Here’s some advice based on my experience…
10. It’s our only job. Almost every comic has some other side hustle to help pay the bills. Substitute teaching, tutoring, driving Uber, commercial work/modeling, voiceovers, or any of the other freelance type of moneymakers are almost always necessary when you’re a comedian. My “side hustle” of substitute teaching turned into my primary career and now my career as a comedian benefits from the constant public speaking and the health insurance.
9. There’s a circuit. This assumptions seems to be mentioned by middle-aged men after every show. People imagine a comedian’s schedule magically appearing like an MLB schedule with gigs lined up in various cities for us. Yes, comics may get help from bookers or managers, but you have to achieve quite a bit of success for that to happen. Most of us work our way into a club in the same way someone gets a new job. You have to know someone, reach out, and if you’re lucky they’ll let you do a short set without pay, and if you do well enough then maybe you’ll get 3 nights there per year.
8. “You can use this in your act.” No. We can’t. It’s a story in context from your perspective. We can’t use your anecdote in our act. Great, your family is crazy, but no one else wants to hear about them. Also, we’re probably just laughing along to be polite.
7. Comedy is a good way to impress the opposite sex. Until they sober up. There aren’t comedy groupies out there like what guitarists might experience. People come to comedy shows on dates, and then they go home. The comedian goes back to his or her hotel alone. Comedy groupies are not the type you want to date either…especially if your comedian buddies work that town too.
6. Touring full-time is the ultimate goal. This might be true for the first part of your career, but then you get old and tired of traffic and flight delays. Ask a veteran comic and they’ll tell you they’d rather have a writing deal or act on a sitcom. Movies and television syndication is the ultimate goal, not to mention being able to turn down gigs you don’t want to take. When you reach that point, you can still tour, and you don’t even need to be as funny to sell tickets.
5. Comedians only work one hour a night. The ones who do are no longer in clubs. They’re doing the same tired act at bars for much less money. Comedians have to write, revise, listen to their own recordings, attend open mics, promote, organize touring, drive hours and hours, and (see #1).
4. The comedy club feeds you. If you’re working an A room, then yes, you get 1 free meal a night. For the other 20+ hours of the day, you buy your own food. If you’re staying at the comedy club condo, stock up on groceries. If it’s a hotel, take advantage of the free breakfast…and the lobby apples…and the lobby cookies.
3. The gig pays for travel. If only. Until you’re a big-time headliner with a sweet contract, you pay your own way. We drive and pay for our own gas knowing that the profit isn’t much, but it’s an opportunity we answer for some reason. Flying is expensive, and if the show gets canceled, too bad.
2. It doesn’t feel like work. Sometimes it doesn’t. When I’ve done nothing else in the day and the gig is well organized and packed, performing is easy. But after I’ve taught 5 classes a day or driven for hours to a show, I’m tired. There are gigs outside of comedy clubs where it takes every ounce of focus and experience to be successful. While it may look like the comedian is having the time of his or her life, sometimes all the comic is thinking is, “How much longer until this set is over?”
1. Heckling helps comedians be funnier. They might bring a funny moment, but we’d rather not deal with them. First, it’s definitely work. Second, we have our act planned out and a heckler takes away from material that we’ve crafted and find important enough to put in our sets. Third, drunk people shouldn’t be rewarded with attention, nor should they think they deserve any credit ever.
Feel free to share and add any other myths I didn’t mention.
For tips of how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Nook, etc.
I’m going to start posting video advice on here too. Subscribe to my channel and check out new tips. They’re quick, but helpful. Here’s the first release:
Credits can get you on certain stages, but they won’t do anything for you once your act begins. In fact, the more the audience is aware of your credits, the higher their expectations are set.
In one of the first shows I hosted back in 2000, a guest set had writing credentials for some episodes of Seinfeld. He didn’t tell me to use this as his intro, but I did anyway (erroneously), and according to the doorman, as soon as I said it the comic swore under his breath on his way to the stage. Then he bombed.
During open mic when I’m trying new stuff, if the host asks if I want a special intro, I decline.
The most common type of credit is “he/she has opened for (famous person).” It sounds impressive to your friends—and sure, other comedians become jealous, but a lot of the time you only land those gigs from being in the right place at the right time. I worked with a lot of big names during the first and worst five years of my career when I probably didn’t deserve to.
“Opened for…” credits are overrated. You know the booker, not the famous comic (or perhaps said famous comic knows you’re easy to follow).
Non-stand-up comedy credits are another illusion. What can you do off-stage that possibly translates to being good at stand-up? Writing? (see above example) Acting? (There are a lot of actors who suddenly think they’re comics).
*The only exception seems to be pro wrestlers. I’ve heard they’re doing great.
