Getting laughs incentive for getting on stage

Hi Dave – I would love any input on public speaking. I am a very timid person, and it shows in presentations I have had. Could you give me any advice? – J.P.

Don’t get too wrapped up in it!

Hey J.P. – When you say timid, I’ll go ahead and assume you’re talking about a lack of confidence on stage. You didn’t mention if it’s because of stage fright or just a case of being shy, but there are many ideas and techniques on how to overcome this and improve as a public speaker (or a comedian that might need a push to get onstage).

But right off the bat I’ll say one I’ve never subscribed to as a method to build confidence or overcome stage fright is picturing an audience in their underwear. I’m assuming once again, but when you’re on stage as a public speaker I would think you should be concentrating on what you’re saying – your message – and don’t need anything else to think about. Plus, there are always going to be too many people in an audience that I wouldn’t want to see in their underwear.

So instead of suggesting the extra brain work that comes with underwear picturing, a great way to get over a lack of confidence is to do what the comics told me when I first got interested in this crazy business.

Use humor.

The Shy Guy

You may be timid, shy, or nervous when you first walk on stage. But as someone who has been around behind the scenes a LOT, I’ve seen a LOT of people in that tongue-tying, dry-mouthed, hand-shaking condition suddenly break out and come alive once they experience their first laugh from an audience. It’s a life-changing event, spiritual awakening, shot of adrenaline and the same feeling as love at first sight – all rolled up into one big sucker punch to the gut.

That’s why comedians and humorous speakers say getting laughs from an audience is addictive.

I’ve watched many people from my workshops make their stage debut in front of large audiences at The Improv comedy clubs. Some were full of confidence; some were faking confidence – and some were just flat out nervous and scared. Members of this last group would fit into the category of timid – and the main reason was because they lacked experience on stage. They had never done it before in front of an audience and didn’t know for sure what to expect.

They needed that sucker punch to find out for themselves.

Nothing can truly change a lack of confidence until you have the overcoming experience for yourself. In this case, the experience of making an audience laugh. It’s powerful enough to make your first-time onstage fun, memorable and… well, addictive.

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Getting laughs can usually lure a timid person to try it again… and again… and again…

During my workshops I watch our shows from the back of the room. I can see if someone is going up on stage with a fearful look in his or her eyes. But as soon as they get that first laugh, it’s like a veil being lifted from their face.

The difference is like night and day – from black and white to color.

The same is true with speakers.

Humor engages an audience and keeps them interested in what you’re saying. Even if you’re giving a political speech, a technical training seminar, a sermon, or anything that’s not a stand-up comedy act, a good speaker will mix up his delivery a bit. It can be subtle or BIG. They’ll go from soft to loud, or from high energy to almost standing completely still to make a point. Everyone’s different. Watch a (good) speaker on television or during a lecture and you’ll know what I mean.

For a journey to the other side of this, think about the most boring teacher you’ve ever had. Would the class have been more interesting, and would you have stayed awake longer if they had just added even a speck of entertainment value? I need a nap just remembering some of the boring monotone instructors we had to sit through in lecture hall… yawn…

Basically, it’s tough to hold an audience’s attention by using only one emotion all the way through a presentation or performance. That is why even a lot of eulogies include funny memories about the deceased. Humor is one of the delivery techniques that engages the audience and can seriously offer an interesting change of pace – whether it’s during a boring lecture or sad eulogy.

The late (and great) George Carlin told me during an interview for my book Comedy FAQs And Answers that he used language (we were having a conversation about dirty words) to keep his audience’s attention. And when he had their attention, it meant he was in control and could take them verbally anywhere he wanted. When Carlin performed, his audiences were practically sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to hear what he would (dare) say next.

Humor does this.

Make someone laugh and they’ll want to see if you can do it again. And while they’re waiting, they’ll listen to what you have to say next.

That means you are in control.

And that makes it a confidence builder- get it?

A great way to get over a lack of confidence (being timid or nervous) on stage is to use humor. Comedians go for as many laughs as possible. But as a humorous speaker (public speaker) go for a laugh. When you have their attention, follow it up by delivering your message. The combination of addictive laughter and an audience interested in what you’re saying should be the needed confidence boost to inspire you to do it again… and again… and again…

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An Introduction Email Talent Bookers Will Read

Dave – What’s up. I have a quick question. You’ve helped me in the past with the structure of my Bio and Resume by looking in your book, How To Be A Working Comic. My question now is, I’m trying to come up with a structured letter or email to send to bookers or comedy clubs to get booked. Something where I would also have a link to a page with me performing. Would your book have something like that or could you point me in the right direction? I would really appreciate it… man! – K.B.

PS – We all love your emails and words of wisdom! So keep’em coming!

Hey K.B.

First of all, I’ll start with the “last of all” in your message. Thanks. I just want to help you guys get on stage.

What you’re talking about is a cover letter. It’s an introduction to you and a request to check out your video and performance credits for work. Just about everyone uses email instead of mailing a “letter,” but we both know we’re talking about the same thing.

Writing the cover letter (like the bio) can be almost as creative as your comedy material. Not everyone will agree with me on that, but I used to get a lot of cover letters with promo packages when I was booking A&E’s An Evening at the Improv and believe me, with so much competition to be noticed, the creative ones would catch my attention.

If I had to read something, it might as well be informative AND fun.

You’re a comedian, so I would expect you to be a funny person. I would also expect to be entertained – at least a little bit. Just don’t make your cover letter an entire comedy monologue. The only exception would be if it is really, REALLY funny. Otherwise, save your best bits for your promo video and on-stage showcase.

Keep it brief!

You don’t want to make your cover letter too long and wordy. You should be able to introduce yourself (that’s what it’s for) and say everything you want the reader to do (the purpose behind a cover letter) in just two or three short paragraphs.

