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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Use humor to get corporate gigs – Part 2

I just completed a comedy workshop and also, I’m reading your book How To Be A Working Comic. I would also like to learn about humorous presentations and keynote opportunities. – Sincerely, EM

Okay, if you’re following along that’s the same question from our last newsletter.

Or Part 2?

You’ll also remember the answer was getting a bit long and the executive decision (mine) was made to break it up into two parts. If you’d like to check out Part 1 just scroll down or check out my last email.

To continue where we left off…

Now, before you shake your head and think I’m nuts because there’s “no way” you could ever relate to corporate event themes, here’s a news update:

Chances are you can.

I say that because I’ve worked with and watched dozens of talented local and national comedians turn themselves into corporate comedians or humorists by taking their comedy material and focusing it on the audience and the event.

They’ve done this through simple research. Usually by emailing a short survey to the event planner or a phone interview with the client. They find out the “theme” for the event, the company’s product and the focus of the conference training seminars. Then they can take this information and see how his/her existing comedy material relates.

Okay, stop it…

Stop shaking your head because I’m not done yet. For example…

If you have a family, you’re probably an “expert” on communications, team building and customer service. Yeah, it may sound ridiculous because it might only be about communicating with your parents, spouse, kids or other relatives. But since these are important topics within the “business world” and focused on during the conference, your performance would be “entertainment” that is based on the “theme.”

The topics are the same.

You’re just relating to them in a different way as a humorist. Put focus on the conference theme (ex: the importance of communicating) and how you deal with it on a personal level (ex: “I don’t understand how my family communicates”) and it becomes info-tainment.

Are you still shaking your head? I’ll continue…

A couple years ago I did a breakout session at a medical conference. And here’s a confession – I ain’t no doctor. But one of the conference topics was stress relief. I’m a comedy coach and talk about humor. One of the benefits of humor is relieving stress. I was the only person in the room without a medical degree, white coat and stethoscope – and probably the only one that got paid for that particular hour. I made sure my topic – finding humor in stressful situations – related to their event.


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My topic, or expertise, was a good example of what the doctors were talking about in their training seminars (info) and we had more than a few laughs (entertainment).

The event planner may have hired a big-time keynote speaker or high-priced entertainer for a highlight event during the conference, but to make it a highlight they would probably need big-time doctor credentials (keynote) or television credits (entertainer). If you can compete for those gigs, then go for it. Otherwise, start thinking about how your comedy expertise can get you booked for one of the many other (paying) speaker opportunities.

A stand-up comedian who doesn’t customize his material for the event can still get hired as the entertainment. A humorous speaker can be hired for keynotes, training seminars, break out sessions – and as the entertainment.

What this means is that you don’t need to work laughs into a strict business training program about… well, corporate stuff such as taxes, law, productivity, networking, increasing sales and all that. If you have experience in those fields and can speak as a “trainer” with humor you should be in demand. But even if you don’t, you might have comedy material that is relatable to those topics. So, find a creative way to relate what you already talk about to the audience and the event.

This is another way of saying know your audience.

Motivational Speaker

The topic of the conference could be anything from business techniques such as learning power point or relieving office stress, to more personal topics like juggling a family and a career, to improving your golf game.

Were you ever a parent, child, golfer, lawyer, teacher, minister, truck driver, bartender or anything other than a comedian? Then you have a business or personal topic you can share. Talk about your business or personal experiences (I’ll bet you already do in your act) while making it funny and entertaining, and you’ll be considered a humorous speaker.

For example…

I’m sure a comedian with teaching experience would have some very funny stories and advice to share if team-building was a corporate breakout session topic. So would soccer moms and dads, military vets, sports fans, frat boys, factory workers, gang members – and anyone else that has ever been part of a team.

This also works if you have a particular message.

Have you or anyone close to you survived a disease, injury or other tragedy? I hate to list those suggestions as moneymakers, but I’ve seen many comedians on the corporate and college circuits turning negatives into positives as humorous motivational speakers. If your story can help someone else – then it’s worthy of telling. And if you can make it entertaining, your audience will tend to listen and “get” your message. The same idea holds true for insights on bullying, alcohol awareness and other important topics. Do you have experience in these fields? Talk, share, motivate, teach, train and entertain as a comedian.

That’s what sells in the corporate market.

The idea is not to be limited to only going for the corporate entertainment gigs that seem to peak during holidays and slow down the rest of the year. If your material and performance is relatable to the event and funny, you’ll find more opportunities for work.

I’ll talk more about this topic in the coming weeks because I have a lot to share. But here’s another big chunk of advice that I’ve shared numerous times in earlier newsletters.

Keep it clean!

