Don’t reveal too much in your promo material

Hey Dave – I took your workshop about a year ago. When you did the session about business you talked about not putting your home address on your promotional material. Another comic told me I should put my address on my website, promo material and DVD’s if I’m serious about doing this. He said to give bookers every way possible to find me to hire me. What do you think?- E.H.

Hey E.H. – I think you need to hang out with different comics. Of course it’s good business sense to give talent bookers the best and easiest ways to contact you, but let’s not get too personal. When you’re promoting your business – which is you when you’re a comedian or humorous speaker – you have to network and let buyers (in our case meaning the people hiring you) know how to find you.

But it’s also important to realize it’s pretty much impossible to pick and choose who will end up viewing your promo material.

Never know who’s paying attention

Everything you post online or even post through the Postal Service (sometimes I embarrass myself with this word play) is fair game for just about anyone to see. So not only will talent bookers have a way to find you – so will everyone else.

As usual, I have a story about this. And I’ll share it with you – in a moment…

First of all, business methods have changed a LOT over the past few years for both comedians and humorous speakers. It wasn’t that long ago during my comedy workshops that I’d bring in a stack of promotional packages developed by big-name public relations firms for big-name comedians such as Ray Romano, George Carlin, Ellen DeGeneres, Dave Chappelle and others. These were great examples of how professional promotional packages should look, but you really don’t see these much anymore because just about everything today is done online.

In the “old days” these were hard copies (paper and photos) displayed in designer folders or even plain two-pocket versions (like you “old timers” probably used in school) that agents, managers and talent bookers could actually hold in their hands or spread out on their desks to read. Just the memory of sorting through stacks of folders and photos is making me feel ancient…

BUT now with this information online, I haven’t received a hard copy promo package in… well, since everyone realized it was cheaper, faster and easier to have all this information on a website or attached to an email. It’s all online, easy to view, and the modern way of doing business.

BUT just like in the old days, you never know who will find this information. If you include a home address or home phone number, any wacko can find you. That’s why I suggest never sharing too much personal information on your promotional material.

Don’t worry, I’m getting to the story…

Posting a letter

BUT first, think about this. The only time someone in this business really needs your address is when they’re sending you a contract or payment. Yes, the more convenient way is to also do this online – but many of us are still working with event planners and talent bookers who keep the Postal Service in business with snail mail. If they want to know where you’re located to see if a specific booking is do-able for both of you – give them the nearest city. Could be New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc… That’s all they need to know. When they’re sending contracts or a check, then give them an address.

BUT since you’re a business (correct?) I suggest having a business address. And if you need to, think about this. If you work with an agent, they have your contracts and payments sent to their business and not their home address. You need to think the same way. And unless you have a separate business office, use a Post Office Box instead of your home address.

I know with cell phones it’s always convenient to give out that number for important contacts and potential bookings. That’s why answering services for performers are going out of business because no one is far from their phone anymore. But think twice before you share that number online. Unless its a phone dedicated strictly for business, anyone can find your personal number online and make a call. And I’m not just talking about past annoying ex-friends, employers or relationships, but also the wacko looking online for someone to talk to – and annoy.

Besides, it’s much easier for someone to contact you (for bookings and not always annoyances) by clicking an email link through your website. Websites and other online marketing tools should all include your email. And since it’s easy to have separate business and personal email addresses, keep your business and personal emails separate.

For instance, mine is dave@thecomedybook.com. I can tell you that because it’s for business. You don’t really think my family uses that address to contact me – do you? They have my personal email address – and you don’t.

And now to wrap this all up, here’s the story I promised. It will give you a good reason why this all makes good business sense. And as some comedians and humorous speakers like to say, this is a true story…

I received a call from the owner of a well known comedy club who suggested I look at a young, up-and-coming female comedian who needed a manager. I met with her, watched her set at the club that night and knew she was really talented and had potential to make it big.

In the years since, that prediction came true. You would know her as a national headliner and from television and movies if I mentioned her name. But even if she said it was okay, I wouldn’t. She went through enough grief from being too personal on her promo material during the early stages of her career and I don’t want to focus attention on her again in that light.

As I said, you never know what wackos are reading…

Anyway, she wanted to make sure every booker in North America could easily find her, so her home address and home (pre-cell) phone number were plastered all over her (hard copy) promotional material. It worked and she was booked for a week at a great comedy club only a few hours drive from where she lived. It was a big career break and she was psyched. But she was about to learn how much she really didn’t know about this crazy business.

Oh, and I need to mention one other thing. She is very attractive and her promotional pictures (head shots) proved that. The club had her photo on display with the headliner’s outside the club – and you don’t usually see that happen for an opening act.