If you have another comedian or booker as a reference, mention it somewhere toward the beginning. Then tell the booker you’ve heard nothing but GREAT things about his club and you would abandon your entire family and all worldly possessions to perform there.

Okay, maybe not in those desperate words – mainly because you don’t want to come off as too desperate.

But it never hurts to send out a bit of good will and a compliment or two (great crowds, best comics, beautiful club, professional staff – pick one). Use your common sense on how you might kiss-up to the boss without sounding like a kiss-up.

The showbiz term for it is schmoozing.

Mention a couple of your most impressive credits. Did you win a contest? Have you played another major club? Headline a benefit show? Perform at colleges? Again, just a couple – don’t go overboard.

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If you don’t have a direct reference or connection with the booker to use at the beginning, you might still have a good recommendation. Comedians and speakers that perform for local organizations, benefits and/or colleges – wherever (and yeah, sometimes for free) should always ask for a letter (email) of recommendation. If you don’t – you should. Then take a line or two from one or two of those and put it in the body of your letter:

“Jenny Comic was very funny and helped to make our fundraiser a success.” – (credit quote to person and organization).

Then come right out and ask the booker to watch your promo video. Say it – don’t hint at it. ” Attached is a link to my video… please watch it… I’m sure you’ll enjoy it… I want to play your club…”  (As always, use your own words).

If you’re doing this by email include a working link to your website that contains your video or a link for your video. If you’re sending a snail mail letter, highlight your website link in the body of your letter AND include a promo package with a DVD.

****As I’ve mentioned earlier and in past FAQs, just about everything today is done online and that’s the main reason the book How To Be A Working Comic was updated to include online promoting. But what is now found on websites – and often requested by talent bookers – is the same material outlined in earlier editions of the book and what you would find in an effective “hard-copy” promotional package.

Now back to the cover letter… uh, email…

At the end of your message thank the booker for his or her time and (here’s the secret) instead of saying something along the lines of “I hope to hear from you soon,” Tell him or her you will contact them within a certain time frame. Usually, two weeks is good.  This follow-up can be done by email, but I suggest a phone call. There’s always a chance they will call you, but I wouldn’t hold my breath unless you have a solid gold reference from a major comedian or have already worked for a big-time talent booker.

The idea is to keep the door open for you to contact the booker again. AND you’ve mentioned this in advance.

Now, this is where today’s article could turn into a book chapter about “playing the game” when contacting talent bookers and building professional relationships. I’ve talked about that in past newsletters and will probably repeat myself in future ones. The focus behind today’s FAQ And Answer is to map out your cover letter.

Remember, you work in the entertainment “business” and should treat it that way – as a “business.”

Creativity can be a major plus in promotions, but you also need to be professional about it. Keep your email (cover letter) concise and to the point. Talent bookers receive a lot of submissions and don’t have time to read through pages and pages of sample comedy routines or promises of, “How you are going to change the face of comedy,” or “How you have been funny since birth.”

Tell them what you’ve done, throw in a recommendation (if you have one or two) and that you would like to work for them. Then make it easy to find and watch your promotional video. That sounds like a “working” cover letter to me.

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Is Local Television Worth Promoting?

Hi Dave – I’ll try to be brief, but that’s never been my strong suit…

I recently passed the audition at a local comedy club. The booker said he probably wouldn’t have anything for me for the first year or two other than a last minute fall-out. I don’t mind because we all come in “at the very bottom of the list.” Then I got a letter from a local television station to help out on camera during an auction. They always ask if I’m doing any shows locally, so I’ve learned to contact another local club to see about getting an MC week or a one-night feature spot. That way I get the word out on TV and everybody wins.

This time I emailed the new booker to see if he has anything available right after the TV appearance. I wondered later if something like this (local television) even matters to a booker, or if they may look at it and say, “That’s not really TV… why are you bothering me?” You’ve been on the other side of this equation – what do you think? – DG

On the tube!

Hey DG – First of all congrats on passing the audition. And second – another congrats on sending in longest question (so far) for FAQs And Answers. You warned me at the beginning of your email you’ll “try to be brief, but that’s never been my strong suit.” You were right… ha!!!

So after editing down your ten pages to the few paragraphs above (okay – I will stop with the jokes since it was only five pages) you’ve asked a very good question. You also have the correct game plan.

Make the most of every opportunity.

I think it’s a great you sent the new booker an email with the local TV info. It may work – you never know unless you try. But even if it doesn’t result in an immediate MC week or guest spot, it keeps your name in front of him for a good reason:

It shows you’re out there doing something.

Gotta learn to promote!

Everybody should know marketing, networking and promoting are important if you want to work in this biz. You don’t want to be a pain in the you-know-what by sending emails to a booker every day or constantly calling. But you also can’t afford to be invisible to the point that they don’t even know who you are. It’s best if you fall somewhere in the middle.

For instance, when you’re on the roster of performers it’s pretty common for the booker to ask you send in your avails at least once a month. Avails are the dates you’re available for work. This is how you stay in touch with someone you’re already working with – without being a pain or the risk of being forgotten (invisible).

If you’re not on the roster and want to be, an email every few weeks or once a month as a reminder to watch your promo video or schedule a live showcase is not too much or too little. And for anyone that thinks postcards are old school – I still get them from comics and speakers looking for gigs. Sometimes it’s good to mix it up a little during the “staying in touch” game.

A lot of these messages are just simply, “Hello, how are you? I’m just staying in touch. Keep me in mind for work, etc…

That’s fine – again, you don’t want to be invisible. BUT when you share news about something you’re doing career-wise, it carries a little more weight than just asking about a booker’s health.

