The best place to start doing comedy

Hi Dave – Where do you think is the best place to get started as a comedian? I know that every comedian wants to move to New York, but I’m about to move to Los Angeles in a little while and wanted to ask if that was a good place to at least start experiencing stand-up on a higher level. Sincerely – J.H.

The BIG Apple!

Hey J.H. – It seems this question is asked in every one of my workshops. I have an answer that I’ll share with you in a moment, but I’m sure there will be comics in New York and Los Angeles – and in between – that will argue with me. Then again, I know there will also be many who agree.

First of all I’ve worked in all three places – New York, Los Angeles and in between – as a comedy talent booker. I’ve also interviewed a lot of working comedians and written books about the business. That doesn’t mean I know the definitive answer to your question, but I can share observations, experiences and opinions.

So with that being said, let’s start with observations…

New York and Los Angeles are the main focuses of the comedy biz as far as television and films are concerned. These are the entertainment media capitals of the world. That’s a no-brainer when you look at where the major networks, film studios, production companies, talent agencies and managers are located. If your aspirations are to be BIG in this business, you’ll eventually wind up working in these cities.

It’s Showbiz City!

Every BIG comedian already knows that. It’s where they work and where they live – until they get so BIG they can afford to live someplace else and only go there for work in films and television.

But these comics also need stage time to work on new material. And they still do this at their local clubs. It may make the morning headlines if Jerry Seinfeld surprised an audience by walking on stage in any other city, but in New York and Los Angeles it’s just another night at the comedy club.

From experience, I’ve seen it.

During my time at the LA Improv Seinfeld and Jay Leno (to mention only two) were regulars. They could walk in unannounced at any time and would immediately be asked to go on stage. My line to them was always, “Would you like to say hello to the audience?” Of course they would because they were always writing and working on new material.

And that, by the way, is great advice for any comedian regardless of where you are in your career. Continue writing and performing – the best ones always do.

—————————————————————————-

Spring 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Chicago Improv

SOLD OUT!!

Showcase Performance – Thursday, May 30 at 7:30 pm

Workshop Marquee 150

Workshops are limited to 11 people age 18+

Summer 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv – TBA

For details and advance registration visit…

TheComedyBook.com

*

———————————————————

The “star” comedians who were offered stage time the moment they walked into the club had worked hard for that recognition. They deserved it and I’m sure, appreciated it. The audience always loved it and the club owners, management and staff did too since their appearances are great for business.

All were winners – right?

Wrong.

The lesser known comedians that might originally have had those performance slots were either pushed back until later or cancelled for another night. And there was never any guarantee it wouldn’t happen again.

So another option…

There were always a lot of open-mics during my time in both cities. But the best ones were always crowded – and I’m not talking about audiences. A comic might sign up for an open-mic at 6 pm and not get on stage until 4 am. I know because I saw it happen all the time. But if you were a night owl and fortified with patience, at least you could get in five minutes of stage experience in front of a few night owls fortified with alcohol before last call.

Finding an audience

The complaint I hear a lot is that most open-mics in New York and Los Angeles are bringer shows. Comedians are required to bring in paying customers – sometimes as many as ten or more – before they can go on stage. If you’re just moving to either city, do you know ten people who will pay to see you? Every night?

So it’s tough to get stage time if you’re just starting out. Not impossible, just tough.

Another obstacle is the main reason why you’d want to perform in New York or Los Angeles. Comedians want to be seen by the industry people who can help guide them to BIG careers. But are you ready to be seen? If not, then you might want to wait.

I know I’ve used this example before, but it’s a good one worth repeating. So here’s the experience part of this answer…

A New York comedian who also happens to be a very good friend, had GREAT sets the very first two times he ever went on stage at an open-mic. This rare experience convinced him that he was ready to be seen and BIG. He scored a lottery number at a MAJOR comedy club in the city and his third performance EVER was a BIG audition. He bombed BIG TIME and this first impression came back to haunt him.

Years later I saw him killing regularly at open-mics. I was working with a very successful talent booker and recommended my friend for a showcase. The booker turned me down saying she had seen the comic before at that MAJOR comedy club during his audition and was awful. There was no need to see him again when there were so many other comedians she hadn’t seen.

She was remembering him from years before!

