Moving up (or out) in your local comedy clubs

Here is my question, Dave. How do you get out of the open mic circuit and into the real club circuit? The two comedy clubs here in my town won’t even let you audition. They have a monthly open mic that you have to wait months to get on and then of course nothing happens no matter how good you are. There must be a better way. – M&M

Hey M&M – Just about every comedian I know will have a different answer for this. You’ll get lots of advice backed by lots of experience on how to move up a level. In your case (and many others) it’s going from open mics into paid bookings at “real” clubs.

The best advice is to be so good (so funny!) the club bookers can’t ignore you. Yeah, I know… there are a lot of experienced (and very funny!) comedians ready to shoot me some nasty emails right now. And I also know sometimes it takes a lot more than being really funny to getting bookings. For instance…

  • First impression
  • Personality
  • Image
  • Reputation

And… Oh what the heck, let’s just call it what it is:

  • Politics

That’s nothing new. It’s going on in every business – including politics. Think back to school. I’m sure you had to deal with the class kiss-up that seemed to be handed everything on a silver platter, while everyone else had to work for it.

Hate to say it, but many of us have also seen that happen in the comedy biz. I’m assuming a few of the earlier mentioned comics are deleting their nasty emails and nodding their heads in agreement.

You know what I’m talking about.

Yeah, some of it is politics. But again, if you’re so good (so funny!) there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find bookings in “real” clubs. But for whatever reasons; a surplus of great comedians, a lack of stage time, or (gulp) politics, you might consider digging in for the long haul or looking outside your home base for opportunities.

As usual, I have a couple stories to back both of these up.

But in an unusual move, I won’t name-drop (one of my favorite pastimes). The experiences for the comics turned out great, but the club owners and bookers won’t look good, and that’s not my intention. I know from experience that sometimes it takes outside influences to change first impressions and held-on-for-too-long opinions. They found out their earlier thoughts about a couple comedians were wrong and it may have come back to bite them in the “kiss up” area, if you get my drift.

The first comic doesn’t have to remain nameless. 

Her story is in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers, but you’ll need to read it to find out (cheap book plug – I know). Anyway, she broke out of the open mics in her hometown and was getting MC gigs at her local club. But the club owner’s first impression was hard to break. He considered her a good MC and kept her in that position.

She was funnier than many of the feature (middle) acts, but he wouldn’t move her up. So, she moved out – to a different city. She started booking feature spots in her new locale, but the same thing was happening.

She was seen as a “feature” and that was it. So, it was moving time again…

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, but just to be clear: she was VERY good (VERY funny) at this stage of her career. Experience and dedication had paid off and a different club owner moved her into headlining slots. Everything was going right – full speed ahead career wise – until she returned for a hometown visit.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this…

The hometown club still saw her as an MC – and that’s the spot they offered her. Frustrating? Yeah – just like what you’re experiencing. In fact, I’ve seen this happen to two comedians that had done The Tonight Show, but the only way they could get booked in their hometown to perform in front of family and friends was as the MC. (Note: that talent booker is no longer in the biz. I wonder why…)

A lot of this boils down to first impressions and politics. Some people just can’t get over it.

Another story? Yeah, I promised a couple…

Back in NYC during the late 1980’s one of the most dedicated comedians I’ve ever worked with (I’m still a major fan) worked his “kiss up” butt off to get as much stage time – anywhere – as possible and the result was that he was REALLY good. Every comic on the scene knew he was destined for stardom (he made it!) and he started scoring short five minute sets at the “real” clubs.

But one club owner never saw him being anything more than an open mic “star” and capable of only doing 5 minute sets. He was stuck in First Impression Land and nothing was going to change the owner’s mind. Then one night one of the club’s regular comics (pre-scheduled to do a twenty-minute set) got stranded in the subway.

There was a full audience and no other comedian was in the club except our five minute friend.

There was no choice, so the club manager put him on stage to fill the twenty minute spot. As the comic started his set, the club owner walked in – and immediately freaked out. He thought the show would be ruined, but after calming down, he watched. The five minute comic simply KILLED (I know, because I was there) and his material, experience and crowd response broke him out of First Impression Land with this club owner.

He was too good (too funny!) to be ignored. And when he got his break, he was ready.

Does this answer your question?

Maybe. I’m sure you’ll hear a lot of worthwhile advice from working comics, but just know you’re not alone. Sometimes it feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall to simply move up a level in this crazy biz.