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If you pass the audition at a great comedy club you want other bookers to know you’re working. Same thing if you win a contest, schedule a big corporate or college show, perform at a benefit – or appear on local television. These are achievements and a good excuse to stay in touch.

You’re marketing, networking and promoting that you’re doing something besides sitting home sending emails and writing postcards.

And yes the business puts emphasis on TV because it’s exposure to a potential audience (paying customers). The bigger the show – the bigger the exposure.

This is free advertising for wherever you’re playing next.

If a comic does a great set on a nationally broadcast late night television show and the host announces where that comic is performing over the next week or two, it’s worth more than any amount of local newspaper ads the club might be paying for promotion.

Local television can’t be considered too trivial if it’s broadcast in the same market as the club. Whenever headliners appear at major clubs, part of their job is to promote their shows in that market. Usually it’s written in the contract.

They’re up at 6 am and driven to most of the local morning drive-time radio shows. After that they’re driven to the television studios to appear on local morning and early afternoon talk shows. When they’re finished getting the word out to more potential audience members the comic can catch a nap, have something to eat – and then hit the stage. Hopefully with all the PR work they’ve sold more tickets while they were sleeping and eating.

If a comic that is MC’ing, featuring or doing a guest set has a chance to drum up some business by appearing on a local TV show, it’s another free advertising opportunity for the club. Whether they take advantage of this is totally up to the booker – and also if he truly feels you’re ready to play the club. Since you’ve already passed the audition and on the club comedian roster, he obviously feels you’re ready.

A local TV spot with an opportunity to plug the show is as good an excuse as any to stay in touch. It’ll pull more weight than a simple, “Hello, how are you?” in an email or on a postcard.

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Musical Misadventures in Comedy

Hey Dave – You had a question a few weeks ago about adding music. I’m thinking about ending my comedy set by doing a rap song. Just the background music like karaoke would be on a CD and I’d do a funny rap over it. I’ve seen other comedians and even speakers do this and think it’s a great way to close with a big ending. Any thoughts? – MW

It’s showbiz!!

Hey MW – Yeah, I always have a few thoughts. The first leans toward the music side. I’m not a rapper; I’m a rocker. So, if the rap wasn’t rocked out with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (think Run-D.M.C. and Walk This Way WAY back in 1986) I probably haven’t voluntarily listened to it.

Involuntarily… well, that’s another comedy bit. I’ve had two teenage sons living in my house and know what it’s like to have rap songs blasting louder than my Aerosmith rock anthems. So, in other words, I know it’s popular enough to make me a dinosaur when it comes to musical tastes. But…

My second thought relies on the above descriptive term – popular. In showbiz terms that means it sells. It also means – and I’m working off a personal opinion here – that most anyone cool (dinosaur term) enough to go to a comedy club will be familiar with rap. This is opposed to say, a Gregorian Chant which is a musical term that makes even someone like me sound new school.

Okay, enough musical nonsense. My creative recess is over. Let’s get to the point.

Raise the showbiz factor!

Music can add energy and raise the showbiz factor in a performance. It’s like bringing the glitz of Las Vegas to your gig. And it also keeps to my theory (and I explain this to public speakers in my college course) that live shows today are competing against what has become common on television and in movies:

Keeping audiences with short attention spans interested in the program.

There’s a reason why TV commercials have shrunk from one minute to about 15-20 seconds over the decades. Short attention spans. And to keep viewers from changing the channel, these commercials must be entertaining or informative all the way through.So, with that being said, it’s the same with live performances. You must entertain your audiences and hold their interest. And with modern audiences used to 20 second entertainment bursts on television, it’s like competing against a 20 second commercial.

The problem with a live performance is that the viewers can’t change the channel. That’s why comedians and speakers need to “up” their entertainment factor. In other words, a mediocre set isn’t going to result in too many return engagements.

Using today’s topic, music can be a great attention grabber.

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In fact, it’s become the standard way in most comedy clubs to rev up audience excitement for the comedians. When I managed the NYC Improv back in the late 80′s and early 90′s, the MC would be introduced, and the show would start. The MC would then introduce each comedian. There was no musical fanfare – just words.

Now that’s all different. Now it’s SHOWBIZ!!!

Comics request certain songs to be played after they are introduced and are walking onto the stage. It raises the excitement and audience attention factor. Music will do that.

Now to your question about adding a rap song to your set…

Yeah – try it. Why not? It’s all about entertaining and if it’s funny and energetic, chances are it will be entertaining. BUT here are a few things to keep in mind.

Sometimes techno things (my term that includes playing background music while you sing or rap) don’t go as planned. Here are a few warnings…

Make sure you really practice the words you are rapping or singing over the music. If you screw-up the lines, the background keeps going. You’ll still have to make it work for the audience. Ad-lib or admit you messed up but make it part of the performance. You don’t want to just die on stage or let the bit fizzle out. You’ll look like an amateur.

Make it easy on the tech / sound person at the venue.

Don’t hand him a CD with 20 tracks and ask him to play a particular one when you give the signal. Sure, most can do it – but remember they have other sound, lights or audience distractions going on in the club and they might cue up the wrong track. What are you going to do? Will it ruin the bit?

Here’s an example…

A comic in one of my workshops decided to open with a rap song. Not to rap over it – but to do a funny dance as he walked on stage. Now, this is not an exaggeration. This really happened.

The sound guy got the CD’s mixed up and played Over The Rainbow instead of the requested gangsta’ rap. He didn’t know it was a mistake, so it continued to play.

The comic was shocked but went with it and danced to Judy Garland instead of… well, probably Lil Wayne. It turned out to be funnier than the original concept. But the reason it worked – and he just didn’t stand there looking “duh” – was because he had been warned this could happen.

