Many people think a comedian only gets paid to perform live comedy into a microphone in front of an audience. But did you know that there’s at least 20 other ways comedians make income?
Until you have the name recognition of Bill Burr or Louis CK, making money in comedy, particularly stand up comedy, can be quite the up and down adventure. For most comedians I know, the key to staying afloat and not needing a day job is multiple income streams.
Here’s all the ways I make money as a professional comedian:
- Performing stand up at live shows including:
- College shows – this is my favorite. The audience is usually smart and sober.
- Hosting aka “MCing” (pays well in NYC showcase clubs, poorly everywhere else) – this involves more crowd interaction and being organized enough to keep track of everyone else’s names, credits and how much time they’re doing
- Regular showcase spots – low pay, but you can do 3-5 shows a night, great for working out new material for 5 to 25 minutes at a time
- Featuring and/or headlining clubs and bars outside of NYC – you do 30 to 45 minutes, and spend lots of time seeing the country, or country’s highways at least.
- Performing stand up on a TV show, Netflix or Seeso – this can range from a few hundred dollars for less popular programs to thousands of dollars for more well known brands.
- Writing punch up for tech speakers – I’m part of a new service funnybizz.co which helps people infuse humor into their Ted Talks and other keynote speeches
- One-on-one writing help for newer comedians – I work with some comedians to help them with their material
- Book sales – A couple of years ago, I put out a book, Russian Optimism: Dark Nursery Rhymes To Cheer You Right Up. It’s been an Amazon Top 20 Best Seller in Dark Humor Books. I sell it online and after shows.
- Album sales (via iTunes, spotify, etc) – I have recorded and put out two comedy albums. Anytime someone buys it on iTunes or Amazon, or streams it on Spotify or some of the other services, I get paid.
- Album royalties (XM radio plays via SoundExchange) – my second album is getting played on Sirius XM radio, and I get royalties from that.
- Radio and voice acting – I do a bunch of voice over work.
- Commercial and legit acting – I spend more time auditioning than getting paid to act, but this is one of those lottery parts of comedy, you get one right role and everything else falls into place.
- Video editing – Over the years I’ve taught myself video editing and now other performers pay me to help them.
- Directing – I taught myself how to direct (and be director of photography, and do the lighting, and the sound) and now others pay me to run their web series and short films.
- Video filming – I’m good at technology and sometimes film live comedy shows for other performers.
Here’s other ways that comedians I know make money (in addition to all the ways I listed above):
- Teaching comedy classes
- Producing their own live comedy shows (or open mics) and charging a cover
- Being a staff writer for a TV show that someone else created (a sitcom like Big Bang Theory or a late night show like Seth Meyers)
- Being a talking head on a TV show (like TruTV’s World’s Dumbest, MTV Guy Code or VH1’s Best of The 90s)
- Being a punch up writer on a movie set – the movie is written by someone else, but you’re constantly pitching funnier lines during filming
- Hosting a podcast or web series with a large enough following to sell advertisements – Marc Maron is the best example of this but there’s plenty of funny YouTube stars that make a living like this too
- Having a development deal at a network or studio – this is basically an exclusive one year deal where you get paid money to come up with an idea for the network or studio
- Selling t-shirts, audio CDs and other merchandise after the show – I’ve been told t-shirts sell better than books
- Creating and selling your own TV show or movie – this is different than writing for someone else’s project, as you create the idea yourself. You can also get paid to write it in advance (or write it for free and then try to sell it) and it might still never get made, or only get made as a pilot and never aired, but you will have still made income from this. It’s also different from acting, because you may not be in the show (think Larry David at Seinfeld).
Conclusion: There’s more than one way to make rent, it’s about staying flexible, finding your niche, always improving, always creating and always hustling.