In some cases first impressions count BIG TIME and can last a LONG time. The comic would’ve been better off keeping a low profile at the beginning of his career, until he had more experience and was truly ready to be seen.

I don’t know where you’re located, but my opinion (you knew it was coming – right?) would be to check out your local comedy scene before making a career move to New York or Los Angeles. Do your bombing (and everyone does when starting) under the radar. Eventually, you’ll know when you’re ready to be seen.

Plus the comedy world is actually pretty small. Good comics know who the other good comics are. And the word spreads – which is networking (the best PR tool).

Los Angeles producer and talent manager Dave Rath said in my first book How To Be A Working Comic, the goal is to be the best comedian in your city. It doesn’t matter where it is because eventually they’ll hear about you. They always do. Other comics will talk about you and even recommend club bookers, agents and managers take a look at you.

In past articles I’ve called that your Golden Ticket.

It’s a personal recommendation from a respected source. People in the entertainment industry that work with talent are always looking for new faces. That’s how they stay current, grow their businesses and make money.

But I won’t fool you into thinking they’ll regularly travel to your city just because they’ve heard you’re funny. You should consider visiting New York or Los Angeles to get a feel for the comedy scene. Hang out in the best clubs and watch the shows. Try to get onstage at open-mics and showcase clubs (pay admission for ten people to be your required audience members if you have to!) and see how you do compared with the other comics. If you’re confident in your material and experience – and audience response, then you might consider making the move to one or the other.

So the answer?

You can start out and become a great comedian in New York and Los Angeles. Lots of BIG comics have. But before packing up and moving, work in the comedy scene where you are now. Get stage experience and get REALLY good (REALLY funny!). After all, that’s what the talent people in New York and Los Angeles are looking for – comics that are ready to be seen and ready to work.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

*

Newsletter Banner copy
Click banner to sign-up!

Working the audience

Dave – I’ve noticed that in some (comedy) rooms you can just get up on stage and begin your material. Other rooms are a little stiff, but sometimes these rooms respond well with a more interactive style of comedy – where the comedian talks with the audience. Do you have any tips, questions or strategies one should use for this type of interactive comedy? – B.T.

“How’ya doin’?”

Hey B.T. – You’re talking about the dilemma comedy club MC’s / opening acts go through every time they step on a stage. Depending on the audience – and experienced comics and speakers already know each audience is different and has its own personality – the MC has to make a decision about how much material he can do and how much he’ll have to work the audience.

The decision is based on audience reaction.

I’ve heard a lot of comedians describe it as, “reading the room” or “finding the level of the room.” Whatever you might call it, the ultimate decision should be quite easy. If they’re not laughing at your material, then a good alternative is to start talking with them.

All comedians start out in the comedy club circuit as a MC, also known as the opening act. They may call themselves a headliner in their own self-booked show at a local venue, but no big-name (legit) comedy club will bring in an unknown as the headliner or feature (middle) act.

Working comics pay their dues.

After a bad set!

The only comics I’ve ever known that will try to headline a show without valuable stage time experience are either kidding themselves into thinking they’re ready – and think legit clubs are wrong – or are already stars. For example, I’ve seen (and in some cases, unfortunately worked with) a few television sitcom stars that wanted to entertain their loyal fans by appearing in comedy clubs. Overnight they think they’re going to become good stand-up comedians, but really have no stage experience away from a television sound stage.

At best they are considered novelty acts by talent bookers and club owners, and are coasting on their television (acting) fame. Clubs will book them because (remember, it’s a business) audiences will pay to see them once (a novelty). But if they’re not funny and can’t deliver the laughs because of lack of performing experience, it’s a good bet the novelty will wear off.

The next time they’re scheduled to headline ticket sales will go down.

To get back to my original point, all good comedians start out as opening acts. It’s the next level up from open mics and how they earn much needed experience in front of live audiences. It’s hands-on learning. And as MC’s, they gain experience reading the room and learn how to work the audience. It comes with the territory. As the first performer on stage MC’s have to set the tone for the show. Once you have that experience, whether a room is stiff or loose won’t matter.

You’ll know – through experience – how to adjust.

—————————————————————————-

Spring 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Chicago Improv

Saturdays – May 4, 11 and 18 from noon to 4 pm

Performance at The Chicago Improv – Thursday, May 30

Workshop Marquee 150

Space limited to 11 people

For details and to register visit…

TheComedyBook.com

*

———————————————————

There are no magic formulas for doing this any more than there are magic formulas to write comedy material. Using comedy legends for example, imagine putting Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor in the same room and telling them “This is the formula you use to write a joke.

