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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It’s all in the delivery

Dave – I need to work on my delivery. The time you saw me, you mentioned that it sounded like I was just reading from a magazine (thanks! lol). I see what you mean after listening to my last set a couple times. I’m working out a new bit that I’m taking care not to write out in script form, but in outline form. I’m beginning to get the laughs where I want them, and I know the confidence to ad-lib only comes from stage experience. But working on delivery seems like the next logical step. Do you agree? – DB

What do I say next?

Hey DB – When you’re just starting out in the comedy or speaking biz, having the right delivery on stage is something everyone worries about. It’s up there with getting over any nervousness you might have just standing in front of an audience AND remembering what the heck you’re gonna say.

But you know what?

It’s nothing to sweat about at this stage – the beginning stage – of your career on stage. Wow, it’s not everyday I can use the same word three times in one sentence. Guess I need to work on my delivery…

Your delivery or comedy voice, which is a term I picked up from a major player in the comedy biz while I was working in Los Angeles, will develop through experience.

It comes with getting stage time.

Right now – and again, I’m talking about the beginning stage – I’ll suggest something else to concentrate on that I’ve heard many times from working comics. Write, write, and WRITE some more.

Got that? The idea is to have something – ideas, topics, stories, whatever – that you can talk about and try out in front of an audience. Then you rewrite, edit, come up with new stuff, and repeat the process again and again.

As you do this your material will change and evolve. You’ll also become more comfortable knowing your material AND being in front of an audience. For some people it seems easy, but I’ve talked with many more who’ve said it was damn hard work. It’s doing open-mics and any other gigs as often as possible.

During this process you (should) also develop your delivery. But again, sometimes it’s not that easy. So, I’ll make a suggestion based on your question…

A lot of comedians and speakers start out by memorizing their material. There’s a great story about that in my book How To Be A Working Comic from one of the great stand-up improvisors and ad-libber’s in the business. His many fans might find it hard to believe, but he told me that’s what he did in the beginning. You must find a way to get yourself on stage and if memorizing your material helps, then try it. Then through experience you can gradually develop and grow as a writer and performer and break free of that restraint (memorizing) and have as much fun as the audience.

It takes stage time.

Memorizing your material can be a valuable crutch to use when you’re first going on stage. As you know, all kinds of things – mental and physical – are happening when you’re new at this. It’s not a normal everyday thing to walk onto a spotlighted stage, stand in front of a microphone and start talking to people.

But even if it’s memorized the KEY is to NOT make it sound memorized.

Ad-libbing and working off the audience can loosen things up and help you as a performer and writer come up with new material or learn how to deliver what you already have to get bigger laughs. In other words, you want to sound like you’re making this stuff up on the spot. It’s called being conversational, which is the opposite of sounding like you’re repeating a magazine article from memory.

Now I know all comedians and speakers are not the same. There are one-liners, physical comedy, storytellers, insult comics, prop comics and more. Just keep in mind I’m talking in general – okay?

I don’t know how many comedians I’ve seen over my career, but I know from experience as a talent booker and club manager I’ve seen a LOT during many different career stages. I’m talking about from beginners to household names. And what has always stayed with me is how they deliver their material – their comedy set – to each audience.

The successful ones are very conversational. They make it seem the audience is in on the creative process – like the comic is making it up on the spot. But what the audience doesn’t see is that most times (not all because again, I’m talking in general and don’t want the ghosts of Bill Hicks or George Carlin to do a Christmas Carol bit on me the next time I’m in a deep sleep) the next show can be almost exactly the same.

But it’s still seems different because of the comic’s delivery. They know how to involve the audience and have a conversation with them using their proven (through stage experience) material.

I know I’m repeating this story from one of my books, but I remember years ago when a VERY famous comedian was doing a set at The Comedy Cellar in NYC. It was late – the other clubs were closed, and this was the only one that would put up with us at 3 am. There were only about four “real” customers in the audience and everyone else was a comic with at least a beer or two already in them.

The famous comic was doing his act and another (who would also be famous within a couple years) jumped on stage behind him and did a mimic bit. He silently mouthed the words and did the same physical gestures. The already famous comic knew it (they were good friends) and played along. It was hysterical, but also proves my point that a skilled comedian can do his same act and make it seem new each time in front of different audiences by being conversational.

Again, I’m talking in general terms here. But that story always helps me make a point.

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So, you may know your material frontwards and backwards, but you don’t want your delivery to ever sound memorized. Since you’re still in the beginning stage and searching for your comedy voice, take a few chances. That’s what open mics are for. Try working off just an outline in your head or have a notebook (it’s an open-mic and you can do that) with key words about the topics. This means already having a few ideas you want to talk about – and then just talking about them.

It’s part of the process of finding out what works best for you as a performer. It also helps you become more conversational on stage rather than sounding memorized.

And even though you already know what you’re going to say, for instance jokes or descriptions you’ve written in advance and hope will get laughs, the method you use to get there will make it look like you’re making it up on the spot for that audience.

And as you said, you’re beginning to get laughs where you want them, so keep those moments in your set. That’s why you record your performance every time you’re on stage. When you listen, you’ll know what works (lines, words, emphasis, physical gestures – whatever) based on how the audience reacts. If they laugh, you’ll use them again because you’ll know through experience they should get laughs again from a different audience.

And for anyone who wants to be a working comic or humorous speaker – that’s what talent bookers, club owners and event planners pay for. Proven laughs.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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