Same show, but different audience response

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

Not the best show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Say what?!”

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

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

An audience develops a personality.

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

“It’s time for a little comedy.”

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

Different audiences have different personalities.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still one of Dave’s favorites (H.Y.)

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

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

He had related to them.

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

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

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

Make sense?

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

Once that happens you can kill them with your comedy.

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

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Self-evaluating your performance

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

Is it good or bad?

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

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

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

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

“Here’s what I think!”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

So, who’s right?

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

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

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

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

“That’s some funny stuff!”


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

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

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

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

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

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

An objective audience won’t lie.

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

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Thinking on your feet

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

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

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

It’s not in the script!

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

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

It’s not in the script.

True story…

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

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

Well known improvisors

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

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

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

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


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

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

Advice? (Remember – you asked).

Follow The Rules

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Prepare for your first time on stage

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

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

Speaking in public?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Fasten your helmet for the ride!

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

But it’s not that easy.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all about preparation.

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

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Colleges, cruise ships and corporate events

Hey Dave – Is there a way to make a living as a comic without playing the comedy clubs? I know the only other major venues are colleges and cruise ships and corporate events. – KH

Hey KH – You pretty much ran all the comedy bases in that one. From first to home with one swing:

  • Comedy Clubs
  • Colleges & Universities
  • Cruise Ships
  • Corporate Events

Working different markets

I’m sure readers can suggest few more options that I haven’t included in that trip around the bases, such as private parties and various social and special events. I could mention being an MC at a fashion show or talent contest or doing comedy for an “after the high school prom event,” since I’ve personally scheduled comedians for these teenage laugh-fests in the past.

But those types of shows are not regular gigs and I doubt they would add up enough money to help make a living as a comic.

Since you’re talking about bypassing comedy clubs that knocks out the first market, which is working in comedy clubs. So, we’ll pretend that one was never mentioned and move down your list…

Colleges & Universities:

The college market pays good money. That’s no secret in this business. Colleges have Student Activities (or Campus Activities) departments that are funded by student tuition. That means if they don’t spend the money during the year that particular student is in school, whoever is paying the tuition would have a right to be mad. They paid into the department, but didn’t get to reap the benefits?

Nope, that’s not going to happen. So, the activities boards spend their student-funded money every year on a wide range of activities. For instance, entertainment.

But just like the other upcoming options, the college market is more specialized than what is normally expected in comedy clubs. From my experience as a talent agent in NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) you would have to follow one of the most important rules of performing – and therefore, comedy:

Know your audience.

Your potential audience

Your audience will obviously be college students. We’re talking mainly between the ages of 18 to 22. Does your material work for that age range? Also (and be honest) are you still at an age the students can relate to? Here’s what I mean…

When I was writing the book Comedy FAQs And Answers, I interviewed comedian Bill Engvall about copyrighting material (you’ll have to read the book to find out what he says). It was a great topic for him because his hook – “Here’s your sign!” – is legally protected. It belongs to him and you can’t use it – period.

In fact, I think I might need to send him a royalty check just for typing it out here.

I asked him about working the college market and he told me he doesn’t. The reason? He talks about his wife and kids, being a husband, a father, and other family stuff. College kids aren’t interested in those topics. They’re more into sleeping late, skipping classes and… well, think back to what you wanted to do when you were 18 years old and that’s what the audience wants to hear.

Know your audience.


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But to get back to your question, yes you can actually bypass comedy clubs by working colleges. Some of the most popular comedians on the college circuit are not really “club comics.” But you’ll need a college act (remember the audience) and on stage experience putting it together. As usual, you’ll get that through open-mics and doing smaller (usually for free) shows. There’s also the opportunity by performing free gigs at local colleges – especially since they normally save their student activities budgets for already working college performers.

Once you have an act that fits the college market, I suggest working with a college booking agent. Doing this on your own is not cheap because most college work comes from showcasing at college booking conferences. Again, this is described in more detail in the above-mentioned Comedy FAQs And Answers book, but the agencies invest a lot of money in membership fees, conference expenses and promotional material.

