Bomb alert! Here’s an onstage survival guide

Hi Dave – What should you do if no one is laughing or if you realize that you are starting to bomb? – A.B.

Duck and cover!

Hey A.B. – Duck and cover. Okay, if that’s not the answer you’re looking for, here’s another one I’ve seen work…

But first a definition.

Some of our readers may not understand what you mean by bomb. That’s when you’re doing your best to entertain (comedians) or entertain AND inform (humorous speakers) and NOTHING is working. The audience is not laughing, you’re starting to panic, you begin to sweat, and you have this overwhelming feeling that everyone in the room HATES you.

That’s called Bombing 101. And if you ever get used to it, you’re in the wrong business. I don’t know any comedian who hasn’t gone through the sensation. If they claim they haven’t, they’re playing a joke on you.

The dedicated comics never let bombing on stage stop them from performing again. But the smart ones use the experience to learn something. And what they usually learn is what NOT to do on stage again that caused them to bomb in the first place.

As an example:

Bomb alert!

In my book Comedy FAQs And Answers, I talked with comedian George Wallace about this. He told me how he first started his career under the stage name The Reverend George Wallace and would use a phone book like a Bible. It worked in NYC, but when he played his first road gig in upstate New York, the audience hated his act. He was paid to do an hour – and he did an hour – but it was a mega-ton bombing experience. He told me that during the drive home he thought about driving his car off a bridge because he felt so bad.

But the learning experience was that he would NEVER allow himself to go through that again. It made him rethink and change everything about his act and his comedy voice (who he was on stage). The Reverend title was gone and so was the phone book. He decided that if he was having fun – a party – on stage, so would the audience. When the audience is having fun – when they’re in a party mood – you’re NOT bombing.

And if you’ve ever seen George Wallace perform, you’ll know what I mean. He’s become immune to bombing.

So, you want some advice? Okay…

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If you feel like you’re starting to bomb, a technique or trick (for lack of a better term) I’ve seen big-name comics use to turn the situation around is to talk TO and WITH the audience. Seriously, I’ve seen it more times than I can remember. Forget your material for a moment – especially since they don’t appear to like it anyway – and bring the audience into the show.

Here’s an example…

When I was scheduling comics for the Hollywood Improv, one of our most dependable (meaning funniest) acts was not only a great performer but also a GREAT writer. Comics in my workshops know who I’m going to talk about because I always name (drop?) names. But since I didn’t do an interview with him for one of my books and haven’t been in direct touch lately to politely ask if I could drop his name here, I’ll just keep his identity secret. But I’ll drop a hint that when another big-name star took over hosting a big-name late night television show, this comic was brought in as the Head Writer.

That’s how much respect this guy has in the comedy business.

His material is great, and I’ve always enjoyed watching his sets because of that reason – great material. But I remember one evening at The Improv when the audience just wasn’t getting it. I have no idea why not, but it happens to all comics at some time or another.

Anyway, much to my astonishment and confusion, his material wasn’t working. But as I watched, he took the microphone out of the stand (which he rarely ever did), walked to the front of the stage and started talking TO and WITH the audience. He really looked at the individuals and REALLY had conversations.

He kept it simple, easy, and made it comfortable for everyone to be involved in what he was doing.

Where are you from?” and “What do you do for a living?” types of questions led into some very funny replies and ensuing conversations. And once the audience was with him, he stepped back, put the microphone back in the stand and started doing his material.

This time the audience LOVED him AND his material. They followed him, GOT the jokes, laughed at the material, and it was a great show. He walked off stage to big applause.

So, I had to ask him about it – right?

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He reminded me that all comedians start out as MC’s in clubs. That’s where you break in and get your earliest on stage experience. It’s how you develop your writing and performing skills in front of listeners who will respond – positively or negatively. And one of the most important jobs of being an MC is to warm up the audience (make them laugh) and get them involved in the show.

What’s the best way to do that? Talk TO and WITH them.

He had developed the skill, talent and experience for doing that – and could call on it whenever he needed to. Not only did I see (and talk with) comics using this technique in Los Angeles, but also when I worked at The Improv clubs in New York and Cleveland. It’s nothing this particular comic simply tried on a whim because others had already proven it can help defuse a bombing situation.

So, in other words, I could also name (drop) other comics I’ve watched do this and also tell you they gave me the exact same explanation. When they were MC’s moving up in the biz, they learned how to talk TO and WITH an audience. It’s an important learned skill and a way to keep them involved, interested and (hopefully) laughing. And when that’s happening, you’re not bombing.

So, if it happens, start talking. Otherwise, just get used to the duck and cover method of surviving on stage.

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Corporate comedy open mic circuit

Hey Dave – A couple weeks ago you talked about “what is corporate comedy material.” I would also like to learn about getting into doing comedy and humorous keynotes at corporate events. – E.M.

They always feed you!

Hey E.M. – Okay, let’s pick up where we left off. I talked about the type of material comedians need to develop to get hired as entertainers at corporate events. But how and where do you develop an act for this market? Using material rated G and PG (max!) and jokes relating to the business world don’t always go over with the usual crowd at late night, beer-soaked open mics.

But that doesn’t matter because they’re not your audience anyway.

The business owners and event planners that would hire you to speak at a corporate function or conference are the networkers you’ll find at morning, afternoon and evening business or association meetings. Instead of late night bars, put your efforts into finding stage time at morning Rotary breakfasts, Knights of Columbus luncheons, and College Club dinners (to mention just three of many possibilities). Almost every city and town have business and social organizations and need speakers or entertainers.

