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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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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