That’s not how it works.

But it’s difficult to ignore the old standard lines or questions performers have used for decades to get an audience involved in their act:

  • “Where’ya from?” And…
  • “What do you do for a living?”

To be honest, if these questions didn’t work in getting an audience to interact with the performer, no one would use them. And I’ve seen both used quite often quite recently. But to make them work in your favor, you’d better be ready to think on your feet and be funny. The best way to do that is through:

  • On stage experience (hands-on learning) or…
  • Take a workshop in improvisation – and then get on stage experience

Every time you go on stage it should be a learning process. If the audience is not responding to your act, direct it more to them as individuals. Ask questions, talk with them, make conversation, interact and (importantly) be funny. If you can get their attention and make them laugh, chances are they loosen up and not be so stiff.

Here’s an example:

Talk to me!

When I was working at the Hollywood Improv, one of the writers for a well-known late night television show was also one of our top comedians. He was – and still is – a great comedy writer. His material on stage never failed to get an audience laughing, until one night…

He was on stage doing his act.

It was a weekend night with a room full of paying customers, so he was giving his best show and not trying out any new material. In other words, I had heard all his material before – and it always worked. But things weren’t going as normal. The audience wasn’t laughing. I thought for sure he was in trouble because his material didn’t seem funny to them. I didn’t know if he had a backup plan because I had never seen him bomb or improvise off a crowd.

Mainly because he never had to. His material was always killer.

Anyway, his proven jokes weren’t working that night. But he didn’t seem too worried about it. He took the microphone out of the stand (I had never seen him do that before) and stopped doing his material. Instead he started talking with the audience and asking them the same two “old” questions listed above:

  • “Where’ya from?” And…
  • “What do you do for a living?”

His responses were very funny, and he connected with the audience. Before too long everyone was laughing. I watched as he continued the conversations, while putting the microphone back in the stand. Then he started – again – doing his material (his regular act).

The audience loved him. He was in total command and they laughed through the rest of his set.

After he was off stage, I told him I had never seen him perform like that – working off an audience. He laughed and taught me the lesson I shared with you today. He told me it’s how every comedian starts out. He had been an MC at small clubs for years while learning to write great material. He had the experience setting the tone for the shows by reading the audience and knowing how to get them – and keep them – involved. When the material wasn’t working, he would work the crowd by engaging them in conversation.

So, without a magic formula, how do you do that?

Experience.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

*

Newsletter Banner copy
Click banner to sign-up!

Playing the talent booking game

Hey Dave – You’ve been writing about promoting. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. How do I get talent bookers to look at my video? I send emails but don’t hear back and don’t know if they’re watching. Thanks – D.M.

Let’s Play!

Hey D.M. – As you probably know from following these ramblings I post online, to get bookings you have to treat it like a business. BUT I’ve also learned from personal experience that it’s like a game and you have to play it. If I had to describe the booking game, I’d call it a cross between Tag and Hide and go Seek.

Let me explain…

Sometimes you have to break down and make a phone call. When you don’t have access to a talent booker’s personal messaging; emails, snail mail and online networking are not the only other resorts. Sometimes you need do it the old-fashion way by picking up the phone and start talking.

If you get a booker or talent agent on the line – that’s great! Use some of the concepts I’ve shared in past articles about using a conversational hook (short – just as an icebreaker) while being professional AND personable. Remember, you’re making a business call, but at the same time you’re in the entertainment biz and not an insurance agent or tax collector.

Then ask if they’ve received your email and if they’ve watched your video.

Secret Cheat

If not, and this is the secret cheat (if you want to compare it to playing video games) ask, “When is the best time for me to call you back?

Many talent bookers, agents, college student programmers, event planners – whatever – have certain hours during certain days when they accept phone calls. Ask when these hours are (by actually asking: “When is the best time for me to call you back?”). There’s no reason why they shouldn’t tell you. For instance: “Tuesdays between 2 and 4 pm” or give you a general idea: “Give me a couple weeks.

Mark that date or “a couple weeks later” on your calendar.

