8 Ways to Update Your Setlist

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

4 Tips For Getting Re-booked When You MC a Club…

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:

  1. 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!”
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

5 Things Not to Do at Your First Open Mic

Each week at the open mic I attend there’s usually one or two new comics. These are the common mistakes they almost all seem to make…

1. Taking too long to get to the stage:  You know how every comedian’s Netflix special starts with them making the long walk to stage while their introduction is being given? This isn’t for open mic. You need to be a step or two away from the stage be the time the host says your name. Stop with the pre-set rituals in the back of the room and watch how others time it better.

2. Lowering the mic after a punchline:  For some reason this makes you look ridiculous–like you’re cueing the audience to laugh after your joke. It’s very distracting so don’t make it a habit. Hold the mic like other comics, too–not a musician/hip-hop artist.

3. Over-excessive movements: As someone who isn’t proud of the “physical comedy” I did the first 4 years of my career, trust me–whatever you’re doing, whether it gets laughs or not, is going to cost you more gigs than it gets you. Just trust me. Stay on your feet.

4. “Shock” humor: This is typically a joke that you’ve been sitting on for years. Your friends think it’s hilarious and say, “Anyone that doesn’t like that shit is just too PC!”  Well, they’re wrong. You’re failing to pull off a topic of a high degree of difficulty. Start with the basics before you ruin the show.

5. Taking anything on stage: Other than a setlist (and you probably shouldn’t need this either if you’re starting out), you don’t need anything else in a sub-5 minute set. The worst was back when smoking was legal inside and open mic comics would wait until they were in front of the mic to light up (this actually happened). You don’t need a drink, your phone, props, etc. You should be able to do a few minutes without the aid of anything else.

*Oh, and move the mic stand out of the way if you take the mic out of it.

For more tips on starting and progressing through the different levels of stand-up comedy as a profession, check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage which is available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, etc.


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).

Don’t Give Your Show Away…

This whole post was inspired by something that happened this morning. I’ll explain…

There’s an old piece of advice to never turn down stage time. Afterall, a comic starting out should get as much experience as possible, right?  Unfortunately, part of that experience teaches you when not to take the stage.

In 18 years, the worst gigs I’ve ever done were unpaid.  Opening for bands, performing at a conference, opening a meeting…no, no and no.  These are the types of gigs that if you’re going to do, you should charge a ridiculous amount for. They’re extremely challenging and odds are, the audience isn’t expecting a comedy show. When a crowd isn’t expecting OR paying for comedy, your job becomes 10 times harder.

When this happens, you’re doing a disservice to the comedy industry because the next morning all of those people will vent: “…And they had a comedian up there trying to be funny, and it was awful.”

“So many comedians just aren’t funny these days.”

“I know, I think I’ll boycott the local shows forever!”

Perhaps an exaggeration, but in the long run, you’re going to hurt the reputation of that many people’s opinion on live stand-up comedy.

The next part is, once you’re actually a legit comedian who has been paid multiple times for performing, don’t give it away. It’s the same as asking your tattoo artist buddy for a freebie, or some other artisan to give their skill away. It cheapens the industry. The only exception for this is when you’re performing for charity or showcasing for something that might further your career. As a poor comic, it’s nice to be able to donate the only thing that you can sometimes.

As I said, this post was brought on by something I was just asked to do. A colleague at UMSL asked if I could do a session in a teacher workshop this September. I agreed because it’s a day out of my classroom, I can sell books, and I like sharing tips and ideas with fellow teachers. Once approved, she added that I can “wake up the workshop with 25 minutes of my comedy bit” at 8:30 in the morning. 25-year-old Rob would’ve happily agreed, but 40-year-old Rob knows better. This is something I’d charge at least $500 for suffering through and that’s not in their budget. I kindly declined and explained why.

For more tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, order my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage via Amazon, Kindle, Nook, etc.


6 Things I Would Do Differently If I Could Start My Comedy Career Over…

If I could start my comedy career over, here are 6 things I would do differently…