For corporate shows, we’re talking G and PG (at the max) rated. Don’t even try to test that warning in an attempt to prove me wrong. You won’t – and you also won’t work corporate gigs where you can make more money in an hour than you can during an entire weekend at a comedy club.

And if you remember how we started in Part 1 of this discussion, that’s a correct answer to a big-money topic. And now for my brilliant callback…

I guess I should’ve been a game show host.

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Use humor to get corporate gigs – Part 1

Mr. Schwensen – I just completed a comedy workshop and also, I’m reading your book How To Be A Working Comic. I would also like to learn about humorous presentations and keynote opportunities. – Sincerely, EM

Hey EM – First of all, I write these newsletters for a bunch of funny comedians and humorous speakers. We’re not exactly standing up on the top tier of formality in our biz, so “Mr. Schwensen” and “Sincerely” will have to go. Our favorite terms of endearment are…

Well, since I’ve promised to keep this newsletter rated G and PG for our younger readers (and the parents that screen them) I won’t make a list. But next time, “Hey Dave” will work just fine.

Second, thanks for the book plug. Saves me from having to do it myself this week… ha!

“Humorous presentations and keynote opportunities.”

You’re a winner!

If I was a game show host we’d be celebrating right now because you just hit on a big-money topic. It also happens to be one that I don’t think enough comedians are taking advantage of:

Humorous speaking gigs.

Of course, there are comedy and speaking gigs available in the club, college and cruise ship markets, but when you mention presentations and keynotes, my mind races to the corporate market (includes businesses, associations and social organizations) where there are a lot of opportunities for speakers that are humorous.

Corporate events will hire entertainers, such as comedians, musicians and variety acts for special occasions, holiday parties, retirement banquets and in general, when they need entertainment. Usually, that will be one big blow-out show as the entertainment highlight of the conference. The entertainer who scores that spot could be in line for a big payday. But you know what? At many conferences there are keynotes (breakfast, lunch and dinner), training seminars and breakout sessions throughout the day – for as many days as the conference runs.

That’s a lot of spots to fill – with speakers.

Spaces to fill

At corporate functions there are more opportunities for presenters who can inform as well as entertain. And when that info-tainment requirement includes laughter, event planners seem to be more open to hire humorous speakers.

Speakers bureaus (which operate like entertainment agencies) list more humorous speakers on their rosters than entertainers. Why? Because they get more work in the corporate market and that’s how the bureaus stay in business. And if you look into it (Google a few) you’ll find the humorous speakers have at least a few general topics that could fit into various events.

They’re still doing comedy, but it relates to the audience and theme of the event.

Most conference training seminars and keynotes consist of the “hands-on” experienced information attendees need for professional development. That’s the reason to have a conference.

For example:


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If it’s a conference on law enforcement, the training seminars might teach the best way to bust crooks. If it’s about being a grocery store clerk, they’ll learn new techniques in bagging groceries. Since the majority of entertainers won’t have experience in either profession their best chance to book the gig at either conference is if entertainment is needed.

With budget cuts, time restrictions and other factors dictating how business conferences are planned, hiring someone purely for entertainment purposes is usually the first casualty. Sure, CEO’s and event planners want their events to be fun and memorable for the employees and associates, but they also need to serve a purpose.

Usually it involves training and how to do their business better.

So, a big chunk of the budget will be used to bring in the trainers and speakers who do just that. And instead of hiring a high-priced comedian to perform an after dinner show as the highlight entertainer, they might bring in a karaoke machine or local deejay.

Believe me, not only are comics frustrated by that – so are their agents.

But good event planners also know it’s important for conference attendees to have a positive experience. You know what they say about all work and no play… So, entertainment can still be a factor, especially if it relates to the event.

For example:

Even if a comedian or speaker doesn’t have experience or training in a certain profession they can still be booked for a presentation if they have topics pertaining to these services. If we stick with law enforcement and grocery bagging, it’s a good bet there will be training seminars on communications, customer service and team building. Do you have any comedy material or experiences that might even come close to any of those topics?

Then your goal is to customize it for the event.

Now, before you shake your head and think I’m nuts because there’s “no way” you can relate to corporate event themes, chances are you can. I say that because I’ve worked with and watched dozens of talented local and national comedians turn themselves into “corporate humorists” by taking their comedy material and focusing it on their audience and the event.

But you know what? This is turning into one of my longer ramblings, so it might be a good idea to take a break. We’ll “focus” on that topic in two weeks in Part 2. Until then – keep laughing!

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In search of the perfect audience

Hey Dave – I think I’m getting pretty good audience response while on stage. Even when I feel most of the crowd is with me I always notice the people not laughing. What would other comics do? Focus on the ones not laughing to get them with me or ignore them and just keep going? Thanks – A.J.