When she finished her week’s booking on Sunday night, the club owner took her into the office and paid her. Then he threw her promo material in the garbage can. When she asked why he said it had nothing to do with her performances. She was funny and he planned to bring her back. But he also knew it’s important for performers to keep their promo updated and next time she was booked she should send him a new resume, bio and head shot. Most bookers did this because they just didn’t have the file, desk or floor space to keep everything they received.

A few days later the comedian received a call from another “booker” who said he had her promo material. You know where I’m going with this… right?

Hello it’s me!

Turns out it wasn’t really a booker, but a wacko comedian who had been hanging around the club. He had seen her photo on display and then in the garbage – with her home phone and address on it – and taken it. After a few more calls it started to get weird and then scary when he became a full-blown stalker.

Our female comedian was learning a tough lesson the hard way and not only had to destroy all her promotional material (back in the days when copying head shots was expensive), but had to order everything printed again with a separate business phone and email as the only contact information.

Today it would mean changing the contact info on all your websites and online marketing which doesn’t always work the way you think it will. Web pages seem to have an everlasting life. I can Google and find pages about myself and my business that were posted years ago and extremely outdated. In fact I just did and found a newspaper review I wrote about a Paul McCartney concert back in 2003. I don’t even remember writing it – and it was like reading for the first time. Since I don’t write for that newspaper anymore, the contact email no longer works. But if they’d had used my home address with the article…

Now back to the story, because we’re not done yet…

The worst part was that she actually had to move. Imagine how you’d feel when someone wacko and scary can honestly say, “I know where you live.” If it’s not said on a Hollywood movie set, it’s no way to live every single day. She found a new apartment and had some BIG guys not only help her move, but also make sure a certain wacko wasn’t hanging around when they did it.

The lesson is an old one. You have a business, so treat it that way. Keep your personal life and contact information out of it. You never know who’s going to find it.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Money – how much should you ask for?

Hi Dave – The talent booker for a comedy club sent me the following: “How long is your routine and how much would you want to come to (city) to do a show?” I do 45 minutes to an hour, but on the money question I have no idea how to answer them. Obviously, I’d want enough to cover airfare. Between you and me, I’d stay with my grandmother who lives near the city. Any ideas? Thanks! – B.K.

Hey B.K. – I know the club you’re referring to. They’ve been in business for a long time and have a good reputation. And since you didn’t mention this being an offer for a one-time gig – like a holiday party, private or corporate show – I’ll assume it’s for a weekend worth of shows at the club.

For openers…

It’s really a tough call for me because I don’t know what the club manager / owner pays his acts. It’s not an “A” room like The Improv and too many others to mention (think of the top clubs in your area), so a good guess is his price will be lower than what comics are paid in those clubs. But honestly, I don’t know that for a fact.

The bottom line is the talent booker asked you a wide open question – putting you on the spot. Between us (and readers) the guy asking you is playing his strength off your weakness. He books a club that operates every single weekend – and has for years. He knows the going rate for openers, features and headliners.

He has to because he’s been paying them.

So for him to ask YOU this question means he’s hoping you’ll come in lower than someone else just because you want to “get in” with the club.

And the fact of the matter is he’s probably right. Comedians that have yet to really establish themselves will hesitate to quote a high price. They want to work at the club, but don’t want to ruin their chances by asking for too much. The thought is that later they can negotiate a higher price when they’re a proven audience attraction.

This is part of the continual game played between bookers and newer talent. Entertainers – in our case comedians and speakers – riding high on popularity with solid credits and drawing large audiences can pretty much name their price as long as the club can still make a profit.

For example, years ago when I was booking talent for The Great Lakes Comedy Festival I contacted talent reps for two HUGE television stars (think top-rated sitcoms) for two theater shows. Hey – sometimes it’s “think BIG or go home,” right? I’ve known both comedians personally, but when it comes to business you always deal with agents and managers.

The fee I was quoted for each was even HUGER than expected and completely out of the price range for a small, start-up comedy festival. And one of the requests included use of a private jet to fly in before the gig and leave immediately after. It was part of “the fee” and not negotiable.

When your career reaches the stratosphere – that’s how you can do business.

You tell’em!

In the case of a newer comedian or speaker, you need to have the business sense (no fear!) to ask for more information. The first question:

“How many shows do you want me to do?”

If it’s a series of shows – for instance, five shows over a weekend – ask what they pay per show. Headliners at small local clubs (think Holiday Inn on a weekend) can get anywhere from $100 and up per show. Even the major clubs have different pay rates depending on the night. For instance, they might bring in a cost-cutting headliner for a Thursday night and pay HUGE bucks for the star headliner on Friday and Saturday. It depends on the club reputation and size of audiences.

