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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Don’t be a jerk – respect the room!

Hey Dave – I’ve heard some comics think I’m a jerk because of how I run my open-mic room. I try to keep the show on schedule. I like comics being on time and like comics sticking to their time on stage. I’ve had to yell at a few for almost breaking my equipment and throwing stuff at other comics on stage. I’ve put a lot of work into making this successful and would like people to respect the club and the way I run it.

I don’t have to give everyone time on stage and can turn people away if I want to, but I typically don’t. And since no one has said directly to me about how much of a “jerk” I am, it’s apparent that I’m not too big of a jerk to stop them from coming back for stage time.

The way I see it, I’m doing them a favor. And if they want to find their own room and buy their own speakers, microphones, stands and wires, then they can run their room the way they want. Then, when 15 people are ignoring their light to get off stage, they can probably understand my frustrations. – Open-Mic Producer

Stick to your time!

Hey Open-Mic Producer – I LOVE your attitude! AND I think you are absolutely correct in how you’re running your open-mic room.

Comics – at least the ones who someday want to be considered professional working comics – need a lot of on-stage experience. And because they should be thankful someone is giving them this valuable experience, they must respect not only the club, but also any rules that keep it running smoothly.

This is your room Mr. Producer. You started it, you’re the one running it – and you’ve supplied the needed equipment, such as a microphone, mic stand and speakers, to make this a performance space. In other words, YOU are responsible for making it successful enough to continue giving aspiring comedians a place to gain the on-stage experience they need.

The way I feel about it – they can play the game your way or they can play it somewhere else.

Done. Period. No argument from anyone else is needed.

That’s also the way all successful comedy clubs and other performance venues are run by management. I know because I’ve worked for the best in the biz and have firsthand experience.

You break it, you buy it.

I’m sure veteran working comics would have cringed – or laughed in horror – if an aspiring comedian totally disregarded the length of time they’d been given on stage at The Improv in Los Angeles when the late Budd Friedman was running the show. Especially if the signal to get off stage was coming directly from Budd himself, who was responsible for making his club successful. And in the process of ignoring the light, the comic damaged the equipment on stage or threw something at another comic?

Oh, the horror… Oh, the humanity…

Oh, the fact this jerk just blew a chance to ever perform at that club again. It’s not smart and it’s definitely not professional.

That’s how you should run your room – whether it’s an open-mic or an established comedy club. It’s also how comedians should respond to your efforts – as professionals.

I know this sounds more like a lecture than advice and to be honest, it’s both. It’s important for aspiring comedians to know the value of what you’re giving them, even if it’s a bringer show where comics are required to bring a certain number of paying customers to get a performance spot.

Without customers the open mic can’t stay in business. When they’re not in business, aspiring comedians have one less place to gain important stage experience. If you don’t believe me – do the math.

Okay, to go along with the lecture and advice, here’s some inspiration and motivation:

As a comedian running an open mic (and I know the writer of this question fits that category) this is just a temporary situation. At least it should be. You are also putting in the effort to run a successful open mic to get necessary and valuable stage time.

At least you should be.

Whether you are hosting every show or doing a short set, your focus – besides keeping control over everything that makes the club successful, so it continues – is getting better as a comedian. Work on your material and performance every time you get on stage.

The goal is to gain on stage experience and be funny enough to get out of the open-mics and into more established – and paying – clubs.

Yeah, some aspiring comedians might think you’re a jerk when you crack down on them for breaking your rules. But if your efforts, talent, and dedication help your goals become reality, the ones who are still goofing around at open-mics, ignoring the light, throwing stuff at other comics on stage – and gave you crap – will be wondering where they went wrong.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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