Agencies can better afford to do this because they offer a wide variety of entertainment that can fit what different colleges are looking for. This means the agencies have more opportunities to make money than a solo act going alone. Colleges don’t just book comedians, but also bands, variety acts, speakers, dance troupes, mimes, acrobats, and even inflatables that the students can jump on, slide down and bash into (remember the age of the audience we’re talking about).

The associations that run these conferences are:

  • NACA (already mentioned)
  • APCA (Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities)

Hook up with a college talent agency that is a member of one or both, have a GREAT college act (know your audience) and there’s a chance you can bypass comedy clubs until the amount of candles on your birthday cake is a legitimate fire hazard that would scare off students.

Cruise Ships:

Most comedians I’ve talked with about working cruise ships say it’s the hardest market to break into. Depending on your status within the comedy industry it can be very lucrative or just another gig that happens to be on a ship. Let me explain…

Cruise ship workplace

Name headliners (celebrities and almost-celebrities) can work a cruise gig and get all the frills. They may not be paid anywhere near what they would get for a big college or corporate show, but the perks would include an upper deck stateroom and a regular seat at the captain’s dinner table. I know a (very) few that do this annually and consider it more of a vacation than work and bring their families along for the fun.

But I seem to know more comedians that work as a cruise ship contract-player. In other words, they sign on for a certain length of time, say three to six months, and share accommodations with other entertainers and staff in the lower quarters of the ship. There are no portholes to look out and meals are buffet food with other employees in the area off-limits to passengers, which again is in the lower decks of the ship.

The pay isn’t big time, but then again you don’t have to pay for anything. You live on the ship and watch your bank account grow.

Cruise ship comedians also have to be skilled at doing two completely different performances.

Usually in the early evening they’ll perform two shows. One is pre-dinner for half the passengers (while the rest are eating), followed by a post-dinner show for the other half (while the first audience is eating). These are CLEAN performances (G or PG-Rated) in the ship’s large theater for family audiences, meaning young children to grandparents.

Then the same comedians will do a later “dirty” show (R to X-Rated) in one of the lounges for the adults.

Know your audience.

I’ve worked with comedians that don’t even have houses or apartments anymore. They live on cruise ships and continue to sign months-long contracts. When they do take a month or so off, they’ve saved money and can live it up on a grand scale for a while, before signing on again when the money gets tight.

It could be fun, unless you have a family (that can’t go when you’re a contract entertainer) or want to be available for television and movie auditions on dry land. But it’s bypassing the comedy club option.

Corporate Events:

I think most corporate entertainers will agree this is the BIGGEST paying opportunity for comedians. I also wrote about this in Comedy FAQs And Answers, taught an online course on how to break into the corporate market – and wrote a book called How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian. So, in other words, I have a lot to say about the topic. And like the others, it’s not easy (if it was, everyone would do it), but it also starts with the same rule:

Know your audience.

I’m not going to elaborate too here much, because I’ve already written a lot about the corporate market in these articles, my books and the online course. But to make a point, I’m going to re-use one of the best reader comments I’ve received on this topic. It comes from my online comedy pal Frank King at (and yeah Frank, this is a test to see if you’re still reading – ha!) who sent in this great quote for a long-ago, past article about corporate comedy…

“What’s the difference between the average club comic and the average corporate comic? Answer: $3,000 a day + expenses.”

Thanks Frank, that pretty much sums it up. If you can break into the corporate market, you won’t have to work a comedy club unless you want to.

The best advice any working corporate comedian will tell you is to work CLEAN (G-Rated). You can’t live on edgy material as you can in comedy clubs, but you also don’t have to be all about business at corporate events. Keynote speakers, trainers and humorous speakers usually take care of the business-related topics in their presentations. Corporate comedians are entertainers just like on cruise ships, college campuses and in comedy clubs.

Not all comedy takes place in comedy clubs. As a comedian, where you perform can depend in what markets you want to work. Also, by remembering an important rule…

Know your audience.