I gave him the warning, which leads me to another story…

Sometimes at the NYC Improv (not always and especially not during weekend shows) we used to screw-up audio cues on purpose. It could be very funny (at least for us – the staff and other comedians) and would throw the unexpected at the comic on stage. It was always fun to see how they would react.

So, keep that one in mind. It could happen – even sometimes on purpose!

The lesson is to just have the ONE song you want to use be the ONLY song cued up on the club’s sound system (most today use Spotify or other online music source). If they’re old school and still use a CD player (always ask what they use), be sure the ONE CD you give to the sound person has ONLY the ONE song you plan to use. This will lessen the odds for a screw-up (or great joke at your expense) on their part.

And finally – sometimes the tech thing just doesn’t work.

The online system or CD player might be broken or already set up for the headliner (if you’re not closing the show). If it’s still your big ending, be prepared to do it a cappella (just your soulful voice and no backing music).

It doesn’t matter if the equipment is working or not – the show must go on.

So, the bottom line is to give it a shot. It’s showbiz, so go for it. But be prepared for the best and the worst. When you start adding effects to your stage performance, you’re no longer the only one in control of your act.

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You’ll Never Work in This Town Again

Hi Dave – I’m fairly new to this newsletter, so I don’t know if you’ve addressed this topic, but I think it could be a good one. How to prepare yourself in the event of a car breakdown and what to do when it does. I was driving to a gig last night and it happened… with not a town in sight. I drove the car onto an exit, ended up following the ramp around and saw a gas station in the distance. It just so happened that a couple cops pulled in after me and I told them what was going on. One of them worked on cars and luckily, he fixed it up. I have no idea what I would have done otherwise! – J.N.

Hey J.N. – Nope, we haven’t talked about this topic, so thanks for asking. I don’t have any solutions about what to do in your automotive case, so I’m glad to hear you have a police officer for a fairy godfather. As long as you made it TO the gig, what happened during your efforts in getting there could be potential comedy material.

But since you brought it up, let’s talk about the importance of getting TO gigs…

Unless you’re near death, someone near and dear to you is near death, or you have this important stipulation – “Due to an act of God” – written into your contract (and you should) you never miss a paid performance. What the heck – I’ll say it – you also don’t want to miss an un-paid performance if you’ve promised a booker, club owner or event organizer you’ll be there. Either way the talent booker is planning on having you perform and if you’re a no-show, it could be a definite bridge-burner when it comes to future gigs through that booker (and other bookers that hear about your unreliable reputation).

It’s your career and it’s a job.

Get there!

So, before you leave, make sure your car has gas and is tuned-up, your flight is not over-booked (and if so, arrive early so you’re not the passenger getting bumped), or have an updated public transportation schedule. Unless you can show a photo of you in a hospital or standing next to your totaled doublewide house trailer after a tornado, you’d better show up and be ready to perform. If not, don’t expect a second chance re-booking from the same person.

Case in point…

When I was the talent coordinator at The Los Angeles Improv, one of my favorite NYC comedians was flying out for a television audition. She’ll remain nameless because she’s quite famous and I consider her to be a friend in this business and would never write anything to make you think less of her. She called and I told her to come to the club and do a set. Then I mentioned my offer to the person in charge of the showroom (also nameless because I like to hang onto my friends) and he said no way. He liked her, but she had stood him up a few years earlier by canceling an important benefit performance at the last minute.

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And without a near death photo or evidence of a destroyed doublewide, she had committed the worse sin in the business. So instead of watching my friend on stage at The Improv, we met for lunch at a deli near The Laugh Factory.

Being a no-show is worse than ignoring the light while on stage and going over your performance time.

Remember that.

From the business side of the comedy biz, you don’t miss gigs for any reasons less than the ones mentioned above. It’s a business for both you and the club (or event) and you need to treat it that way. And in case you haven’t figured this out, all talent bookers want to work with professionals.

If you don’t handle your career like a professional – then don’t bother contacting professional talent bookers.

Another case in point. In fact, here are a couple…

Several years ago, I was booking a club about an hour outside Cleveland. There was an aspiring comic that came through my comedy workshop who really had promise – decent material and good stage presence. She just needed stage time to get better. I had given her a few MC gigs, she did well – and since this club was only running a two person show, it was a good chance for her to do a longer set.

So even though she didn’t have a lot of experience, I told the owner she would be great, and we booked her for the paying gig. It wasn’t so great when the club owner called me about 15 minutes after the show was supposed to start and asked when she would arrive. I called the phone number I had for her – and never heard back. I worried that she was stuck on the highway, got lost or suffered a near death (or worse) experience.

The show went on with only one comedian, but I lost a chunk of my booking fee since half the talent never got there.

The next day she called and said she had gotten my message. She couldn’t call back because she had taken a waitress job and was working the night of the show. She had given us no warning and no previous calls asking, “Can you find someone else?” She just never showed up for the gig. BUT (if you can believe this) she then asked if I could re-schedule her for the same club when she had a day off.

That was the last time we spoke.

Another example? Okay…

I was representing a comedian in the college market. He had successfully showcased through NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) and as a result I had scheduled him for several good paying gigs within driving distance of his home in Ohio. One was a Friday night at a campus in Pennsylvania. Not long before the show was scheduled to start, he called to say he was hopelessly lost.

I would think – and maybe this is just me (I say sarcastically), but if I was supposed to drive to a good paying gig, an updated phone, GPS, or even a road map would be good business items to invest in. He told me he THOUGHT he knew ABOUT where the college was – so just headed in that direction hoping to see signs to help him find it.

