Today I’m interviewing Danny Browning about road work. I previously interviewed Danny about how he uses technology in his comedy career. Danny has been nice enough to share his seven years of road experience.
Up until recently, I’ve done it all myself. Now I have a management company that helps point me in the direction to get more work. .
There’s comedy booking agencies across the country and those agencies book clubs and one nighters. Other clubs just book themselves. You just find these agencies, you find the clubs, then it’s a lot of phone work, emails and rejection. And you just slowly but surely get in with these bookers and clubs. My first year I made $9,000. That’s definitely gone up. Every year has gotten better. That’s due in large part because with every passing year I’ve picked up two new clubs, or got in with another booker. Now, I’m at the point where I’m in with the 3 or 4 major booking agencies. So the work comes a lot easier now.
2. How did you get your first road gig?
I was the house MC at a Funny Bone in Evansville, Indiana. There was a comic working 3 hours away in Farmington, Missouri, it was a restaurant called Spokes Bar and Grill. He asked me to open for him. I remember it like it was yesterday. That was my first road gig. I had to do 30 minutes I didn’t have close to 30 minutes. I had 20 minutes. I ended up stretching and doing 25 to 30 minutes. I wish I could see a video of it because I’m sure it’s shit. But I was able to do it, and I got $100. That was the first time I drove somewhere and got paid to tell jokes.
When I first started, I was desperate to be a comedian. I would take work anywhere. I remember I took a gig in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was a 12 hour drive. The gig paid $150. I knew I was going to lose money, but it was all about the experience. The experience of getting used to the road, going somewhere new, getting paid and learning how to be funny.
That’s one advantage New York comics have. You guys can go to a club and get on stage 3-5 times a night or more. And that sounds like a lot of fun. As a road comic, we can do open mics in our home club, but beyond that any experience we get has to be on the road.
That said, being on the road, I learned how to do 30 minutes. I learned what it takes to do an hour, and I learned pacing and timing and crowd work, everything that’s involved in being a comic. That definitely helps. Doing those short 7 to 15 minute sets like in NYC, it would be cool to start the night with 5 minutes of new material and by the end of the night have it half polished.
Jerry Seinfeld talks about that in Comedian. He develops his new act in NYC. Then he says, “now it’s time to get out on the road, tighten it up and learn what will be funny on a much broader level.” If you do the road right, that’s what happens. You develop an act that is funny to everybody, no matter where you are. The same jokes I told in NYC, I will tell in Sioux Falls, SD and Macalister, Oklahoma. You learn what’s really funny to everybody.
Some Chicago comics have mentioned that road comics have a stereotype of having really hacky material because they’re working for drunks and end up having material fit for drunks. And there is some of that, and if you’re not careful you’ll fall into that, but if you do it right and you constantly try to be original and find material that will work, the road is very beneficial.
Then again, any comedian that does one thing too much, whether it’s colleges or corporate events or strictly bar shows on the road, doing only one thing makes your act get weaker in other venues. If you work thirty colleges a month, and do nothing but colleges, then your act will become very college friendly and a lot less club friendly, I think. I knew a guy who used to be an excellent club comic, then he started doing corporate comedy, now there’s certain clubs that won’t hire the guy because he’s become so crisp and corporate clean. There’s no sharpness or edginess anymore. Working in NYC could be the same way. If you do too much New York work, you might develop an act that works in New York City: you might have seven minutes of riding the subway which would kill in NYC but not in Indianapolis. People in North Dakota wouldn’t give two dog shits about the New York Subway experience. Once you get out on the road, you have to find something else to talk about.
3. Does road work progress slowly where you have 10 weeks the first year, 20 the next until you’re up to full time, or what’s the process?
Yes. It’s slow. Ideally you get in with a booker and they throw you some road work. Then you get in with other bookers. The best case scenario would be to hook up with a big name comic that can take you on the road. And work at the best clubs, The Improv’s and the Funny Bones. For most guys though, it’s a slow process. The first year I had 15-20 weeks of work. That’s light. But with every passing year, the clubs increase and the work increases, hopefully.
4. What do you like about the road? What do you dislike?
I like traveling, I’ve been in forty states. I’ve got to see a lot of this country. I like meeting all kinds of other comics from all over the country. I like being able to tell jokes to an audience one night in one town and the next night I’m in a different town entertaining those people. No show is ever the same. Now that I’m headlining more I like that I can try out more new material and stretch my legs a little more and find myself. Especially with the smaller venues, the road is a great place to work out your material and work out what’s funny.
As much as I like the travel, I dislike it too. Take this weekend for instance, I left home yesterday after I’d only been home for one day. I got home Tuesday night, was home all Wednesday then I left Thursday. I drove 7 hours to the University of Iowa and did my show there. Then I got up at 5am this morning for a ten hour drive to my next gig tonight, a corporate event at a military base. Then early tomorrow morning, I drive 7 hours early to Omaha. After that, I’ll be driving 10 hours home. I’m logging 35 to 40 hours in the car in a period of 72 hours.
This weekend is a little extreme though. A lot of times, these clubs are weeklong events. I may drive 6 hours to get to a club, but once I’m there, I’m there. I don’t have to drive. But there are a lot of times when you’re doing a lot of driving. You might be going to a different venue every night. Now that I can pick my schedule a little more, I try to keep my drives between 5 and 7 hours, but you have to go to where the work is. If I get offered a headlining week in Minnesota, I gotta take it.