Hey A.J. – No lie. I was just talking with a comic about this. The conversation was about connecting with your fan base – both in performances and with marketing. Since you’re talking about being on stage, I’ll save the marketing thoughts from our conversation for the end of this FAQ And Answer

Not everybody!

I think most performers understand they’re not going to get 100% of an audience.

Okay, maybe if you’re a cult leader or a maniacal dictator. But even then I can imagine there would be someone in the crowd thinking he’d better pass on drinking the Kool Aid and get his passport updated for a permanent location change.

Unless you have the perfect audience (as rare as the perfect storm?) there will be someone who won’t think you’re funny. It’s the nature of the entertainment business. You could be the most popular and highest-paid performer in the world and there will always be someone, somewhere, that wouldn’t have any interest in going to your show.

I gave an example last week about how an audience might react if Justin Bieber opened a concert for The Rolling Stones. They don’t attract the same audience and there’s nothing (I can think of anyway) either act can do to change that.

Another example from last week was about Jerry Seinfeld. I’m still shocked about that one. If you missed it, just scroll down…

Not enjoying the show

Even though it’s not impossible, the odds are you’re not going to “get” 100% of the audience. So what should you do? Continue to entertain the ones enjoying your show – or concentrate on “getting” the ones obviously missing out on all the fun?

As a talent booker and club manager – in other words, working for a club owner and doing my best to keep him/her happy and profitable – I’d want as many people as possible to have fun because they will hopefully become returning (and paying) customers. So that means I wouldn’t want the comic to stop performing for the already-satisfied customers.

The comic might risk losing them in an effort to “get” the not-laughing people.

There’s also a risk the comic will never get the not-laughing people no matter how hard he/she works on entertaining them. This could cut the fun factor or even ruin the show for everyone else.


The comic and audience would be focused on the people not laughing. They’re obviously not having as much fun as everyone else and their attitude could change the “feeling” in the room. I’m sure we’ve all experienced times when an “attitude” can ruin a good time. If you’ve ever been a parent of a teenager (or remember being a teenager) you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.


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Comics and speakers know within a few minutes of going on stage what members of the audience are “with them” based on their response. They also recognize the ones that are not. It could have to do with someone’s taste in humor, language, topics – or even the way the comic or speaker looks.

Some may be laughing from the moment you start talking while others are others are waiting to be “won over.” Unfortunately, there’s also a good chance some won’t like you no matter what you say or do.

It’s like a roller coaster at an amusement park. Ask everyone to get on the ride. A few won’t want to. Are you going to delay the ride and try to coax and convince them they’ll have a great time while everyone else is sitting there – possibly getting bored while waiting for you to show them a fun time on the ride?


Take’em on a ride!

Take them on the ride and leave the few non-riding (non-laughing) stiffs behind. Not everyone wants to ride the roller coaster, just like not everyone is going to think you’re the next Jerry Seinfeld. So don’t waste your time or efforts trying to force them. Have fun with the ones who want to go with you.

As Steven Stills once sang: “Love the one you’re with.”

If you have the majority already laughing and a few not really with you, my thought (as a talent booker, manager and someone wanting to keep a club owner happy and profitable) is not to waste your energy and entertainment value on what might be a no-win situation.

To give it another perspective I’ll refer back to the conversation I mentioned earlier.

This was with a comedian friend concerning marketing. He told me there’s no reason to send his promotional material to someone – in his case a corporate event planner – that has made it clear she never hires comedians. What is he going to do – change her opinion?

Chances are he won’t.

So instead of spending the extra time and extra effort on a long shot, he feels it’s best to go right for the people who already like what he does (comedy). Then continue to find others, which should lead to more work.

I think this is good advice both in performing AND marketing.

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Same show, but different audience response

Hey Dave – You talked last week about audiences giving objective feedback. I did a five minute open-mic at The Improv that killed! People were coming up to me telling me I was the funniest of the 20 comics by far and that I was hilarious. Fast forward to last night at a different open-mic… Exact same set from The Improv – no change at all and NOTHING!! Not even a snicker or two. I was shocked. I thanked them for being so quiet while I practiced my comedy. Those nights are painful, but I know they are part of the process. I’m just amazed at the change from one crowd to another. – M

Not the best show.

Hey M. – Every group of people has its own personality, just like individuals. Sometimes that personality will like what you do on stage and other times it won’t.

It’s like the old saying: “You can’t please everyone.”

That’s one thing comedians and speakers need to realize. They’re not going to have one hundred percent of the audience love everything they say or do on stage. It just won’t happen – and I don’t care who the performer is.