He missed the show and again, I missed a booking fee. I also lost a hard-earned business relationship with that college. Do you think I ever booked him again? Yeah, I’m laughing (sarcastically) that you would even consider that option…

So, this week’s message is simple. Don’t miss a gig if you plan to work for that talent booker again in the future. And if you do, just hope he sees you on the television news explaining how the tornado interrupted your rendezvous with the aliens who’ve been visiting the trailer park – and were supposed to give you a lift to your comedy gig. If you’re lucky, he might buy that excuse – or find it entertaining enough to give you a rare second chance.

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Adding music increases the pizzazz factor

Hi Dave – I added a little music to my act one time and had some success. I was thinking about doing it again and wondered if that would be cool. I’d have music playing when I walked on stage, the first part of the set would be jokes and then I’d end by doing a rap song. I have a CD with instrumental music and thought someone doing the sound could turn it on for me and I’d “rap” over it. Just wanted to get your take on it. Thanks! – M.D.

Maybe too much pizzazz…

Hey M.D. – I don’t think it’s a secret that most comedians (and this goes for many speakers also) understand they’re involved in showbiz. With all the techno-stuff and special effects we see on television, in movies and during live concerts, a lot of entertainment today is not only about substance (quality of the performance), but also the presentation (the pizzazz!).

It all depends on the circumstances and the performer, but from my experiences I believe audiences expect some type of pizzazz (okay – last time I’ll use that term in this article) when they pay money for a show. This means we’re talking about lights, explosions, sound effects during rock concerts – and even music during a comedy show.

I imagine that right now the die-hard, old-guard comedians I worked with in NYC years ago are thinking I’ve gone crazy. More than a few would have stood in the back of the room making fun of “variety” acts that used “gimmicks” – which at that time would have included juggling, riding a unicycle, singing, or rapping over music karaoke-style.

But here’s a confession. I’m not crazy. It’s the evolution of the business. Let me explain…

When I managed the NYC Improv back in the late 1980′s, I don’t remember comedians coming on stage accompanied by loud music. The MC introduced the comic and then he walked on stage and did his act. It was simple and to the point.

I don’t see a basketball – do you?

Around the same time, I would go to Madison Square Garden and watch the NBA New York Knicks, (I was only there when the Cleveland Cavaliers were in town). I don’t remember a big musical number with smoke machines, gyrating cheerleaders, and dancing seven-foot centers during pre-game introductions. They announced the teams, the players high-fived each other – and then started the game.

AND to really get carried away with this, I remember going to rock concerts when I was a teenager. An on-stage local deejay would introduce the band, the act would walk out, plug in their guitars, take time to tune their guitars, shout hello a few times into the microphones, and then start their first song.

There were no opening films, explosions, special lights, or anything like that. It was simple and to the point.

Fast forward to 2022.

Can you imagine an NBA pre-game not resembling a rock / rap concert? It’s the same with former teen idols that are now seventy-something year old rock stars in concert. Before they even leave the hotel and take a limo to the venue there are films, music, lights, and other showbiz energizers to get the crowd hyped up and into the show.

The same is now true for a lot (not all but a lot) of comedy shows and speaker presentations. For proof, go to any legit comedy club located between NYC and Hollywood. Even the opening acts are asked what song they want blasting when they walk on stage.

In fact, I can’t remember the last time I watched a comedian – outside of one of my workshops – who didn’t use music to hype up the audience before grabbing the microphone and opening his show.

Wait… yes, I do.

It was Dennis Miller, and it must be more than fifteen years ago. He was performing at a theater (following Rita Rudner) and was dressed as a janitor. The audience didn’t know it was Miller because he wore a hat and kept his head down as he was sweeping the stage at the end of intermission. His act started when he took off his hat and said hello – which was a cool non-musical way to hype up an audience.

Otherwise, comedy clubs have turned into a mini-NBA pre-game show.

So… should you use music / rap during your performance? If it fits your comedy voice (who you are on stage) then I don’t know why not. As I’ve just explained, it’s a great way to hype up an audience. And what I mean is that it can add energy and a real sense of fun into your performance.

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I remember a time when some of the musical comedians I worked with worried about being labeled “guitar acts.” The rumor was that they’d never get on The Tonight Show because producers only wanted “real stand-up comedians.” But I’ll tell’ya something – in the clubs, guitar acts (good ones with high energy) always had the crowds excited, involved in their shows and received the loudest ovations. They could always find work in clubs, corporate events, cruise ships and the college circuit.

Pizzazz sells (sorry I had to use the term again!)

Do I need to say more? Like creating and writing comedy material, you need to take your best ideas on stage. The audience will help you decide whether it works. You never know unless you try.

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Will Lack of References Hurt?

Hi Dave – I just looked at the registration for an upcoming comedy festival. The form asks for any references. Does it hurt that I don’t have any? Can I put your name down to verify that I’ve at least completed a comedy workshop? Thanks for your thoughts. – L.P.

Hey L.P. – References can be another word for networking – which is a key buzz word in almost every industry today. If you know the right people who can give you a good referral, it’s almost like having a free pass to be “seen.” But if you haven’t yet built up a list of right people, don’t let it stop you. You still need to put yourself out there, (network) and make good contacts (references) along the way.

I subscribe to newsletters and check out blogs on a variety of topics. Some are about the entertainment industry and business in general. Others are about training or help in researching different projects like publishing or making presentations. My point is that I use this information to keep up with what’s happening with stuff I’m interested in and the world in general.

The one thing that’s hammered into my head every day is that a lot of people are looking for work. Not just comedians, but people looking for real jobs. And yes, being a working comedian or humorous speaker is a real job. But I’m talking about the real jobs (think 9-5) that real comedians try to avoid like hecklers and hack jokes.

Everybody’s filling out registrations (job applications) and one of the sections will always ask for references.

One of the newsletters I subscribe to covered this topic last week. The question was from someone looking for a real job (9-5), but the advice also makes sense for comedians (like you) that might be registering for comedy festivals or looking to contact talent bookers, (avoiding a real job).