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Average pay for stand-up comedians

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

It’s show BUSINESS!

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

It depends.

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

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

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

After that is where it gets a little muddy.

Stage gear

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

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

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

It depends.

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


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

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

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

The comedians you book are providing a service.

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

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

Paying dues

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

It depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It depends.

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Creative writing ‘on the fly’

Hey Dave – I travel a lot, which I often use as an excuse. But I will confess that my biggest hurdle is that it’s such a challenge to sit down and just be creative on the spot. Putting something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, although being funny on the fly is a breeze. Do you encounter that question a lot? – R.M.

Putting something on paper

Hey R.M. – Yeah, I do get that one a lot. But in a way, you’ve already answered your own question. You’ve creatively written out the solution and only need someone (in this case – me) to point it out for you. I could do that in just a few sentences, but that would make a very short FAQ and Answer for this week.

So instead, let me be creative for a moment…

I remember taking an advertising class in college. Everyone in the class knew when the final project – a creative advertising campaign – was due. But instead of working with the professor’s schedule, (come’on – it was college and homework wasn’t always on my schedule!), I waited until the night before to start the project.

Talk about having to be creative on the spot, that was the ultimate. I cleared my desk, cleared my head and sat staring at a blank computer screen most of the night. I came up with some nonsense that got me through the class, but it could’ve been a lot better if I had done it on the fly when I was truly feeling creative.

It’s tough to write when you have to.

Living in The Hills!

There are writers that can do it, and I’ve known a few in Hollywood. They’re called professional writers and get paid a lot of money for what they do. They can come up with a Tonight Show quality comedy set or a treatment for a sitcom episode almost on demand.

But notice I said a few. Most of the comedians and speakers I’ve worked with are better writers when they feel creative – not when they have to be creative.

There’s a great story in my book How To Be A Working Comic from a very well known comedian about comedians taking laptops on the road to write new material. She did the same thing, but when she sat down in her hotel room at a scheduled time to write, the creative inspiration wasn’t there. That’s not how she writes. She lives – then writes about it. She closed the laptop, went out, and then wrote about it when she returned.

To use your term, she learned the best way for her to write was on the fly. So to give your question a specific answer…

You’ve got it all wrong.


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For example, when you travel a lot you should be getting material by the plane load (or car load – whatever). Writers, whether comedians or speakers, carry a notebook or audio recorder at all times. When they feel inspired (creative) that’s when they write. It could be an experience, a thought, an overheard conversation, opinion from a magazine article, an observation – whatever. It could be an entire bit, a premise, or just a couple words.

Then later you would go over these notes. Do they still inspire you to write more about a certain topic? Can you combine some of these various ideas to make an outline for a story or comedy bit?

But even then you’re not finished.

Creative writing, whether it’s for a comedy routine or a humorous presentation, can be an ongoing process. If you have a good idea, continue making notes about it when you feel inspired. You can add details, descriptions, punch lines or whatever whenever the ideas hit you. And the best part is that your material can be filled with truth and/or lies. It doesn’t matter.

It’s called creative license.

The Legend

An expert example of this is in my book How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian. I’m not trying to make another sale (well… okay, maybe a little, but I took an advertising class in college and sometimes can’t help it). The advice comes from the legendary comedian George Carlin who practiced this method using notebooks, audio recorders and computer files. It’s truly genius stuff and as he told me during our conversation (which I recorded because I always carry an audio recorder and notebook):

“The material would eventually write itself.”

You can find it in the chapter called The Best Comedy Writing Advice Ever. And believe me, I wasn’t using creative license when I named it that.

Okay, so maybe I’m more long-winded than creative with this answer, but I’m sharing advice with you that works. You could be like legendary songwriter Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys who once put his piano in a sandbox (in his living room) so he would be inspired to write songs about surfer girls and dudes.

Or you can just go out and live it.

So, to point out the answer you already had in your question:

If sitting down and trying to put something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, then do it when you’re being funny on the fly. Take notes as you’re living it and write about it later. If it worked for Carlin and countless other creative writers, it can work for you.