An example I use about this in my comedy workshops involves Jerry Seinfeld

I consider Seinfeld to be one of the top comedians not only of our time, but in the long history of comedy. Right up there with Richard Pryor, George Carlin and the other legends mentioned the most as influences by the working comics I’ve interviewed for my books. Seinfeld’s name starting creeping in during the success of his TV show and it’s stayed there.

I’ve been fortunate to see Seinfeld perform dozens of times. Mostly it was at the LA Improv when the TV show Seinfeld was still in production and he would stop by the club to work on new material. I was in the audience at The Cleveland Improv during the filming of his movie Comedian and have also seen him do a few theater shows.

The last time I saw him (theater show) he was GREAT!! He KILLED and it was positively the BEST show I had seen him do, at least in my humble opinion (do I really possess such a trait?). I laughed from beginning to end.

BUT on the way out of the theater, there were two couples walking behind us. One of the guys turned to the others and said:

“Say what?!”

“You should’ve seen him last time. He was a lot funnier than this.”

My jaw dropped in disbelief, but then I slammed it shut. Every individual has his own personality and opinions and obviously, this guy had one that was different than mine. It’s the same when a group of people get together.

An audience develops a personality.

You mentioned The Improv. It’s a known comedy club (for over half a century folks!) and people go there to see comedy. They are more supportive audiences than what you would usually find at an open-mic in a stereotypical neighborhood bar. You know the type I mean – the kind of place where the bartender shuts off the televisions and announces to his customers:

“It’s time for a little comedy.”

To put this into classic television perspective, imagine Sam Malone pulling that on the gang at Cheers in the middle of a Red Sox or Celtics game. Let’s just say that a bar-crowd audience will not be as supportive of a comedy night as an audience of comedy fans at The Improv.

Different audiences have different personalities.


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Can you play both? An experienced comedian has a pretty good chance. A beginning comic needs to look at it as real life on-stage experience.

Sometimes you can’t do anything about it. Certain audiences (like people with certain personalities) will not like you no matter what you do. They’re not your crowd and it happens to everyone during the course of their careers. Imagine if you produced a show and your co-headliners were complete opposites when it comes to performing styles. Off the top of my head, I’ll go with Bill Maher and Carrot Top. Depending on who has the most fans in the audience, that comic will get more laughs than the other based on the comedy tastes of the majority of the crowd.

In other words, a big chunk of a performer’s success depends on the crowd’s personality.

Another off the top of my head example (for music fans) would have Justin Bieber opening a concert for The Rolling Stones. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be pretty…

From watching more comedy shows than rock concerts, but also learning from both, some good advice when you’re having a difficult time is to try and engage the audience in your set more than you normally do. I’ve talked about this technique in earlier FAQ’s And Answers, but here’s a quick rerun…

Years ago, I saw one of the best comedy writers in the business perform his regular set at the Los Angeles Improv. From past experiences watching him many times before, his material was guaranteed to get laughs. I had never seen him bomb or ever had any expectations of seeing him bomb. But for some reason on this particular Friday night the crowd wasn’t laughing – at all.

So instead of chalking it up to a bad experience or blaming the audience and hoping his next crowd would be more receptive, this “material” comedian took the microphone out of the stand and started talking with the audience. He used all the old comedian tricks:

Still one of Dave’s favorites (H.Y.)

“Where’ya from?” and “What’da’ya do for a living?”

Next thing you know, he had engaged the audience. They were suddenly interested in what he was saying.

He had related to them.

Then (and this was the cool part) he stepped back, put the microphone back in the stand, and went into his usual material that I had seen work many times before. And this time – it worked again.The audience laughed all the way through the remainder of his set.

After he got off stage, I talked to him about it (I was the talent booker and allowed to do that). He said – like every comedian – he had started out as an opening act. It’s what you have to do to be a good MC.

You must learn how to relate to and engage the audience. I hadn’t seen him do it before since he was already a headliner when we met. He hadn’t needed to rely on his MC / opening act skills at The Improv (the only venue where I had seen him) in a long time because his material was practiced and usually worked. But when it didn’t, he went back to what he learned at the beginning of his career, which was relating to the audience, and continuing until they’re with him.

Make sense?

You may not kill at every open-mic because of this great advice and the audience may not like you no matter what you do. But this will at least give you a fighting chance. Talk with the crowd, relate to them, find out what they’re interested in – and play off it. It’s like you’re the host of a party and it’s your job to greet everyone and make sure they feel involved. Make them feel like they’re a welcomed guest.

Once that happens you can kill them with your comedy.

If not, then you might have to admit they’re not your audience and move on. It’s sort of like being Justin Bieber at a Rolling Stones concert, or the guy walking behind me after the Seinfeld show. We definitely had clashing personalities that night, but you know me. I kept my (humble) opinions to myself… ha!