The next question:

“What do you usually pay your first-time headliners or first-time features, (or openers if that’s what you’re going for)?”

Also, do you know anyone who has played this club? Are you on good enough terms that you can contact the comedian and ask what he or she was paid? If so – do it. Comedians don’t have a union, so at least in my opinion you need to find a way to work together. Otherwise the club bookers will always have the upper hand.

* But don’t “push” this last question. Many business people (and that’s what you are as a paid performer) are very private about their earnings. Basically, it’s nobody else’s business. So please note the stipulation above: “Are you on good enough terms?” If you are and it won’t damage a friendship, then ask.

Instead of throwing an open question at you – again, hoping you play low ball – the booker should make an offer. He should come right out and say, “This is what we pay our headliners and/or features and/or openers.” And then ask if you want to work the club. Of course that’s in a perfect world and we don’t happen to live in one…

But as far as asking, “How much would you want?” That’s what they say in the corporate and college booking worlds. And when you’re working in those markets, you should already have a price. You throw that back at them and leave room to negotiate travel, accommodations, food, merchandise and other $$$ stuff.

There are also other factors, especially in doing club gigs.

Comedians, speakers and any type of performer will need to consider his/her own track record. For instance, if a comedian consistently gets $1,000 per weekend – that’s his price. Options are plus airfare, hotel and food. The comedian tries to get his price up – and bookers try to get it down. It depends on the performer’s current popularity. If you were on TV starring in a Comedy Central special last week, you can ask for more than if your face hasn’t been seen on TV in over a decade.

In the case of a newer comedian or humorous speaker there are different considerations. Would you want to do this club as a chance to visit your grandmother? Would this club be a great credit on your resume? Are you going to make new contacts that will lead to more work?

All things you need to think about.

Your best bet is to be up front about it. Send back a message asking what they are offering. Mention you’ll most likely be happy to work within their budget, but let the booker make an offer. Then you can negotiate if necessary.

Hitchin’ a ride

For instance, he might pay you more if you don’t use a hotel room that the club would normally provide. You can stay with grandma. You might also use grandma’s car, so there’s a few more bucks you’re saving the booker that (maybe) can be passed along to you.

You also mentioned airfare. A lot of clubs today are not paying airfare – and they used to. So yes, the bottom line is that you need to cover your expenses. When you’re working a club for the first time, come up with a total you need for expenses. Then see what they offer you and if your expenses are covered. The amount of profit on top of that… well, since you’re a first-timer and weren’t on Comedy Central last week, your negotiation power might be limited.

In the end – if the club booker makes an offer – the decision is all yours. Is it worth it? Only you know for sure.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Breaking down gatekeeper blockades

Hi Dave – No, I’m not a comic. However, I’m a WGA screenwriter with a total focus on comedy screenplays. Can you tell me how to contact comedians’ agents without running into blockades? I mean the blockades typically set up by the gatekeepers of those agents. Best – HK

“Someone will get back with you… yeah… right.”

Hey HK – The bigger the comedian (think celebrity) the bigger the agency blockade will be. When you make a call without prior personal contact or a great reference, plan some extra time for holding, transfers and a final request to leave a voice message and “Someone will get back with you.”

Does anyone really know who that “someone” is? I doubt it because they rarely call back without the prior contact or reference. And unless you left a voice message with a great pitch (offer) that includes the opportunity for a lot of potential $$$’s (yeah, I’m jaded) you’ll spend a long time sitting by the phone waiting for that return call.

HK and I traded a couple emails and I remembered a past FAQ And Answer article about dealing with gatekeepers (the person who answers phone calls and forms a human blockade to keep you from speaking directly to an agent or celebrity). Except the suggestions in that article are different from the answers you’re looking for since it concerned comedians getting past gatekeepers to book paying gigs.

This week’s question is about contacting comedians and agents that would be interested in a screenplay.

But the theory is the same. You have to be SEEN and involved in the SCENE.

I know through experience from working at the LA and NYC Improv clubs (talent coordinator) that a lot of valuable entertainment industry contacts are made by networking. It’s being part of the scene. Not only did I get to work with many great comedians, but I also met a lot of agents, managers, producers and writers just by being in the clubs during shows. They’d come in to watch the comics, and then socialize (network) in the restaurant or bar areas after the show. Sometimes they were there because the comedians they already represent were performing, or they were looking for new talent.

On the lookout

And believe me a good agent or manager is always on the lookout for new talent. Some of them may claim to have a full roster and not accepting new clients, but if a performer simply blows them away and the agent or manager sees a good career opportunity for both of them, it’s their job to pursue it. That’s good business sense.