The usual length of your program would be anywhere from five to twenty minutes between the entrée and desert.

The idea is to grab these opportunities and use them like open-mics. And like open-mics, don’t expect any pay. The key word to obtaining these spots is FREE. Offer to do a FREE five minutes of CLEAN comedy before the meeting’s featured speaker and it’s very unlikely you’ll hear the other key word that is so frequent in the comedy biz:

“NO.”

In my personal experiences using this method in putting together a corporate program, my FREE offer was only turned down once. And it happened with a Rotary guy in the Midwest who was about 90 years old and didn’t think his membership would want to hear from anyone unless they were selling insurance, fertilizer or both. When I explained my talk was about humor and creativity, he sounded like he wanted to have me arrested for being anti-American. I simply thanked him for his time, called a different Rotary Club, mentioned FREE and was invited to speak at their next meeting.

As you continue to write and test – successfully – corporate material, move into doing longer sets at these types of meetings. As mentioned above, featured programs usually last about 20 minutes. And again, from experience, I’ve found the people who volunteer and are involved in planning can be open to offering a variety of programs. After all, you can’t have insurance, fertilizer or a combo of both every week.

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After doing this a number of times and eating a number of FREE breakfasts, lunches and dinners (they always feed you) I had put together a corporate program. The next step was to network and do some promoting – and then I started getting paid bookings.

There’s no way this would’ve happened if I had tried to develop the material doing late night open-mic bars.

So, if you’re interested in the corporate market, I just gave you a great way to get the ball rolling. And it was FREE advice. When you can make an audience laugh and keep them interested during an early morning breakfast meeting, you’ve got a good chance to break into the corporate market.

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Finding stage time

Hey Dave – I have performed terribly at three open-mics in Kentucky. Could you point me in the direction of a “lower-end” establishment in Ohio? I’m looking for a place that does not require you to bring five friends. I don’t know five people. Thanks – J.

Lower end mic?

Hey J. – Thanks for thinking of me when it comes to “lower end” establishments. Maybe I should start calling this the Blue Collar Column – NOT! But instead of worrying about how to get a “higher end” reputation, I’ll share some thoughts about how to get stage time at open-mics whether you’re in Kentucky, Ohio, or wherever.

But before we get into that, let’s talk about having to bring friends if you want to perform…

Usually if an open-mic (or showcase) night is not offered by a legit comedy club, they tend to be here one minute and gone the next. And to make a general statement, open-mics are usually in bars or nightclubs. Yeah, I know there are open-mics in churches and other places, but I’m talking in broad and wide and general terms right now.

If a “lower end” establishment runs a profitable comedy open-mic (attracts paying customers) chances are it’ll keep going. If not, then the owner needs to find something else that will bring in money, like investing in a giant screen TV for football season.

That’s why there are so many pay-to-play or bringer clubs where you have to bring x-amount of paying customers if you want to get on stage. This is a business deal. Comics get valuable stage experience to work on improving their performances and material so they can eventually move on to paying gigs in “higher end” comedy clubs.

From management’s point of view, that’s what they’re “giving” you.

Stage time

The trade-off is that the performing comics need to bring in paying customers. Making money is what keeps these clubs in business. From management’s point of view that’s what comics are “giving” them.

By the way, this is proof I didn’t sleep through all my college Economics classes.

I can go into some of my stories about open-mics in NYC that always had an audience and comics simply signed up and performed. For the most part, it’s not like that anymore. Now you need x-amount of friends who are willing to drop a few bucks for a cover charge and a couple drinks to help further your career.

There’s some good advice on how to beat the bringer system in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers from my good pal and NYC comedy coach, Chris Murphy. I’d share it with you now, but my NYC publisher wouldn’t be too happy. You can check it out for free at your local library, or drop a few bucks on Amazon.com (it’s in paperback, Kindle, Nook and iBook).

And now that Introduction to Economics 101 is over, let’s get back to your original question – finding open-mics. After all, that’s the direction you want to be pointed in…

As mentioned, open-mics come and go. I used to hand out a long list in my comedy workshops to help everyone find stage time. And since I’ve done these in different states, it was quite a long list. I’d call the major comedy clubs to see what they had going, but for the local open-mic scene I’d rely on info from the current workshop members and add that to the list. But by the time I started the next workshop, that list was already outdated. The open-mics that were hot only a few weeks earlier had stopped and the comics had found new places to perform.

So instead of handing out a road map that sometimes led nowhere (a club that ditched comedy for a big screen TV) there’s a better way. It’s called research and networking.

If you have an eye on a certain area, in your case Ohio, do a Google search for comedy clubs. It’s easy – I do it all the time to see what’s going on and who’s appearing in other cities. If they have an open-mic it’ll be listed on their website. Remember, they’re in business and it’s always good business sense to promote whatever they have going on.

Also, there’s always a phone number. Again, it’s good business sense.

From my experience, rarely will the club owner or manager answer the phone. That’s why they have people working in the box office, telemarketers and other staff. I only mention this because a lot of comics worry about making a lasting bad first impression on the person who ultimately controls who performs and who is banished to comedy hell for bothering them with annoying phone calls. I’ve also learned a lot of people who answer phones in comedy clubs are also aspiring comics.