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A friend wants to be your manager – good idea?

Hi Dave – I have a friend who thinks I’m funny and can make it big as a stand-up comedian. I’m going to take a comedy workshop and then she’s going to be my manager. Good idea. Right? – F.C.

Hey bud, wanna manage me?

Hey FC – Good idea? Maybe a fun idea, but that’s as far as I’ll go with an endorsement right now. And before you and your friend start calling me a party-pooper (or worse) here’s why…

Quite a few businesses start out as partnerships between friends and become successful. But usually both of the partners have experience in some aspect of the profession. If you open a restaurant, someone has to know how to cook and someone has to know about the business. If you run a car service, someone has to know how to drive and someone has to know about the business. If you want a career in stand-up comedy, someone has to be funny and…

In your case, it sounds like you’re the person bringing the funny to work with you. BUT to make that partnership work…

Someone has to know about the business.

Does your friend have experience in the entertainment industry or managing comedians? You both need to know what the job requirements are because a manager’s job is not simply picking up a phone, calling a talent booker and scheduling you for paying gigs. And it’s not just knowing about the business – it’s also who you know in the business that can make a difference.

That important aspect of the job only comes through experience.

Being a comedian and being a manager are two separate jobs. At the beginning of your career (you mentioned taking a comedy workshop to get started) both can and quite often are handled by the same person – the comedian. Since you’ll be working for essentially no money (starting salary at open-mics is zilch) your manager’s commission will come out of that.

Does she still want the job?

The only thing you should be concerned with at the beginning of your career is writing, performing, rewriting and continuing to perform and getting more experience on stage. Your material and delivery will need to be tried out on a live audiences to make sure it works. In the comedy biz that means it gets laughs, because that’s what you’re selling to talent bookers.

It takes time and doesn’t happen overnight.

Watch your favorite comedians on television and in clubs. It wasn’t easy for them to make it look so easy. I don’t know any successful comedians that didn’t work hard and paid real dues (going back to their start in open-mics) to be good at what they get paid for. If you’re shaking your head in disbelief over that statement ,you’re in the wrong business.


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When the performances are working and you truly feel it’s time to look for paying gigs, that’s when the business side of your career starts. This includes putting together and updating promotional material, websites and social network pages – and (just as important) WHO are the talent bookers for the clubs, contests, festivals and other venues. Then there are endless phone calls, emails, networking, schmoozing and scheduling auditions and showcases.

In the beginning, comedians can do all these jobs.

That’s why I wrote the book How To Be A Working Comic, to show what jobs needed to be done and how to do them to get work. There’s also a difference between a manager and an agent. In brief, an agent is the member of your team that will actually schedule paid gigs. In New York and California, agents are licensed to do this – and managers are not. There are more details about this in the book, so for right now let’s just continue with the idea of your friend doing all the behind the scenes work…

It’s all part of a gradual process and doesn’t happen all at once.


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You build the act, make connections and then promote. When you become part of the comedy scene, meaning out in the clubs and networking with other comedians, you learn who’s who, what’s what, where you can find time on stage and eventually, where you might be paid to do that time on stage.

If a manager is going to do all those tasks for you, then it’s a good idea the manager knows the who’s who, what’s what and where to find these career-advancing (and paying) gigs. A good manager is connected with people in the industry and has done as much (probably more) networking than the comedian.

I’m not saying your friends can’t help.

It’s always good to have an extra hand or support team in putting together promo and traveling with you to open-mics. And they can even call themselves your manager when you’re still in the open-mic stage of your career. But if they don’t progress along with you in their roll as a manager, then just keep them as a friend and not a business partner.

When it comes down to the business of booking you into the better clubs and more lucrative markets like corporate and college shows, you’ll need a manager or agent that will have her phone calls answered by the bookers, event planners and clients. And at the beginning of your professional (paid) career, the contacts you make just by being a part of your local comedy scene would give you a better chance of that happening than by relying on a manager with no experience and no contacts.