So, I’ll pass it along here.

You never mentioned making-up references, so I’ll commend your honesty and assume it never crossed your mind. That’s good. If you start putting down references you don’t have, sooner or later it will come back to haunt you. The comedy biz is a smaller world than you might think and there’s a good chance of having a lesser degree of separation between you and Jimmy Fallon than the more famous Six Degrees of Separation between you and actor Kevin Bacon.

If you don’t know the game I’m referring to, Google it.

If you start dropping names in a small world, sooner or later that “name” is going to find out and deny any knowledge of your existence. You might also run into a booker who is good friends with the “name” and can back you into a tight corner.

Either way, your reputation will take a hit as word spreads through the (smaller than you might think) comedy world.

Also never claim experience you don’t have.

Your sister’s best friend might be a good friend with someone working at The Tonight Show who mentioned you once to Jimmy Fallon. Drop his name on your reference list and bookers will expect a set that Fallon would be proud to endorse. But if you’re barely out of the open-mic scene… Well, word will get out and when it comes to talent bookers with long memories, all you’ve achieved is locking in your career at the open-mic level until you get a real job of the 9-5 variety.

The best advice is “honesty is the best policy.”

There’s a reason why that’s a well-known old saying – because it’s true. If you’re new in the comedy business, a good talent booker will see that just by watching your set. Experience is obvious to anyone that has really been involved in this business for a good length of time. BUT there’s nothing to be ashamed of – everyone must start somewhere. If you have potential, a good talent booker will recognize that also. You may not be ready for prime time, but you could make a good impression and be remembered in the future.

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All workshop comedians perform during a 7:30 pm show at The Improv on Wednesday, July 13

Space is limited to no more than 10 people

For more details and to register visit Comedy Workshops

And as you grow as a comedian, that too will be evident and respected.

So, to repeat myself, if you don’t have references now, don’t let it stop you. Fill out the registration and put down whatever you have – even if it’s just open-mics, benefit shows or even a comedy workshop. The talent booker might recognize potential from your video (which all festivals and bookers will require if you’re not available for a live showcase) and give you a shot.

Believe it or not, a good talent booker enjoys discovering a “new face.”

If it doesn’t happen for you now, you might be remembered the next time you apply. If you show growth and experience in both writing and performing, that will help the recognition factor. And by that time, you might also have a few references from the right people, which can only be earned by putting yourself out there, doing great sets and networking.

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Parlay comedy experience to get noticed

Hi Dave – I’m in a big city, have gotten invites and done showcases (not at comedy clubs), have a professionally shot ten minute set, ordered business cards, and am set to headline a C-level club three hours from my city. My question is this, are there ways to parlay this experience into getting noticed by agents or bookers or NACA? If so how? I know networking is the best way and I’ve made some friends, but I’m horrendously shy when not on stage. Thank you so much – ER

Get it – use it!

Hey ER – I’m going to have to make an assumption here. It sounds to me like you might still be a bit new in the comedy business. I don’t mean that as a bad thing and please don’t think I’m about to write off your question due to lack of experience. That’s not what’s happening here. I’m just trying to figure out where this FAQ and Answer is going – based on what you’ve told me…

You’re in a big city and have done showcases and have a ten minute video, but not at comedy clubs. So I’ll have to guess we’re talking about performing experience at schools (high school talent shows or some college gigs) or if you’re out of that age group it’s probably through local events, private parties or business associations.

But you haven’t done any showcases at comedy clubs.

Especially in a big city, that’s where industry people – agents, bookers and talent managers – find most of the comics they work with. From my experiences in NYC and LA they would hang around on weeknights to watch the newer comedians. They didn’t have to do that on Fridays and Saturdays because those shows would feature more established comedians that already had agents, managers and full schedules.

Headliners fill seats!

In other words, there was no reason for them to hit a top club on Saturday night to see Dave Chappelle or Amy Schumer. Those A-list comedians already have representation to take care of their bookings. Agents and managers looking for new talent can take the weekend off and start back to work Monday night checking out local showcases.

If you’re already scheduled to headline a comedy club outside the city and have a professional promotional video, it’s a good idea to start showcasing at the better clubs to be seen. If you’re not in NYC or LA where they have showcase clubs (lots of acts doing short sets on the same night) then contact the better clubs in your area and ask about auditioning or submitting your video. But keep in mind you’ll still need to keep building other performance credits if you want most agents and bookers to take you seriously.

Even if the first contact you make is through your website with video link, the general opinion is that they’ll want to see you perform live before putting you up for any bookings. This is especially true in the competitive college market.

BUT if you have experience and a good video – BUT not personal contacts through showcasing opportunities, you can check out agency websites for submission policies. Most of them will spell out exactly what they need from comedians they might want to work with.

BUT again, a lot of it will be based on experience.

They’ll want to know what clubs you’ve played, corporate shows or benefits. And to repeat myself – this is especially true in the competitive college market.

For anyone not familiar with NACA, it stands for National Association for Campus Activities. There’s also another group called APCA or Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities. I talk about working with both in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works. You can also do a Google search for NACA and APCA to find out more about what they do.

To work in the college market the agents will want to know if you have an act that works for college audiences. Some will represent new talent based on videos and previous college performing credits, but keep in mind some will also charge you $$’s in advance for various “doing business costs”, such as submission fees to even be considered for a showcase at NACA and APCA conferences.

Again, this is all in my book, so let’s cut to the chase…

A lot of it is based on experience. Dave Chappelle and Amy Schumer can book as many college shows as they want because they’re known. For newer comedians it’s tough to book college shows without a college agent. AND it’s tough to get a good college agent without any college performing credits.

