Corporate Events, Colleges and Cruise Ships

Hey Dave – Is there a way to make a living as a comic without playing the comedy clubs? I know the only other major venues are colleges and cruise ships and corporate events. – KH

Hey KH – You pretty much ran all the comedy bases in that one. From first to home with one swing:

  • Comedy Clubs
  • Colleges & Universities
  • Cruise Ships
  • Corporate Events

I’m sure readers can suggest few more options that I haven’t included in that trip around the bases, such as private parties and various social and special events. I could mention being an MC at a fashion show or talent contest or doing comedy for an “after the high school prom event,” since I’ve personally scheduled comedians for these teenage laugh-fests in the past.

But those types of shows are not regular gigs and I doubt they would add up enough money to help make a living as a comic.

Since you’re talking about bypassing comedy clubs that knocks out the first market, which is working in comedy clubs. So, we’ll pretend that one was never mentioned and move down your list…

Colleges & Universities:

The college market pays good money. That’s no secret in this business. Colleges have Student Activities (or Campus Activities) departments that are funded by student tuition. That means if they don’t spend the money during the year that particular student is in school, whoever is paying the tuition would have a right to be mad. They paid into the department, but didn’t get to reap the benefits?

Nope, that’s not going to happen. So, the activities boards spend their student-funded money every year on a wide range of activities. For instance, entertainment.

But just like the other upcoming options, the college market is more specialized than what is normally expected in comedy clubs. From my experience as a talent agent in NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) you would have to follow one of the most important rules of performing – and therefore, comedy:

Know your audience.

Your audience will obviously be college students. We’re talking mainly between the ages of 18 to 22. Does your material work for that age range? Also (and be honest) are you still at an age the students can relate to? Here’s what I mean…

When I was writing the book Comedy FAQs And Answers, I interviewed comedian Bill Engvall about copyrighting material (you’ll have to read the book to find out what he says). It was a great topic for him because his hook – “Here’s your sign!” – is legally protected. It belongs to him, and you can’t use it – period. In fact, I think I might need to send him a royalty check just for typing it out here.

I asked him about working the college market and he told me he doesn’t. The reason? He talks about his wife and kids, being a husband, a father, and other family stuff. College kids aren’t interested in those topics. They’re more into sleeping late, skipping classes and… well, think back to what you wanted to do when you were 18 years old and that’s what the audience wants to hear.

Know your audience.

But to get back to your question, yes you can actually bypass comedy clubs by working colleges. Some of the most popular comedians on the college circuit are not really “club comics.” But you’ll need a college act (remember the audience) and on-stage experience putting it together. As usual, you’ll get that through open-mics and doing smaller (usually for free) shows. There’s also the opportunity by performing free gigs at local colleges – especially since they normally save their student activities budgets for already working college performers.

Once you have an act that fits the college market, I suggest working with a college booking agent. Doing this on your own is not cheap because most college work comes from showcasing at college booking conferences. Again, this is described in more detail in the above-mentioned Comedy FAQs And Answers book, but the agencies invest a lot of money in membership fees, conference expenses and promotional material.

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Agencies can better afford to do this because they offer a wide variety of entertainment that can fit what different colleges are looking for. This means the agencies have more opportunities to make money than a solo act going alone. Colleges don’t just book comedians, but also bands, variety acts, speakers, dance troupes, mimes, acrobats, and even inflatables that the students can jump on, slide down and bash into (remember the age of the audience we’re talking about).

The associations that run these conferences are:

  • NACA (already mentioned)
  • APCA (Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities)

Hook up with a college talent agency that is a member of one or both, have a GREAT college act (know your audience) and there’s a chance you can bypass comedy clubs until the number of candles on your birthday cake is a legitimate fire hazard that would scare off students.

Cruise Ships:

Most comedians I’ve talked with about working cruise ships say it’s the hardest market to break into. Depending on your status within the comedy industry it can be very lucrative or just another gig that happens to be on a ship. Let me explain…

Name headliners (celebrities and almost-celebrities) can work a cruise gig and get all the frills. They may not be paid anywhere near what they would get for a big college or corporate show, but the perks would include an upper deck stateroom and a regular seat at the captain’s dinner table. I know a (very) few that do this annually and consider it more of a vacation than work and bring their families along for the fun.

But I seem to know more comedians that work as a cruise ship contract-player. In other words, they sign on for a certain length of time, say three to six months, and share accommodations with other entertainers and staff in the lower quarters of the ship. There are no portholes to look out and meals are buffet food with other employees in the area off-limits to passengers, which again is in the lower decks of the ship.

The pay isn’t big time, but then again you don’t have to pay for anything. You live on the ship and watch your bank account grow.

Cruise ship comedians also have to be skilled at doing two completely different performances.

Usually in the early evening they’ll perform two shows. One is pre-dinner for half the passengers (while the rest are eating), followed by a post-dinner show for the other half (while the first audience is eating). These are CLEAN performances (G or PG-Rated) in the ship’s large theater for family audiences, meaning young children to grandparents.