The best option is to be very good (very funny!). 

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If it’s not working in your area for whatever reasons, then – if you’re serious – start looking elsewhere. The working comics I’ve known weren’t afraid to jump in a car (or train for those of you in NYC) and check out another scene. They may be working on a lack of sleep and not knowing who won The Voice or received the Final Rose, but it didn’t matter as long as they got on stage. And if they were good (funny!) there was also a good chance they could make a good new first impression on the person booking the room.

To sound corny (I’d rather name-drop) don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There are plenty of other clubs.

Also be ready in case a lucky break on your home turf falls your way. Be part of the scene and not a stranger in the clubs you want to work. As you can probably guess, I have many stories from comics that were in the right place at the right time – and had the opportunity to prove they were ready to move up. Our five minute comedian friend from NYC would tell you the same thing – if he has any time between television spots and headlining gigs.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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How tacky is your sales pitch?

Hey Dave – One of the guys I work with was telling me how he does these after-hours networking events where people from all different businesses hand out business cards to each other and get to know each other and see if they can make a bridge to possibly do business in the future. He told me they have entertainers networking at these events.

I want to go to these things when I get my website up and running and try to get bookings for business events and parties. Any advice on what someone would be looking for to get booked at a company event? Would it be tacky to carry around my promo stuff like my bio and resume with me? Or should I offer to send that to them at a later date? – DB

Foot in the door edge!

Hey DB – Why am I having a hard time thinking of anyone in this crazy business who isn’t tacky at least occasionally? You can put on a suit and be a complete professional to represent yourself, but sometimes you need to have a little “edge” to make your presence known if you want to get ahead.

I’m not talking pushy, but hopefully you get the idea. If not, here’s what I mean…

Good promoting can lead to good sales. There are a lot of salespeople that get business by being total professionals with a good “sales pitch” and promotional material. Then again, there are times when a door is starting to close in their face and they just can’t help it… call it instinct, training, experience or determination… but they just can’t stop themselves from sticking their foot in the door and making one last sales pitch.

Tacky?

Yeah, that term has a way of coming up when talking about certain sales techniques. But if you want the business and have a product (in our case we’re talking about your comedy act or speaker presentation) that deserves to be considered, you have to find ways to let the buyer know. If you don’t, you can bet someone else will.

Okay, first things first. 

What would I be looking for if it was my job to book someone (a comedian or speaker) for a company event? I’ve said this numerous times in past FAQs And Answers, but will use the opportunity for a quick reminder…

When I was booking corporate (business) shows we always looked for G-rated material. 

That’s a BIG resume!

Okay, PG at the max – and that only depended on the type of company and what the boss or event planner requested. But honestly, those were few and far between. Everyone else was too worried about someone – anyone, including the boss and employees – being offended during a company event.

The comedians I used the most knew how to entertain these audiences with their regular topics (the material they were also doing in the comedy clubs) but could keep it squeaky clean for corporate events. In other words, the laughs didn’t depend on dropping an F-Bomb, graphic sex jokes, or bathroom humor. The guy at work who stands around the coffee machine telling jokes and the company prude could both be entertained at the same time.

Can you do that? 

If you want to be a player in the corporate comedy or speaking biz, it’s a requirement. That’s the first concern and there’s no getting around it.

Now that we’ve made this perfectly clear, I’ll stick my foot in the door and continue the conversation…

The after-hours business card meetings sound very promising. Your goal is to connect with any event planners and people from the Human Resource Departments. From experience, other than the boss, these are the people that are usually in charge of the company events, or at least have some say in how it will all work. Of course, anyone can put in a recommendation if they have an event or party coming up, so don’t be tacky and avoid anyone who might not appear to be important enough to give you a job. They might just be the break room jokester or office prude the CEO is concerned with keeping entertained and not offended.

Is it tacky to carry your promo material with you in this type of situation?

Yes, I think so.

But here’s the deal, all your promotional material should be online anyway. Do you have a dedicated website? If not – you should.

That’s one way to make it clear you’re a professional. Sending a business client to your Facebook page to find your promotional video between photos of that day’s lunch and your cat is not going to result in too many paid gigs– if any at all.

I recommend you always be prepared to make a sales pitch if the opportunity arises. That’s why every professional still carries business cards that will direct a potential client to your website. You never know when or where you’ll make your next valuable connection.

But again, being professional is the key. And it’s different in the business world than in the entertainment business world – and I’ll give you an example.