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Self-evaluating your performance

Dave – In addition to putting together material and preparing a solid five minutes (stand-up), what is the process of objective self-evaluation? If I go to the open-mics with my girlfriend and my brother, I’ll never have any idea how good or bad I really was. You know what I mean? – DB

Is it good or bad?

Hey DB – Yeah, I know what you mean. Your girlfriend, brother, or anyone closely connected to you (relative, friend or enemy) really wouldn’t be an objective audience. They have preconceived opinions because they know you.

Of course, this statement is not always true. There are exceptions, as there will be in just about anything that involves creativity. Your girlfriend or brother might eventually become a writing partner. But for the partnership to be successful they would need to be honest with their feedback and possibly get over a lot of their preconceived opinions of you.

I also think someone close to you should have an understanding of the writing and performing side of the business. Otherwise, this could turn into an annoying nightmare…

I have a pal who thinks he knows all there is to know about the comedy biz, even though he’s never tried it or been involved behind the scenes and doesn’t really know any comedians outside of the ones I’ve introduced him to. But he never hesitates (annoying) to offer his opinions on what’s bad in someone’s act and how to make it better. At least 99.9% of the time the comics will stand there and look at him like he’s nuts (nightmare).

“Here’s what I think!”

And in my opinion, he is. He’s giving advice (acting like a writing partner) in a field where he has absolutely no experience. It could be the same thing with your girlfriend or brother. They think they’re helping, but they don’t know how it really works.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here. You want to know how to get objective opinions about your act…

A stereotypical girlfriend or boyfriend will usually say anything to make you feel better. For instance, how funny you are and that you’re destined to be a big success. Don’t get me wrong because it’s great to have that moral support. But when you have a fight or break up, they’ll (probably) say you’ve always sucked, and they were just being nice (more than an annoying nightmare).

A stereotypical brother might grab you around the neck and give you a “noogie” while saying how funny you are – or that you will never be as funny as he is.

Again, this is stereotypical profiling based on my wasted youth spend sitting in front of a television screen watching sitcoms. In fact, the characters and what I just described was probably an episode in every long-running comedy series from the 1960′s to today.


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And in case you didn’t get it, the hidden meaning is that the girlfriend / boyfriend or brother was not being as honest as they could be.

Another example. I remember watching the very funny Al Lubel doing a bit that he was “The best looking guy in the world.” Why? Because his mother always told him that – and mothers don’t lie to their children. Right?

Wrong, because I just talked with my mom and she says I’m the best looking guy in the world.

So, who’s right?

To know for sure, you need an objective opinion. And when you’re trying out stand-up material, I’m talking about an audience of more than your relatives and best friends.

In addition to writing, comedians will tell you to get as much stage experience as possible. This means in front of different audiences. It would be great to have your support team with you, but they’re not the best ones to tell you what works and what doesn’t.

So how would you know if your set was good or bad?

Easy. You record it and listen to the audience reaction. Yeah, you should know while you’re on stage if you’re getting laughs or not and if the audience is enjoying your set. But the way to really put it together – enhance the good stuff and weed out the dead spots – is to listen to it.

“That’s some funny stuff!”


I know I’m repeating myself because the comedians I’ve interviewed for my books talked about this. But it’s worth saying again when answering your question because if it didn’t work why would they continue to recommend it?

I’ve spent a lot of time in NYC open-mics. Some were a lot of fun and many were just brutal. I remember a place on West 14th Street that would be packed with open-mic comics every Tuesday. You’d have to arrive at 6 pm to draw a number for a time to perform and either sit in the audience waiting for your turn or go to a movie or dinner (that’s how many spots there were!) and come back just before you were due on.

The audience? All the other open-mic comics waiting to go onstage.

No one ever seemed to be really listening. They were writing, preparing to go on – or just hanging out and talking with their friends. But we all said if a joke got a laugh from that tough crowd you knew it was a good one. It was a keeper.

Even though it wasn’t the best barometer (a room full of comics), if it got a laugh you could be pretty sure it was a good joke or bit.

So there really is no other answer. It’s great to have people you’re close to come out to see you and enjoy what you’re doing. But if you are worried that they’re not being quite honest in saying you’re the best (or even best looking), then listen to the recording of your set.

An objective audience won’t lie.

If it’s funny – they’ll laugh. If it’s not – then fix it.

