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!). 

Next round of Wednesday workshops (Mondays are sold-out):

March 13, 20, 27 and April 3

For details, reviews and to register visit OnlineWorkshops


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!

Click on the banner below to sign up for Dave’s free newsletter.

For comments, questions about workshops and coaching please email – Dave@TheComedyBook.com

Using a stage name – can you live with it?

Hello Dave – I am very proud of my name, but for as long as I can remember people have never been able to say it. I’m starting to wonder if I should go with a stage name. Even if you are against them, how do you go about using a stage name? How do you manage introducing yourself and, in the future, how do you handle payment when you go by a stage name? Thanks – K

Hey K. – The question you need to ask about using a stage name is if you can live with it. And if you happen to become successful – can you live with it for a looong time?

It might be cool now, but what if you get tired of it later? If you’re just starting your career and still learning who you are on stage, what if that name doesn’t fit anymore? For an extreme example, using the name Goofy (sorry Disney fans) might get some laughs at an open mic, but somehow I don’t see it enhancing the career of a corporate comedian.

I could be wrong, which is not unheard of. Then again, it’s something to think about.

Let’s put it another way. If you’re just starting out in your career, you might be wearing jeans and a t-shirt on stage. But as you progress, maybe you grow into wearing a suit and tie. I’ve seen it happen. But if all your promo material (photos and videos) shows you in jeans – then you’ll have to update everything.

But one thing that is more difficult to change is name recognition. If all your contacts and clients know you by name, then changing your name means you need to introduce yourself all over again. It’s like starting from scratch.

So if you’re considering a stage name, be sure you can live with it for a looong time.

This topic has come up in my books How To Be A Working Comic and Comedy FAQs And Answers. In the first one, Scott Thompson told me there was already a comic actor with that name. Since Scott was a marketing major in college, he was educated enough to know he needed something that was different and “marketable.”

So he went with Carrot Top. To quote him from the book:

“The first time someone across campus yelled, ‘Hey, Carrot Top!’ I thought, ‘Oh Lord, do I really wanna do this to myself?’ But now it’s second nature.”

The second book example comes from the comedian Earthquake:

“Earthquake was a childhood name. My real name is Nathaniel Stroman. And when you play for an urban audience, it just don’t roll off the tongue. You know, ‘Give it up for Nathaniel Stroman!’ ‘Boo, *#@#*! Boo!!’ That’s right off your name! So I had to get something that would give me a fighting chance.”

A stage name is totally a personal decision.

If you already have a nickname or come up with something memorable, give it a shot. But keep in mind if you start finding success under that name, it’s very tough to change. Just ask John Cougar Mellencamp.

Introducing yourself is another matter.

You can choose to have an entertainment persona and a personal life. There are some very famous celebrities who do just that. The former drummer of The Beatles is known throughout the world as Ringo Starr. But his family and friends call him “Ritchie” since his real (and legal) name is Richard Starkey. To the best of my knowledge, his appearances, promotions and autographs are by “Ringo Starr” and for contracts and payments it’s for “Richard Starkey.”

So in your comedy career, you should promote yourself as your stage name and handle all business as your legal name. When it comes to your personal life, do what you wish.

In the comedy biz I’ve seen more stage names than you might think. And usually I’ve had no idea the performer was using a stage name until their real name was on a contract.


 


So if you don’t change your name legally, you’ll eventually end up using both. It can be confusing sometimes, but for promotional purposes everything is done using your stage name. For legalities it’s your real name.

BUT before I go into this more, it’s important for me to make it clear I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. I’m just passing it along based on my past experiences. So before you even think about following the following, make a smart move and talk with a real lawyer.

Years ago when I was managing comedians and speakers, I asked a lawyer and a banker about performers using a stage name. I thought they would be the two most important people to ask if the talent wanted to get paid – and pay me a commission.

The advice was to have a bank account in your legal (real) name. If a talent booker writes you a check using your stage name, you sign the back with your stage name. Then underneath, you sign your real name.

It’s a double endorsed check, which is legal and can be deposited in your legal name bank account.

But if you’re looking at direct bank deposits (rare in the performing biz since most bookers and event planners pay with checks, cash or through an online service like PayPal), then you’ll have to use your stage name for all appearances and promotions, and your legal name on all contracts and other business paperwork.

Using two names has been done a lot before and will continue. You just need to be very clear about everything for contracts, tax forms, and all the other important legal stuff.


 

Next group starts Wednesday, November 8th

Space limited!

For details, reviews and to register – visit OnlineWorkshops


Many performers have chosen not to change their hard-to-pronounce names, have become famous, and people learn to say their names correctly because they hear it so often. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an example. I saw him interviewed on television once and he said his goal was to become so famous that Americans would have to learn how to pronounce it.

At first his mispronounced name was a punch line for every late night television and radio host. But eventually, everyone knew it and could say it. Guess his plan worked – all the way to blockbuster movies and the California Governor’s Mansion.

Another consideration for a name change should include any future showbiz career goals. If you ever get into acting or voiceovers, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) – merged since 2012 as “SAG-AFTRA” – only allow ONE name in their membership. So, if you choose something simple like “Goofy” and someone else is already registered by that name in the union, you’ll have to pick something else.

That’s true also if you’re using your legal name.

So my advice is to make the change only if you think it’s really necessary and will further your career. But be sure you can live with it. The only one I can think of who “took it back” after he became famous was John Cougar… uh, I mean John Mellencamp.

More advice?

My last name has been mispronounced every way possible. So when I have a speaking gig, I give the person introducing me a printed introduction (in a larger font than what you’re reading here). On it I have my name spelled out phonetically as “Sch-wen-sen.” That way they can usually say it correctly. Since you mentioned being very proud of your name, I would suggest trying that for a while before making the huge commitment of changing it.

If you still decide to go with a stage name, keep in mind there’s already a Carrot Top and Earthquake in the acting unions. You’ll have to come up with something original and one you can live with – maybe forever.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

Click on the banner below to sign up for Dave’s free newsletter.

For comments, questions about workshops and coaching please email – Dave@TheComedyBook.com