So… how will you know when you’re ready for a manager?

Don’t worry, they’ll find you. As explained by a manager in How To Be A Working Comic, a good manager knows the business, makes a point of knowing the clubs and who the comedians are performing in those clubs, networks and schmoozes with other managers, agents, talent bookers and comedians, and is always on the lookout for good talent.


It’s how they make their money.

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Producing your own comedy show

Hey Dave – I’m looking at organizing and promoting Comedy Theme Shows such as a Student Comedy Night (where comedians tell some jokes about school) or I Hate My Boss Night (work jokes) and other themes. The comedy club I want to use is available to rent. It holds 170 and the manager said I’d need around 100 people for them to reach their minimum food/beverage sales goal. I would pay $500 for use of the room on a Sunday or Monday and would get the door charges only and not a percentage of liquor sales. I’d appreciate any advice you may have. Thanks! TCB

It’s show time!

Hey TCB – I’ve had some experience with comedy theme nights, but it’s from a club management point of view. I can’t remember doing it as a producer. In fact, if there’s a comedy theme night producer credit somewhere on my resume and I’ve completely forgotten about it, there must be a good reason.

And the only good reason I can think of would be if I lost money. Even if that’s true I know one thing for sure – you can bet the venue didn’t lose money. That’s how the producer biz works.

I’m not saying that’s a given result. Otherwise we wouldn’t have multi-million dollar production companies and big name producers booking top acts for big tours – or even smaller producers booking lesser known acts in smaller venues. You just have to understand it’s a gamble and there’s always going to be a risk.

For example, I have a friend that produces a major outdoor music festival every summer. Most people think he makes a ton of money – and most times they’re correct. Otherwise he wouldn’t spend twelve months a year putting this together. But I also know from a recent conversation that if the weather doesn’t cooperate – say it pours rain all weekend with thunder and lightening – he could go broke. He invests a lot of money and time to make it successful. But if the shows have to be cancelled and tickets refunded he still has to pay for the venue, the artists, the rented equipment, security, and everything else he had to hire for the weekend.

The potential payoff or loss is big time. It’s a gamble and that’s the risk.

Theme nights have been a popular idea (“Hate your boss!”), but from experience managing clubs I’ve seen them go both ways. They’ve either been a success or a money-losing bust.

Factors that determine the success of any show are location, pricing, marketing and talent. Legit comedy clubs have a staff in place to take care of all this for their shows. But when you’re doing a solo production, the biggest factor for success falls on the producer.

If it’s YOU – then realize YOU will be doing ALL the work to bring in an audience and taking the biggest risk.

The club is renting you the facility. This is what you’re paying for. Any food and beverage sales will help pay the staff and earn additional profit for the club. Your job is to fill the place with paying customers. If you sell enough tickets to cover your cost, the rest is your profit. If not, then you take the loss.

I’m honoring TCB’s request not to mention the venue, but in my opinion I feel that $500 is not a bad price to rent a real comedy club. You can probably find meeting halls and smaller party centers for less on an off-night (Sundays and Mondays) and those are options you can consider. But since the question is about producing a theme comedy show in a real comedy club, let’s stick with that.

You wrote the club holds 170 people. You need to find out what the ticket price is for one of their weekend shows. Do they bring in big-name headliners that demand ticket prices of $20 or more or do they use lesser-known headliners to keep tickets in the $10-$15 range? Do they have an open-mic show? If they do, what is the ticket price?


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What type of comedians are you planning to book for the theme show? Since you mentioned Student Comedy Night as one of the themes, I’ll guess you’re not planning to hire an expensive headliner and will instead put the word out to area colleges for performers. If their friends all show up you’ll have a crowd. But will they pay $20 or more to watch what might essentially be an open-mic night?

So, what will someone pay to attend your theme show on an off-night?

