Doing new material for a comedy contest

Hey Dave – I won a spot in the amateur contest finale show next week. My question to you is this: I used my same set that you saw and it rocked. Should I go back there with that exact same set or a completely new one untested? Can I put in a few new bits and keep the rest the same? Thanks for your time – N.D.

Hey N.D. – That’s great news – congrats! Good things can happen when you “rock” on stage.

Rock the stage!

To answer your question, I’ll need to rely on what I’ve been told by too many comedians and behind the scenes people over the years. I’ve been involved with many auditions, which are different than contests. At an audition the comedians would do about five to seven minutes to be considered for a booking. When I was in Los Angeles it was three to five minutes when auditioning for most of the television shows, including The Tonight Show and on down the list.

We didn’t see the same material twice because there were no preliminaries and finals like in a comedy contest. The comic either got the gig or didn’t. If one of the talent bookers wanted to see the comic again it meant he/she was interested, but also wanted to see different material.

In comedy contests you have to know “what got you there” and what will keep you around until the end. In my book Comedy FAQs And Answers I asked the same question to an important Hollywood television producer (you’ll have to read the book to find out). His answer?

“Always go with your A-Game.”

In other words, never do an audition, showcase or (important) contest with untested material. Otherwise just consider it “stage time” (practice) and use it as that. Use it to work on material, delivery, timing, stage fright or whatever you need to improve to get better.

Don’t judge me!

But since you’re excited by going this far in the contest you should follow the above advice. Go with your A-Game and don’t do the untested set.

Since this is during a live show and not a repeat performance in front of a small panel of judges you’re going to have a different audience. So don’t worry about people having heard your material earlier. And as for the club staff, the hard workers behind the scenes are there every night and know many comedians do essentially the same act every show.

But now we’ll throw a little variation into the mix…

Comedians – good comedians anyway – are creative artists. I’ve said that many times before because it’s true. They are constantly writing and constantly anxious to try out new material to see how an audience will react. Many of my favorites that I’ve seen dozens of times over the years always have something new to say. But they also know “what got them there” as far as paid bookings and fans. They already know through experience what material is proven to work, whether it’s a great opening, closing or a solid punch to the funny bone in the middle of their set, and they’ll deliver it.

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When a comedian does a Comedy Central special, you can bet the material has been tried out more than a few times before the show is filmed. The stakes are too high and no one including the comedian, management, producer, network and beyond can afford a “bomb.” It wouldn’t help anyone’s career.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves…

You are going up in an amateur contest next week, which isn’t Comedy Central, but it can also be an important step in your career. If your creativity is telling you to try something new, it’s probably a good idea to try it out somewhere else first. Do some open mics and get a feel for the delivery and audience response. It’s what you did anyway in putting together the material that “got you there” and the process shouldn’t stop now.

Here comes the judge!

When it comes to the contest performance, do the material that really works best. If it’s the same set you did it at the earlier show, the new audience won’t know. And unless the contest judges requested something new – and obviously they didn’t or we wouldn’t be having this discussion – they should make their decisions based on audience response. Of course it doesn’t always happen that way, but your main goal should be entertaining the audience. If you get a great response and don’t get crowned the winner it’s not the end of the world – or your career.

You still win. You’ve had more stage time, which is an opportunity to get better. And as far as I know and from what I’ve been told, that’s what’s important to a creative artist.

Remember what got you there – a set that rocked. You want to rock again and that could be a crapshoot for a newer comedian with untested material. In these situations give them your best – your A-Game. But keep writing and looking for more opportunities to get on stage because in the long run, that’s how you’ll put together the material “that got you there” if Comedy Central ever calls.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!!

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