Hey – if you want to be a plumber, you work with plumbers. If you wanna be a doctor, you intern with doctors. If you wanna be a comedian…

Make sense? And there’s no way you can argue with me about that. Too many of the former door-guys I worked with at the NYC Improv have gone onto successful comedy careers. They got firsthand experience on how this business works by being involved in the comedy scene.

Hint: Read that last sentence again. It’s a road map to where we’re going with this…

Even if you’re not ready to perform at a legit comedy club’s open-mic (trust me, you’ll need a lot more than three times on stage to even think about it) ask the person who answers the phone if they know of any open-mics in the area. Even if they say no, it won’t make a lasting bad first impression on anyone who can give you stage time. It’ll just make you do another Google search and find another club to call.

When you find even ONE “lower end” establishment, call and ask if they’re doing open-mics.

Word of warning: I remember two comedians from my workshop that followed through on the fist step, but skipped the second. They didn’t find out the open-mic was history and now a sports bar until after a four hour one-way drive. Even worse, the two comics I’m talking about didn’t like either of the teams on the big screen TV.

If the open-mic is in business – go there.

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The deal is, once you find one open-mic you’ll meet other comedians and can start learning about the area comedy scene. It’s called networking. Be supportive and watch the other comics. Do your time on stage and get to know these people. After all, you share the same interest – comedy.

Don’t be a user and don’t be annoying. Both are good ways to keep the number of friends on your list under five. Ask if they know of any other open-mics and make a point to be there. If you know of open-mics in your area, share the info.

It’s all about becoming a part of that particular comedy scene.

I know it sounds simple. But you know what? It usually is if you’re serious about doing this. I’ve been waaay involved in the comedy scenes in four major cities and I’ve seen how this works. I don’t just make this stuff up during television commercial breaks.

Comics can be very supportive of each other and it’s a tough business to go at it alone. It can be good to walk into a new club and see a few familiar faces. Ride share with other comics or start a writing group. There are all kinds of ways to get involved and that’s what you need to do.

And yeah, to off-set any emails I might receive about that positive outlook, you’ll also run into others who are complete jerks. But you know what? You’ll find that in any business. Just deal with their negativity the best you can and focus on where you want to go as a comic and how to get there.

Okay, that might have been long-winded, but here’s the business deal.

Once you get involved in a local comedy scene you’ll get to know the other comics. You’ll learn about other open-mics and that’s how you’ll know where to go for stage time. But remember to be supportive. If you can help someone get on stage, there’s a better chance they’ll help you. Simple? From what I’ve seen, it usually is.

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What is corporate comedy material?

Hi Dave – You’ve talked about working in the corporate market as a comedian or humorous speaker. What is considered corporate comedy material and what is not? – B.E.

“Maybe they’ll like this one…”

Hey B.E. – You know what? I’ve never been asked that question in such a general way. Usually it’s more specific, such as a comedian or speaker asking if a certain joke or material they’re planning to perform is appropriate for a corporate show.But for right now – as a general answer to your general question – my experiences as both a booking agent and corporate speaker is to work clean.

I’ve said that many times before, but I wouldn’t continue to say it if it wasn’t true.

Recently I’ve been following a debate on one of the popular social networks over whether or not the F-Bomb will soon be acceptable at corporate functions. If you ask me, the people spreading that opinion are a little more than F-Bombed themselves.

It’s not happening now and it won’t anytime soon.

Oh yeah, as always in showbiz there might be an isolated instance here or there for an edgy company (think MTV or Comedy Central) but if you want to work regularly in the corporate market, then you work clean. That means no F-Bombs or any bits where F-Bomb is the focused activity. Got that?

Okay, so now that we know you must work clean in the corporate market lets get back to the real topic of your question. What type of material are they looking for? A lot depends on the corporate function.

It’s all about the theme…

What’s the theme?

I’ve found through experience that stand-up comedians get booked more often for holiday parties and special events, like a retirement banquet or an awards ceremony. And yes, there are exceptions. But when I get calls from businesses looking for comedians those are the most often mentioned.

If you’re a comedian, it’s important to know the theme of the event.

I’ve scheduled comedians to perform at corporate Christmas parties where the client wanted at least some mention of the holiday season. The comic can talk about his marriage, kids, sports, news events – whatever – for a lot of his act, then throw in some holiday jokes and the client is ecstatic. Other times the client might complain that he specifically wanted holiday jokes and doesn’t give an F-Bomb about the other material.

I’ve also booked comedians for retirement banquets. The comics don’t even know the person the company is feeding and retiring, but they know the audience wants laughs. The comics for this type of event are usually good at roasting and ad-libbing. But as usual, most companies will demand a clean show and not want anyone to leave embarrassed or with hurt feelings.

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So, it’s always good to know the theme and work it into the act. One way to do that is to talk with the client before the engagement to see what type of material they’re looking for. Again, for comedians it can be most anything because they’re considered entertainment. No business lessons, training or life message is required. The job is to make the corporate audience laugh in a way that doesn’t embarrass the CEO or other head honchos (that means clean comedy).

Humorous speakers are different.

Hired speakers already have a topic that fits into the corporate market. For instance, they may talk about stress relief, communications, networking, tech training, or even proper office attire. Believe me, there are a lot of different topics that can work within the themes of a lot of different corporate events. Humorous speakers with a message can be hired to deliver keynotes, do breakout sessions, and half-day (or full-day) training seminars. With a humorous delivery they’re entertaining and delivering information (infotainment) at the same time.

The material – the speaker’s topic – will be based on their expertise.

For instance, if you’re an expert in communications – that’s what your material will consist of. If you’re an expert in technology, finance, marketing, selling – whatever – that’s what you will talk about.