Then the same comedians will do a later “dirty” show (R to X-Rated) in one of the lounges for the adults.

Know your audience.

I’ve worked with comedians that don’t even have houses or apartments anymore. They live on cruise ships and continue to sign months-long contracts. When they do take a month or so off, they’ve saved money and can live it up on a grand scale for a while, before signing on again when the money gets tight.

It could be fun, unless you have a family (that can’t go when you’re a contract entertainer) or want to be available for television and movie auditions on dry land. But it’s bypassing the comedy club option.

Corporate Events:

I think most corporate entertainers will agree this is the BIGGEST paying opportunity for comedians. I’ve even dedicated an entire book, How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian, on how to break into the corporate market. So, in other words, I have a lot to say about the topic. And like the others, it’s not easy (if it was, everyone would do it), but it also starts with the same rule:

Know your audience.

I’m not going to elaborate too here much, because I’ve already written a lot about the corporate market in these articles, my books and the online course. But to make a point, I’m going to re-use one of the best reader comments I’ve received on this topic. It comes from my online comedy pal Frank King at CleanCorporateComic.com (and yeah Frank, this is a test to see if you’re still reading in 2024 – ha!) who sent in this great Q&A for a long-ago, past article…

*

What’s the difference between the average club comic and the average corporate comic? Answer: $3,000 a day + expenses.

*

Thanks Frank, that pretty much sums it up. If you can break into the corporate market, you won’t have to work a comedy club unless you want to.

The best advice any working corporate comedian will tell you is to work CLEAN (G-Rated). You can’t live on edgy material as you can in comedy clubs, but you also don’t have to be all about business at corporate events. Keynote speakers, trainers and humorous speakers usually take care of the business-related topics in their presentations. Corporate comedians are entertainers just like on cruise ships, college campuses and in comedy clubs.

Not all comedy takes place in comedy clubs. As a comedian, where you perform can depend in what markets you want to work. Also, by remembering an important rule…

Know your audience.

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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Creative writing on the fly

Hey Dave – I travel a lot, which I often use as an excuse. But I will confess that my biggest hurdle is that it’s such a challenge to sit down and just be creative on the spot. Putting something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, although being funny on the fly is a breeze. Do you encounter that question a lot? – R.M.

Taking Notes!

Hey R.M. – Yeah, I do get that one a lot. But in a way, you’ve already answered your own question. You’ve creatively written out the solution and only need someone (in this case – me) to point it out for you. I could do that in just a few sentences, but that would make a very short FAQ and Answer for this week.

So instead, let me be creative for a moment…

I remember taking an advertising class in college. Everyone in the class knew when the final project – a creative advertising campaign – was due. But instead of working with the professor’s schedule, (come’on – it was college and homework wasn’t always on my schedule!), I waited until the night before to start the project.

Talk about having to be creative on the spot, that was the ultimate. I cleared my desk, cleared my head and sat staring at a blank computer screen most of the night. I came up with some nonsense that got me through the class, but it could’ve been a lot better if I had done it on the fly when I was truly feeling creative.

It’s tough to write when you have to. 

There are writers that can do it, and I’ve known a few in Hollywood. They’re called professional writers and get paid a lot of money for what they do. They can come up with a Tonight Show quality comedy set or a treatment for a sitcom episode almost on demand.

Working on new material

But notice I said a few. Most of the comedians and speakers I’ve worked with are better writers when they feel creative – not when they have to be creative.

There’s a great story in my book How To Be A Working Comic from a very well-known comedian about comedians taking laptops on the road to write new material. She did the same thing, but when she sat down in her hotel room at a scheduled time to write, the creative inspiration wasn’t there. That’s not how she writes. She lives – then writes about it. She closed the laptop, went out, and then wrote about it when she returned.

To use your term, she learned the best way for her to write was on the fly. So, to give your question a specific answer…

You’ve got it all wrong.

For example, when you travel a lot, you should be getting material by the plane load (or carload – whatever). Writers, whether comedians or speakers, carry a notebook or audio recorder at all times. When they feel inspired (creative) that’s when they write. It could be an experience, a thought, an overheard conversation, opinion from a magazine article, an observation – whatever. It could be an entire bit, a premise, or just a couple words.

Then later you would go over these notes. Do they still inspire you to write more about a certain topic? Can you combine some of these various ideas to make an outline for a story or comedy bit?

But even then, you’re not finished.

Creative writing, whether it’s for a comedy routine or a humorous presentation, can be an ongoing process. If you have a good idea, continue making notes about it when you feel inspired. You can add details, descriptions, punch lines or whatever whenever the ideas hit you. And the best part is that your material can be filled with truth and/or lies. It doesn’t matter.

It’s called creative license.

An expert example of this is in my book How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian. I’m not trying to make another sale (well… okay, maybe a little, but I took an advertising class in college and sometimes can’t help it). The advice comes from the legendary comedian George Carlin who practiced this method using notebooks, audio recorders and computer files. It’s truly genius stuff and as he told me during our conversation (which I recorded because I always carry an audio recorder and notebook):

“The material would eventually write itself.”