Credits can intrigue some people enough to look you up and see if you’re worth giving a chance. Or they can even help you raise your price…but once you’re on that stage, you need to be able to back it up or the people without credits will be the first to mock your pseudo success.
Until the venue needs you more than you need the venue, your credits aren’t that important.
So what credits really matter? The ones that are never announced or posted. Bookers who say you’re funny and tell each other. Their word is trusted more than any comic’s testimonial. They’re always going to be more honest.
It’s okay to be proud of what you’ve done, but it doesn’t mean you’re a better comic than the one people haven’t heard of. It’s how you do on stage that really matters. Keep that in mind next time you get jealous.
For more tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, available on Amazon, Kindle, Nook, iTunes, etc.
- Be awake and have plenty of energy. Give yourself at least an hour to “wake up” before you go on air. Coffee, obviously. Be able to match the enthusiasm in the room or you’ll struggle to get a word in.
- Listen to the show on the way there. This allows you to blend in with their style a little easier. See if there’s a topic you can callback. You’ll also learn their names, and hosts respect this.
- Be prepared with material. Most deejays will ask you ahead of time if there are topics you want to talk about, so be able to lead the conversation into some of your quick punchlines.
- Don’t press the envelope on content. They have much stricter regulations, and if they’re worried about what you’ll say, they’ll wrap up your airtime early.
- Ask to play along with whatever games they have. Their listeners love their regular bits, so have fun being a part of them. Add your own touch to it for easy laughs and to stay on the air longer.
- Take the initiative to get on the air. Sometimes clubs organize appearances for you, but not always. Send out some emails on your own or use social media to reach out to the on-air personalities. If they can’t fit you on, sometimes they’ll at least plug the show or let you call in. Look up addresses of the stations too. A lot of times they’re all located in the same building, so you can cover a wide variety of listeners.
- Plug all your info. Be sure you’re aware of showtimes, promotions, and anything else you can say to attract people to the show. Include your web page and social media handles too.
- Send a thank you note and stay in touch. This will help you for next time through. Radio can do wonders for filling the seats.
Radio isn’t just for headliners, clubs will often send the feature too. Building a following is a great way to get re-booked and move up the ranks.
For more tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, order my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage. It’s also available in ebook format on Kindle, Nook, iTunes, etc.
In the last few years some of my highest paying shows have come from performing at fundraisers. How do you get booked by people outside of the comedy business for fundraisers? Be funny at other fundraisers. The same audiences are going to the same types of fundraisers. These are community volunteers or organizers of whatever small-to-mid-level association or town. They’re not comedy bookers, but I’ve heard numerous times: “We wanted to try something different this year so we thought we’d give comedy a chance.”
The challenge is that you’ll be performing in a venue often not suited for comedy, in front of a crowd who isn’t a regular at the comedy club. You cannot rely on these organizers to decide how much to censor yourself. They know little to nothing about stand-up.
The common organizer thinks very linear as to what “crosses the line.” If there’s a limit, they often say, “No f-bombs, but everything else should be okay. We’re all adults here.” They’re thinking strictly about cuss words, not subject matter. They can’t even begin to imagine some of the creative descriptions you’ve derived from words that, by themselves, are much more innocent. Your act has words and phrases they didn’t know existed, and they’ve underestimated your “creativity.”
As a comic at one of these gigs, you must use toe-in-the-water jokes to see exactly where the line is. If they cringe at something instead of laughing, you need to be able to laugh at your own mistake, acknowledge it with a smile, and adjust accordingly. If you continue to push, you’re going to lose them for the remainder of your set and possibly destroy any chance of comedy ever returning to their venue.
Some of you might be thinking: So what? I still get paid. They said no f-bombs and I didn’t say one. That’s their problem for booking comedy. I’m never coming back to this crap town anyway.
As I mentioned earlier, the people in these crowds are often the ones who organize their own fundraisers or know of people in neighboring towns with similar needs. Sometimes I exchange information with two or three people after each gig. A few months later I’m contacted for “something like you did for so-and-so back in November…”
Or, if you’re an opener, think about how you’ll affect that headliner’s set. Is he or she going to bring you next time? Or suggest you for someone else’s opener?
For those who want to make comedy their career, these one-nighters are going to become more and more of your income. Clubs are becoming tougher to get into because the trend is to book big-name headliners while only choosing local openers (to save on costs). Accept early that the business is bigger than you and your First Amendment Rights. Until the clubs need you more than you need them, you don’t get free range.
For more tips on making money in stand-up, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage available on Amazon, iTunes, Nook, etc.