That should help you determine what is corporate material for a comedian and/or a humorous speaker. As I mentioned earlier that was a pretty general question – but I hope my general answer helped. Now it’s up to you.

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Booking conference gigs – think big and start small

Hi Dave – I just joined your email list. I do humor and did my first two stand-up open mics… rough crowd. Someone threw a cup of ice at one of the other comedians. My goal: to get some gigs entertaining at travel conferences. I have a bunch of funny travel stories. Any idea who I approach? A booking agent? I’m new to this, so any thoughts are appreciated. – R.R.

Brick by brick

Hey R.R. – Only one cup of ice and you call it a rough crowd? Welcome to the world of open mics. No wonder you want to perform at conference / corporate gigs. They’re usually better behaved and the most they’d throw at you are icy stares if you’re not funny…

What you really need to concentrate on is getting more experience performing in front of an audience. Two stand-up open mics are a great start, but you need a LOT more. It’s key for working not only on your material, but also timing and delivery – and avoiding icy stares.

That can only be learned through on stage experience.

So, in addition to getting more performing experience, my suggestion for you right now would be to focus on writing. Specifically – since you mentioned it – writing funny travel stories. It’s a topic that interests you and what you want to share with an audience.

I mean, after all, you mentioned it…

“Now, that’s interesting!”

This is true for anyone who writes, whether it’s comedy material, a speaker’s presentation, short stories, epic novels… and the list goes on and on. If you don’t find it interesting, chances are your audience won’t either.

There are many different writing techniques to help you get started, or if you’ve already started, how to organize your efforts into a working comedy set or presentation. I’ve shared more than a few in past FAQs And Answers and what I call “the best comedy writing advice ever” from a legendary (I kid you not) comedian in my book How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian.

I mean, after all, that’s what you’re referring to…

In the meantime, pick topics that you really want to talk about. In your case, travel stories.

Start small.

What I mean by that is to work on coming up with a short five minute set or presentation. It’s like writing a book. You may have an outline for an entire novel, but you still have to write it one chapter at a time. To use an old saying to back me up:

“Don’t bite off more than you chew.”

Put together what you feel is a great five minute presentation. Fill it out. Use colors (my favorite term for great descriptions). If it’s about travel – take your audience on the journey with you through colors and experiences. And since we’re also talking about humor, be creative and funny with your writing.

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The next step is to try it out in front of an audience. If you’re a stand up comedian, hit all the open mic clubs in your area as many times as they’ll let you on stage. But since you’re looking to break into the corporate market as a comedian or humorous speaker, volunteer to do your short presentation at local business organizations and special interest group during their breakfast, lunch, or dinner meetings.

For free.

Why free? Because it’s a practice session for you. Like open mics for comedians, these organizations are doing YOU the favor – not the other way around.

I’ve written a lot about this concept in past FAQs And Answers. It’s the open mic circuit for corporate entertainers and the best way to put together a presentation. But remember, keep it squeaky clean and G-rated (another concept I’ve shared a lot about in past articles).

That’s the ONLY way to work in this market. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise.

Once your five minutes works on an audience (gets laughs), start writing another five minutes and trying it out in front of live audiences. Repeat the process. When that works, guess what?

You’ll have TEN minutes of working material.

For talent agents booking corporate shows and event planners, the term conference means more than just a simple breakfast, lunch, or dinner meeting. It basically describes more of an event that can be spread out over time – for instance, a few days or an entire weekend – and can include keynotes, training seminars, break-out sessions, field trips, banquets, entertainment, awards ceremonies, and other programs that make up the entire conference.

And to have a successful conference, businesses, organizations and meeting planners want successful presentations from proven presenters. Make sense? It needs to if you want to work in the conference market.

When it comes to entertainment (comedians and humorous speakers), conferences usually schedule 45 minutes to an hour of performance time. Keynote speakers, break-out sessions and training seminars are different types of programs than what your question pertains to, so I’ll save writing that epic article for another time.

Event planners will call agents, watch videos and ask other event planners or clients for recommendations. They want a comedian or humorous speaker who has proven he/she can provide the entertainment or entertaining message they need for this particular conference.

Why?

Because they paid good money and want their money’s worth and…

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If this conference gets good word-of-mouth, everyone and more will want to attend the next one. That reeks of success in the business world!

The best way to break in is to think big and start small.

Focus on your material and get stage experience. Build your presentation or comedy set “chapter by chapter.” On stage experience will help develop your delivery style and timing while also helping you get rid of material that doesn’t work and concentrate on creating new material that does.

The only way to do this is through continued writing and performing. And the only way to know for sure if it works or not is from audience reaction. An audience will always tell you. It’s a process and hopefully this advice will take some time off the learning curve.

Finally, I wouldn’t think about contacting a booking agent or event planner until you’re truly confident you can deliver the goods. That means proven (audience tested) material from an experienced comedian or humorous speaker.

You’ll have a good idea you’re ready when your free gigs start leading to paying gigs. Someone in the audience might hand you a business card after a performance and ask if you’re available for their next meeting or conference. I’ve seen it happen – a lot. And when it does, just be prepared to ask…

“Where, when and how much are you gonna pay me?”

When it happens on a consistent basis, booking agents will be looking to work with you. Why? Because YOUR proven experience will help them attract paying clients. I’ve seen it happen – a lot.

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Going solo or as part of a comedy team

Hey Dave – Is it easier to be a single comic or have a partner go on stage with you? – B.H.