You can find it in the chapter called The Best Comedy Writing Advice Ever. And believe me, I wasn’t using creative license when I named it that.

Okay, so maybe I’m more long-winded than creative with this answer, but I’m sharing advice with you that works. You could be like legendary songwriter Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys who once put his piano in a sandbox (in his living room) so he would be inspired to write songs about surfer girls and dudes.

Or you can just go out and live it.

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So, to point out the answer you already had in your question:

If sitting down and trying to put something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, then do it when you’re being funny on the fly. Take notes as you’re living it and write about it later. If it worked for Carlin and countless other creative writers, it could work for you.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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A friend wants to be your manager – a good idea?

Hi Dave – I have a friend who thinks I’m funny and can make it big as a stand-up comedian. I’m going to take a comedy workshop and then she’s going to be my manager. Good idea. Right? – F.C.

Hey buddy, let’s do this!

Hey FC – Good idea? Maybe a fun idea, but that’s as far as I’ll go with an endorsement right now. And before you and your friend start calling me a party-pooper (or worse) here’s why…

Quite a few businesses start out as partnerships between friends and become successful. But usually both partners have experience in some aspect of the profession. If you open a restaurant, someone must know how to cook and someone must know about the business. If you run a car service, someone must know how to drive and someone must know about the business. If you want a career in stand-up comedy, someone must be funny and…

In your case, it sounds like you’re the person bringing the funny to work with you. BUT to make that partnership work…

Someone must know about the business.

Does your friend have experience in the entertainment industry or managing comedians? You both need to know what the job requirements are because a manager’s job is not simply picking up a phone, calling a talent booker and scheduling you for paying gigs. And it’s not just knowing about the business – it’s also who you know in the business that can make a difference.

That important aspect of the job only comes through experience.

Uh… do what?

Being a comedian and being a manager are two separate jobs. At the beginning of your career (you mentioned taking a comedy workshop to get started) both can and quite often are handled by the same person – the comedian. Since you’ll be working for essentially no money (starting salary at open mics is zilch) your manager’s commission will come out of that.

Does she still want the job?

The only thing you should be concerned with at the beginning of your career is writing, performing, rewriting, and continuing to perform and getting more experience on stage. Your material and delivery will need to be tried out on a live audience to make sure it works. In the comedy biz that means it gets laughs, because that’s what you’re selling to talent bookers.

It takes time and doesn’t happen overnight.

Watch your favorite comedians on television and in clubs. It wasn’t easy for them to make it look so easy. I don’t know any successful comedians that didn’t work hard and paid real dues (going back to their start in open mics) to be good at what they get paid for. If you’re shaking your head in disbelief over that statement, you’re in the wrong business.

When the performances are working and you truly feel it’s time to look for paying gigs, that’s when the business side of your career starts. This includes putting together and updating promotional material, websites, and social network pages – and (just as important) WHO are the talent bookers for the clubs, contests, festivals and other venues. Then there are endless phone calls, emails, networking, schmoozing and scheduling auditions and showcases.

In the beginning, comedians can do all these jobs. That’s why I wrote the book How To Be A Working Comic, to show what jobs needed to be done and how to do them to get work. There’s also a difference between a manager and an agent. In brief, an agent is the member of your team that will schedule paid gigs. In New York and California, agents are licensed to do this – and managers are not. There are more details about this in the book, so for right now let’s just continue with the idea of your friend doing all the behind-the-scenes work…

It’s all part of a gradual process and doesn’t happen all at once. You build the act, make connections, and then promote. When you become part of the comedy scene, meaning out in the clubs and networking with other comedians, you learn who’s who, what’s what, where you can find time on stage and eventually, where you might be paid to do that time on stage.

If a manager is going to do all those tasks for you, then it’s a good idea the manager knows the who’s who, what’s what and where to find these career-advancing (and paying) gigs. A good manager relates to people in the industry and has done as much (probably more) networking than the comedian.

I’m not saying your friends can’t help. It’s always good to have an extra hand or support team in putting together promo and traveling with you to open-mics. And they can even call themselves your manager when you’re still in the open-mic stage of your career. But if they don’t progress along with you in their roll as a manager, then just keep them as a friend and not a business partner.


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When it comes down to the business of booking you into the better clubs and more lucrative markets like corporate and college shows, you’ll need a manager or agent that will have her phone calls answered by the bookers, event planners and clients. And at the beginning of your professional (paid) career, the contacts you make just by being a part of your local comedy scene would give you a better chance of that happening than by relying on a manager with no experience and no contacts.

So… how will you know when you’re ready for a manager?

Don’t worry, they’ll find you. As explained by a manager in How To Be A Working Comic, a good manager knows the business, makes a point of knowing the clubs and who the comedians are performing in those clubs, networks and schmoozes with other managers, agents, talent bookers and comedians, and is always on the lookout for good talent. Why?

It’s how they make their money.

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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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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