Pro Talk: Becoming a Full Time Comedian

I recently caught up with Clayton Fletcher to get his thoughts on the process of becoming a professional comedian.

claytonClayton Fletcher is a national headliner who performs all over the USA in various clubs and colleges. He has been seen on MTV, Sex & the City, and Rikki Lake. His live comedy show, The Clayton Fletcher Show, takes place every Friday and Saturday at 8PM at New York Comedy Club. For more, visit www.claytonfletcher.com

1. Can you discuss the transition to professional comedian? Is it a gradual process where you make more money each year until you can start doing it full time or is it more like a “zero to sixty” process?

Becoming a professional comedian is definitely a gradual process. I remember the first time I got paid I made $50 for a twenty-minute set in a restaurant. I only had twelve minutes of material so I tried doing crowd work for theother eight. It was the second-hardest fifty bucks I ever earned.

After that restaurant show I didn’t make another dime from comedy for about a year. But that little taste of getting paid drove me to work harder almost as much as bombing at my first professional show did. It doesn’t happen overnight but it does happen.

2. I’ve heard that most of the money is in road work / college work and not from working the clubs in NYC or LA. Is this true? How big is the difference?

Oh, definitely. If you are not a superstar comedian like Chris Rock or Lewis Black the payscale is much lower in the two major markets. The reason is quite simple: the law of supply and demand. If someone offers me $100 for a spot in New York and I demand $125 they can just hang up the phone and call one of the other six million comics and offer him or her the hundred. In Flint, Michigan, I am usually the only comedian in town when I show up so it is easier for me to set the price. Supply in New York is at such a surplus that if half the comics moved to L.A. today, the competition for every spot would still be fierce.

Although if that happened I would not mind at all…

3. Besides performing, what are the various (but related) ways a comedian can try to make money? Are these other streams significant?

The first other significant revenue stream that comes to mind is writing. I have written for film and television, usually as a “punch-up” artist. Punch-up just means that the script is complete except it could be funnier, so they hire comedians and comedy writers to try to add some more funny moments, to punch it up! Typically comics who do punch-up do not get writing credit but the money is often about what you would make on a weekend of performing.

I have also written for corporate projects such as award ceremonies, ad campaigns, and in-house films. Obviously the rates for anything in the corporate world are always higher since a company that is hiring a comedian as a consultant can afford to compensate him. When these opportunities come up, I am happy to be a sellout!

Other ways to parlay your comedy skills include doing commercials or voice-overs, working as a live event host, and teaching. I find that my comedy background gives me a huge edge in all of these endeavors as well. So often on a commercial audition they want me to improvise, and the comedy skills really come into play although stand-up in particular does not.

The other side-business I must mention is producing. There are countless opportunities in New York for self-driven comedians to take responsibility for booking a club on a certain night and then putting a show together. It is a tremendous amount of work (finding comedians, promoting, filling seats, finding a host, negotiating with headliners) but someone skilled in these areas can make a good living doing just that if (s)he wants to. In fact, many comics I started with nine years ago are now full-time comedy producers in New York who hardly ever get onstage themselves. Personally, my need to entertain people is so great that this path would never work for me. I would be like the alcoholic who owns a bar. But for them it has become a niche so I am happy they found their path.

4. At what point do you think someone should quit their day job?

Moving to full-time is a very difficult choice. For most it is terrifying. Once you quit that job, you lose your steady income, your health insurance, and the respect of your parents. I have never had a full-time job so I have no idea what it is like to have any of those things anyway. But if a comic is hungry and her act (not to mention her budget) shows that she is ready to take the training wheels off, I usually advise her to go for it! If things do not go according to plan then she can always hit up monster.com later. A good guideline is to walk away from the desk once you are making (or think you can make) at least 50% more from comedy than you were at your regular job. If this sounds high, remember that being self-employed is very expensive as no human resources department will show up to take care of your basic needs.

5. I read Norm McDonald earns $40,000 to headline a weekend in Vegas. (He then proceeds to gamble away $50,000.) What’s the highest headliner fee you’ve heard about?

I have heard that one A-list celebrity comic earns over $200,000 per corporate personal appearance. Although in these times of corporate scrutiny I would imagine those days are over.

6. I’ve also seen a “headliner” get $60 to do a 45 minute set (in Virginia). What’s the lowest fee you’ve heard? Is there a “standard” rate?

That $60 you just mentioned is an insultingly low price for a road headliner. Hey, who books that gig? Can I get his information? What, I like Virginia…

There is no standard rate but generally comics have a bottom line. Kidding aside, I know how much I would charge to do 45 in the South and every comic has his own number in mind. But it is almost like the number of girls you slept with: you keep it a secret and you might embellish one way or the other depending on who you’re talking to!

