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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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).
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.
People in the entertainment industry that work with talent are always looking for “new faces”. That’s how they stay current, grow 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 compare 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.
Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!
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