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Thinking on your feet

Hi Dave – I’m going to Los Angeles to take an Improv Intensive Workshop at Second City. I’ve been planning this for a few months and feel this is my next step in finding my calling. I’d like to get more into TV, rather than just stand-up. I hope this workshop will not only add to my resume, but will help me define a more thorough path for me in this crazy comedy career. LOL! I was just wondering what you think and what advice you would give, if any? Thanks – E

Hey E – Good luck on your learning adventure to LA. I really hope it’s a great one and you find laughs and success. In fact, I’ll even improvise around that thought…

  • Find laughs – by working with one of the best improvisational comedy schools and…
  • Find success – by improving your comedy skills and ability to “think on your feet.”

It’s not in the script!

Improvising (thinking on your feet) on stage can seem almost impossible to many aspiring performers. It’s one thing to be quick-witted and toss out ad-libs at work or hanging out with friends, but it’s a whole different ballgame to do it in front of an audience at a comedy club or speaking gig.

Some comedians and speakers memorize, prepare and rehearse their material so they know exactly what they’re going to say. But if something happens to distract them – for instance an audience member’s cell phone rings or a server drops a tray of drinks – they’re lost. They’re speechless. They don’t know what to say because they haven’t prepared for this.

It’s not in the script.

True story…

When I first started working at the LA Improv there was an earthquake during a show. A bunch of us that had just moved from New York ran out to the middle of Melrose Avenue and were, like… “What the heck was that?” BUT the comic on stage didn’t miss a beat. He was quick thinking (on his feet) and adjusted his act so when we walked back inside the club he was talking about the earthquake.

It wasn’t in the script, but it didn’t matter. He had reacted to what just happened (an earthquake for cryin’ out loud!!).

Well known improvisors

Many performers have told me how important improvisational training can be if you’re interested in doing anything on stage, but not confident in your ability to think fast on your feet. If you lack the knack to ad-lib, one of the ways to improve is to get into an improvisation class.

When you’re skilled at improvising, almost nothing should faze you or throw you off your set when doing stand-up or a speaking presentation.

It will give you more confidence on stage. The best comics and speakers I’ve worked with all seem to have the ability to talk with an audience (conversational) and if something happens in the room that’s unexpected – a server drops a tray of drinks or even a (gulp!) earthquake – an ability to improvise around the situation will help the performer stay in control of the show.

During the first session of my workshops I emphasize the importance of expecting the unexpected while on stage. We do this by playing an improvisational game I learned while performing with an improv group in Los Angeles (I didn’t spend the weekend nights sitting behind my desk at The Improv!). Two people are on stage having a conversation. At various times during this conversation, one of them is selected to choose a card (from a basket, hat, etc…) that has a song title or line from a movie written on it (suggestions by the audience). He reads that as his next line in the conversation – and usually it has nothing to do with the subject they’ve been talking about – and the other person has to respond in a way that keeps the conversation moving ahead.


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It’s a standard improvisational game and one many of you probably know. It’s the type of exercise that helps performers learn to “go” with whatever is happening on stage and a way to practice thinking on your feet.

Second City and other good improvisational workshops teach many different games and exercises. A lot of these techniques can also be used in stand-up and speaking. After all, you never know what might happen or when it might happen while you’re on stage…

Advice? (Remember – you asked).

Follow The Rules

Just go with it and have fun. Keep an open mind when you’re exploring your talent. Really learn and don’t be afraid to go out on the edge and take a risk.

Also if you have the opportunity, check out the LA stand-up comedy scene. As always the BIG names will be at The Improv, Laugh Factory and The Comedy Store. But also find out where the smaller clubs are – and even the open-mics. Then go watch and…


Talk with LA comics and learn about the comedy scene. Ask about performance opportunities – if it’s easy to find stage time or a nightmare. How often can they expect to get on stage every week? Maybe you could even sign up for a few open-mics and do sets. It always helps to get stage time.

And since you’re there for improvisation, also look for those types of clubs. Second City will have some great shows for you to see – and maybe even perform in.

There are also smaller troupes put together by comics and improvisers that are not as well known, but also very skilled and funny. These comics perform in the smaller clubs, hotels, bars and anywhere else they can find an audience.  You might even be invited to go on stage if you tell them what you’re doing – you never know.

Which is what improvisation is all about. You never know, but as you’ll learn through training – just “go” with it. And since we’re talking about comedy – have fun.

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Prepare for your first time on stage

Hi Dave – First off, I am not a professional comedian. That being said, it is my dream to be one. I know that I am a funny person and I realize what it takes to pursue a career in comedy. I guess my big problem is that I’m afraid of taking the first step. I am afraid of going onstage and everyone just absolutely hating me. I am aware that bombing is a learning experience. But I always want people to like me. So, as you can guess, I haven’t really done much stage time because I’m scared to do so. I guess my question is, and this may sound stupid: Is it OK to be scared about taking the first step? Thanks for your time – SM

Hey SM – Let me give this some thought… (I’m pausing for dramatic effect)… YES – it’s okay to be scared about doing comedy the first time! It’s public speaking and to quote the much over-quoted Jerry Seinfeld bit:

Speaking in public?