Talk about a Catch-22 – that’s a big one. There’s a way to do it – and again, I’ve talked about it in the book. But to get back to today’s specific question, it comes down to getting experience on stage and being seen by the right people.


Summer 2022 comedy workshop at The Cleveland Improv starts Saturday, June 25

Meets 3 Saturdays from noon to 4 pm

All workshop comedians perform during a 7:30 pm show at The Improv on Wednesday, July 13

Space is limited to no more than 10 people

For more details and to register visit Comedy Workshops

The best thing to do is parlay your upcoming out of town gig at a smaller club (don’t ever call it a “C-club” in front of the owner or booker if you want to play there again) into more shows. Ask for a return engagement or the best way to send in your avails. Use marketing techniques (sorry, I don’t want to keep plugging my books, but that’s why I wrote them) to announce this new credit to other clubs and bookers.

Do your best to get over being horrendously shy in this business. You never want to come off as too pushy, but smart marketing and promotion will help these bookers find you. The good ones – the busy ones – are always looking to discover new talent. They can’t keep running the same acts through the same clubs over and over and over…

Also keep in mind there are good smaller agencies near just about every big city. They may not book the mega-rooms in NYC and LA that will get you seen for Comedy Central or late night television, but they can get you work. They might book a string of one-night gigs and will take a chance on comics based on a good video and some credits.

Usually they’ll send a comic out as an opening act and get feedback from the club owners or managers. If the reviews are good, they’ll continue to book them. Your goal as a comic is to use this experience to get better and eventually work up to the feature and headliner spots.

You can do this at the same time with other booking agents and continue to build up performing credits. Again, I’ve been more specific about it in my books, but I at least hope this gives you a good start. Have a killer set at the C-club, network, promote and work to put yourself in a position to be seen.

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Silent treatment from talent bookers

Hi Dave – I’m a new comic – elderly- but enjoying it a lot. Last year I entered a competition and I got into the semi finals. It was quite exciting. This year they are having it again and I thought it would be fun to enter again to keep up the momentum and get back in shape. I have responded to the organizer over 3 times and did not get an answer. I now see they have posted the lineup and I am not to be found. I sent him another note and still no response. What do I do in a situation like this? Is it because he doesn’t like me or something? Or that I was too old? I think it’s terrible that I don’t get an answer. What would you do, or better yet, what should I do? Thanks for your help. – D.

Make a decision!

Hey D. – Okay, I’ll plan to hear from some of my talent booker friends (and maybe some non-friends) about this, but what the heck. I’ll go with my thoughts and let the chips fall where they may. And by the way, “chips” is a more polite word than I was tempted to use…

To simply state it, I think this person is unprofessional and rude.

When I hear about comedians and humorous speakers that have worked with an “organizer” in the past and are not receiving any kind of response at all is wrong. Of course, this treatment will send all kinds of questions and doubts through a performer’s mind. In your case you reached the semi finals in one of his past contests, so chances are pretty good he knows who you are. But his silence is causing you to think he doesn’t like you or maybe you’re too old.

I’ve seen comics completely stress themselves out because they’ve worked hard at what they do and have followed submission policies, rules or whatever you want to call it from “organizers” to make contact. And for their efforts they receive nothing but silence in return.

You have to start somewhere!

Now, I’m assuming that when you use the term “organizer” you’re probably talking about a smaller local event or festival. Like newer comedians this person could be bound for bigger things, or this might be the height of his career booking talent. If he continues in this crazy biz, let’s hope he learns to be more “professional” in dealing with performers.

For instance…

It’s important you understand many of the BIG talent agencies and BIG club bookers are very busy. I know because I’ve done it. They can’t possibly answer or reply to every unsolicited phone call or email. There aren’t enough hours in the workday – seriously.

When I worked with A&E’s An Evening at the Improv we received a constant flow of comedian submissions. I watched them all – that was part of the job – but couldn’t possibly call everyone. But I kept notes while watching and could at least give a response to the comics when they contacted me. It may not have always been what they wanted to hear, but it wasn’t fair to just brush them off with a silent treatment.

And you know what? I still maintain that a lot of the bookers and agents I knew at that time in NYC and LA did the same. Even the ones that were HUGE had assistants that would deliver the good or bad news about bookings. In fact, I’m sure that’s how I learned the policy because I considered them to be professionals and that’s what they did.

If a performer has done the work, they deserve some type of response.

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*And let me say one important thing here. Almost all the business today is done online. A lot of bookers and agencies don’t even have phone numbers on their websites. It can all be done through email and links to websites and videos. Many of the larger agencies even have submission forms to fill out online – without revealing their email address. Yes, it can be very frustrating for comedians and speakers that want to make immediate contact, but these forms are also programmed to send an automated response that the agency has received your submission and will contact you if they’re interested.

At least it’s a response. In my book, that’s a lot better than silence.

I know an extremely busy and important talent booker in the Midwest who can’t possibly answer every call and email he gets from comics that want to work for him. He doesn’t have a submission form on a website, but there’s information on what he needs to consider a comic for possible bookings. After he receives the submission and if the comic is not ready to work in his clubs, they receive a pre-written (form letter) email giving them the bad news. Again – at least it’s a response.

If he decides to work with a new comedian – and even for those that have worked for him in the past – he’ll ask them to stay in touch once a month by emailing their avails (the dates you’re available for bookings). Again, he can’t possibly send everyone an individual email because he works with too many comics. But he’s professional enough to have an auto response email sent to each comic he has worked with or might work with saying he’s received their avails and will contact them if anything is available.

And on top of all that he has set times each week when he’ll accept phone calls. It’s on the website. If you call during “off hours” and don’t get a response, well that’s your fault. Read the instructions and follow them.

Again, this is all better than silence.

