Flying under the radar to avoid Bad First Impression Land

Hey Dave – How do you know it’s time to start applying to the bigger clubs for MC spots? I have been really good at keeping myself in check to not think I am better than I am and trying to do things I am not ready for (this could be a blessing and a curse), but I am coming off two comedy contest wins where I didn’t bring anyone and no one knew me, which I think is notable. But I am not sure if that translates into me being ready for something bigger. Thanks – CC

Make a good first impression

Hey CC – Thanks for asking this question because it reminds me about a very good friend who didn’t “keep himself in check” long enough and tried to move ahead into the bigger clubs before he was ready. The end result stranded him in Bad First Impression Land, which in his case was located in a place where impressions can make or break a career – New York City.

Here’s the story…

My pal had been doing comedy on and off for at least five or six years before I even met him. I was just getting into the comedy biz by running a small club in the Gramercy Park area and invited him to do a set.

My first impression seeing him on stage was that this guy was going to be a star! He simply TORE the house down! He was extremely funny, and the audience LOVED him. It was obvious he had the experience, material and a great stage presence. But I couldn’t figure out why he was so willing and available to play our small club for free on a Saturday night, when the best comics played paid sets in the big-name NYC rooms.

A few months later I had a major “IN” at the top club in NYC. My friends and cohorts know the one I’m talking about. This also meant I was my pal’s Golden Ticket. In other words, I could invite him to skip the audition process and just do a guest set. After that I figured he would be a paid regular at the club because he was that good.

My pal said he didn’t think that would happen.

Say what?!

Where did I go wrong?

Then he explained he had auditioned at the club way before he was ready. He had only done about three open-mics but thought they had gone great. The crowd laughed, he assumed he was a natural comedian, so he started showing up at auditions for the major clubs.

In those days we had the lottery system. A hundred or so comics would stand in line outside the club once a month in pavement melting heat (summer) or sub-zero temps (winter) hoping to pull an audition number. There were usually about 100 blank pieces of paper in a champagne bucket and fifteen printed with a number.

If you pulled out a number, you auditioned that same night.

My pal would’ve been better off playing the Power Ball Lottery instead. He considered himself lucky by pulling audition numbers at the best clubs. The unlucky part was that he had only been on stage three times before his chance to make lasting-impression auditions in front of the most powerful club owners and talent bookers in New York City.

According to his painful memory, he bombed horribly. He hadn’t been ready and when faced with a real-life comedy audience, as opposed to a group of comics drinking beer in a late night open-mic, he didn’t have the material and experience.

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Still, I told him that had been years ago and that it shouldn’t be a problem now. I had seen him and knew he was funny. I approached a powerful club owner with his name and immediately learned a lesson in the importance of making a good first impression.

Oh, I’ve seen him. He’s not very good. Use that guest set to see someone we don’t already know.”

His audition had been years before, but it was enough to keep him out of the clubs he couldn’t wait to play when he first started.

So, when do you know it’s time to move up to the bigger clubs? That’s not an easy question and there’s no standard answer, but here’s how I see it…

You never want to get stuck in the open-mic scene. Too many comedians (again, from what I’ve seen) make it their social life. It’s a night out with friends who have something in common (comedy), and it eventually turns out to be almost an after-thought to take a break from partying to run up on stage and do 3-5 minutes of “inside” jokes. After that, it’s back to socializing around the bar.

Potential working comics don’t do that. They use the open-mics for what they’re meant to be: a place to work on material and get on stage experience. The goal is to create an act that a talent booker would be willing to pay for.

So, when is it time to get out of open-mics and into bigger clubs?

One is when you honestly (important factor) feel you can consistently get as many laughs (that’s the type of performance talent bookers pay for) as the acts already MC’ing at the bigger clubs. You know who they are because you are part of your area comedy scene (correct?) and you know who is MC’ing at the bigger clubs (correct again?).

If you honestly think you’re on the same level as the MC’s at those clubs, then it’s time to arrange an audition. If it’s a lottery system – start standing in line. If there’s a contest with the winner getting a booking at the club – enter. If the booker watches videos – send him or her a link to your website (you have one – correct?) with a video. If they ask for DVD submissions – send one.

Another is by using the Golden Ticket I’ve talked about a LOT in these articles.

If you’re a good comic, the other comics will know about you since you are part of the same scene (again, correct?). If they really like your act and are already playing the bigger clubs you want to play, ask if they’ll put in a good word for you and help arrange a showcase.

If you’re not ready, they’ll let you know because they don’t want to make a bad impression with a talent booker by recommending someone who’s not ready. And then again, I’ve known others who won’t recommend because the newer comic is funnier, and the veteran comedian doesn’t want to risk losing performance spots!

So how do you know if you’re ready?

You’re killin’ us!!

Listen to the audience and honestly evaluate how you compare with comics already working the MC spots in the clubs you want to play. If you (and here’s that word again) honestly think you have the on stage experience you need and comedy material you know works, then it’s probably time to take the next step.

What are talent bookers looking for? To make it clear, here’s a line from my book Comedy FAQs And Answers that’s worth remembering:

They may call it amateur night – but no one is looking to hire an amateur.

Get your experience under the radar first. This means in open-mic rooms and other venues where talent bookers are not as likely to see you. Be prepared when you have an opportunity to make a first impression that will get you out of the open-mics – rather than one sending you back to a long term residency in Bad First Impression Land.

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