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

There’s a great example of truth in comedy – and why Seinfeld is a master at it.

Another fear factor for a lot of people thinking about going into this crazy biz is, as you so eloquently put it:


You’re right in saying that bombing is a learning experience. Every time you go on stage should be a learning experience. Once you accept that, it shouldn’t be a goal-stopping event. Another thing to remember is that anyone who wants to be a performer (and not just comedians) needs to develop a thick skin. It’s not always going to go as perfectly as you might imagine.

When (notice I didn’t say if) you bomb, you need to use it as a learning experience.

It’s like going to school. Record your set, listen to it and figure out how it could have been better. Make changes, continue to write and try it again. All the comedians I know have gone through this process starting with open-mics and free shows. If someone tells you that they haven’t then they’re not a great example of truth in comedy. In other words, they’re lying.

It takes nerve and determination to walk on stage the first time.

Fasten your helmet for the ride!

It’s not easy. If it was, then just about everyone would try it because… well, it sure looks like fun, doesn’t it? Standing on stage in front of an audience and making them laugh seems like a pretty good job. If all it took was to fill out a job application and lie about your work experience during an interview, a lot of people would be asking where they could sign up.

But it’s not that easy.

Along with nerve to go on stage and determination to continue, it takes a lot more to be successful. It takes talent and experience, and an understanding of how the business works. But that’s not what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about taking that first step on stage.

The advice I’ve heard from a many of the comedians I’ve interviewed for my books is that the best way to get started – and to get over being nervous or scared – is to be prepared. Know what you’re going to say before you go on stage and don’t just try to wing-it; hoping you’ll just open your mouth and something funny will accidentally fall out.

If you only have three to five minutes on stage, which is the amount of time beginning comedians are usually given at an open-mic, have what you are going to say – three to five minutes of material – prepared in advance. Write it and be familiar with it. Practice it and get used to saying the words out loud.

Memorize if you have to. BUT as you continue to develop through on stage experience, the key is NOT to ever sound memorized. But again, we’re just talking about taking your first steps here, so the goal right now is just to get on stage.


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To help calm your nerves, it’s also acceptable to take notes with you on stage so you don’t forget what you want to say.

There’s nothing wrong with that because doing comedy is a step-by-step learning process that doesn’t happen overnight. When you’re just starting out, the first step is to get on stage and learn how to converse with an audience. That’s enough pressure, so you don’t need to add more pressure by worrying about memorizing your material word-for-word.

Like your stage presence and delivery, your material will also change as you get more experience. Doing an open-mic is not auditioning for Comedy Central, so don’t be afraid to rely on your notes while you’re still learning what to do. I’ve seen many big-name comedians take notes on stage when they’re working on new material. Want names? George Carlin and Jay Leno to mention only two – and you can’t argue with their success.

So, don’t let anyone say you can’t do that. You can.

Another way to make that first step is to have help in being prepared.

I don’t know where you’re located. But a lot of comedy clubs offer workshops. Pick the best club in your area, call and ask if they have workshops and who runs them. Look at their experience, credits and whenever possible, what other comedians in the area are saying about them. If they have positive reviews, you should find them posted on a professional looking website. If not, then keep looking.

In a good workshop you should get experience on stage and helpful feedback about your material and delivery. Also, to ease the fear factor, make sure you’re given an opportunity to work with a microphone and in front of the spotlights before facing a “real” audience.

It’s all about preparation.

The first step will always be a BIG one. If you’ve prepared it will still be BIG, but hopefully more fun(ny) than scary.

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Colleges, cruise ships and corporate events

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

Working different markets

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 potential 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.

Cruise Ships:

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…

Cruise ship workplace

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.

Corporate Events:

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 (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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Average pay for stand-up comedians

Hi Dave – I need some information about how much an average pay is for stand up comedians. I have an opportunity to open up a (local) coffee house and I was thinking of doing a comedy night once a week with two or three comedians. – G.A.

It’s show BUSINESS!

Hey G.A. – This is a question that comes up a lot and probably the toughest to answer. I’ll do my best, so here we go…

It depends.

I always emphasize that comedy is a creative art just like playing music, writing a song, a book, painting a picture, or taking a picture. If you want to make a living through creative art, then it becomes a business. And as one of my favorite comedians (in the world!) said in my book How To Be A Working Comic:

It’s called show-BUSINESS and not show-ART.

Professional comedians expect to be paid for their work. A club owner expects to make money by charging customers to enjoy the comedians. They both have to make a profit for the business to work. That much is clear – correct?

After that is where it gets a little muddy.