Laurel & Hardy

Hey B.H. – Neither is easy. As the old saying goes, if it was easy everyone would do it. And as long as I’m throwing out sayings, here’s another one from my first book – which makes it an older saying than any used in my second book:

Comedy is a serious business – with a lot of laughs.

For our purposes today, the key to that saying is the word business. When you have an on stage partner not only are you co-writing and co-performing, you’re also business partners. This means also sharing the off-stage business duties such as publicity, booking gigs, scheduling auditions and showcases, arranging travel, and (in many cases) sharing rooms and all expenses while on the road.

But probably the one detail that stops most potential comedy team members dead in their tracks is this one important detail:

Comedy teams have to split the profits while single comics keep it all.

Stiller & Meara

That may not seem like a big deal if your super stardom brings in the big bucks. I know there are improvisational and sketch groups performing in theaters and at private / corporate shows that provide a good income for all (or most of?) the troupe members. There are also legendary comedy duos such as Cheech & Chong, Martin & Lewis, Stiller & Meara and The Smothers Brothers that could afford their individual lifestyles after dividing the profits. But all (or most) comedians really don’t make much money when they’re starting out, which is a big consideration when you’re thinking about taking on a business partner.

I tell aspiring comics in my workshops that in the beginning it’s going to cost THEM money to do this. They’ll be paying for their own transportation, meals and even accommodations (or sleeping in their car) until they can move up into at least the MC / opening act position in the better (meaning paying) comedy clubs. But it’s tough to even imagine having a savings account or a down payment on a house until you start booking feature and headlining slots at the best comedy clubs or working in the corporate or college markets.

When you’re starting out in the comedy business it’s a lot like being an apprentice or going to college. There’s a lot of dues-paying and learning the ropes through experience before even thinking about a profit.

Martin & Lewis

This makes it tough for just one comic to survive. A comedy team would not only split the costs BUT would also have to split the profits. And don’t think just because there are two of you performing as a team that a comedy club owner is going to pay you twice what he pays a solo act.

Excuse me while I try to stop laughing at that thought…

Okay, I’ve caught my breath. Let’s continue…

Comedy is a business (there’s that word again!) and club owners will only pay x-amount of $$’s for a show that will make their audiences laugh. What that “x-amount factor” is depends on the performer’s market value.

For example, Dave Chappelle can sell out arenas. For our purpose, let’s put him in a 500-seat comedy club with a top dollar ticket price of… oh, let’s say $100 a ticket.

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That’s a high price tag for a comedy club, but because his star-power sells every ticket, the club owner will pay him more than another headliner who can’t sell-out the club. If Dave brings a partner to perform with him – they can’t sell any more tickets because there are still only 500 seats. And because the ticket price for a non-fundraising club show is pretty much maxed out at $100, it’s highly doubtful the average comedy fan will pay more than that for a show.

The Smothers Brothers

The profit for the club owner is the same regardless.

Whether it takes one comic or ten to do the job doesn’t matter because the pay for the entertainment – whether a negotiated price or a percentage based on the number of tickets sold – will also stay the same. So, the smart move for Dave Chappelle is to forget about bringing in a partner and do the show solo. That way he keeps the full payment.

As far as I’m concerned – this is why you don’t see many comedy teams anymore. No one can afford it.

But if you want to make a go of it with a partner, look over the list I gave above. You need to write, perform, travel and live well together – and also share business duties and expenses. And when a booker finally hands you a paycheck, you also have to be ready to share it with your partner.

If you can do all that, it’s easy. Well, okay – it’s not all that easy. If it was, then everyone would be doing it.

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Always ask before you audition

Hey Dave – I have a big audition coming up. I’m not going to have any profanity in my (comedy) set, but I’m thinking of having a cleaner version and another one that is a bit edgier. I’m thinking of asking the panel of judges what type of set they want before I perform. Do you think this is a good idea? Thanks – DS

Hey DS – Yeah, I always think it’s a great idea to ask the judges at a contest – or talent booker for a club or any other venue where you’re showcasing – about any restrictions they might have on material and language. In fact, I emphasize this point in my workshops for a couple reasons:

  1. It shows experience. You can adjust your material depending on the audience – and talent bookers like that. (It’s a business – remember?)
  2. It can give you an edge over the competition. I know I talk a lot about how supportive the comedy industry is (nothing has changed my mind about that), but the bottom line is that they can’t hire everyone, so you need to stand-out at showcases. Again – think business.

Next!

For an example, there may only be five performance spots available for a television show. But you know as well as I do that a LOT more than five comics will be auditioning. Of course, being funny is the No. 1 factor – and face it, sometimes it’s who you know (am I right Hollywood comics?!).

So, let’s assume everyone at the showcase is funny and knows the same people, so those requirements are met. The tie-breaker would be knowing who the audience will be and adjusting your material and performance for that audience.

You’re not going to perform the same set on The Disney Channel that you would on a Comedy Central Roast. Get it?

Here’s another example.

If you’re auditioning for work on a cruise ship and walk on stage dropping “F-Bombs” and complaining in detail about your sex life, you might as well pack your bags and consider a career on dry land. Half of the on board comedy shows are early evening family events with blue-haired ladies and their preteen grandchildren in the front rows. Later after the kids are asleep the parents will go out for the adult humor comedy shows by the same comics in one of the ship’s late night lounges.

Potential audience members.

But if you can’t show at an audition that you can play to both crowds, you won’t get hired.

