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.