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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March 13, 20, 27 and April 3

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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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How tacky is your sales pitch?

Hey Dave – One of the guys I work with was telling me how he does these after-hours networking events where people from all different businesses hand out business cards to each other and get to know each other and see if they can make a bridge to possibly do business in the future. He told me they have entertainers networking at these events.

I want to go to these things when I get my website up and running and try to get bookings for business events and parties. Any advice on what someone would be looking for to get booked at a company event? Would it be tacky to carry around my promo stuff like my bio and resume with me? Or should I offer to send that to them at a later date? – DB

Foot in the door edge!

Hey DB – Why am I having a hard time thinking of anyone in this crazy business who isn’t tacky at least occasionally? You can put on a suit and be a complete professional to represent yourself, but sometimes you need to have a little “edge” to make your presence known if you want to get ahead.

I’m not talking pushy, but hopefully you get the idea. If not, here’s what I mean…

Good promoting can lead to good sales. There are a lot of salespeople that get business by being total professionals with a good “sales pitch” and promotional material. Then again, there are times when a door is starting to close in their face and they just can’t help it… call it instinct, training, experience or determination… but they just can’t stop themselves from sticking their foot in the door and making one last sales pitch.

Tacky?

Yeah, that term has a way of coming up when talking about certain sales techniques. But if you want the business and have a product (in our case we’re talking about your comedy act or speaker presentation) that deserves to be considered, you have to find ways to let the buyer know. If you don’t, you can bet someone else will.

Okay, first things first. 

What would I be looking for if it was my job to book someone (a comedian or speaker) for a company event? I’ve said this numerous times in past FAQs And Answers, but will use the opportunity for a quick reminder…

When I was booking corporate (business) shows we always looked for G-rated material. 

That’s a BIG resume!

Okay, PG at the max – and that only depended on the type of company and what the boss or event planner requested. But honestly, those were few and far between. Everyone else was too worried about someone – anyone, including the boss and employees – being offended during a company event.

The comedians I used the most knew how to entertain these audiences with their regular topics (the material they were also doing in the comedy clubs) but could keep it squeaky clean for corporate events. In other words, the laughs didn’t depend on dropping an F-Bomb, graphic sex jokes, or bathroom humor. The guy at work who stands around the coffee machine telling jokes and the company prude could both be entertained at the same time.

Can you do that? 

If you want to be a player in the corporate comedy or speaking biz, it’s a requirement. That’s the first concern and there’s no getting around it.

Now that we’ve made this perfectly clear, I’ll stick my foot in the door and continue the conversation…

The after-hours business card meetings sound very promising. Your goal is to connect with any event planners and people from the Human Resource Departments. From experience, other than the boss, these are the people that are usually in charge of the company events, or at least have some say in how it will all work. Of course, anyone can put in a recommendation if they have an event or party coming up, so don’t be tacky and avoid anyone who might not appear to be important enough to give you a job. They might just be the break room jokester or office prude the CEO is concerned with keeping entertained and not offended.

Is it tacky to carry your promo material with you in this type of situation?

Yes, I think so.

But here’s the deal, all your promotional material should be online anyway. Do you have a dedicated website? If not – you should.

That’s one way to make it clear you’re a professional. Sending a business client to your Facebook page to find your promotional video between photos of that day’s lunch and your cat is not going to result in too many paid gigs– if any at all.

I recommend you always be prepared to make a sales pitch if the opportunity arises. That’s why every professional still carries business cards that will direct a potential client to your website. You never know when or where you’ll make your next valuable connection.

But again, being professional is the key. And it’s different in the business world than in the entertainment business world – and I’ll give you an example.

When I was at The Improv in New York and Hollywood, there were always a lot of showcases (auditions) for television shows. And not just for shows that used standup comedians. Quite often there was casting for sitcoms or movies and with these types of showcases, if the casting person was looking for a certain “type,” all the auditioning performers would be scheduled because they fit that “type.”

For example, you might have ten comedians auditioning for a specific role. If they were looking for a male – there would be ten men auditioning. Female – ten women. The showcase would be booked around the casting call for a specific type.

But not every comic that fit the desired type could be on the showcase.

There would be only X number of spots to be seen over X amount of time. So usually there were lots of comedians that didn’t get the opportunity to audition. But quite often the professional comedians in NYC and LA had their promotional material with them – or close enough (in their car) so they could have it within a matter of minutes if there would be a chance to network. And a lot of times if they weren’t on a showcase but thought they should’ve been given the opportunity, they’d hang around the club until the casting person was leaving and ask if they would accept it as a submission.

What’s the worst that can happen? Being told NO? You’ve already been told that when you weren’t asked to be part of the showcase.

So, is it as tacky as a salesman sticking his foot in a closing door? Yeah, but like a final sales pitch for a good product, sometimes it works.

The idea is not to waste an opportunity.

But remember, the business you’re talking about networking for – bookings in the corporate market – is different than the entertainment business I was just talking about. It would definitely be tacky to carry around full promotional packages at one of these business card-trading events.

Most promotion today is done online.

So, the bottom line to giving yourself the “edge” without coming off as “tacky” is to always be prepared to network and promote. Today that means keeping your dedicated website updated and don’t forget your business cards.

That’s the simplest business tool for networking and promoting – and makes the effort a lot easier than carrying around “old fashioned” promotional packages that no one else will want to carry around after you hand it to them.

And the best part about networking with only business cards? There’s nothing tacky about it. In fact, in this business it’s expected.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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