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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How Long Should You Do The Same Material?

Dave – How long can I keep doing my current material and how often do comics usually change their act? Since I plan on doing a lot of clubs locally, I wonder if people will be hearing the same act over and over. – M.

Lots of writing!

Hey M. – Your goal is to get your comedy set really, REALLY good. That means you should be working on improving your material – your act – whenever and wherever you can.

Usually, this means you would be working on the same bits over and over and over….  And I know that sounds boring, especially for creative artists like stand-up comedians. But the idea is to treat your act as a creative work, like writing a novel or painting a masterpiece. You always want to “tweak” it and make it better. Make improvements, change words, add, subtract, etc…

In other words, make it funnier.

BUT I also want to repeat myself (boring?) in saying comedians are creative artists. They are not (and should not be) robots programmed to say the exact same thing show after show after show… If that’s the goal, then become an actor and memorize a script. Most comedians have topics or bits they use in their acts because the material is practiced, and audience tested. They know it “works” and can get a good response during a show they’re being paid to do.

And in case you missed an earlier FAQ And Answer, I’ll repeat a good business tip for you.

Talent bookers pay comics to perform sets that “work.” 

What else can I say?

A talent booker’s business depends on satisfied customers. For newer comedians trying to reach that career goal, becoming working comics, they perform for free at open-mics, lower paying gigs, and anywhere they can get time on stage. Once their material has been audience-tested and gets laughs, that’s what talent bookers will pay for.

For this reason, you shouldn’t try to do a completely new set every time you go on stage. Unless the performance is improvisational, no comic does unless they’re hosting a late night (or daytime) television talk show. But you need to remember television hosts have writing staffs, Teleprompters, and cue cards.

The idea is to learn what material works based on audience reaction. Even if you’re only playing in front of a few people at an open mic, find out what gets a laugh every time and keep it in your act.

As the late Richard Jeni said in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers, you build your act “brick by brick” (laugh by laugh / bit by bit). This is how most comedians create their act.

And most entertainers, not just comedians, have an “act.” If you don’t believe me, go see your favorite arena rock band do a couple shows and try to see what – if anything – is different between the two performances. I doubt there would be much if anything.

When I was managing The Improv, we would have three comedians for each show. Often all three would do their same set every show. They were doing their “act,” which is what they were being paid to do. You must remember the audience is different for each show, so it’s all new to them.

Management and staff might be the same, but that shouldn’t worry you because they’re not listening all the time. They might stop and watch a bit now and then, but don’t worry about them hearing your act over and over. If they’ve been working at the club long enough, they know it’s the nature of the business. And besides, they’re also professionals and are there to work and make money, and not to watch your set.

Tweaking and perfecting your act will keep it interesting for you. Like a novelist and painter, you’re making changes – subtle or huge – toward your finished creation. The idea is to keep improving your act. As a creative artist I doubt you’ll ever consider it “finished,” but when your act is regularly earning laughs it might be time to start contacting talent bookers to get paid for what you’ve created.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Don’t waste a golden opportunity to be “seen”

Dave – I have a question for you. I know who makes all the booking decisions for a club I want to play. It’s local, but I’ve never met him so can’t say I know him personally. I wanted to see if you had any suggestions on how to go about getting a guest set there. I had another comedian friend who already plays this club email the booker a clip of me from another club. How should I follow up on this? Just wanted your take. Thanks – JW

He’s the guy!

Hey JW – I hope you read last week’s article about getting a Golden Ticket. If not, scroll down because you might have one. Most of these FAQs And Answers are about the business side of the business. Yes, you must have talent both as a writer and performer with on stage experience before you’ll really need to concentrate on the business.

But once you’re ready, you’ll need to think about promoting your career.

A big part of promoting is networking. And as I’m sure you’ve heard (because I don’t make this stuff up) sometimes it’s “who you know.”

It’s great you’ve already had someone that works for the club put in a good word for you. Performers need to protect their own reputations in this competitive business, and I highly doubt someone else would recommend you to an important talent booker if he/she didn’t believe you were “ready.” To repeat what I said last week, a good recommendation from a comedian or speaker already working for a talent booker or event planner YOU want to work for is like having a Golden Ticket.

It’s not a guarantee you’ll be seen (given an audition or showcase), but your chances are better than making a cold call or sending blind emails.

So… you have the referral – correct? How should you follow up on this and make it really work for you?

Here’s a suggestion:

Booking Local

According to your email, you live in the city where this club and the talent booker are located. And since your referral (Golden Ticket) performs at this club, she/he either lives in the area or is working there on a somewhat regular basis.

