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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Always Leave the Audience Wanting More

Hi Dave – I was in a local open-mic comedy contest, and I’m upset about the way it was run. The show lasted way too long. The comedian who put it together had ten comics competing, and then four more after that. Three of them did 15 minutes and the last one went for over half an hour. I feel like it really wasn’t fair to the audience. The people I brought were getting tired and had to work the next day. We finally left at 11:30 pm and the show was still going. It was like being at a concert and the opening band never knows when to get off the stage.

Would it be in poor taste to tell him the show was too long? I know a lot of people who would like to see me perform won’t want to come if the show lasts that long. I’m also worried the people I brought won’t want to see me again now that they know this is a possibility. Thanks – Comedy Contestant (CC)

Is this over yet?

Hey CC – I don’t blame you for being upset. It not only sounds like a long night, but also a very amateur production. If the comedian in charge has been around the comedy biz for any amount of time, he should know it’s not a good idea to burn out an audience. He should have followed an old showbiz “suggestion” (I hate to use the word “rule”) that makes a lot of sense for a very good reason. It works:

Leave the audience wanting more.

I didn’t make that up. It’s been around since audiences learned to clap their hands together and scream for an encore.

There are no rules about time limits when it comes to great entertainment. A classic pop song can come in under three minutes while a rock band can hold an audience’s attention for over three hours. But sitting through a local comedy contest in an open-mic room that lasts longer than a Taylor Swift concert? I’m squirming in my chair just thinking about it.

BUT let me make my opinion perfectly clear.

It’s not because of BAD comedians. Many open-mic comics are very good and ready to jump to the next level. Others are still learning and need the stage time. That’s what open mics are for. What I’m talking about is the length of a show.

To make my point, let’s use the movie biz as an example.

How long are most comedy movies? According to personal research using a television remote control to check out running times for random streaming movies, I’ll go with around 90 minutes. Of course there are exceptions, but check out big money-earners by Adam Sandler, Will Farrell, Kevin Hart and other hit comedies and you’ll see that’s a worthy guesstimate.

This is nothing new. 

Hollywood!

Somewhere in the long history of Hollywood movies someone had to come up with a “suggestion” that audiences are comfortable with around 90 minutes of entertainment. They’ll stay longer if it’s exceptional, but otherwise it doesn’t make any sense that most movies usually last about that long.

And if audiences really enjoy the movie they might see it again, or spend a night camped outside the theater to be first to see a sequel. That means it was entertaining and left the audience wanting more.

It’s a format that works and is successful.

We could also add television shows to this theory. Even the most highly anticipated season finales of The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor and others stick to a max time limit of two hours. Take away the commercials and we’re talking about 90 minutes’ worth of entertainment. If it’s more than that, they’ll break it up into two nights.

So why wouldn’t someone that hopes to launch a successful open-mic or comedy contest do the same thing? The idea is not to burn out your audience but keep them entertained so they have fun and want to come back for more.

The show’s producer could learn a lot from the big-name comedy clubs. But before I get too deep into this, I know many of the biggest name clubs are in New York and Los Angeles and shows can go on for hours.

But these are showcase clubs.

On weeknights they’ll feature a lot of comedians doing shorter sets during one long show. Audience members come and go throughout the night. At New York’s Original Improvisation we would start shows at 9 pm and run sometimes until 2 am or later, as long as we had an audience. But it was very rare when anyone outside of the staff was there from start to finish.

So, let’s talk about the big-name clubs outside of NYC and LA that use a three comic lineup: opener, feature, and headliner.

On weeknights club management knows many audience members have to be at work the next morning, so there won’t be any late-night marathons. On weekends they might run two or three shows each night, like movie theaters. Yeah, it’s a business concept because having more shows means earning more profits. But they also want paying customers to have a great experience and come back again as paying customers.

They’re not looking to burn out comedy fans. It’s the complete opposite. A great show will leave the audience wanting more.

Oh, and in case I forget… 

Do you know how long these shows usually last? An opener will do about 10 minutes, a feature about 20 minutes and the headliner an hour. That’s 90 minutes in case you can’t find the calculator on your iPhone and want to keep reading instead.

Focusing on your question, the problem might just be inexperience on the organizer’s part. Most comics running an open mic use it for personal stage time. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, everyone in the comedy biz should support that dedication because it’s not easy to be a performer, producer, talent booker and publicist (they must promote to stay in business) all at once. But they also need to consider the other comedians and the audience. It must be a fun experience (entertainment), or no one will want to experience it again.

If it’s not entertaining, nobody wins.

The comic that worked hard putting this together won’t have a returning audience and will probably lose a new audience once the show’s reputation goes around the neighborhood. He’ll lose the support of the club owners that need to make money to stay in business. He’ll also lose the stage time he was hoping for, and the other local comics will lose a place to perform.

If you want to run a successful open-mic or comedy contest, use the proven format as the established clubs. You don’t want to burn out the audience with a three- or four-hour show. Even the top club headliners with many hours of proven material will only do about an hour at a comedy club. They entertain the audience – and leave them wanting more.


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Next time the headliner is in town there’s a good chance the audience will remember it was a fun experience and pay to see him again.

And finally, should you share your thoughts with the guilty comedian who ran the contest? I would if you’re close enough to be honest without making him upset and losing future stage time. Your advice could help him run a more successful room.

But either way don’t lose track of your original goal.

You went to this open-mic contest because you want to get better as a comedian, and you need performances to do that. There’s always been a lot of hanging around time and traveling in this crazy biz and the dedicated comics do it for valuable stage time.

The idea is to keep working and improving until you’re experienced enough to play the more established clubs. Then the management will tell you how long the show will run – and you won’t even have to worry about it.

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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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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