When I was at The Improv in New York and Hollywood, there were always a lot of showcases (auditions) for television shows. And not just for shows that used standup comedians. Quite often there was casting for sitcoms or movies and with these types of showcases, if the casting person was looking for a certain “type,” all the auditioning performers would be scheduled because they fit that “type.”

For example, you might have ten comedians auditioning for a specific role. If they were looking for a male – there would be ten men auditioning. Female – ten women. The showcase would be booked around the casting call for a specific type.

But not every comic that fit the desired type could be on the showcase.

There would be only X number of spots to be seen over X amount of time. So usually there were lots of comedians that didn’t get the opportunity to audition. But quite often the professional comedians in NYC and LA had their promotional material with them – or close enough (in their car) so they could have it within a matter of minutes if there would be a chance to network. And a lot of times if they weren’t on a showcase but thought they should’ve been given the opportunity, they’d hang around the club until the casting person was leaving and ask if they would accept it as a submission.

What’s the worst that can happen? Being told NO? You’ve already been told that when you weren’t asked to be part of the showcase.

So, is it as tacky as a salesman sticking his foot in a closing door? Yeah, but like a final sales pitch for a good product, sometimes it works.

The idea is not to waste an opportunity.

But remember, the business you’re talking about networking for – bookings in the corporate market – is different than the entertainment business I was just talking about. It would definitely be tacky to carry around full promotional packages at one of these business card-trading events.

Most promotion today is done online.

So, the bottom line to giving yourself the “edge” without coming off as “tacky” is to always be prepared to network and promote. Today that means keeping your dedicated website updated and don’t forget your business cards.

That’s the simplest business tool for networking and promoting – and makes the effort a lot easier than carrying around “old fashioned” promotional packages that no one else will want to carry around after you hand it to them.

And the best part about networking with only business cards? There’s nothing tacky about it. In fact, in this business it’s expected.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Networking for stage time

Hey Dave – Love your posts. I have a question that you may be able to share and help me with. I am at an Emcee status. I have worked a few shows with some other good comics and they (believe it or not) are helping me out. My question is I live not far from NYC and Philadelphia. How can I get hooked up with someone that can get me some MC gigs? I look online but it seems like you really have to jump through hoops. The bringer shows are a waste of time because they love you until you can’t bring people in.

I produced a show in my area, and it went GREAT! I had 2 comedians from NYC. Any advice… I know I threw a lot at you but maybe you could give me some feedback. Thanks – PD

Who do you know?

Hey PD – First of all talent, good (funny) material and stage experience are requirements. Since you’re getting on stage, I’m guessing you already know that.

And just about everyone reading this knows what you mean about bringer shows. If not, it means you have to bring x-amount of paying customers to the club if you want to perform. If they require ten people and you only show up with five – chances are you not going on stage that night. But since you made that more of a statement than a question…

When you’re ready to move into new territory – in your case New York City – it’s a lot easier when you know someone already working there. In other words:

Connections.

And it always helps when your connections also have connections and you can all help each other get stage time.

SO, what we’re really talking about here is networking.

This is not the first time (there have been plenty!) we’ve hit on this topic, but that wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t important. Networking is also covered in a lot business (other than the comedy or speaking biz) training seminars. That’s how a lot of companies stay in business. They network to gain new customers.

Comedians and speakers should also network to get bookings.

For example, I did a training seminar at a big conference. They must have liked what I did because they asked me to recommend a speaker for their next event. I gave them the name of a good friend I knew would be great for the gig, and then called her and said to get in touch with the event planner.

She got the booking AND for more money than they had paid me! Fast forward in the networking process…

A few months ago, she recommended me to one of her past clients. They called – we booked it – and they paid me more money than what they had paid her. It’s called pay back.

It’s also called networking and it works.

Let’s get back to your goal of getting on stage in NYC. You have the first step in place…

You’ve already produced a “GREAT” show and brought in two comics from NYC. I’m assuming you paid them (always a great incentive to get comics to leave NYC), which means you have two connections.

  • Did you do much talking (networking) before, during and after the gig?
  • Did they (be honest) like your set?
  • Did you mention you’re interested in performing in NYC?
  • Did they offer any help?
  • Did you offer to bring them back for another (paid) gig?
  • After that – did they offer any help?
  • Did you ask for any help in getting on stage in NYC?

In other words, did they have any connections for you? In the quest for stage time, helping someone else can (if deserved) result in a pay back.