Now, to get back to today’s specific question…

I’ve also seen this with producers and writers looking to interest comedians and agents in a particular project. For instance, when I worked in LA I remember getting a LOT of calls from television and film people looking for comics that fit a specific “type.” The casting call could be for male or female, tall or small, fat or thin, black or white – or for whatever the TV or film part called for. They wanted to know if any comedians fitting the desired “type” would be on the show that night or if we could put together a live showcase (audition) during a future show.

That’s why you can sometimes go to a comedy club in LA or NYC and see a number of comedians in a row who are similar in type and only do a few minutes (3-5 minutes is norm) of material. They’re showcasing (auditioning) for someone in the audience.

After the showcase you can usually find everyone – comics and business execs – networking in club’s restaurant or bar. Business cards are exchanged and meetings are scheduled for agents and comedians who are right for the project.

The ones selected for these meetings and potential projects should have no problem getting past any gatekeepers. They’ve made a personal contact.

My point is that the comedians were SEEN because they’ve worked hard at becoming part of the SCENE. They were known by the club bookers as someone who fits what the writer, producer or casting person is looking for. That’s why the comics were called in for the showcase. It’s rare (in fact I’ve never seen it happen) that a booker will call in a comedian he’s never seen perform and knows nothing about for an important industry showcase.

It’s the same when you’re looking to hire talent or get them interested in a project such as a screenplay. Quit a few newcomers (amateurs) with stars in their eyes will jump at a chance to “be in a movie!” But the comedians who’ve been around for a while will not be so naïve. They understand it’s a business (at least they should). They might listen to a pitch if it’s from a reliable or known source (friends in the biz are always throwing ideas at each other) but if they’re really interested and have decent credits, they’ll probably have an agent you’ll end up pitching to before any deals are made.

Hang up the phone

So basically in your case, I’d forget about battling the gatekeepers by cold calling and scope out the comedians in person who you think would right for your screenplay. Become a part of the SCENE by going to the clubs and checking out their live performances. You might even discover a comic you’ve never heard of and further discover he’d be perfect for your film. Don’t be too aggressive (as a talent booker, that’s what turned me off the most). But take an opportunity to network after the show. Be professional and don’t come off like a stalker (you know what I mean) when you tell the comic about your project.

If the comedian is interested he can get you past any agency gatekeeper with one phone call requesting his agent talk with you. If you meet the agent and he thinks the project is right for his comedian client, he’ll have his gatekeeper set up a meeting.

Sound too simple? It’s really not and I shouldn’t make it sound that way because there are a LOT of people in the entertainment industry who practice the art of schmoozing. I assume that’s where the phrase, “Let’s do lunch,” was developed. But remember one thing:

No one would be doing it if it didn’t work.

If you’re already a known name with a big number ($$$’s) gatekeepers are no problem – you’ll get through. For everyone else (assuming talent and experience are already a “given”) it’s all about networking and contacts. Be part of the SCENE and there’s always a chance you’ll not only be SEEN but also HEARD.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Only clean material? Know your audience

Hi Dave – I have one question. As a new comedian does my material have to be clean? – J.N.

Did you hear that?!

Hey J.N. – Your question will sound familiar to more than a few readers because it comes up quite often. But you know what? New comedians ask because it’s important. And there is no right or wrong answer. Comedy is both a creative art and a business, but to be successful in this business as a creative artist there is one first goal:

Be funny.

How you get there is totally up to you. As one very famous comedian told me (and it’s in my book How To Be A Working Comic), “If you swear in real life, you’re going to swear on stage.” On the other hand, if these words aren’t already in your vocabulary, don’t add them simply because you think it’ll make you funny. That’s not who you really are and an audience will pick up on that.

There seems to be a market for everything, so whether to work clean or dirty is a personal decision. But since you brought up the question and I’ve never been known to give short answers, let’s look at your potential choice from another point of view. We’ll call it…

Your audience.

The deal is that everyone has to start at the beginning. Since you specifically said “new comedian,” that’s what we’ll focus on. Speakers already know they have to work clean. If they don’t, then they’re not speaking much – if at all.

Along with learning how to write and perform, you’ll also experience different audiences, different venues and different types of shows. For instance, many comedians love late night, beer-soaked crowds in loud comedy clubs. Others would rather perform for more sophisticated (and I’m using that term loosely) audiences at corporate events.

Have you thought about that? I’m guessing it’s still too early in your career to even consider since your first step should be just getting experience on stage. But eventually it will become both a creative and business decision because different markets have different audiences and hire different types of entertainment.

What markets do you want to play?

