Shake things up in 2024

Hi Dave – I’m one of those people who will always wonder, “What if?” I’ve fallen behind in my stage fright quotient and will definitely tackle those fears and hit the stage once I get a solid five minutes (of comedy material). I may sink, swim or neither, but it’s time to shake things up. I was just watching what I consider to be the underrated Stardust Memories with one of my favorite lines: “You wanna help mankind? Tell funnier jokes.” Much obliged – P.J.

Hey P.J. – I like your attitude. It’s a new year, which for many people can signal a new change or a new direction in life. Personally I don’t see why changes can’t be made anytime you feel you’re ready and it’s needed, but the New Year’s Countdown and ball dropping in New York’s Times Square can be like a starter’s pistol going off. For some, it’s time to start running in a new direction.

Three, two, one… Happy New Year!

Wait a minute… another year? “What if…?”

How often have you thought that? We’d all like to swim rather than sink, but to do neither sounds like a step backwards to me. So, I’m going to kick-start 2024 with a bit of a challenge:

Let’s shake things up.

Since you’ve read this far AND if you’ve read any past FAQ’s And Answers, I’m assuming you have a sense of humor AND a flair for creativity (and that’s a creative word: flair). You’re either a comedian or a humorous speaker – or both – or aspiring to be one or the other – or both.

How do you stand out from everyone else? What separates you from the pack? Maybe it’s time to shake things up and take a risk.

Taking a risk can mean different things to different people. If you’ve never been on stage for whatever reason (stage fright quotient?) but it’s burning a BIG “What If?” in your brain – do it now. If you’re waiting until the ball drops next year, you risk losing this year. Go to an open-mic, take a class, form a writing group – whatever, there are tons of options. There are also plenty of good books on the market (and not just mine – search around) on how to write, perform and find work in this crazy biz.

Let’s shake things up.

If you’re already on stage doing comedy or speaking and your career is not where you think it should be – make a change. Take a risk. Try something different. It could be different topics, different energy, different venues, or even a different location.

You never know until you try.

One of my favorite stories in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works is from comedian Christopher Titus.

He described himself early in his career as being the “happy-go-lucky comic.” He was funny, but there was nothing that separated him from any other observational comic.

Then his manager challenged him to take a risk. He suggested he be real on stage.

Titus was one person (happy-go-lucky) on stage, but off stage he had a dark, edgy – risky – style of humor. Accepting the challenge, he wrote a bit about stabbing his boss with a letter opener. It worked BIG time. This change in his comedy voice separated him from the pack, made him an in-demand headliner and star of his own television sitcom, Titus.

Now, I’m not saying to write material about stabbing your boss with a letter opener.

If you look back at the above paragraph, it’s been done. Copying someone else’s material is not going to get you anywhere in this creative business. In fact, it would be a step backwards. And it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to go in a more edgy direction if that is NOT where your true humor is based. Some comics like more family-oriented material or working in the corporate (clean) market.

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All I’m saying… suggesting… (motivating?) … is to make this YOUR year. Accept the challenge and shake things up.

If you’re waiting to start, take that important first step and get on stage. If you’re looking for help in preparing for that first step, are too nervous, or have a full-blown case of stage fright, take a workshop and let someone with experience help you ease your way into it. If you’re already performing, remember the famous line from Stardust Memories (a Woody Allen film if you need to know):

“You wanna help mankind? Tell funnier jokes.”

Have a happy, peaceful, productive, successful, and laugh-filled 2024.

Your Pal – Dave

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Using a stage name – can you live with it?

Hello Dave – I am very proud of my name, but for as long as I can remember people have never been able to say it. I’m starting to wonder if I should go with a stage name. Even if you are against them, how do you go about using a stage name? How do you manage introducing yourself and, in the future, how do you handle payment when you go by a stage name? Thanks – K

Hey K. – The question you need to ask about using a stage name is if you can live with it. And if you happen to become successful – can you live with it for a looong time?

It might be cool now, but what if you get tired of it later? If you’re just starting your career and still learning who you are on stage, what if that name doesn’t fit anymore? For an extreme example, using the name Goofy (sorry Disney fans) might get some laughs at an open mic, but somehow I don’t see it enhancing the career of a corporate comedian.

I could be wrong, which is not unheard of. Then again, it’s something to think about.

Let’s put it another way. If you’re just starting out in your career, you might be wearing jeans and a t-shirt on stage. But as you progress, maybe you grow into wearing a suit and tie. I’ve seen it happen. But if all your promo material (photos and videos) shows you in jeans – then you’ll have to update everything.

But one thing that is more difficult to change is name recognition. If all your contacts and clients know you by name, then changing your name means you need to introduce yourself all over again. It’s like starting from scratch.

So if you’re considering a stage name, be sure you can live with it for a looong time.

