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.

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.

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.

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 are 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.

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.

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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.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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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

Your chair is ready!

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.

Fill the room!

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?

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.

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.


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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 paying 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.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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Don’t be a jerk – respect the room!

Hey Dave – I’ve heard some comics think I’m a jerk because of how I run my open-mic room. I try to keep the show on schedule. I like comics being on time and like comics sticking to their time on stage. I’ve had to yell at a few for almost breaking my equipment and throwing stuff at other comics on stage. I’ve put a lot of work into making this successful and would like people to respect the club and the way I run it.

I don’t have to give everyone time on stage and can turn people away if I want to, but I typically don’t. And since no one has said directly to me about how much of a “jerk” I am, it’s apparent that I’m not too big of a jerk to stop them from coming back for stage time.

The way I see it, I’m doing them a favor. And if they want to find their own room and buy their own speakers, microphones, stands and wires, then they can run their room the way they want. Then, when 15 people are ignoring their light to get off stage, they can probably understand my frustrations. – Open-Mic Producer

Stick to your time!

Hey Open-Mic Producer – I LOVE your attitude! AND I think you are absolutely correct in how you’re running your open-mic room.

Comics – at least the ones who someday want to be considered professional working comics – need a lot of on-stage experience. And because they should be thankful someone is giving them this valuable experience, they must respect not only the club, but also any rules that keep it running smoothly.

This is your room Mr. Producer. You started it, you’re the one running it – and you’ve supplied the needed equipment, such as a microphone, mic stand and speakers, to make this a performance space. In other words, YOU are responsible for making it successful enough to continue giving aspiring comedians a place to gain the on-stage experience they need.

The way I feel about it – they can play the game your way or they can play it somewhere else.

Done. Period. No argument from anyone else is needed.

That’s also the way all successful comedy clubs and other performance venues are run by management. I know because I’ve worked for the best in the biz and have firsthand experience.

You break it, you buy it.

I’m sure veteran working comics would have cringed – or laughed in horror – if an aspiring comedian totally disregarded the length of time they’d been given on stage at The Improv in Los Angeles when the late Budd Friedman was running the show. Especially if the signal to get off stage was coming directly from Budd himself, who was responsible for making his club successful. And in the process of ignoring the light, the comic damaged the equipment on stage or threw something at another comic?

Oh, the horror… Oh, the humanity…

Oh, the fact this jerk just blew a chance to ever perform at that club again. It’s not smart and it’s definitely not professional.

That’s how you should run your room – whether it’s an open-mic or an established comedy club. It’s also how comedians should respond to your efforts – as professionals.

I know this sounds more like a lecture than advice and to be honest, it’s both. It’s important for aspiring comedians to know the value of what you’re giving them, even if it’s a bringer show where comics are required to bring a certain number of paying customers to get a performance spot.

Without customers the open mic can’t stay in business. When they’re not in business, aspiring comedians have one less place to gain important stage experience. If you don’t believe me – do the math.

Okay, to go along with the lecture and advice, here’s some inspiration and motivation:

As a comedian running an open mic (and I know the writer of this question fits that category) this is just a temporary situation. At least it should be. You are also putting in the effort to run a successful open mic to get necessary and valuable stage time.

At least you should be.

Whether you are hosting every show or doing a short set, your focus – besides keeping control over everything that makes the club successful, so it continues – is getting better as a comedian. Work on your material and performance every time you get on stage.

The goal is to gain on stage experience and be funny enough to get out of the open-mics and into more established – and paying – clubs.

Yeah, some aspiring comedians might think you’re a jerk when you crack down on them for breaking your rules. But if your efforts, talent, and dedication help your goals become reality, the ones who are still goofing around at open-mics, ignoring the light, throwing stuff at other comics on stage – and gave you crap – will be wondering where they went wrong.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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