These are questions every entertainer (not just comedians and humorous speakers) have to consider. As a creative artist with a unique way of expressing yourself, who is your audience? And as a business person (successful creative artist), how can you build an audience to support your creative endeavors?

When you’re just starting out it could be any demographic you can think of, from late night open-mics to charity fundraisers. And if you’re serious about this biz you need to understand the value of stage experience. You won’t become a working comic just sitting in your living room doing bits in front of your mirror or for the family dog. You must get in front of an audience and shape your material and delivery based on their response.

If they laugh it works. If they don’t, then you need to make some changes. An audience will tell you, which is why you want to get on stage as often as possible.

So… who is your audience?

Would they want clean or “adult” material? That will help determine what’s best for you.

I’ve worked with comedians who are Born Again Christians and I’ve worked with the most X-rated acts you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t bother me either way. I’m a coach and I’ll coach performers in whatever direction they want to go. And if you already know what direction that is, then find places to perform with audiences that will enjoy your material.

But regardless of what anyone else will tell you, there are also rules in the comedy biz. The rules are made by the people that hire comedians for specific audiences.

“Should we allow that?”

For instance, you can’t perform X-rated material on network television shows such as The Tonight Show or Jimmy Kimmel Live. You can get away with a lot more than thirty years ago when Johnny Carson ruled late night, but these shows still have to deal with FCC (Federal Communications Commission) enforced  standards and censors.

On cable television and satellite radio, pretty much anything can be said. But it also depends on the show. I doubt The Howard Stern Show and The Disney Channel fight over guests from the same talent pool. But here are a few more questions to think about…

Would you rather appear on either The Howard Stern Show or The Disney Channel or someplace in-between? Who will appreciate (laugh at) your type of humor and material? What venues and markets do you eventually want to play?

It all comes down to knowing your audience.

You can work X-rated if you want, but just be smart enough not to go on stage with your X-rated material if the audience is filled with grandparents taking their grand-kids out for a fun(ny) night of live entertainment. On the flip side, don’t expect to do your best Disney material in a late night dive bar in front of a beer fueled crowd upset that the bartender turned off the televised cage match wrestling extravaganza for your comedy show.

Get the picture?

A lot of experienced comedians can play to both audiences. Why? Because they have the experience AND material that can be customized (cleaned up or dirtied down) depending on the audience. In other words, their punch lines don’t get laughs simply because they contain the F-Bomb or other words that will get them banned by the FCC from network television. They can go either way because the material is just as funny with or without them.

A great example of this are comics that work on cruise ships.

Did you hear that?!

These comics need two different sets; family and adult. The family sets are performed during the before and after dinner shows. These are two separate shows since passengers are assigned one of two dinner times. One group is entertained earlier in a large theater while the other group eats – and then they change places. As it says, these shows are for families. Later that night the same comics will do adult shows for (as it says) the adults in one of the lounges or bars.

These comics go from G-rated to X-rated within a couple hours.

Keep in mind I’m not asking anyone to change who they are on stage if it goes against who they want to be on stage. Yes, this is a business, but it’s also a creative business and a way to express your creativity. If your niche is X-rated, go for it. It’s the same with clean comedians. Just don’t go for it in front of the wrong audience. It’s really common sense when you think about it.

So to finally answer your question as a “new comedian,” I would suggest you work on writing funny material. And I’ll repeat: funny material. I’m talking about material that will stand up on it’s own and will be just as funny to an audience with or without a few gratuitous F-bombs and other choice words or expressions.

Practice and develop your talent as a writer. How would you deliver your set during an afternoon Rotary Club luncheon as opposed to at a late night dive bar? Better still – ask yourself which venue you prefer.

Wait a minute! I almost forgot to mention something…

Just to make your decision interesting, keep in mind the people that hire comics for corporate events, holiday parties, retirements, banquets, etc… are the ones who attend business or social organization meetings. They ALWAYS pay comics, humorous speakers and entertainers waaaaay more than any beer soaked guy in a dive bar. That’s why corporate events are much more desirable for many working comics than a weekend gig at Billy Joe’s Yucks at the corner of Dive and Bar.

Then again, an uncensored Comedy Central Special or a becoming a favorite guest on The Howard Stern Show can take almost any comic’s career to a new level. But to get there, the comics had to be funny. Working clean wasn’t a rule they needed to follow.