This topic has come up in my books How To Be A Working Comic and Comedy FAQs And Answers. In the first one, Scott Thompson told me there was already a comic actor with that name. Since Scott was a marketing major in college, he was educated enough to know he needed something that was different and “marketable.”

So he went with Carrot Top. To quote him from the book:

“The first time someone across campus yelled, ‘Hey, Carrot Top!’ I thought, ‘Oh Lord, do I really wanna do this to myself?’ But now it’s second nature.”

The second book example comes from the comedian Earthquake:

“Earthquake was a childhood name. My real name is Nathaniel Stroman. And when you play for an urban audience, it just don’t roll off the tongue. You know, ‘Give it up for Nathaniel Stroman!’ ‘Boo, *#@#*! Boo!!’ That’s right off your name! So I had to get something that would give me a fighting chance.”

A stage name is totally a personal decision.

If you already have a nickname or come up with something memorable, give it a shot. But keep in mind if you start finding success under that name, it’s very tough to change. Just ask John Cougar Mellencamp.

Introducing yourself is another matter.

You can choose to have an entertainment persona and a personal life. There are some very famous celebrities who do just that. The former drummer of The Beatles is known throughout the world as Ringo Starr. But his family and friends call him “Ritchie” since his real (and legal) name is Richard Starkey. To the best of my knowledge, his appearances, promotions and autographs are by “Ringo Starr” and for contracts and payments it’s for “Richard Starkey.”

So in your comedy career, you should promote yourself as your stage name and handle all business as your legal name. When it comes to your personal life, do what you wish.

In the comedy biz I’ve seen more stage names than you might think. And usually I’ve had no idea the performer was using a stage name until their real name was on a contract.


 


So if you don’t change your name legally, you’ll eventually end up using both. It can be confusing sometimes, but for promotional purposes everything is done using your stage name. For legalities it’s your real name.

BUT before I go into this more, it’s important for me to make it clear I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. I’m just passing it along based on my past experiences. So before you even think about following the following, make a smart move and talk with a real lawyer.

Years ago when I was managing comedians and speakers, I asked a lawyer and a banker about performers using a stage name. I thought they would be the two most important people to ask if the talent wanted to get paid – and pay me a commission.

The advice was to have a bank account in your legal (real) name. If a talent booker writes you a check using your stage name, you sign the back with your stage name. Then underneath, you sign your real name.

It’s a double endorsed check, which is legal and can be deposited in your legal name bank account.

But if you’re looking at direct bank deposits (rare in the performing biz since most bookers and event planners pay with checks, cash or through an online service like PayPal), then you’ll have to use your stage name for all appearances and promotions, and your legal name on all contracts and other business paperwork.

Using two names has been done a lot before and will continue. You just need to be very clear about everything for contracts, tax forms, and all the other important legal stuff.


 

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Many performers have chosen not to change their hard-to-pronounce names, have become famous, and people learn to say their names correctly because they hear it so often. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an example. I saw him interviewed on television once and he said his goal was to become so famous that Americans would have to learn how to pronounce it.

At first his mispronounced name was a punch line for every late night television and radio host. But eventually, everyone knew it and could say it. Guess his plan worked – all the way to blockbuster movies and the California Governor’s Mansion.

Another consideration for a name change should include any future showbiz career goals. If you ever get into acting or voiceovers, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) – merged since 2012 as “SAG-AFTRA” – only allow ONE name in their membership. So, if you choose something simple like “Goofy” and someone else is already registered by that name in the union, you’ll have to pick something else.

That’s true also if you’re using your legal name.

So my advice is to make the change only if you think it’s really necessary and will further your career. But be sure you can live with it. The only one I can think of who “took it back” after he became famous was John Cougar… uh, I mean John Mellencamp.

More advice?

My last name has been mispronounced every way possible. So when I have a speaking gig, I give the person introducing me a printed introduction (in a larger font than what you’re reading here). On it I have my name spelled out phonetically as “Sch-wen-sen.” That way they can usually say it correctly. Since you mentioned being very proud of your name, I would suggest trying that for a while before making the huge commitment of changing it.

If you still decide to go with a stage name, keep in mind there’s already a Carrot Top and Earthquake in the acting unions. You’ll have to come up with something original and one you can live with – maybe forever.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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For comments, questions about workshops and coaching please email – Dave@TheComedyBook.com

Living in a “relatively” small comedy town

Hi Dave – How do you possibly adjust your comedy act or speaking focus on abstract concepts of humor, when you are in a relatively small town that has a large amount of pressure on people to not stand out, nor to think things that are upsetting to persons with high social titles? – Regards, Ric

Where is everyone?