How would you know this if you’ve never been on a cruise or had a chance to pick the brain of someone who works cruise ships? The only way I know would be to ask the person auditioning you for the gig BEFORE you audition.

Of course, this advice means nothing if you’re already settled into who you are on stage (your comedy voice) and it doesn’t work in certain venues. Trust me, I’m not trying to push everyone in the same direction or preach work clean at all costs. That would only create comedy clones and make the industry pretty boring.

Comedy is a creative art and a form of free speech.

If you want to be an X-rated comic, go for it. Just don’t go to showcases where you already know your style will not be acceptable for work – like a kid’s show or family cruise. You’re not only wasting your time, but also taking opportunities away from other comics who would want to audition for the gig.

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Here’s another example of knowing beforehand what you CAN talk about vs. what you can NOT talk about depending on the audience…

When I booked A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, we had certain “rules” for the performances. During a noon meeting with the comics who were taping the show that night we’d go over the rules…

  1. Don’t make fun of God or religion. Our highest ratings were in The Bible Belt and we didn’t want to lose viewers. Higher ratings attract sponsors (again – think business).
  2. Don’t knock specific products because we didn’t want to be sued. You can’t say a specific car is dangerous or a specific fast food restaurant will give you food poisoning. (Do I need to say it again – business?).
  3. Don’t sing a song parody for longer than (I think it was) 18 seconds. Producers were not going to pay song royalties for television broadcast, which is what would happen if any song was played for longer than (I think it was) 18 seconds. At that time, it seemed a lot of comics sang funny words to The Brady Bunch Theme Song. They could still do the bit, but it would be cut out of the show if it went over the time limit of being “free.” (This time – music business rules).

What about comics that didn’t follow the rules? If you watch reruns of A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, keep in mind the comedians were each given 7 minute sets. But some are on screen for less time – like only 4 or 5 minutes. What’s up with that?

They didn’t follow the rules.

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In the business it’s easy to correct these mistakes in an editing room – or in the case of live performances, auditioning the acts first and not hiring the ones that can’t follow the guidelines.

In fact, when it comes to working clubs I can’t even think of a situation where you wouldn’t have an opportunity before showcasing to ask the talent booker if there’s anything you shouldn’t say or talk about. Even if it’s only in an email or phone call prior to going to the audition. They should be straight with you, since they know their audience and what they’re looking for better than anyone else.

The goal for talent bookers is to find comics that can appeal to the venue’s audience. This includes comedy contests since the business goal is to always turn first-time audience members into repeat customers. As a performer, you need to find that out. And unless your talent is mind reading, the best way I know to do that is to ask.

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Seeking help for a stuck comedy career

Hi Dave – I’m not so sure stand-up is for me. I think I may be better suited for improv acting such as The Groundlings, Second City, etc… I’ve always been told I’m funny and animated but am not so sure how to focus or direct it. I am interested in the profession / business and think I would enjoy it. However, I feel stuck! How do I know if stand-up is for me? What advice do you have as to getting in touch with my creativity and directing it in the right way / format? Any advice would be very helpful, welcomed and appreciated. Thanks so much. Best – C.H.

I’m not sure!

Hey C.H. – The only way to find out what you’re best suited for, whether it’s stand-up, improvisation or anything for that matter, is to try it. And since a lot of people like the controlled environment of having a safety net, take a class. Check out local improvisation groups and see if they offer classes. Most do. You might really take to it – or you might not.

I know a lot of stand-ups that do both. But most (in my opinion) seem to stick mainly with the one that best suits their creativity and style of humor. In other words, some comics enjoy working with a team while others enjoy flying solo.

Similar to a lot of other creative and professional interests it doesn’t hurt to take a class. A good coach can give you insights into the craft and business aspects. You would also get experience actually doing improvisation or stand-up and can make the decision yourself on whether you’re into it or not.

And if you like it, another plus is that a good class should take time off the learning curve you’d be dealing with if you just went out on your own. Here’s what I mean…

What should I do?

Without ever taking a class you could still audition for an improv group. Your natural talent might be great, but you don’t know the “rules” of improvisation or have had any practice doing some of the standard games. You might learn some of this through the audition experience, but someone else who is already familiar with improvisation would have an edge at the audition.

A class would have prepared you in advance.

The same can be said about stand-up and creative writing. Some comedians have a natural ability to go on stage and be funny. Others have no idea what it’s really like to perform in front of an audience or how to create a comedy set. I’ve seen aspiring comedians come at it from both directions and it can be great fun to watch, pure misery – or a little of both.

For instance:

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When I was managing during the once a month auditions at the NYC Improv all you had to do to get on stage was draw a lottery number. No experience necessary. Usually there would be about 100 aspiring comedians lined up hoping to pick one of the 15 audition spots.

The lucky ones went on stage that night for three minutes.

The comedians with stage experience knew what they would do. It didn’t matter if they had taken a class or not because they had worked out a set in front of an audience prior to their big audition. But others had only thought about it and had never even tried stand-up comedy. They’d had no guidance, coaching or any audience response to learn if their material actually made people laugh. And in both cases, it was always obvious.

Here are two from the “no guidance” category that I’ll never forget…

One woman went on stage with a role of paper. This was the type of roll you’d put in a cash register to print out receipts. She had written jokes on the roll and would simply read them into the microphone. When they received no response from the audience (and none did except groans) she would rip that joke off the roll, toss it on the stage and say, “Well, that didn’t work.” It was misery to watch, but funny to talk about later.