So…? Is it better to work clean or dirty as a new comedian? You need to make that decision – and one of the best ways to find an answer is to know your audience.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Being influenced vs. copying

Hey Dave – I’ve been working on material and continue to search for my comedy voice. Although I want to do some improvising, I want a good amount of material to work off of. Someone said I have a somewhat eccentric and iconoclastic persona and should take advantage of that. Therefore, I’ve thought about using Prof. Irwin Corey and Steven Wright as influences and been writing material similar to theirs, especially since I like it. However, I’m afraid I’m not using them as an influence but just copying them. Is there a thin line between the 2 or just between fishing and standing there doing nothing? – JK

Hey JK – I was lucky to have worked with the late great Prof. Irwin Corey at the NYC Improv and interviewed Steven Wright for a magazine article. I consider both extremely smart and extremely funny. I also know that if I even tried to write like either one, I would be lost and confused. In fact, my brain hurts just thinking about it. But as usual I have a few thoughts about the topic, so instead of standing here doing nothing let’s go fishing for an answer…

“How did you say that?”

Yes – there is a line between being influenced and copying. Ideally it should be a wide one.

As Prof. Corey would have said, “Let me explain…

I often compare comedy to music. I’ve done this frequently in my workshops, books, and in more than a few previous FAQ articles. Basically, you can’t reinvent the wheel. And when it comes to music, someone somewhere had to hum the first tune. In comedy, someone somewhere made someone laugh for the first time. Musicians and comedians have been building on those firsts ever since.

One of my favorite all-time bands is The Rolling Stones. They’ve influenced countless bands for over fifty years and are considered by many to be the greatest rock’n roll band in the world. There are many bands that have copied their formula for success, but there is still only one Rolling Stones and their place in music history is written in… well, stone.

But who influenced them? Rock historians can trace the roots of their sound back to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and many others.

Did they copy? Yeah!

They tried their best by performing a lot of cover songs when they first started out. But it’s not what made them superstars. Mick Jagger found his own voice as a singer and Keith Richards found his voice on the guitar. The duo ended up writing their own material and classic hits based on the type of music they liked and giving it their own spin based on their individual talent and personalities.

Like the Stones, comedians start by emulating what they like.

Keith Richards is not going to play Bach or Beethoven because he likes Chuck Berry. Based on the way you described your humor in today’s email, I doubt you would consider bringing props on stage like Carrot Top or going redneck like Larry The Cable Guy. You like Prof. Irwin Corey and Steven Wright so yes, they are both are going to influence you as a comedian just like Chuck Berry influenced the Stones as musicians.

But the big difference between being a comedian and being a musician, The Rolling Stones can (and often do) play Chuck Berry songs during their concerts. But comedians can’t go on stage and say, “Here’s one from Steven Wright” and do a few of his best jokes.

“How did you play that?”

That’s copying and comedians can’t do that – period. Its called stealing material. There are some that do – and most of us know who the big-name guilty parties are. There’s a total lack of respect for these thieves from other comics and industry people, and a lot of us wonder how they can sleep at night. Must be the drugs, but that’s another article…

Being influenced is not the same as stealing.

Creative artists, (comedians and musicians to only mention two) don’t reinvent the wheel. They can build on what’s already there. Just like in many original Rolling Stones songs you can hear a Chuck Berry riff or Bo Diddley beat in the background, comedians can’t help but be influenced by the type of humor they like.

For example, Carrot Top didn’t invent prop comedy. As little kids many of us can remember holding up two paper plates on the sides of our heads and pretending to be Mickey Mouse. Carrot Top probably did that too, thought it was extremely funny – and built on it.

You as a writer and performer need to do the same, but with your own influences.

I think you understand your style of comedy. It’s similar to Prof. Irwin and Steven Wright, but when it comes to writing and performing it’s important for you to realize you are also very different. There’s no way you would have the exact same experiences or live in the exact same environment (city, neighborhood, families, education, jobs, etc.). You have a different life, different personality, different relationships and different conversations.

You also have your own personal thoughts about all of these experiences.

That’s what you need to put into your writing and performances – your spin. Don’t think about what Prof. Irwin Corey or Steven Wright would say. But respect that you admire what they do, are influenced to perform comedy in the same style, and then say it in your own words. Basically, they are intelligent writers and your writing should also have some intelligence to it.

I remember two comedians I worked with in LA. Sorry, I won’t name-drop this time, but one is now an international movie star and the other is an all-time favorite television character. They both admitted to being HUGE fans of Jerry Lewis. They loved every movie and consider him to be the HUGE influence that got them both into the comedy biz.

No caption needed

But never in a million years would you see either of them on stage yelling out Lewis’ famous line, “HEY LAAYYYDEEE!” That would be stealing. But I’ve seen both make wild faces and pretend to slip and fall during their stand-up comedy sets similar to what Lewis did in his classic films while talking about their own personal experiences and thoughts.

That’s being influenced. And to take it a step further, Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx were making faces and doing pratfalls long before Lewis.