Here’s another example…

I got into the comedy biz because I wanted to be a stand-up. I guess that’s how most of us fall into this. And like some of my friends, I wound up behind the scenes. But that’s a different story….


 

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I knew the importance of stage time. I was living in NYC, but it was tough to find. Yeah, there were lots of open-mics and some of them were bringer shows, but there were also lots of other comedians working hard for those performing slots. You had to arrive early to sign up and then usually wait hours to get five minutes on stage.

Usually other comedians ran these open-mics and if their friends showed up, they would get favored treatment. Unfair? Yeah, that’s what the rest of us that didn’t get “favored treatment” would insinuate behind their backs. It could be very wearing on the nerves watching certain “favorites” go on stage while sometimes I wouldn’t get on until almost 4 am. Other times not at all.

To get around this problem, I started my own open-mic club.

And to be honest, it was very successful. We always had a full audience, no bringer policy, and it became a popular weekend stage for the open-mic comics and some working comics at that time. Included in this group were a lot of the comedians who were also running open-mics around Manhattan.

Are you following me so far?

SO, I started networking with these connections.

If a comedian who ran another open-mic wanted stage time I’d give it to him or her – no problem. AND in turn, if I wanted to go up at their open-mic – no problem. They would return the favor.

* I didn’t invent this. I just saw through experience how it worked and played the connections game.

SO, back to you PD…

If you’re producing a successful show with NYC comics, then you need to start networking and ask for their help in getting you on stage in NYC. Obtaining a name, phone number, email, or in-person introduction to a person booking the shows should be your goal and the least they can do.

If not – book two different NYC comedians next time.

Believe me, there are plenty who would appreciate the opportunity. A personal connection beats the heck out of cold calling, blind emails, countless postings on Facebook or LinkedIn, or arriving early to sign up and hope they find time before the end of the show for your five minutes.

But first of all, you need talent, funny material and experience.

If you can’t deliver the goods – NEVER ask someone to put their reputation on the line for you just because you gave them a gig. That’s one way to short-circuit your potential reputation and have possible connections avoid you at all costs. If you don’t believe me, scroll down to my article from a few weeks ago about being a “pain” when it comes to getting referrals.

Be serious and honest with yourself. If you can back up your act or presentation with those requirements, then start to pay it forward. Help someone else find stage time and hopefully they’ll return the favor.

And for anyone who thinks this is just a topic for a business-training seminar, you’re correct. It is. In fact, successful business people call it good business sense.

Now I’ll sign off before I use the word business again. It sounds too cold and calculated and you really shouldn’t be that way – correct? Well, not unless you want to get your comedy or speaking business going with more stage time.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Don’t waste a golden opportunity to be “seen”

Dave – I have a question for you. I know who makes all the booking decisions for a club I want to play. It’s local, but I’ve never met him so can’t say I know him personally. I wanted to see if you had any suggestions on how to go about getting a guest set there. I had another comedian friend who already plays this club email the booker a clip of me from another club. How should I follow up on this? Just wanted your take. Thanks – JW

He’s the guy!

Hey JW – I hope you read last week’s article about getting a Golden Ticket. If not, scroll down because you might have one. Most of these FAQs And Answers are about the business side of the business. Yes, you must have talent both as a writer and performer with on stage experience before you’ll really need to concentrate on the business.

But once you’re ready, you’ll need to think about promoting your career.

A big part of promoting is networking. And as I’m sure you’ve heard (because I don’t make this stuff up) sometimes it’s “who you know.”

It’s great you’ve already had someone that works for the club put in a good word for you. Performers need to protect their own reputations in this competitive business, and I highly doubt someone else would recommend you to an important talent booker if he/she didn’t believe you were “ready.” To repeat what I said last week, a good recommendation from a comedian or speaker already working for a talent booker or event planner YOU want to work for is like having a Golden Ticket.

It’s not a guarantee you’ll be seen (given an audition or showcase), but your chances are better than making a cold call or sending blind emails.

So… you have the referral – correct? How should you follow up on this and make it really work for you?

Here’s a suggestion:

Booking Local

According to your email, you live in the city where this club and the talent booker are located. And since your referral (Golden Ticket) performs at this club, she/he either lives in the area or is working there on a somewhat regular basis.

BUT the referring comedian EMAILED your clip to the talent booker!