Your goal, of course, is to pack the place while not losing money. Say you decide to charge $5 admission, you’ll have to sell 100 tickets to break even. I’ve managed major clubs in New York and Los Angeles that regularly showcase BIG name headliners and if we had 100 paying customers in the audience on a Sunday or Monday night it was considered a BIG crowd. The clubs normally make their BIG bucks Thursdays through Saturdays, which is why they’re not considered off-nights.

Let’s say your determination is off the charts and you sell all 170 tickets for $5 each. You’ll earn profit on 70 tickets, which is $350. Not bad for one night, but you’ll have to put in many hours of promoting and maybe even buy advertising space in local papers or online (ex: Facebook will give you an event page – but you have to pay for advertising). Are you going to pay the comics? If you want a good show, chances are you’ll need to. Otherwise, comedy fans can go to open-mics for pretty much a zero cover charge to watch the same performers.


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If you want a big audience, it will be totally up to you and the comedians to promote the show. The club will only promote their own shows. You know, the ones they make money on through ALL ticket sales, food and refreshments (liquor sales!). When working with a “rental” (your production) all they’re offering is the room, equipment and staff – for a set price.

There are some clubs that might lower your rental fee if your customers spend a pre-agreed amount of money on food and booze. But it’s rare when a club will give you an actual percentage of their sales. It’s already in their inventory and if they don’t sell it during your show, they’ll sell it during their next weekend show. So there’s no reason for a club to give up money a few days earlier just to put a few extra bucks in your pocket.

Oh, did I forget to mention this? It’s a business.

For instance, one club manager recently told me it costs $1,000 just to open the club for any type of show or private party. That includes playing the staff, electricity (big time air conditioning bills and spotlights) and other behind the scenes stuff. If they want to stay in business they need to make money and not lose it. At the very least they need to break even. But one thing is certain – they’re certainly not going to take a loss for an independent producer.

In other words, they don’t need to take a risk. They don’t have to. That’s your job.

So in your case as the producer, you’re the one that has to be willing to roll the dice. If you can sell it and draw a big audience, you could win or at least break even. This could also put you in the position of doing it again through a working (profitable) relationship with the club.

If you lose the club still gets their money, so they can’t complain. And you could continue producing as long as you cover the costs. Some producers work that way if they’re laying the groundwork for something that will pay off in the future. But in the meantime, you have to decide if you’re willing to take the risk.

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Comedians dealing with hecklers

Hi Dave – How should a clean comedian respond to hecklers? – A.B.

Who’s the loudest?

Hey A.B. – Clean comics respond to hecklers with the same comedy voice (language and who they are on stage) they use in their sets. Don’t start dropping F-bombs, swearing or lowering yourself to their level – if their level is lower because they’re rude, using foul language, or might be drunk (hecklers usually seem to have a few drinks in them).

That’s not how clean comics perform. And if a clean comic suddenly decides to use that type of material on stage, then bookers won’t look at him or her as a clean comic in the future.

Dealing with hecklers is always a big worry with many of the newer comedians I work with. It’s one of the first questions asked in my workshops. But to be quite honest and basing this on my experiences managing major clubs in New York City, Los Angeles and Cleveland, I don’t think of hecklers as a big problem.

I’m sure they’re more of a concern at poorly run open-mics and the very low-rent clubs that comedians play as they work their way up to better venues. But for the most part, allowing hecklers to disrupt shows is not good for business. And one thing you always need to remember is that club owners are not in the business to lose money.

As Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) said so eloquently in The Jerk: “Ah… It’s a profit deal.”

This means that business-minded club owners don’t want paying customers to have a lousy time because of loud-mouthed jerks in the audience heckling the performers. The paying customers will bad-mouth the club to their friends and never come back. That means they’ll spend their entertainment dollars somewhere else.

The loss of returning and potential customers is a sure way to go out of business. Smart club owners don’t want to go out of business.

That’s why the more established comedy clubs have bouncers and security to prevent this from happening. Believe me, at the clubs in the cities I mentioned above, we had big security guys hanging around the back of the showroom and a police officer floating through the crowd. If anyone in the audience got out of line and started heckling, their next opportunity to yell at someone was from the sidewalk outside the club – which is where the security guys escorted them (after they paid their check, of course!).