The idea is to use your own mannerisms and personality to deliver your material to an audience. You are not going to hold two paper plates to your head and hope people laugh. You’ll want to dig deeper and put some thought into why something is funny from your personal point of view and then convey that to an audience.

Everyone is influenced by someone or something. It’s human nature. Again, none of us can invent the wheel because it’s been done – and car companies are still building on it. The same can be said about comedians when it comes to writing and performing comedy material.

But understand what makes you unique from everyone else (we all are) and explore topics that interest you based on your style of humor. Keep writing and performing. Eventually you’ll find your own comedy voice. Then in interviews you’ll be asked who influenced you – and you can tell them. I’ve interviewed comedians for my books, magazine articles and newspaper columns and believe me; every comedian has someone who inspired them. What made them successful was when they realized they couldn’t copy, but could use that influence to build on.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Best revenge – laughs and bookings

Hi Dave – I had a great set last night and one of the other comedians that went on after me tore into me. It got real personal and it really hurt. The people running the show asked me if I wanted to go back on to get revenge, but I did not. Did I handle it the right way? – N.R.

Big Mouth!

Hey N.R. – Sounds like the first shot has been fired in a comedy war. But whether or not you want to get down into the comedy trenches (common comedy term – not mine) with this big mouth depends on a couple factors.

  • Your personality on stage – your comic voice
  • How you want to be seen on and off stage in this biz

Maybe I’m naive, but with 25+ years of experience working with comedians, I’ve found this biz to be very supportive. Sure there are some real pain-in-the-butt jerks, but I don’t know of any career path that’s immune from that syndrome.

Usually it’s based on jealousy and/or a power trip ego. And the funny part of it – and again, I’m talking from experience – I’ve found the more powerful someone is in the biz, the more supportive they are of new talent. This includes comedians, talent bookers and other behind the scenes people.

Hmmm…. I feel a sense of disbelief running through some minds with that last statement. I think my experiences on this topic would make an interesting and opinionated future FAQ and Answer. I’ll wrap my mind around it for awhile, but in the meantime…

What you have to decide is who you are on stage and how you want to be seen by others – your co-workers (other comedians) and the people who can hire you – in this biz.

Comedians who are good friends can tear each up on stage. No problem. It’s like a sport and can be very funny. We used to do that at the NYC Improv – to the extent of taking a microphone into the men’s room and holding it over a flushing toilet when a friend’s joke bombed.

It was hysterical and the comic on stage could rip into us for the rest of his set. Not a problem – we loved it.

But when it’s mean – as it seems to be in your case – there’s no point in it. This comic’s attack on you is either based on jealousy or a power trip – or both.

“That was a cheap shot!”

This big mouth is trying to make himself look better at your expense. You can handle it two ways – and this is based on what decisions you made when I asked earlier.

If you are the type of comedian that can rip this guy apart verbally – then go for it. I can’t imagine another comedian taking a cheap shot at someone like Bobby Slayton (The Pit Bull of Comedy) and walking away with his ego still intact. Slayton would verbally slaughter him.

The same holds true for Lisa Lampanelli, Dave Attell, Chris Rock… you get the picture, right? These comics can hurl verbal hand grenades at anyone who dares mouth off at them first. I’ve seen them all in action and believe me, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the insults.

Are you similar? If so – next time go for the throat.

But if that’s not who you are on stage (or in real life) and you’re not up for verbal comedic warfare, then you did the right thing. Let this blowhard blow his own horn and reputation with other comedians and bookers.

Comics are not going to want to work with someone that has a reputation for taking cheap shots. And bookers want to deal with the least amount of problems as possible. Again from experience as a booker, I’ve known non-headline comedians (important factor because a headliner that brings in paying customers can pretty much do what he or she wants) that are very funny, but a pain to work with.

So guess what? We don’t work with them when it’s at all possible.

Just be funny!

Who needs the extra aggravation when the job itself can be aggravating sometimes? Like with any job, you go for the least resistance. And if someone else is just as funny and easier to work with – that’s who gets the gig.

The bottom line is that in an ideal world, all you should be concerned about is becoming a better comedian. If someone with the same career goal doesn’t like you, then you must be doing something right.

Want revenge? The best way to get back at this person is to get more laughs, which will lead to more bookings.

So use this as an incentive to focus:

If your hard work and dedication pay off, maybe someday this loud mouth will be parking cars at a comedy club and ripping into his new co-workers while you’re inside headlining. Make it happen.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Singin’ the (comedy) blues

Hey Dave – I have a confession to make and was wondering if this is normal or not and if so, how to deal with it? Is there such a thing as having the blues in comedy? I guess you could call it the Comedy Blues. I mean, I’ve been told “no” before and had terrible sets in the past. But I strongly feel it has made me the keen comedian I am today. But still, if I may… help! – A.