Okay… that’s better than nothing. But when an opportunity arises, you sometimes must kick it up a notch. As I’ve said, this is a competitive business.

Most of the talent bookers I know are busy people. They’re booking not only clubs, but also colleges, corporate shows, cruise ships and other events. The ones that work solely for the independent clubs are usually also the club managers and in charge of the staff, kitchen, box office, running the shows and a lot of other “stuff.” So sometimes watching unsolicited videos (cold calls, blind emails, etc.) is not a priority.

I’m not saying they don’t watch, but it can take longer to be seen than you’re probably hoping for. It can be easier and more time efficient for them to book the performers they’ve already been working with and know they can rely on.

BUT I also know from being there if a comic or speaker the booker is already working with (and respects) pops by to say hello, they won’t scream for them to, “Get out!

Okay, maybe some will, but every business has its share of (insert your own derogatory adjective). Usually, they’ll take at least a few minutes to make small talk or trade a few friendly insults (again, experienced from being there).

So, here’s where you need to step up your networking game…

You, the club, the talent booker and (at least on occasion) your Golden Ticket contacts are all in the same city at the same time. BUT again, your contact EMAILED the booker a clip of you performing! The best scenario is to have your contact provide you a SOLID Golden Ticket (I just made that up by the way, not bad…).

That’s another name for a personal introduction.

Yeah, I know… Some of my friends that are talent bookers read these articles and are not shy about emailing me their thoughts. I’m already thinking of a few that will say, “You’re crazy! You can’t have comics stopping by. We’re too busy!

True, but again from being there I’ve seen it happen – and I’ve seen it work.

A headlining comedian will bring in a friend and ask if they can do a short, five-minute showcase before his set. If it’s not a big weekend night – Friday or Saturday – it’s always a good possibility. Also coming by the club early with your Golden Ticket for an introduction and to meet personally can make a difference in how fast your video will be watched or showcase scheduled.

Again, there are no guarantees. But you never know unless you try. And a personal touch is always better than a cold call or blind email.


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In fact,…

Just a few minutes ago – as I’m writing this – I received an email from a comedian who wants me to hire him. Everyone who reads these articles know I’m all about promoting and getting your name out there, so emailing is not bad. After all, no one is going to find you unless you know how to promote yourself. I’m a big believer in networking, but also a big believer in doing it correctly and finding an edge over the competition.

The email I received from this comedian didn’t offer any type of personality. Like when I talk about using a hook in your promotional material and all that other useful and proven promotional advice I’ve shared. Again, I don’t make this stuff up – it works for advertising companies, publicists, and working comedians and speakers.

I have yet to meet a successful publicist that didn’t include a healthy dose of personality in their promotional campaigns.

Anyway, this comedian just sent me his credits with a list of websites, Facebook, and online video links. Also, one sentence that says he’s available for bookings. There’s nothing else. There was no personal touch (or personality) and therefore – no edge over any other email looking for the same results.

So, let me see… the email didn’t come from anyone I know, so there’s NO chance I’ll open any of the links. It also didn’t come off as professional (think short cover letter), interesting or unique. And here’s something else that will back up what I’ve mentioned above about busy talent bookers:

It’s the third email I’ve received this week from a comedian looking for work and I’m not even booking anything! Can you imagine how many emails are sent to active talent bookers every day?

That’s why a “delete” key is so important.

Most bookers use it more often than you’d like to know. So, when you are in the same city as the club, the talent booker, and your Golden Ticket contact, you need to take advantage of that edge over the competition. Pick up the Golden Ticket at his/her hotel or pay for the cab or Uber, buy lunch, dinner – whatever – and ask for a personal introduction to the talent booker. If the referring comedian is truly a fan and agrees, ask if she/he can also help you score a guest set.

Again, I’ve seen it happen.

I remember a then-new comedian (very well-known today) making his first visit to the Los Angeles Improv (I was there). He was introduced to us by another comic (that worked for us) as one of the “funniest guys in New York.” Before he was even done shaking hands, he was offered three minutes on stage that night to “prove” he was so funny.

He was ready, he did – and was on our regular roster from that night on.

Again, this is a competitive business. If you can find an edge – a Golden Ticket – don’t be afraid to use it. As some of my talent booker friends will tell you (and hopefully they’ll be nice to me in the emails I’ll probably receive) it’s easier and more accurate to watch a live showcase than wade through a long list of online videos. It’s also the best way for a performer to be seen – in person – which is the best way to get hired.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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