Hey Dave – Is there a way to make a living as a comic without playing the comedy clubs? I know the only other major venues are colleges and cruise ships and corporate events. – KH
Hey KH – You pretty much ran all the comedy bases in that one. From first to home with one swing:
- Comedy Clubs
- Colleges & Universities
- Cruise Ships
- Corporate Events
I’m sure readers can suggest few more options that I haven’t included in that trip around the bases, such as private parties and various social and special events. I could mention being an MC at a fashion show or talent contest or doing comedy for an “after the high school prom event,” since I’ve personally scheduled comedians for these teenage laugh-fests in the past.
But those types of shows are not regular gigs and I doubt they would add up enough money to help make a living as a comic.
Since you’re talking about bypassing comedy clubs that knocks out the first market, which is working in comedy clubs. So, we’ll pretend that one was never mentioned and move down your list…
Colleges & Universities:
The college market pays good money. That’s no secret in this business. Colleges have Student Activities (or Campus Activities) departments that are funded by student tuition. That means if they don’t spend the money during the year that particular student is in school, whoever is paying the tuition would have a right to be mad. They paid into the department, but didn’t get to reap the benefits?
Nope, that’s not going to happen. So, the activities boards spend their student-funded money every year on a wide range of activities. For instance, entertainment.
But just like the other upcoming options, the college market is more specialized than what is normally expected in comedy clubs. From my experience as a talent agent in NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) you would have to follow one of the most important rules of performing – and therefore, comedy:
Know your audience.
Your audience will obviously be college students. We’re talking mainly between the ages of 18 to 22. Does your material work for that age range? Also (and be honest) are you still at an age the students can relate to? Here’s what I mean…
When I was writing the book Comedy FAQs And Answers, I interviewed comedian Bill Engvall about copyrighting material (you’ll have to read the book to find out what he says). It was a great topic for him because his hook – “Here’s your sign!” – is legally protected. It belongs to him and you can’t use it – period.
In fact, I think I might need to send him a royalty check just for typing it out here.
I asked him about working the college market and he told me he doesn’t. The reason? He talks about his wife and kids, being a husband, a father, and other family stuff. College kids aren’t interested in those topics. They’re more into sleeping late, skipping classes and… well, think back to what you wanted to do when you were 18 years old and that’s what the audience wants to hear.
Know your audience.
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But to get back to your question, yes you can actually bypass comedy clubs by working colleges. Some of the most popular comedians on the college circuit are not really “club comics.” But you’ll need a college act (remember the audience) and on stage experience putting it together. As usual, you’ll get that through open-mics and doing smaller (usually for free) shows. There’s also the opportunity by performing free gigs at local colleges – especially since they normally save their student activities budgets for already working college performers.
Once you have an act that fits the college market, I suggest working with a college booking agent. Doing this on your own is not cheap because most college work comes from showcasing at college booking conferences. Again, this is described in more detail in the above-mentioned Comedy FAQs And Answers book, but the agencies invest a lot of money in membership fees, conference expenses and promotional material.
Agencies can better afford to do this because they offer a wide variety of entertainment that can fit what different colleges are looking for. This means the agencies have more opportunities to make money than a solo act going alone. Colleges don’t just book comedians, but also bands, variety acts, speakers, dance troupes, mimes, acrobats, and even inflatables that the students can jump on, slide down and bash into (remember the age of the audience we’re talking about).
The associations that run these conferences are:
- NACA (already mentioned)
- APCA (Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities)
Hook up with a college talent agency that is a member of one or both, have a GREAT college act (know your audience) and there’s a chance you can bypass comedy clubs until the amount of candles on your birthday cake is a legitimate fire hazard that would scare off students.
Most comedians I’ve talked with about working cruise ships say it’s the hardest market to break into. Depending on your status within the comedy industry it can be very lucrative or just another gig that happens to be on a ship. Let me explain…
Name headliners (celebrities and almost-celebrities) can work a cruise gig and get all the frills. They may not be paid anywhere near what they would get for a big college or corporate show, but the perks would include an upper deck stateroom and a regular seat at the captain’s dinner table. I know a (very) few that do this annually and consider it more of a vacation than work and bring their families along for the fun.
But I seem to know more comedians that work as a cruise ship contract-player. In other words, they sign on for a certain length of time, say three to six months, and share accommodations with other entertainers and staff in the lower quarters of the ship. There are no portholes to look out and meals are buffet food with other employees in the area off-limits to passengers, which again is in the lower decks of the ship.
The pay isn’t big time, but then again you don’t have to pay for anything. You live on the ship and watch your bank account grow.
Cruise ship comedians also have to be skilled at doing two completely different performances.
Usually in the early evening they’ll perform two shows. One is pre-dinner for half the passengers (while the rest are eating), followed by a post-dinner show for the other half (while the first audience is eating). These are CLEAN performances (G or PG-Rated) in the ship’s large theater for family audiences, meaning young children to grandparents.
Then the same comedians will do a later “dirty” show (R to X-Rated) in one of the lounges for the adults.
Know your audience.
I’ve worked with comedians that don’t even have houses or apartments anymore. They live on cruise ships and continue to sign months-long contracts. When they do take a month or so off, they’ve saved money and can live it up on a grand scale for a while, before signing on again when the money gets tight.
It could be fun, unless you have a family (that can’t go when you’re a contract entertainer) or want to be available for television and movie auditions on dry land. But it’s bypassing the comedy club option.
I think most corporate entertainers will agree this is the BIGGEST paying opportunity for comedians. I also wrote about this in Comedy FAQs And Answers, taught an online course on how to break into the corporate market – and wrote a book called How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian. So, in other words, I have a lot to say about the topic. And like the others, it’s not easy (if it was, everyone would do it), but it also starts with the same rule:
Know your audience.
I’m not going to elaborate too here much, because I’ve already written a lot about the corporate market in these articles, my books and the online course. But to make a point, I’m going to re-use one of the best reader comments I’ve received on this topic. It comes from my online comedy pal Frank King at CleanCorporateComic.com (and yeah Frank, this is a test to see if you’re still reading – ha!) who sent in this great quote for a long-ago, past article about corporate comedy…
“What’s the difference between the average club comic and the average corporate comic? Answer: $3,000 a day + expenses.”
Thanks Frank, that pretty much sums it up. If you can break into the corporate market, you won’t have to work a comedy club unless you want to.
The best advice any working corporate comedian will tell you is to work CLEAN (G-Rated). You can’t live on edgy material as you can in comedy clubs, but you also don’t have to be all about business at corporate events. Keynote speakers, trainers and humorous speakers usually take care of the business-related topics in their presentations. Corporate comedians are entertainers just like on cruise ships, college campuses and in comedy clubs.
Not all comedy takes place in comedy clubs. As a comedian, where you perform can depend in what markets you want to work. Also, by remembering an important rule…
Know your audience.
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