Another advantage of the road is that I’m cutting my teeth and nobody knows who I am. The next time I go to NYC, or when it’s time to get my chance in front of someone important, I’ll be ready. I know Jeff Foxworthy headlined the road for 12 years before ever going to LA. Then he moved to LA, by then he hit the ground running.
5. In my interview with Judy Carter, she mentioned getting sick of the “Comedy Roach Condos”. What are they?
Some clubs you do put you up in hotels, others put you up in apartments and some put you up in a condo. A condo is usually a house with 2 or 3 bedrooms where you stay with the other comics for the week. The nicer clubs keep their condos nice and the comics keep them nice. But there are some places where they’re not kept nice, they’re very dirty. I don’t know a comic who looks forward to having a condo.
I stayed in a condo somewhere in Arizona and it was so dirty, it looked like they had changed the motor oil on the condo floor. I was afraid to walk barefoot through there. I would always wear shoes. It was a horrible, horrible place. I’ve stayed in one condo in Colorado where I had to share a room with the MC. That’s okay, but the MC was a female comic from LA. That was just a weird situation because we had to be roommates all week long. We were sleeping in a room that looked like Dick Van Dyke’s bedroom: there were 2 beds with a lamp shade in between. I’m sure it was weird for her, it was definitely weird for me. So I could totally see where a woman would get tired of the condos real fast.
Although there are some clubs that keep the condos real nice. For example, in Nashville, TN last summer, this condo was two floors, two bedrooms, each bedroom had its own bathroom, hardwood floors, wireless internet and a private deck. It was much nicer than my house. If you have to stay in a condo…that’s the way to do it.
6. Where is it harder to get in for road work: colleges or with clubs?
For me it’s been colleges because I’m trying to go through NACA, the college booking agency. I’m trying to go through NACA just like 3,000 other comics and musical acts. The competition is fierce and it’s hard to get face time. So That’s been the hardest.
Some of the bookers, like The Funny Business Agency and Heffron Talent, when I first hit the road I was half way in with them. Then it took 2-4 years before I really established myself. Now I’m in and I get work.
The key to getting in with bookers and clubs is to have a headliner reference. If you can get that and have a decent video clip, it might be easier. When I started out, I didn’t know any headliners. I was just some kid trying to be a comedian. It takes a little bit more of a time investment when you do it that way.
7. Anything else comics should know about the road?
I’ve had several New York guys express how boring it would be to be out on the road and not have anything to do all day in a hotel. It can be boring, it doesn’t have to be. No matter what town you go to, there’s always stuff to do. You might have to look for it, but there’s always stuff to do. Unlike NYC, if you go on the road and work a town you’re the star. Tonight in Macalister, Oklahoma, I’m the man. People are coming to see me. It’s going to be a long time before that would ever happen in NYC. It’s a good feeling. It gives you a certain confidence on stage. I would encourage NYC comedians to start working on their road connections and start getting out on the road as much as they can to learn how to be funny for 30+ minutes and to get the life experience.
I worked with a New York City comic who has every TV credit a guy can have, HBO, Comedy Central, 2 national TV commercials. He’s done it all. And the questions he was asking me about the road were questions that a beginner would ask. He didn’t have any idea about bookers and how all of that worked. That really surprised me. I’ve noticed since then, a lot of guys are like that. It’s one of those things where living in The City, the comedy is always right there. It’s not a necessity to find other places to work.
Here’s another example: On Monday, I stayed with a comic in Astoria, Queens. There is a comedy booker named Linda Rohe who runs Coastal Entertainment. She books clubs in Pennsylvania, New York, and San Antonio, Texas. She literally lived two blocks away from my friend in Queens, and he’d never heard of her. And she’s the type of booker, if you do live out in New York, you can walk in her office and introduce yourself. And plant the seed. It might be 6-12 months down the road, but then she’d be able to throw you work in PA or even San Antonio if you could do it.
For you New York guys, just go to Google and type in “comedy bookers”. Off the top of my head I can name five: Funny Business agency, Heffron Talent, Summit Comedy, Hysterical Management and Linda Rohe, because she books in your area. Between those five, they could get you 20-30 weeks of work a year.
Keith Alberstadt is a good guy to talk to. He’s a former road comic from Nashville. I was doing the open mic at the Nashville Zanies when I was 21 and I met Keith down there. He’s was a hard working road comic. Then he moved to NYC and has been on Letterman and gotten some writing credits. He’s really thrived in NYC, and a lot of that is really because of his road training. He knew how to be a comedian well before a lot of guys who’d been in New York.
And when he got to NYC, he was instantly getting road work in PA. On Friday and Saturday he’d drive 2 hours away and make $600. Take that list of bookers and start investing your time. Think of it as planting seeds for the future. You might not get any work in the next 6 months, but if you get it in a year that’s great and then in 3 years you might be their main comedian.
There’s also some great websites, I don’t know if you have websites where NYC comics go, but there’s a site, RoadComics.com. RoadComics.com is a forum created by a former comic, I’d recommend everybody get on that site. It’s basically a lot of road comics posting on there and it’s a wealth of comedy information. Anything you want to know about being a comic, I guarantee someone has already asked the question on that forum. That’s the perfect site. You don’t have to talk to anybody, but there’s been tons of questions asked about comedy, clubs and bookers. Anything you want to find is on there.
There’s also ComedySoapBox.com where you sign up there and you get to see every club in America and who books it.