7. Anything else about the financial aspects of comedy you think aspiring comedians should know?

Well, I come from a theatrical background and a show business family so my attitude was always if I do what I love, the money will come. Now that I am in my thirties I can tell you that such romantic idealism is for suckers! The money only comes when you work extremely hard at your craft AND your business. I made a lot of mistakes in the financial area when I started out, viewing myself as an ar-teest. But now I see myself as a performer AND a shrewd businessman. And that is the reality for anyone trying to make a living as a comedian.

Other Comedy Tips:

  • 10 Steps to Become a Great MC
  • 3 Tips To Planning A Successful Comedy Show
  • Are Any Topics Off Limits?
  • Barking Tips
  • Clayton Fletcher: Auditioning Q&A
  • Clayton’s 7 Tips
  • Clayton: When To Become A Full Time Comedian
  • Comedy Economics
  • Dealing With Hecklers
  • Eleven Observations About The Comedy Business
  • Five Basic Improv Techniques
  • Five Tips For Your Comedy Event To Run Smoothly
  • Free Comedy Content Economics
  • Hi-Tech Comedy Interviews
  • How To Make Money In Comedy
  • How To Put Together A Great College Comedy Show
  • How To Record Your Own Comedy Album
  • How To Self Publish A Book Through Kickstarter
  • Interview with John Vorhaus
  • Intro to Improv
  • My Comedy Mindset
  • My Writing Process
  • Not Connecting With The Audience?
  • Organizing Jokes
  • Overcoming Stage Fright
  • Producing a Show: Getting Audience
  • Producing a Show: Running The Show
  • Producing a Show: The Comics
  • Producing a Show: The Venue
  • Road Work Tips from Danny Browning
  • Stealing Jokes – Ben's Thoughts
  • Ten Tips To Succeed During a Check Spot
  • The 8 Different Types of Comedy Audiences
  • The Pecking Order
  • Treat It Like a Job
  • Types of Shows for Beginners
  • Types of Spots
  • What To Do When Nobody Laughs
  • Why I Won’t Be a Pro Snowboarder
  • Your First Stand Up Performance
  • 10 Strategies To Succeed In Corporate America Without Really Trying

    I’ve spent the past 3 years working for a Fortune 500 Consulting firm. During this time I’ve observed not only my company’s corporate culture, but also that of three other fortune 500 corporations and one US Government agency each of which I consulted for. I was rated in the top 30% at my level the first year, and the top 5% my second year. (I left before third year ratings were announced due to grad school.)

    These are the lessons I’ve learned along the way, and while you can probably apply this to other aspects of your life, it’s especially true in Corporate America.

    1. Get your shit done (but avoid busy work)

    • The rest of these tips are useless if you don’t accomplish what’s asked of you.

    2.  They’ll take as much as you’re willing to give them. Know when to say “no”. (Especially if it’s busy work)

    • If you always say yes to every request (work late every night, weekends, etc.) your boss will appreciate it, but they won’t respect you. Think about that girl/guy you dated who you could walk all over. You lost respect for them eventually and dumped em, same logic applies here.
    • At least 60% of your daily tasks should add value. Running an occasional photocopy is one thing, becoming someone’s personal photocopier is another. If it’ something stupid that you have to consistently do, figure out how to automate it or get out of doing it.

    3. Under promise, over deliver

    • The more complex something is, the easier it is to overestimate it and then impress everyone. If you say something should take you 20 hours and you finish in 12, that’ll be more impressive then if you say something should take you 11 hours and you finish in 12. Make sure you’re not just slow. Don’t make it less then 50% of your estimate, or else you lose credibility.

    4. Manage Expectations

    • Example: If you start answering emails within 5 minutes, you’ll never be able to take a lunch hour. If you answer within 30 or 45 minutes (which is usually reasonable), you’ll have more leeway

    5. Don’t confuse responding to emails with getting work done

    • There will always be a fire, but don’t confuse the fires for the long term goals.

    6. Take your hour lunch

    • It doesn’t matter how much work you do if nobody knows about it. And chances are, even if you’re done with everything, at most places you can’t leave until a set hour. You might as well take a break, enjoy lunch and build relationships with people who may be able to help you in a pinch.

    7. Know when your personality is an asset, and when it’s a liability

    • When you’re working with people, talk about things other than work some of the time.Just don’t do it at the wrong time.

    8.  Don’t be so busy doing work you forget to socialize

    • But don’t try to be super friendly with everyone, that’s fake and everyone will resent you for it. A realistic breakdown of work friends to acquaintances to people you should avoid is somewhere around 20% : 60% : 20%. If you haven’t figured out who to avoid, chances are it’s you.