Hey Ric – I have all kinds of thoughts going through my mind based on this question. You say “relatively” small town – but it sounds “very” small to me. Different areas regardless of size have unique lifestyles and tastes that sometimes don’t mesh with others. I’m not knocking it – I’m just pointing out what I’ve learned from my own relocations and working with various entertainers.

For example, we used to talk about New York comedians vs. Los Angeles comedians. There were obvious differences that might include topics, language, attitudes, and stage presentation. And when I started working in the Midwest, I learned what might “fly” on the east or west coasts sometimes didn’t get off the ground with the local audiences.

Everyone knows I’m a name-dropper in my workshops and books (with the performer’s permission), but not in these articles. But I’ll say here I was quite shocked when four headliners (three appear in my books) that had packed east and west coast clubs appeared in front of half-filled audiences at clubs in Cleveland. It didn’t mean they weren’t funny because all four went on to become major comedy stars.

But at that time the focus of their material didn’t appeal as much to audiences in this area.

Don’t say that!

There are all kinds of reasons for this. Some areas are more open to diverse lifestyles and ideals than others. Again, I’m not knocking it – I’m just pointing it out. When I booked comedians for the television show A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, I told them our biggest demographic (audience) was in The Bible Belt. So don’t go on stage and make fun of God or religion because that segment of their set would be edited out.

That “rule” wasn’t true for comedians performing in New York or Los Angeles.

Those cities had more diverse audiences than those tuned into The Arts & Entertainment Network. And I could give other examples of audience demographics concerning various markets such as colleges, corporate, and cruise ships, but that’s not addressing your question. It’s just making a point.

A hot topic in the entertainment world is how to address today’s political, social, and yes, humor climates. But I don’t see it as anything new. If you look back at the history of comedy – from monologuists, through Vaudeville and silent movies – you’ll find some audiences had laughed loud and hard, while others were outraged and called for censorship over what was meant to be “entertainment.”

Sort of like the banning of books that is happening today.

Some people are offended by the written words, while others will recommend “those” people just don’t read “those books”, but don’t stop others that want to. Like a television show you might find offensive – just turn the channel. But when you go into someone’s home (area) they have the right to make the decisions what books, shows or comedy are welcome. There’s no point in arguing – they’re the boss of their own domain (same as you).

It sounds to me like a similar situation to what you’re dealing with. You’re the minority in a “relatively” small town that might not accept your abstract concepts of humor.

My advice is to find an audience that does.

Professional comedians and speakers travel. That’s part of the gig and if you want to be successful, you’ll need to get used to it. You can’t play in front of the same audience over and over. They’ll tire of you, and you’ll tire of seeing the same faces as you try to grow as a creative artist.

Where else can you go? Is there a town nearby that is not so “relatively” small? How close is the nearest city with a diverse comedy scene? Your goal should be stage time and you might need to travel to find it.

I know from working with many aspiring performers that day jobs, families, school, and other responsibilities might have kept them from pursuing their desired careers. But you know what? That’s true with just about every comedian I’ve worked with that has “made it.” What is the closest “not” small town within driving distance that has open-mics or other venues to perform? You might need to sacrifice some of your personal life right now to travel, but it could be an investment in your future.

As I’ve been known to say in my workshops: You might have to skip finding out who gets the final rose or Mirror Ball Trophy (TV shows for the non-viewers) for a long drive to do three minutes at an open mic. If you don’t, keep in mind someone else will.

I have examples of this in both my books, How To Be A Working Comic and Comedy FAQs And Answers. You’ll need to read them to find out the names I’ve dropped, but here are the lessons…

One comedian realized the travel requirement needed to develop a quality set. He cold called every comedy club he could find until someone took a chance on hiring him as an opening act. It was a long drive; the pay was minimal, and he ended up sleeping in his car. Sounds tough, I know but many comedians have similar stories. In this case, that week’s headliner recognized his desire and talent, and asked if he would like to open his next week of shows. It required another long drive, but he was dedicated to giving comedy his best shot.

He ended up being “on the road” for over three months. But when he returned, he was ready to do it all again – only this time with the experience and credits to book better (and higher paying) gigs.

Another comedian worked her way up to being a solid opening act in her area (a bigger city). But the talent bookers kept her pigeonholed in the opening slot and wouldn’t consider bumping her up to feature. So, the answer was to find another audience.

She moved to a different city, and it happened. She also had to follow the same scenario to become a headliner – which she did. The funny part (think comedy) was when she returned to her hometown as a known headliner, but her original bookers still wanted her to open shows.

She wasn’t about to let that happen – and didn’t. She took a chance and found other areas to perform.

Even though I don’t know your situation as far as access to larger and more diverse audiences, all I can tell you is to follow the experienced advice from many working comics. Look beyond your area. It’s a large world out there with a lot of people looking to be entertained. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to get there.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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