If they give you a specific time of day, mark that down also. They might just come right out and tell you if mornings or afternoons are best. THEN – and this is the second secret cheat– after you hang up, send the talent booker a postcard. I’m not talking about a vacation postcard with a pretty landscape. I’m talking about the type of business postcards that I’ve described in my book How To Be A Working Comic and in past FAQs And Answers.

—————————————————————————-

Spring 2019 Comedy Workshop at

The Chicago Improv

Saturdays – May 4, 11 and 18

Performance at The Chicago Improv

Thursday, May 30 at 7:30 pm

Workshop Marquee 150

Space limited

For details and to register visit…

TheComedyBook.com

*

———————————————————

Use the type of postcard that promotes you as an entertainer.

** “Wait a minute! Postcards are so old school. Everything today is online and by email. I don’t even know where to find a post office!”(Note: I’m imagining this response from everyone reading this online).

Yes, that’s pretty much correct.

Especially for working comics that already have relationships with talent bookers. They’ve received approval to send in avails via email or text every few weeks and can get work.

BUT I’ll go back to today’s question:

  • How do you contact them just to look at your video (for the first time) and…
  • How do you know if they’ve watched it (or even received it)?

The problems – mainly for performers unknown to the talent bookers – are spam filters. This happens with some of the clubs, but is especially true if you’re trying to break into the college and corporate markets. Many unsolicited emails with links (to videos or websites) won’t get past the school or business in-house email systems.

This eliminates all the unwanted non-school related or non-business related ads and other spam that would fill up their inboxes. You – as an unknown email sender– have a good chance of falling into that category. A good email program will let you know what addresses you are sending to are either blocked or rejected as undeliverable, but otherwise you have no idea.

You could be waiting for a response that may never come because your important email was weeded out by a spam filter. You haven’t been added to booker’s accepted (not blocked) contacts list.

* Also from experience, many comedians and speakers still rely on postcards to stay in touch. I don’t consider myself to be a talent booker anymore (very rare when I do), but I still receive postcards from performers looking for work. It’s a way to stay in touch without being a pain in the you-know-what.

So I’ll repeat because it’s very important. Send the talent booker a postcard with a brief note saying it was good talking with him/her and the date you will be calling again.

In reality, you probably won’t get the booker on the phone. In that case, always leave a short message that you were following up on your promotional material. If you’re making the effort to call, you might as well get something out of it, even if it’s just for the booker to hear your name. In your voice message say you’ll call again in about two weeks, then hang up and send a postcard.

Repeat the process until you get an answer.

This might take some time (remember you’re playing The Talent Booking Game) but it will keep your name and face (postcard headshot/photo) passing in front of the booker on a regular basis without being an annoying pain in the butt. That’s the most important part of this game plan. You don’t want to be in their face every day (annoying). You just want to drop a reminder on a regular basis.

You want personal experience to back this up? Okay…

Television appearances.

When I was talent coordinator for A&E’s An Evening at the Improv I’d receive literally hundreds of promotional packages with videos (this was before online promo really took off… and suddenly I’m feeling old…). These packages would pile up on my desk and I’d plan out “sittings” where I’d watch about 30 at a time.

No lie.

The comedians who played the above game were not a pain in the butt. They also were not forgotten or lost in the pile of videos. I would get these regular reminders and eventually dig through the pile to find their promo material. I was tired of being embarrassed when they’d call a couple of weeks later and I still hadn’t seen their video. It made me feel like I wasn’t doing my job, even though it seemed I never stopped watching videos. I just hadn’t seen theirs.

Now, this by no means guaranteed them a showcase or a spot on the television show. Sometimes it worked out in their favor, but sometimes they just weren’t ready. But at least they had put in the work and had been seen.

I also remember talking about this years ago at a comedy festival with a manager friend out of Los Angeles who has successfully taken his company into the big time by producing television shows and movies. How did he discover new talent? His advice was to be a player. If you weren’t seen in person on a comedy club stage where he scouted talent on a regular basis, you played the game without being annoying.

So as I like to say, this is nothing I’ve made up.

I’ve learned this from personal experience and talking with people that are successful in this crazy business. Play it correctly and eventually you should get at least some type of response. Of course that response could be good, bad or indifferent depending on where you are as a comedian or speaker, but that’s a different game we’ll play some other time.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

*

Newsletter Banner copy
Click banner to sign-up!