Now, that being said – I’m not naive.

I know there are times when someone in an audience – even in the better comedy clubs – will start heckling the comic on stage. And check this out – seriously – a lot of these loud-mouths actually think they’re helping the comedian do a better show. I’ve even seen hecklers approach the comic afterwards looking for a bit of fame or at least a thanks. They assume they were part of the act and the comic should be glad they were there to help.



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The best way to prepare yourself as a performer is through stage experience. Comedians, speakers, musicians, etc… literally do hundreds of sets per year (if they’re serious about a career). Chances are something unexpected will happen during one of these sets. Someone will yell out, a server will drop a tray of drinks…

I’ve even seen a comic at The Improv in Los Angeles have to switch material because of an earthquake while he was on stage. Talk about a disruptive heckler… Mother Nature?

When something unexpected happens you learn through stage experience how to deal with it. You might ad-lib a line on the spot and if it’s funny (and works) you’ll keep it in your set to use again next time. If you stand there with a blank look on your face as a heckler (or an earthquake) disrupts the show, you might want to write a comeback line later and keep it ready in case the situation happens again.

Many comics have their comeback lines in their back pockets and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Don’t believe me? Then read the chapter with Jeff Dunham in my book How To Be A Working Comic. He tells about the only time in his career when he never wrote a comeback line as a result of something that happened earlier in a club. It’s a great story – and I use it as an example in all my workshops.

If you truly have a fear of not being able to ad-lib or think on your feet while on stage, I recommend taking a class in improvisation. It’s all about being in the moment and working off what is given to you.

But to get back to your original question, as a clean comedian don’t lower yourself to a heckler’s level. Again, this takes stage experience, but stay in your comedy voice.

Do your best to keep control of the situation. You have the microphone, so you’ll be heard over what a heckler is saying.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever seen in dealing with a heckler was when the comedian gave up the microphone. Seriously – I’ve seen it. The comedian said, (thinking he was putting the heckler in an embarrassing situation):

“If you think this is so easy and you’re so funny, let’s see you do it.“

And then he handed the heckler the microphone?!!


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The honest truth was that the heckler was drunk, was not going to give the microphone back – and actually thought he was funnier than the comedian. The show took a nosedive and for the comedian on stage, it was a lesson learned the hard way.

Never give up the microphone.

If a heckler becomes a problem there’s no reason why you can’t ask for assistance from the club manager, door-guys, bouncer, bartender – or whoever is in charge. I’ve seen comedians end their sets and walk off stage because a club didn’t take care of the problem. And I’m not just talking about beginning comedians – I’ve seen headliners do this. Their reasoning was that dealing with hecklers is not part of their show, not what they get paid to do – and if the club doesn’t have control over the room, they’re not performing.

And I’ve seen these comics get very angry about this. They leave swearing never to return – and warn their comedian friends about the potential problems.

You have the right to do the same.

Again – smart club owners don’t like to lose business. And when comics start bad-mouthing a club there’s the potential to lose good performers and therefore, also a lot of business.

If that is how a club is run, then it’s no more than a notch or two above a crappy open-mic and good comedians wouldn’t want to play there anyway.

On the other hand, I’ve also had some great comics tell me before they went on stage NOT to shut-up any hecklers. These performers have the attitude and experience to turn any interruptions into excellent comedy by verbally destroying anyone who would dare heckle them. As a word of warning, think twice before you have a few drinks and decide verbally spar with Bobby Slayton, Dave Attell and some of my other personal favorites…

So when it comes to hecklers? It doesn’t matter if you’re a clean comedian or raunchy – either be prepared and experienced in thinking on your feet, or have your best comeback lines in your back pocket and ready to go. And trust me, it doesn’t happen as much as you might fear in the better comedy clubs.

Badly-run clubs can be another story. They’re also another incentive to continue getting on stage experience, get funnier – and get booked into better clubs.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!


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