An older guy showed up for his audition with a female mannequin dressed in sexy lingerie. I’m not kidding. He took the mannequin on stage, sat her on a stool and completely ignored it… or her… or whatever you want to call it… while he told a few unfunny jokes. He never referred to the mannequin once. When he was greeted with nothing but weird silence, he put the mannequin under his arm, walked off stage and headed towards Times Square – never to be seen again on the comedy scene.

Once again there were plenty of laughs when he was out of hearing range.

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Would they have done this if they had gone through a class or workshop? Well, you never know. But if they’d had any type of advice or guidance from someone that knows about the business or at least had some prior stage experience they probably would have made better choices about what to do for an important audition.

If you’re “stuck” or unsure about what’s right for you but have a desire to try, then take a class or a workshop to find out. A good one will help you tap into your creativity and give you decent insights into writing, performing and the business. It should also give you a push (kick in the butt) in the right direction to give it a prepared shot. Then you’ll know if it’s right for you. The bottom line is that it can’t hurt.

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Customize material for different audiences

Hey Dave – Last week you talked about personalizing material for corporate shows. So when comedians talk about “knowing your audience,” does that mean you should have entirely different acts for different audiences? – S.A.

“Welcome to the stage…”

Hey S.A. – That depends on a few things such as the material, how it’s delivered and the audience. A lot of comedians are experts at “crossing over” and playing to a wide range of audiences. Others have a niche – an audience demographic they focus on – and know better than to perform where they probably will not be welcome or appreciated.

The choice is completely up to you as a creative artist. Some comedians could care less about the money and different markets because they’re more interested in the art of creating, performing and personal expression. Others find a good corporate booking helps fund the raunchy madness at a late night adult comedy show. How you want to play it is all up to you.

For two extreme examples…

  • An X-rated comedian is not going to do church shows. On the other hand…
  • A Christian comedian probably won’t be included in an adults only X-rated comedy show.

That’s pretty much a no-brainer in the biz. Comedians should know that. If they don’t, then they’re setting themselves up for a hard-learned career lesson. But it’s also important to realize…

Comics have to stay true to themselves and “who they are.”

“I guess they don’t like me.”

Many have no interest changing who they are on stage – their comedy voice – just to play in front of an audience that won’t relate to them or laugh at their material. But on the flip side, others know a few simple changes in their material and delivery can open the possibility for more bookings.

How you want to play it depends on you. I’m just telling you there are ways.

Experienced comedians and speakers often customize their shows. There are a couple benefits in doing this:

  • It could lead to more paid bookings and…
  • It could lead to charging a higher fee for your performance.

Let’s tackle that second one first. I know the term higher fee has the ability to raise the interest of some readers. Especially in the higher paying corporate market when an event planner might contact you to discuss a corporate show booking.

You could have a set fee just for your regular performance. BUT if they would like you to customize it for a specific audience – say a group of financial investors, gourmet chefs, flight attendants or whatever – you could customize the material toward that audience for a higher fee.

I wrote about this in the last Comedy FAQ And Answer, but I’ll repeat the important stuff…

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The selling feature is that it will take extra work on your part in researching who they are (your audience), writing new material, or making specific changes – customizing – what you already bring to a corporate show. But you explain to the event planner that it’s worth the extra money because your performance would be specifically for their group.

For instance, you would actually use the name of the company in your performance, what they specialize in, their clients or competitors, where employees hang out after work, the city where they’re located, and even mention the names of a few key people in the company.

What you come up with and can offer in a customized performance is up to you.

For all the extra work and research that you put into preparing the customized gig, you ask for a higher fee. A lot of comedians and speakers do this. If the client responds by saying your fee is now too high for their budget, you have room to negotiate. Explain they can still book you for the event at your regular (lower) fee and you will do your regular act, which is what they called you about in the first place.

Customizing your material means to personalize it toward the audience. But it also doesn’t mean you need a completely different act. It’s all about knowing your audience.

Here’s an example…

A very good friend of mine in the comedy biz – and I won’t mention his name here, but as a hint he’s interviewed in my book How To Be A Working Comic – is a master at this. He has decades worth of material and can do a different act every night if he wants to.

But he also has a definite comedy voice. He probably doesn’t know anything about investment bankers, gourmet chefs or flight attendants, but put him in front of an audience of investment bankers, gourmet chefs or flight attendants at an event and he’ll make them laugh.

That’s what he gets paid big bucks for.

This comedian can do an adult midnight show in a comedy club and be as raunchy as any X-rated comedian in the biz. A lot of his material is about growing up with a large family in an inner city and all the characters in his life. His language can be filled with “F-bombs” and other choice words and I’ve seen him – many times – bring down the house with the bluest (adult) comedy you can imagine.

But the next day (and he’s done this for years) he could be wearing a suit and tie and doing a clean, G-rated corporate show for a group of say… investment bankers, gourmet chefs or flight attendants. Since this is not a typical comedy club audience, the x-rated “F-bombs” are definitely not welcomed – or tolerated.

But the comedian’s job requirement is the same. He is being paid to make them laugh.

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So, what does he talk about?

The SAME topics he talked about at the late night, X-rated comedy club show the night before. His large family, growing up in an inner city and the characters in his life.

But he customizes it based on the audience. He simply takes out the raunchy stuff. His punch lines and descriptions don’t rely on “F-bombs” and other choice words. The material and stories are just as funny without the added adult language and delivery.