Stage gear

You mentioned a coffee house doing a comedy night. That puts it into the “local” category, and I hope you don’t mind I added that observation into your question. It lets me off the hook a bit because it doesn’t include established comedy clubs such as The Improv, Funny Bone, Comedy Cellar, Zanies, Laugh Factory – and all the others that comedians would travel to and spend a few nights doing more than a few shows.

The established (name) clubs stick pretty close to the pay structures they use for openers and middle acts. The headliner’s fee is usually negotiated by their agent and can be based on the comic’s credits, number of tickets sold, percentage of sales (tickets plus food and alcohol), the amount of promotion the headliner is required to do (television, radio and print), and other business stuff.

So, when it comes to booking and paying national acts…

It depends.

So, let’s get back to the local scene. Let’s say – as you did – you want to run a comedy night at a local venue.


January 2020 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv


Workshop showcase performance at The Improv

Wednesday, February 5 at 7:30 pm

Workshop Marquee 150

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Beginning comics usually work for free at open-mics. The valuable stage experience is their payment. Comedians can’t improve unless they perform and there’s no way a comedian can actually practice comedy without an audience. Open-mic club owners are giving them that opportunity and hope to make whatever profit they can from selling drinks and food. If the club is successful and continues, both parties should be happy.

When it’s more than an open-mic, like you’re referring to in this question because you want to pay the performers, then you’re most likely looking for more experienced comedians than you’d find at a beginning open-mic room. It could mean a cover charge, advance ticket sales, and food or drink minimums.

In other words, a bigger profit for the club than running an open-mic. Now we’re talking show-BUSINESS and that profit needs to be shared with the talent.

The comedians you book are providing a service.

They’re being counted on to attract paying customers and use the experience they’ve earned performing free (paying their dues) at open-mics to provide the type of entertainment that will attract new customers for future shows and repeat business. Remember, if someone has a great time at your comedy show, chances are good they’ll want to come back for another great time.

And as I always enjoy pointing out to potential clients that contact me about booking acts for their events – you get what you pay for.

Paying dues

The comedians that have worked hard and invested time, energy and talent to provide a quality performance – in other words, they have the stage experience to deliver proven laughs – need to be paid for that effort. How much? Again…

It depends.

For this specific question, since you referred to a local venue doing a comedy night, the following is a pretty accurate guideline to use. This would also work for bars, music clubs, bowling alleys, or any local place looking to book a once a week or one-time small venue show for a profit.

A comedian just breaking into paying gigs will most likely be hired as an opening act or MC. My experiences after leaving NYC and LA (the lowest paying places for beginning acts) and booking shows for smaller local clubs has found $50 to be pretty normal for a 10 or 15 minute set. If a club owner wants to go with a three person show like the established road comedy clubs – but keep local comic pricing – a middle act doing 20-25 minutes should expect somewhere between $50 and $100.

That depends on the size of the potential paying audience and the comedian’s experience. For many local clubs that do comedy shows once or twice a week, a middle act is almost a luxury. Most of the smaller clubs I’ve worked with try to keep their expenses down and go with a two comedian show.

That leaves us with the headliner. The star of the show and the performer all club owners rely on to provide the quality entertainment their customers are paying for. A great headliner should mean repeat business and new customers for future shows. A dud headliner might mean this comedy club is booking a country singer for next week.

An experienced local comedian who might be working as a middle act in the established clubs should be looking at anywhere between $100 and $200 for a 45 minute to one hour headline set. Whether it’s the upper or lower end of that scale depends on the comedian’s experience.

In other words, the comedian’s credits. For example, if he’s been on television, he would have more drawing power (will sell more tickets) than someone who hasn’t. He would also expect to be paid more than someone who hasn’t.

And again – we’re talking about gigs in local clubs. This does not include corporate shows, colleges or special events. For those, comedians will expect “special” pricing.

Okay, I know that’s vague. But from personal experiences hiring comedians and working with club owners and talent bookers, these are pretty accurate guidelines for smaller local clubs that want to do more than an anyone-regardless-of-experience-can-get-on-stage open-mic night. It’s also similar to what they might pay a local musician or deejay for a night’s worth of entertainment.

Again, the bottom line is that you usually get what you pay for.

So, whether you’re in a coffee shop or social club hoping to put on a good show, forget about booking your cousin’s girlfriend’s youngest brother who thinks he’s funny and will work for free. You may be laughing all the way to the bank before the show starts, and then crying through his set full of knock-knock jokes while your customers are making plans to spend their money in a different club next week.

In any business looking to hire, it’s always best to go with experience – and pay that person for his or her experience. So, for the definitive answer to your question:

It depends.

Comment? That’s what the form below is for. In the meantime…

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