  1. Establish a better reputation. Comedians gossip. I got to hear a lot of it as a doorman at the Columbus Funnybone. It made me feel like part of the mix when I could participate in these conversations with headliners. I’d make fun of other comics as if I was any better, just trying to fit in. While I don’t think I ever had a bad reputation, it would’ve been nice to be on that short list of comics who everyone loves because they’re so ridiculously pleasant and positive to be around. I realize this positive-thinking stuff is hard to find within the industry.
  2. Put my profession in front of personal relationships. Something I didn’t understand early in my career is that being a comedian makes you miss a lot of important moments in life. My dumbass turned down a week of hosting at a very nice club in another state, because I would’ve had to cancel anniversary plans with my girlfriend at the time. It was our two month anniversary. It was a pretty big booker too. Again, I was a dumbass. I cringe as I think at how much more work that could’ve led to. Establish your career before you establish your relationship or else he or she won’t understand right away what the strains of working the road are…plus you’ll be poor which they won’t care for either.
  3. Record and listen to every set. I still suck at this. It’s not like there isn’t time when you’re out on the road. They say professional athletes spend hours in the film room to get better; the same has to be true with comedians. If it’s painful to listen to or watch, figure out why and change it. Otherwise you could make a bad habit permanent, and stunt the growth of your career.
  4. Write about every gig. Journal what went right and why as well as what didn’t and why it failed. Keep track of the people you worked with at the gig–the servers, bartenders, managers, and other comics because when you return you can reestablish that awesome new friendship you felt like you had after that third post-show drink.  When you build relationships with the people around your shows, it helps your following.  You should also note what jokes work better with different types of crowds.  Did you know that the people in Little Rock, Arkansas don’t have a good sense of humor about any jokes that suggest they’re a tad redneck? (Most places proudly admit it.)  Which cities are super-conservative? Which managers are sticklers about how much time you do? These things matter if you’re going to return someday. It’s also a good place to log the local jokes you write for that particular gig.
  5. Shut up and listen. When I hosted for a lot of bigger names, I for whatever reason thought that anything I had to say was interesting. I had no life or comedy experience, yet I probably interrupted their advice to tell them about my boring day or a gig I did last in the prior week. Not only did this limit some of the advice they could give me, it probably scared them off. And I honestly think it was just a couple of drinks that made me like this, so to piggyback on this one…
  6. Stay completely sober while you’re working. You can make excuses that you’re funnier when you’re buzzed or high, but you’re probably more annoying to be around because of the things mentioned in #5.

Trust me on these things. If you’re interested in learning more about how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage which is available on Amazon, Kindle, Nook, iBooks, etc.

Stop Being A Loser on Stage

If you watch open mic week after week, you’ll start to hear a lot of the same kinds of material.

“I’m single.”

“I’m poor.”

I did the same thing because when I started at 22 I was single and poor…rather desperate even. Write what you know, right? The problem is that if you’re going to make the jump to performing in professional shows (which is what my book and this blog are for), you’re not going to connect with a majority of the audience.

Find something else to write jokes about if you want to be a part of bigger shows that pay.

I missed the Tinder generation of dating, but I imagine no one stresses how poor and lonely they are on there. “Lovable loser” has its comedy limits too.  Most of your crowd at paying shows are going to be married couples who have careers and more ambition. Your material might be “cute,” but if you’re going for sympathy, that tends to trump funny.

I advise you to go through each joke in your set, and if there’s a hint of “this will gain sympathy” you should ask yourself whether it’s really worth keeping.

A successful vibe is going to attract more people. In the last few years of my career I’ve booked quite a few well-paying shows just from people in the crowd afterwards.

In that long open mic list, you have to find a way to make your material stand out.

(And if you’re looking to attract someone from stage, joking about how single you are isn’t the way to wow them either. I’ve knew a comic who would always lie and say that he had a girlfriend on stage because he said it attracted more women.)

For more tips on how to make money in stand-up comedy, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage which is available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, etc.

6 Tips for Corporate Gigs

Corporate gigs can be some of the must lucrative shows you’ll get.  They’re most common in the month of December during Christmas party season. There’s a price though, as they often require a lot of experience just to get through. I once performed a half-hour set at noon in a break room with no microphone for $50. I asked for $200, they countered with less.  I should’ve said no. I could’ve used these tips, but it was 2002 and I was dumb.

Here are some things to remember:

  1. Charge a lot–Usually it’s “nobody’s money” and they’re using a budget they were given. If a low-ball figure like $250 for a show is too much for them, that foreshadows what type of crap gig you’re doing.  Think of it as a survivor fee. A lot of comics name a number they don’t think they’ll accept because they hate corporate gigs so much. If they do, at least it’s a nice payday.
  2. Find an opener–Pay someone a percentage of your earnings to break the ice for you. It might be the first comedy show for some of your audience, so they need to see how it works. $50 for 5-10 minutes should cover it.
  3. Be clean–Even if they tell you it’s okay to say “anything within reason,” start super clean and test them out. It’s not that they’re overly moral, it’s that they’re afraid to laugh around their coworkers about certain topics. Ask what’s taboo.  You never know when a specific tragedy just hit a company, so find out what’s off limits. Discuss how clean you need to be on the phone while booking.
  4. Make sure you have a stage (space), lighting, and sound system. Also, agree on how long the show will be ahead of time. Sometimes they think these things are going to go for hours. Discuss all this over the phone beforehand.
  5. Get a contract or some sort of paperwork signed ahead of time. If they wrong you, at least you can warn others. They usually draw up the invoice.
  6. Do your research on the company.  It can be hard to write fresh new jokes for something you don’t know much about, so if that’s the case, make your ignorance to their expertise funny.  Get to these jokes early (but not first) in your set. Start into them after you’ve established some laughs with your usual opening jokes.

For more tips on how to make money and progress your career in stand-up comedy, read my book Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.