    9. Go out for drinks with your boss once a month

    • You don’t wanna be too buddy-buddy (there may be some exceptions) but you want your boss to know you’re an actual person and not some automaton that sits in front of a computer all day

    10. Have an “in” with people at other departments, so you can learn things before they’re announced to the masses

    • You’re in a knowledge worker job, information is key, make sure you have unofficial sources to get a heads up when you need it

    3 Bonus Strategies:

    1.  Use power laws to your advantage

    • The 80/20 rule really applies to the workplace. 80% of your success comes from 20% of your effort. Identify that 20% and focus there.

     

    2. Promote yourself without being obnoxious about it

    • This takes some time to figure out but you don’t wanna be “that guy” who always talks about how much work you have and how hard you work. At the same time, you want to make sure people notice your work. If you’re aware of this tendency, you’ll already be on the right track.

    3. Be able to present like a normal human being and not a robot reading powerpoint slides

    • This only applies to certain jobs, but if you have to present to people, don’t read the slides. We’ll all hate you and will finish reading the slide before you’ve gotten to the second sentence

    Have additional questions on this or other topics? Click here to learn about my mentoring services.

    How Do You Use Stand Up?

    I’ve been thinking about Hugh’s comments regarding how art is used:

    To me, the interesting thing about art is not the usual “Heroic, absinthe-soaked, vision quest lone individual archetypal artist crap”, but how the art is USED by the person who has it hanging on the wall. What’s it actually there for? Decoration? Showing off? A conversation starter? An ice breaker? A way of telling a story? Something to brighten up the room? A symbol of social status? An expression of individual worldview? An expression of emotion? A totem to remind oneself of something inspirational and/or important? Perhaps a bit of all these?

    How would this viewpoint apply to stand up comedy? Do you use stand up when retelling a comic’s joke to your friend’s the next day? Do you want a take home souvenir after the show to put up on your wall to use as a conversation starter? Would you want a favorite comedian to send you a videotaped version of a joke personlized for your girlfriend’s birthday?

    Thinking about making the stand up experience last longer than the show led to trying a visual representation of one of my jokes:

    ex-on-st
    I think many of my jokes would lend themselves to a similar form, but is this something anyone wants?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you use stand up comedy… and feel free to discuss comedians not named Ben.

    So You’ve Been Laid Off: Now What?

    I’ve written a script and story boarded it below. I know it will be much funnier if I ever get to shoot it with real actors and someone who can sound like a more convincing announcer than I do.

    httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhN7O3AO-Cg

    Feedback is always appreciated.

    [scrippet]
    INT. BOSS’S OFFICE – DAY

    BOSS
    As you know we’re in a tough spot. And we’re going to have to let you go.

    BOB
    You mean I’m being laid off?

    Zoom in on BOB, shock/frown turns to smile

    CUE 1950’s music and NARRATOR

    NARRATOR is 1950’s style voice/tone or similar to the NARRATOR from those annoying male enhancement commercials (Enzyte?) with the character BOB

    NARRATOR
    So you don’t have a job anymore? Don’t worry. It’s happening to lots of people. Here’s what you do:

    INT. LIQUOR STORE – DAY

    BOB walks into a liquor store, goes to the counter and puts down a bunch of singles, he receives lottery tickets

    NARRATOR
    Step One: Don’t buy lottery tickets. You’re not gonna win, and those dollars can be better spent….

    CAMERA ZOOMS IN on a dollar bill

    INT. STRIP CLUB – NIGHT

    CAMERA is still on a dollar bill, but when it zooms out, the bill is in a woman’s G-string and BOB is giving a thumbs up to the camera

    NARRATOR
    …at the strip club

    INT. HOME OFFICE – DAY

    BOB has a resume open on his computer and is working at it, the camera is zooming from BOB and the computer to just the computer

    NARRATOR
    Step 2: Use the internet to find a new jobs: Yahoo jobs dot com, Hot jobs dot com …

    CAMERA SHOWS Computer displays with the mentioned job sites then blurry porn as

    NARRATOR
    …and handjobs dot com

    INT. BOB’S HOME – DAY

    Camera shows BOB is exhausted from all the work

    NARRATOR
    Now that you’re not throwing away money at the state lottery and your resume is online, it’s time to take a well deserved break. Go outside. Get some fresh air.

    EXT. HORSE RACETRACK – DAY

    BOB is putting down bets on the long shot horse.

    NARRATOR
    That’s not exactly what I had in mind

    EXT. COCKFIGHT YARD – NIGHT

    NARRATOR
    No, not that either.

    INT. DOOR EXIT TO OUTSIDE WITH SIGN “MONKEY KNIFE FIGHTS” – NIGHT

    Camera shows BOB on his way towards the knife fights

    NARRATOR
    Alright Bob, let’s just move along

    INT. BOB’S HOME – NIGHT

    NARRATOR
    Now that you’ve rested, it’s time to see if anyone wants to hire you yet.

    CAMERA SHOWS BOB checking email. Zooms into the computer and displays 5 or 6 subjects about a job, and a porn spam mail with blow job in the title. BOB deletes the real emails and clicks the porn, and gives a thumbs up.

