MC work every couple months and I coasted. I placed near the top at the local Funnybone contest until I finally tied for first, but five years into my career I was still mostly MCing instead of featuring. What went wrong? Early success. The 15 minutes I had worked well enough, so I barely wrote because I kept getting gigs until my home club just got tired of me (part of why I moved to St. Louis).

Early success is the worst thing that can happen to a new comic.  

When you’re rewarded for not having to work as hard, it gives you delusions of how the comedy industry actually functions. What I was experiencing wasn’t even success. Furthermore, failure can be what drives you (if you can get over whatever you failed at). I’ve pointed out in the past how the best thing that ever happened to St. Louis comedian Andrew Frank was when he didn’t advance in the local contest a few years ago. Beginning with the following week, I can’t remember someone who wrote so much every week since that point. Since then he’s won numerous contests, and he just finished a tour in Europe.

It’s great to post about a huge show with a big name or get local attention, but it doesn’t guarantee your career is taking off.  I also mention this to remind you of the jealousy that we all feel when someone we “know” we’re better than has success.  For example, suppose lucky local open mic comic is in the right place at the right time and gets to open for someone like Chris Rock in a theater show. That comic will have some cool stories and a ton of likes (for that picture where Chris Rock points at him), but unless Rock requests him or her for the next 32 dates, it’s a one-time thing. Club managers know better than to think that who you’ve opened for matters all that much. The next day that comic will still be working the day gig.

Contest wins can bring a lot of notoriety in your home town, but they aren’t going to jump-start your career unless they come with weeks of work.  I’ve received more work from the contests that I haven’t won. Speaking of contests, the most important ones are the ones that have industry there (bookers watching  and judging). The money is nice, but the promise of future work is much more important.  Don’t be heartbroken if you lose. It means nothing in the big picture of your career.

As a warning, don’t be content with your early success. Unless you’re paying your mortgage with your comedy earnings, you still have plenty of work to do.

For more tips on making money in the comedy business, read my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage via Amazon, Kindle, Nook, iBooks, etc.

Why Don’t My Jokes Work When I MC?

Some comics do very well at various open mics throughout the week. They don’t just make the back of the room laugh, they get the whole crowd. They’re like a spark that keeps the crowd alive and drinking, and even though you’ve seen their set a dozen times you still watch. Word spreads and the comic gets his or her first shot to MC at the local club where a crowd of 30 (most of them got in free) yawns through that comic’s same set. Why does this happen?

  1. Opening a show is the toughest spot there is. The crowd hasn’t heard itself laugh yet, so they’re a little self-conscious. They’re also trying to get seated and order drinks. This isn’t your fault, but it comes with the territory.  Years ago Nick Griffin advised me to open with my best joke. He explained how the crowd is eager to see if you’re funny or not. First impressions are important.
    From my experience, to do this you need to relate to them right away. Bring up something local (that you’ve tested before). That doesn’t mean hacky or stock, but if you have a home club, you should write an opening joke specific to that area. Or use a very quick setup-punchline joke to get that laugh asap. As host you can’t just dive straight into your act, so find a way to get through the mandatory welcoming announcements to get the attention from everyone. This can be as simple as mentioning the headliner’s name and getting one more round of applause for that.
  2. Your open mic jokes won’t always work at a comedy club. The big difference is the crowd. An open mic that starts Tuesday at 10:00 in at artsy neighborhood is going to have a much different taste for what’s funny than a married couple celebrating their 22nd anniversary on a Saturday night at the 7:00 show.  They stopped smoking pot 15 years ago and are freaking out because they suspect their teenage son is now. That hypothetical isn’t true with the entire crowd, but examine your material and see how universal it is to other demographics. Are they jokes you could do in front of people like your parents or 3rd-grade teacher? (Good news, if the club still does late shows your open mic material may work better for those shows, but that’s not what management cares about.)
  3. Adding onto that, you can’t start dirty. People haven’t loosened up yet, so give them some comedy foreplay before going blue or trying anything shocking–and if you’re hosting, odds are the other comics and club prefer you not go blue in the first fifteen minutes of the show anyway.  It’s hard to write clean. I understand that, but if you want to make money and get a lot more stage time hosting at a club you’ll need to abide. Dirtier or edgier jokes are harder to pull off well, and if it’s early in your career, perhaps your joke-writing ability isn’t there yet. Trust me, the dirty stuff I did the first few years of my career was an awful display of joke writing.

The real barometer of comedians is how well they can do in front of a bad crowd. Anyone should be able to kill in a packed room after a few comics have already performed. Experience teaches you how to “wake a crowd up” when the show is starting, or if they’ve been awful for everyone in front of you. Use your judgment on who or what you can throw under the bus if necessary. Whatever you try, do it with confidence that radiates a vibe the crowd trusts.

For more advice on how to make money in stand-up comedy, read my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage. It’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iBooks, Nook, or at RobDurhamComedy.com (for signed copies).