I’ve talked with quite a few comedians that work for him and they’re very happy with this method. In fact, I’ll even say some are “relieved” they hear something. They like knowing their emails are not being sent out into some cyberspace black hole never to be seen or acknowledged by someone they hope to consider a future business partner.

Which brings us back to the “organizer” that has not answered (according to D’s message, which by the way I’m responding to – ha!) four emails… Well, I don’t consider that to be very professional on his part. Mainly because unlike the example I used above about agents and bookers receiving too many unsolicited submissions, this person has worked with D in the past.

As always, there could be other factors involved. As I’ve advised in these articles and the sections in my books about marketing, you never want to be a pain in the you-know-what. I’ll assume you’ve read those and know what I mean.

But even if the organizer (booker, agent, etc.) doesn’t like you or doesn’t want to work with you – and you’ve already had some type of working relationship in the past – you deserve an answer.

I also consider it to be the job requirement. Good will, reputation, contacts, and networking count for a lot in this biz. Someday when you become a headliner and the “organizer” wants to book you, you’ll remember the silent treatment. Your fee might be a little higher for this guy than someone else. And don’t laugh. I’ve seen it happen.

One last word.

To make it in this crazy business you must develop a thick skin. You’ll probably hear “no” a lot more than you’ll hear “yes” – especially when starting out. And there will be times you’ll just “hear the sounds of silence” (and I don’t mean by Simon and Garfunkle). Yes, I think in many cases it can be considered unprofessional and rude, but the bad news is that sometimes it’s just a part of the business.

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How long should you go until you hit with a bit?

Hi Dave – At what point do you drop a bit? Is there a magic number or amount of time that you spend refining before you shelf a joke or bit? Thanks! W.K.

Who’s counting?

Hey W.K. – I enjoy this type of question because it will always start a debate. In fact, it’s already started one – with myself. In other words, I have two answers…

The first falls back on my dedicated opinion that comedians and humorous speakers are creative artists. Writing and performing original material is an ongoing process. You create something and continue to develop it and make improvements.

Will it ever be perfect? Not really… at least for a creative artist.

Here’s what I mean. A lot of comics I’ve worked with have had killer sets. They come off stage knowing they’ve nailed it – the crowd laughed all the way through and both the performer and audience feel pretty good. But then the performer (artist) can usually find some fault. It could be delivering one line a different way or even using another facial expression that could’ve taken everything over the top.

Could it be called a perfect set? Maybe for the audience, but a creative artist will probably always feel there’s some room for improvement. It’s the curse of being creative.

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Here’s another example…

I’ve heard too many interviews with recording artists who’ve had No. 1 songs, but can pick out moments (that listeners wouldn’t notice) where – if they could record the song again – they would do something different (in their mind, something better). The song may have hit No. 1, but they can see room for improvement.

The artist doesn’t stop selling the music – because it’s still good. It’s just not perfect. They might continue to change and develop the songs in live performances, which is something that has driven fans of Bob Dylan crazy for decades. He never seems to play his songs the same as the recordings.

Okay – now back to your question about comedy bits.

Just because a bit doesn’t work, that’s no reason to think it will never work. If you think it has promise and you’re dedicated to working on it… well, there’s always the chance.

In that case you would keep working on a bit for as long as you believe it can be made funnier. It will never be perfect, because in the back of your creative mind you always think it can be better.

Okay – that was answer No. 1. Now I’ll share with you a different opinion that I’ve also heard from so many comedians that I can’t ignore it.

I also share this in my workshops as a method for putting together a comedy set that might someday get you hired. It doesn’t take away from your creativity, but it saves the audience – and also importantly the club booker – the agony of paying for performances where the comedian is continually working on improving the same not-yet-working bit.

By the way, that’s great for open-mics and what open-mics are for. But when customers are paying upwards of $20 for a ticket, a two-drink minimum and parking it makes good business sense to give them a show with proven material.

This different opinion also shares the name of another comedy writing theory:

We’re counting!

The Rule of Three

The best-known example of this in writing comedy concerns the actual structure of a joke or bit. For an explanation I saved you time and looked it up in Wikipedia. Here’s the scoop:

One of the best examples of the power of rule of three is in comedy, where it is also called a comic triple. Two is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern, and comedians exploit the way people’s minds perceive expected patterns to throw the audience off track (and make them laugh) with the third element. Example: “How do you get to my place? Go down to the corner, turn left, and get lost.”

Okay, okay… That sounds too much like textbook theory, which is something creative artists don’t worry about (at least too much). It also doesn’t pertain to your question, but it leads me to a different Rule of Three…

I remember conversations about this at the NYC Improv. As I like to say, I don’t make this stuff up and this idea seemed to be a general opinion with a lot of the comics hanging around the bar waiting to go on stage.

The idea is to try a bit or a joke three times in front of three different audiences.

Three things can happen:

  1. The audience will laugh
  2. Some of the audience will laugh, but not all
  3. The audience won’t laugh

After doing this three times, you add up the score:

  • If they laugh all three times, you keep the bit or joke in the act
  • If you get some laughs, but not a lot – rework it and repeat the process
  • If they don’t laugh, cut the bit from you act

Of course the first result is the goal, while the last one is pretty much a death sentence for the material.

The second should spark the creative mind to continue improving the bit or joke. But eventually you’ll need to make a decision. If it’s only going to be a mediocre piece of material no matter how many changes you make, file it for later or dump it for something new and funnier.

If you want to work in this business, you need material that works in front of an audience.

Yer outta here!

The creative artist will always continue to develop new material. The working comic or humorous speaker will have material that has already been proven to work in front of an audience – and that’s what they will be paid to deliver. So if the bit or the joke is not working, then follow a similar Rule of Three from the game of baseball theory:

Three strikes and you’re out.

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