Submission tips for comedy festivals

Hey Dave – Your newsletters always advertise the next big comedy festival and website information. I have submitted to a few each year over the past few years. It can get pretty costly, so I limit myself to only three or four a year. Other than the general submission of filling out the forms and sending in a link to a video, are there some tips to getting noticed and accepted into these festivals? Thanks and I always look forward to receiving your weekly letters. – RT

Hey RT – Here’s one thing I love about the comedy industry in general:

The unknown.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows!

As always, more than a few people reading this will have opinions and advice concerning your question and I’ll share mine in a moment. But concerning your question about comedy festivals, what makes this biz so lovable – and sometimes maddening – is how diverse and contradictory much of the opinions and advice might be. I’ve spend too many late nights in comedy clubs (and NYC diners) talking with and listening to comics and industry people discussing trends, formulas, theories, what works, what doesn’t work, how to get work and where the industry is headed.

Then WHAM!!! A comic will come out of (seemingly) nowhere doing something completely different and opinions change.

To give this historic reference, go back to the generation that first watched George Carlin do his Hippie-Dippy Weatherman routine on national television. Then a few years later he released Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television. I can only imagine a lot of comics from his generation immediately scrubbed the grease out of their hair, grew beards, ditched suits for faded jeans and stopped worrying about censorship.

It was the WHAM!! of the unknown – the unpredictable. That’s what makes comedy exciting and funny. But then again, maybe that’s just my opinion…

So what does this have to do with RT’s question? There’s no general (safe, trendy, formulaic or whatever-you-want-to-call-it) answer. When submitting or auditioning for anything in the entertainment industry, there’s always the unknown factor.

Comedy festivals are like a comedy club audience. Each one has its own personality. Some are huge and slick entertainment extravaganzas and showcases for experienced and already popular performers, along with those they consider worthy of the title “up-and-coming.” Others are smaller events spotlighting local talent, local venues or even the hosting city in general.

There can also be a festival theme. For instance, with “Women In Comedy”… Well, guys need not apply. And if you want to be part of the “Clean Comedy Challenge,” don’t send a submission video loaded with F-bombs and tales about your sex life.

All these (and much more) are factors organizers consider when selecting comedians for festivals.

I specifically mentioned the unknown because unless you are the person or part of a group reviewing submissions, it’s impossible to predict what they might be looking for at that specific moment. You may send in a video you think is appropriate for all audiences, while another comic goes in a different direction aiming to offend everyone within earshot and gets the final festival slot in a late-night “anything goes” show. And of course the opposite could also happen. You never know.

It’s called the unknown factor.

There have been FAQ And Answer articles in the past about networking, “who you know” and basically, building connections in this business. In the chapter from my book How To Be A Working Comic about agents, it’s very clear the good ones know who the good comedians are in various cities. They score insider info through the comics they represent, by following what comics are getting bookings in good clubs, and talking with the talent bookers the agents work with. It’s the same with many festival organizers. They might give special attention or consideration based on great recommendations from other comedians and industry insiders when reviewing submissions. You never know.

It’s called the unknown factor.

But for my advice (you’ve been waiting patiently – correct?) a good way to put the odds in your favor is by treating this business as a professional. This is a major element of success. Your goal is to be funny, original, dedicated, experienced and reliable. These are the key factors for anyone that wants to be taken seriously in this business.

Without those… Well, pretenders need not apply.

Good talent bookers – and festival organizers – are very aware of this. Their jobs and/or festivals may feature amateurs, but to be successful they don’t run them as amateur events. If audiences leave disappointed chances are good they won’t return.

So how can you improve your chances of being selected?

Understanding there is an unknown factor you can’t control (organizers’ taste in comedy, themes, location – whatever), it’s important to show you can be a factor in making the event a success. And the best way to do that is show them you’re serious about the funny business.

When it comes to showing someone what you do without a live audition, your video submission is KEY. Yes, organizers want to know how much experience you have (resume / credits), but there are plenty of comics with plenty of experience who are still not funny. Video actually shows if that experience has paid off and if you really are funny.

Never submit an amateur-looking or sounding video. NEVER!

It’s not a big production effort or big money cost anymore to get a good quality video. Do some research to find out how much a local videographer charges to get a film of your set with good quality picture AND audio. Even a decent camera set up on a tripod in the back of club can also work. But NEVER submit a low-quality, hard to listen to video. You know the type I mean – filmed through a friend’s cell phone from a table with glasses clinking, people talking and the guy filming trying to steady a shaking hand.

Bookers want to see and hear you AND hear laughter from the audience. Having a good quality video shows you treat this business as a professional.

Also don’t waste any of the valuable time organizers will spend watching your video.

During a recent coaching session I was working with a very funny young comedian. He also had the same dilemma – not being chosen for a comedy festival. We watched his three-minute video submission and the FIRST thirty seconds included the MC walking on stage and introducing the comic. Then the young comedian came out and went through the old comedian tricks of shouting:

  • Hello (mention the city)!
  • Keep it going for your host and MC – isn’t he great?!” (Who cares? They want to see YOU).
  • Give yourselves a round of applause for coming out and supporting live comedy!” (The most overused stock line of all time).

“How much time?!”

That was the beginning of his video submission. Not funny or original. I can’t imagine that would make a great first impression on an experience talent booker looking for experienced talent. It was basically a waste of valuable submission time.

So what’s my point?

The best advice I can give is to treat your career as a business. Especially if you are planning to someday be a professional comedian. Show this in your festival submissions by sending in a good quality video. You NEVER want to look like an amateur – even if you are.

And BTW, there’s nothing wrong with being an amateur since everyone has to start out somewhere. But when you feel it’s time to go for that next career step, don’t give anyone an opportunity to reject you because a low quality video submission makes it appear you’re not ready for that opportunity.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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