Using a stage name – can you live with it?

Hello Dave – I am very proud of my name, but for as long as I can remember people have never been able to say it. I’m starting to wonder if I should go with a stage name. Even if you are against them, how do you go about using a stage name? How do you manage introducing yourself and, in the future, how do you handle payment when you go by a stage name? Thanks – K

Fill in the blank.

Hey K. – The question you need to ask about using a stage name is if you can live with it. And if you happen to become successful – can you live with it for a looong time?

It might be cool now, but what if you get tired of it later? If you’re just starting your career and still learning who you are on stage, what if that name doesn’t fit anymore? For an extreme example, using the name “Goofy” (sorry Disney fans) might get some laughs at an open-mic, but somehow I don’t see it enhancing the career of a corporate comedian.

I could be wrong, which is not unheard of. Then again, it’s something to think about.

Let’s put it another way. If you’re just starting out in your career, you might be wearing jeans and a t-shirt on stage. But as you progress, maybe you grow into wearing a suit and tie. I’ve seen it happen. But if all your promo material (photos and videos) shows you in jeans – then you’ll have to update everything.

But one thing that is more difficult to change is name recognition. If all your contacts and clients know you by name, then changing your name means you need to introduce yourself all over again. It’s like starting from scratch.

So if you’re considering a stage name, be sure you can live with it for a looong time.

Carrot Top

This topic has come up in my books How To Be A Working Comic and Comedy FAQs And Answers. In the first one, Scott Thompson told me there was already a comic actor with that name. Since Scott was a marketing major in college, he was educated enough to know he needed something that was different and “marketable.”

So he went with Carrot Top. To quote him from the book:

“The first time someone across campus yelled, ‘Hey, Carrot Top!’ I thought, ‘Oh Lord, do I really wanna do this to myself?’ But now it’s second nature.”

The second book example comes from the comedian Earthquake:

“Earthquake was a childhood name. My real name is Nathaniel Stroman. And when you play for an urban audience, it just don’t roll off the tongue. You know, ‘Give it up for Nathaniel Stroman!’ ‘Boo, *#@#*! Boo!!’ That’s right off your name! So I had to get something that would give me a fighting chance.”

A stage name is totally a personal decision. If you already have a nickname or come up with something memorable, give it a shot. But keep in mind if you start finding success under that name, it’s very tough to change. Just ask John Cougar Mellencamp.

Introducing yourself is another matter. You can choose to have an entertainment persona and a personal life. There are some very famous celebrities who do just that. The former drummer of The Beatles is known throughout the world as Ringo Starr. But his family and friends call him “Ritchie” since his real (and legal) name is Richard Starkey. To the best of my knowledge, his appearances, promotions and autographs are by “Ringo Starr” and for contracts and payments it’s for “Richard Starkey.”

And for those of us outside his close circle of friends and relatives it’s Sir Richard Starkey.

So in your comedy career, you should promote yourself as your stage name and handle all business as your legal name. When it comes to your personal life, do what you wish.

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In the comedy biz I’ve seen more stage names than you might think. And usually I’ve had no idea the performer was using a stage name until their real name was on a contract.

So if you don’t change your name legally, you’ll eventually end up using both. It can be confusing sometimes, but for promotional purposes everything is done using your stage name. For legalities it’s your real name.

BUT before I go into this more, it’s important for me to make it clear I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. I’m just passing it along based on my past experiences. So before you even think about following the following, make a smart move and talk with a real lawyer.

Years ago when I was managing comedians and speakers, I asked a lawyer and a banker about performers using a stage name. I thought they would be the two most important people to ask if the talent wanted to get paid – and pay me a commission.

Earthquake

The advice was to have a bank account in your legal (real) name. If a talent booker writes you a check using your stage name, you sign the back with your stage name. Then underneath, you sign your real name.

It’s a double endorsed check, which is legal and can be deposited in your legal name bank account.

But if you’re looking at direct bank deposits (rare in the performing biz since most bookers and event planners pay with checks, cash or through an online service like PayPal), then you’ll have to use your stage name for all appearances and promotions, and your legal name on all contracts and other business paperwork.

Using two names has been done a lot before and will continue. You just need to be very clear about everything for contracts, tax forms, and all the other important legal stuff.

Many performers have chosen not to change their hard-to-pronounce names, have become famous, and people learn to say their names correctly because they hear it so often. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an example. I saw him interviewed on television once and he said his goal was to become so famous that Americans would have to learn how to pronounce it. At first his mispronounced name was a punch line for every late night television and radio host. But eventually, everyone knew it and could say it. Guess his plan worked – all the way to blockbuster movies and the California Governor’s Mansion.

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Another consideration for a name change should include any future showbiz career goals.

If you ever get into acting or voice overs, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) – merged since 2012 as “SAG-AFTRA” – only allow ONE name in their membership. So if you choose something simple like “Goofy” and someone else is already registered by that name in the union, you’ll have to pick something else.

That’s true also if you’re using your legal name.

So my advice is to make the change only if you think it’s really necessary and will further your career. But be sure you can live with it. The only one I can think of who “took it back” after he became famous was John Cougar… uh, I mean John Mellencamp.

More advice?

My last name has been mispronounced every way possible. So when I have a speaking gig, I give the person introducing me a printed introduction (in a larger font than what you’re reading here). On it I have my name spelled out phonetically as “Sch-wen-sen.” That way they can usually say it correctly. Since you mentioned being very proud of your name, I would suggest trying that for a while before making the huge commitment of changing it.

If you still decide to go with a stage name, keep in mind there’s already a Carrot Top and Earthquake in the acting unions. You’ll have to come up with something original and one you can live with – maybe forever.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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