He doesn’t have two completely different acts. He has two completely different audiences.

He knows his audience and plays to his audience.

Would this work for you? It depends on who YOU are on stage as well as WHO your audience is. Could your current set with a few changes work in front of very different audiences? If it does, then you don’t need two completely different acts. If it doesn’t, either write a separate act for clubs, corporate events or colleges (I know comics that do this) or find your niche and stick with it.

The choice is completely up to you as a creative artist. Some comedians could care less about the money and different markets because they’re more interested in the art of creating, performing and personal expression. Others find a good corporate booking helps fund the raunchy madness at a late night adult comedy show. How you want to play it is all up to you.

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Personalize material for corporate gigs

Hi Dave – Can you give us a few examples of how to work event themes into your material for a corporate gig? What is the process like? – MD

He knows us!

Hey MD – When it comes to performing at corporate events, I’ve always felt it’s important to personalize your comedy act or presentation to the event and audience. Even the big stars will do this. A number of years ago, Jay Leno was the surprise performer for a corporate event my cousin attended in Florida. It was a big deal just to have Leno there, but when he mentioned the name of the company and a few of the CEO’s during his act it made the audience feel they were part of an even more special event. It’s fun when a comic of Leno’s stature cracks jokes at your city or a news event you’re following, but when he’s talking specifically about your business or someone sitting only a few tables away it becomes a memorable event.

Event planners, CEO’s and employees love that stuff. It can make the company look good and the event a success. And a great way to make this happen is when comedians and speakers show they know their audience.

Comedians and speakers (and performers in general) call this personalizing or customizing their material. And even though they might be telling the same jokes or giving the same presentation as they did a thousand miles away the night before, they’ll insert references to the area, the event theme and/or the audience.

Think of it this way…

Still rolling.

The Rolling Stones (I’m a classic rocker) were scheduled to tour last summer (damn Covid!!). Based on my past concert experiences, they would have done pretty much the same set (song list) every show. They need to do this because of the stage lighting design, special effects, video displays and other techno stuff that is designed and rehearsed in advance. The crew needs to know what song they will be playing and where Mick and Keith will be on stage when they set off the explosions for Sympathy For The Devil or any fireworks during the final encore.

It’s the same with other large arena acts.

To continue this thought, it’s like a speaker with a specific power point display or a comedian with a killer closing bit. They HAVE to do it for their program to be successful and what corporate clients pay big bucks for. BUT it can be tweaked to make the audience feel this particular program is special for them.

Example:

If the Stones are playing The Staples Center in Los Angeles you can bet Mick will shout something close to, “Hello Los Angeles – we’re rockin’ tonight!”

The next week he might be at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Would he welcome Los Angeles again that night? No – he would personalize it for his audience.

“Hello New York City – we’re rockin’ tonight!”

Get it? That’s a very simple example but demonstrates how personalizing your material works.

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Another example:

I’ve booked a lot of comedians from New York and Los Angeles to do shows near Cleveland. Unless they’re from the area or have spent a lot of time there, they don’t know a heck of a lot about Cleveland. But the experienced ones will usually look for ways to relate to their audience. A popular question the comedians ask…

What’s a suburb of Cleveland that the locals make fun of?

No offense to any residents, but I tell them Parma (don’t ask if you don’t know). Then during their show, the comic will reference Parma and the crowd will feel he really KNOWS them!

But you know what? They know nothing else about Parma except the name. Next week when they’re in another location, they’ll ask someone else the same question and substitute that area suburb into the same joke.

It’s called personalizing your performance for that particular audience. And it works – BIG time!! Audiences, talent bookers and event planners LOVE it!

Here’s what I do for corporate bookings…

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Enclosed with the contract sent to the client or event planner (snail mail or as email attachments) is a one or two-page questionnaire. The best way to learn about an event and audience is to ask. Based on the answers, I’ll ask the comic or speaker to work some of the shared info into their presentation.

Some of the questions I’ll ask…

  • Is there a theme for the event? If so – what is the theme?
  • Is there anything you’d like me to know about your city or event location?
  • Who are some key people in the company?
  • Will there be anyone in the audience you would like me to focus on as an audience participation volunteer or for special recognition?
  • What are products and/or services of the company?
  • If there a friendly-rival company I can mention – or not mention? Can I use (politically correct) humor at the expense of this rival company?
  • What is the favorite local hang-out for employees?

Of course, the list can go on and on, depending on how deep you want to get into personalizing your program.

Now, you might remember that in addition to personalizing, I also used the term customizing at the beginning of this article. This is an extra added attraction many speakers and comedians offer – usually for an additional fee.

In other words, they can ask for more money when they do more work.

Customizing involves finding out EXACTLY what the client wants you to talk about AND creating a comedy act or speaker presentation based on that specific information. Again, the final program is usually based on the type of performance that got the comic or speaker hired in the first place.

Example:

If you talk about communications, no client is going to hire you to customize a program on accounting. Same with comedy. If you’re Carrot Top, they’re not going to tell you to leave your props home.

When it comes to The Rolling Stones, stadium audiences will pay big bucks to see them. But the band better play more than just a couple classic Stones songs or a majority will leave disappointed (and feel ripped-off).

But customizing does involve more work in learning more about the client, company and audience, and then actually creating material and using it during your performance. In my experience, customizing has involved interviewing (phone and/or email) the event planner, the client and other key people from the company. On the lesser hand, to only personalize an existing program I’ve never done more than ask for them to return the completed questionnaire with the contract.

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