BUT the referring comedian EMAILED your clip to the talent booker!

Okay… that’s better than nothing. But when an opportunity arises, you sometimes must kick it up a notch. As I’ve said, this is a competitive business.

Most of the talent bookers I know are busy people. They’re booking not only clubs, but also colleges, corporate shows, cruise ships and other events. The ones that work solely for the independent clubs are usually also the club managers and in charge of the staff, kitchen, box office, running the shows and a lot of other “stuff.” So sometimes watching unsolicited videos (cold calls, blind emails, etc.) is not a priority.

I’m not saying they don’t watch, but it can take longer to be seen than you’re probably hoping for. It can be easier and more time efficient for them to book the performers they’ve already been working with and know they can rely on.

BUT I also know from being there if a comic or speaker the booker is already working with (and respects) pops by to say hello, they won’t scream for them to, “Get out!

Okay, maybe some will, but every business has its share of (insert your own derogatory adjective). Usually, they’ll take at least a few minutes to make small talk or trade a few friendly insults (again, experienced from being there).

So, here’s where you need to step up your networking game…

You, the club, the talent booker and (at least on occasion) your Golden Ticket contacts are all in the same city at the same time. BUT again, your contact EMAILED the booker a clip of you performing! The best scenario is to have your contact provide you a SOLID Golden Ticket (I just made that up by the way, not bad…).

That’s another name for a personal introduction.

Yeah, I know… Some of my friends that are talent bookers read these articles and are not shy about emailing me their thoughts. I’m already thinking of a few that will say, “You’re crazy! You can’t have comics stopping by. We’re too busy!

True, but again from being there I’ve seen it happen – and I’ve seen it work.

A headlining comedian will bring in a friend and ask if they can do a short, five-minute showcase before his set. If it’s not a big weekend night – Friday or Saturday – it’s always a good possibility. Also coming by the club early with your Golden Ticket for an introduction and to meet personally can make a difference in how fast your video will be watched or showcase scheduled.

Again, there are no guarantees. But you never know unless you try. And a personal touch is always better than a cold call or blind email.


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In fact,…

Just a few minutes ago – as I’m writing this – I received an email from a comedian who wants me to hire him. Everyone who reads these articles know I’m all about promoting and getting your name out there, so emailing is not bad. After all, no one is going to find you unless you know how to promote yourself. I’m a big believer in networking, but also a big believer in doing it correctly and finding an edge over the competition.

The email I received from this comedian didn’t offer any type of personality. Like when I talk about using a hook in your promotional material and all that other useful and proven promotional advice I’ve shared. Again, I don’t make this stuff up – it works for advertising companies, publicists, and working comedians and speakers.

I have yet to meet a successful publicist that didn’t include a healthy dose of personality in their promotional campaigns.

Anyway, this comedian just sent me his credits with a list of websites, Facebook, and online video links. Also, one sentence that says he’s available for bookings. There’s nothing else. There was no personal touch (or personality) and therefore – no edge over any other email looking for the same results.

So, let me see… the email didn’t come from anyone I know, so there’s NO chance I’ll open any of the links. It also didn’t come off as professional (think short cover letter), interesting or unique. And here’s something else that will back up what I’ve mentioned above about busy talent bookers:

It’s the third email I’ve received this week from a comedian looking for work and I’m not even booking anything! Can you imagine how many emails are sent to active talent bookers every day?

That’s why a “delete” key is so important.

Most bookers use it more often than you’d like to know. So, when you are in the same city as the club, the talent booker, and your Golden Ticket contact, you need to take advantage of that edge over the competition. Pick up the Golden Ticket at his/her hotel or pay for the cab or Uber, buy lunch, dinner – whatever – and ask for a personal introduction to the talent booker. If the referring comedian is truly a fan and agrees, ask if she/he can also help you score a guest set.

Again, I’ve seen it happen.

I remember a then-new comedian (very well-known today) making his first visit to the Los Angeles Improv (I was there). He was introduced to us by another comic (that worked for us) as one of the “funniest guys in New York.” Before he was even done shaking hands, he was offered three minutes on stage that night to “prove” he was so funny.

He was ready, he did – and was on our regular roster from that night on.

Again, this is a competitive business. If you can find an edge – a Golden Ticket – don’t be afraid to use it. As some of my talent booker friends will tell you (and hopefully they’ll be nice to me in the emails I’ll probably receive) it’s easier and more accurate to watch a live showcase than wade through a long list of online videos. It’s also the best way for a performer to be seen – in person – which is the best way to get hired.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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