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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Comedians Dealing With Hecklers

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

Get off the stage!

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

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

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

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

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

Say something funny!

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

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

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

Now, that being said – I’m not naive.

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

Duh…!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he handed the heckler the microphone?!!

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

Never give up the microphone.

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

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

You have the right to do the same.

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

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

On the other hand, I’ve also had some great comics tell me before they went on stage NOT to shut-up any hecklers. These performers have the attitude and experience to turn any interruptions into excellent comedy by verbally destroying anyone who would dare heckle them. As a word of warning, think twice before you have a few drinks and decide to verbally spar with Bobby Slayton, Dave Attell and some of my other personal favorites. It’s now called “crowd work” and there are plenty of experienced comedians that master the craft (thanks to a quick mind, an attitude – and just as important, stage time).

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

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

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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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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