Taking your emotions for a ride!

Hey A. – Congratulations. You’re a creative artist. And I think you’re riding what comes with the territory – an emotional roller coaster. It can be a series of BIG ups and downs. That’s why a lot of people can’t deal with a career in the arts – whether it’s comedy, speaking, acting, music, writing or too many others to list.

It’s not easy.

If it was don’t you think more people would go for it? You have to admit that standing on stage getting laughs, greeting your fans after a show AND getting paid for it is a pretty cool gig. People in the audience see that and quite a few wish they could do it, but are afraid of rejection or looking foolish. But those who actually take a chance and really go for it don’t seem to have much of a choice. It’s what they have to do.

Okay, this might be more motivational today than instructional, but what the heck. I’m a creative guy so follow me on this one…

“You got the blues?”

Let’s relate this to music. A lot of great songs are about HIGHS while a lot of great songs are about LOWS. Let’s call this latter group blues songs since… well, that’s how you referred to your comedy state of mind AND that’s what they’re called anyway. Basically singin’ the blues is telling listeners nothing worth having or doing seems to come easy. Blues songs are usually about losing love, money or both.

But in our case, let’s relate it to being creative.

To be more specific – going for a career as a comedian (which from this point on will also include humorous speaker). You want soooo bad to have something good happen, but there are often road blocks. Things never seem to move as fast as you want them to. Yeah, there are big HIGHS to be had – like passing an important audition, getting your first paid gig or winning a contest.

There are also big LOWS when those things don’t happen.

But you know what? Every working comic will tell you from experience that you’ll hear the word “No” a lot more often than you’ll hear “Yes.” Especially in the beginning.

It comes with the creative territory.

Do you want to stick around in this crazy biz long enough to (hopefully) have a career? Then you’ll need to develop a thick skin along the way.

Let’s move from music and relate this to sports. The best relief pitchers in baseball are going to lose a few games in the last inning during a long season. What makes them the best and others basket cases or unemployed is the ability to shake off the loss, forget about it and try to win the next game.

It’s a mindset they need to be born with or develop if they want to be successful in a competitive business (sports).

Being a comedian means you’re a creative artist in a competitive business. You put your creative work and talent on display to be judged by others, such as talent bookers and audiences. Some will like it and others won’t. It’s the nature of the biz. Hopefully your talent and perseverance will eventually lead to more likes than dislikes.

Likes are the highs and dislikes are the lows. The goal is to not get TOO high or TOO low. But it’s not easy when the results are based on your personal creative talent.

I remember working in NYC and hearing aspiring comics just breaking into the open-mic scene or at their first audition at The Improv saying they plan to have a sitcom within a year. I’m not lying about that. I’m serious and heard it said more than a few times. And I could look at the comedians hanging around The NY Improv at that time like Ray Romano, Dave Attell, Brett Butler and Larry David, and knew how hard they had been working at it for years. They didn’t get everything they auditioned for, but they had experienced the highs and the lows. There were no guarantees they would make it when they started, but someone saying “No” wasn’t going to stop them from continuing.

They were talented (duh!) but hadn’t scored television sitcoms or specials within their first year of doing comedy. The new comics at their first open-mics with unrealistic goals were setting themselves up for disappointment – big lows. They needed to be realistic and understand what to expect:

Will sing for laughs

Comedy HIGHS and Comedy BLUES. It comes with the territory.

And to finish this thought, I don’t remember anyone getting a sitcom within a year of their first open-mic or Improv audition. But I remember the above mentioned comics coming to The NY Improv every night and paying their dues on stage.

Which leads me to another thought about riding these highs and lows. It’s called paying your dues. Some people drop out of the business because they can’t take the lows. Others have no choice (creative artists) and continue – with thicker skin.

But it’s important to realize that just continuing is no guarantee of success. Talent, business, connections and sometimes just plain luck are also involved.

Basically, there’s no straight answer to your question. It is what it is. Sometimes it’s good to take a break and regroup. Other times you put your head down and continue if that’s what you must do. For many creative artists there’s no choice in the matter.

Finally, here’s another creative thought…

Consider bringing these feelings (blues) into your writing. You don’t have to talk about having “comedy blues” (blues singers go for the sad while comics go for the laughs). This may add more real emotion and real life into your material and delivery. Audiences can always tell when someone is faking it. They can also tell when creative artists are really going for it and sharing something real about themselves.

Most good comics and speakers have that ability. They talk from experience because they’ve paid their dues by riding the creative roller coaster.

Remember – it’s a creative art. And being a creative artist is not always easy.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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