Last month I went and saw my favorite band, Modest Mouse, perform in Springfield, MO (yes, I like them that much). It’s the 7th time I’ve seen them, but the first time that I felt a little letdown by the performance. I think they’re going through the same thing I went through this weekend while I headlined five shows in three nights. Like me, they’re tired of most of their setlist.
Somehow I’ve become that older comic who the younger ones probably all mock because of how aged some of my jokes are. I have one joke about my brother’s birthday that debuted when he was 25. He turns 38 next month. I have two jokes that could legally vote. They’ve worked and that’s why I’ve kept them, but I feel like my performances have become stale, especially at the club where I’ve performed them most often. So I’m calling myself out here. I need to rewrite as much of my act as I can.
Before I continue my pity party, I’ll make the excuse that it isn’t only because of laziness. As a teacher I have to come up with 15 lesson plans a week, and over the last few years I’ve written several books. It’s not that I’m not writing, I’m just not writing enough material. I’ve coasted through the last few years of comedy relying on experience rather than creativity. I need to make writing new material a higher priority. I still try new jokes almost every week at open mic, but that isn’t cutting it.
So if you’ve found this to be the case for yourself, here are some ideas I’ve come up with to freshen up the act. They aren’t breakthrough ideas that no one’s thought of before–I guess this blog is more for me than anyone else.
- Carry around a notebook at all times. The notes in the phone aren’t effective for me for some reason. I need paper and a pen and then I can expand on that little idea. It’s especially important to have one by the bedside at night because I never remember my “genius” premise the next morning.
- Don’t be afraid to bomb at open mic. My friend Nathan Orton said this to me last night as I was whining about this whole realization. At this point in my career, jokes that fail at open mic aren’t going to kill my career.
- Expand on “keepers.” There are a few bits that I’ve added in the last 6 months. I believe I can expand on them much more.
- Permanently cut the bits you aren’t proud of. I’ve done a so-so job of this over the years, but as I thought about some of my coworkers who attended my show last night…yeah, there’s stuff I could go without saying. I’m 41 and it’s not 2005 anymore. Culture and values have changed.
- Update the style. My set’s always been pretty “silly-punchliney” which isn’t the most modern type of comedy anymore. In music, yes electric guitars are still used, but everyone needs to evolve their art. That doesn’t mean I need to by Johnny Storyteller, but that seems to be the direction people are going. I think “story” is a strong word though.
- Find different topics. My main shtick is teacher jokes because that’s what I do most of the year. Everyone has attended high school so they get’em. I’m tired of it, and it’s ridiculous how dis-proportionate my set is with teacher jokes.
- Look back in old notebooks. Comics become better joke writers every year. There are bits that previously never made it into the main set that I’ve recycled from years ago because now I know how to make them funnier.
- Freewrite on a premise. If you have a premise and even one punchline for it, force yourself to write 3 pages on the topic. Something else should come out of there.
That’s what I have for now. I know that I’ll get out of this funk and get some new material out there soon. It usually happens in chunks. Thank you for everyone who’s sat through my act so many times (especially my wife). I think with new material I’ll have a new energy to bring and performing will be as fun as ever. In the meantime, I need to get to work.
Oh, and here’s my blog’s merch table. Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage is available on Amazon, iTunes, Kindle, etc. for anyone looking to make money in stand-up.
At the MC level most comics are in the same range of “funny” so the managers are often booking based on other factors. They want someone who is low maintenance. If you cause extra stress, no matter how funny you are, you’re hurting your chances of future work. Here’s how to stay low-maintenance:
- Stick to your time. Doing more than your allotted time to prove that you have enough minutes to feature actually hurts your chances of ever being promoted. Not once has a manager thought, “Wow, I gotta give this new emcee a bigger portion of the show!”
- Don’t abuse club privileges. You can probably comp some people, but do that well enough ahead of time, not during the rush of seating. If your friends miss out, that’s on them. Also, don’t burn the club on free food and drinks. Keep your orders low-budget and simple, and also avoid ordering during the rush. You can explore the dinner menu and top shelf liquors more when you’re a headliner (although most of them know better too).
- Do the announcements right. You being funny helps people have a good time and want to come back, but honestly, there are two other comics who are there for that. The way you increase business is by promoting what the clubs tells you to promote in the announcements.
- Stay out of the way and don’t annoy the other comics. Remember, these other comics have probably known the manager for years. Be a listener instead of blabbing about your experiences. Before and after the show, stay out of the way, but make sure you’re not hard to find in case the manager needs to tell you something.
The largest chapter of my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage, covers the very important role of emceeing and finally getting paid to perform. If you’re interested in progressing through the ranks and earning money performing comedy, order a copy on Amazon, Kindle, Nook, iBooks, etc.