    CAMERA SHOWS time going forward for six days. Tissues pile up near Bob’s “job search” machine.

    NARRATOR
    Eventually though, you need to go out and network.

    BRIEF CLIP OF STRIP CLUB

    NARRATOR
    No not there.

    INT. HOOTERS – DAY

    NARRATOR
    Getting closer, but not quite Bob

    INT. BUSINESS NETWORKING EVENT – NIGHT

    NARRATOR
    That’s more like it.

    CAMERA finds Bob in a corner, shooting dice and collecting money

    NARRATOR
    With persistence and a little bit of luck, you’ll have a new job in no time.

    INT. OFFICE – DAY

    Camera starts zoomed in on BOB as he types on a computer, but you cannot see the text. BOB is smiling.

    NARRATOR
    It may even be better than your old one.

    Camera zooms out to show BOB as a bookie taking bets, camera ends with BOB giving a big smile and thumbs up to the camera.
    [/scrippet]

    The Comedy Business: The Pecking Order On The Comedy Ladder

    Like most professions, stand up comedy has a ladder that everyone wants to climb. I’ve listed out all the ladder steps as I currently understand them, starting from the lowest and going to the highest.

    This ladder is most applicable for NYC and LA (and maybe Chicago / Boston) where there are lots of comedians and lots of comedy clubs. When you’re headlining or getting constant 15-30 minute spots in your local comedy club, it’s time to move to NY or LA, or go on the road, if you’re serious about a full time career anyway.

    Some of these steps are lateral, but there are clear levels of separation along the way.

    Level 1: You’re a Nobody

    Open Mics / Bringers / Barkers

    Level 2: Passed at a local club

    This means you get real audiences to listen to you multiple times a week without having to stand out in the cold advertising for the show, paying money for stage time or bringing friends. 

    2.1 Check Spot

    2.2 Emceeing

    2.3 Opening

    2.4 Middle

    2.5 Headlining

    Level 2B: You Get Passed at a better local club

    (This then follows the same five levels I listed out in Level 2.)

    Level 3: Getting paid to perform all around town or the state

    Level 4: Getting paid and getting gigs around town so often that you don’t need another job

    Level 4 often occurs in conjunction with:

    Level 5: Getting paid to go on a regional tour

    and

    Level 6: Getting paid to go on a national tour

    You eventually want to work your way up to

    Level 7: Headlining a regional tour

    and

    Level 8: Headlining a national tour

    It’s debatable whether it’s better to be headlining a national tour (where you fly into a different city almost every weekend) or to be a consistent headliner in the best clubs in NYC or LA. Basically, levels 4, 7 and 8 can all be occurring at the same time. I’d call that combination level 9.

    If you’re able to consistently headline on national tours and in the best NYC and LA clubs (I won’t name names) then your next step is to get on TV or in Movies. (Although, if you’re headlining at the major clubs, chances are you’ve already been on TV and in Movies multiple times.)

    As far as stand up comedy on TV goes, here is how I would rank the desirability, from lowest to highest (for American TV at least).

    1) 5 to 7 minute segment on a Comedy Central stand up show like Premium Blend or Live at Gotham.

    2) Stand Up Spot on the 12:30am late night shows (Conan, Jimmy, etc)

    3) Stand Up Spot on the 11:30pm shows (Leno or Letterman)

    4) Your own Comedy Central 30 minute special

    5) HBO Special

     

    I’m sure I missed some levels and not everyone agrees with my rankings, I’d love to get a good discussion going on this.

    Have additional questions on this or other topics? Click here to learn about my mentoring services.

    Other Comedy Tips:

  • 10 Steps to Become a Great MC
  • 3 Tips To Planning A Successful Comedy Show
  • Are Any Topics Off Limits?
  • Barking Tips
  • Clayton Fletcher: Auditioning Q&A
  • Clayton’s 7 Tips
  • Clayton: When To Become A Full Time Comedian
  • Comedy Economics
  • Dealing With Hecklers
  • Eleven Observations About The Comedy Business
  • Five Basic Improv Techniques
  • Five Tips For Your Comedy Event To Run Smoothly
  • Free Comedy Content Economics
  • Hi-Tech Comedy Interviews
  • How To Make Money In Comedy
  • How To Put Together A Great College Comedy Show
  • How To Record Your Own Comedy Album
  • How To Self Publish A Book Through Kickstarter
  • Interview with John Vorhaus
  • Intro to Improv
  • My Comedy Mindset
  • My Writing Process
  • Not Connecting With The Audience?
  • Organizing Jokes
  • Overcoming Stage Fright
  • Producing a Show: Getting Audience
  • Producing a Show: Running The Show
  • Producing a Show: The Comics
  • Producing a Show: The Venue
  • Road Work Tips from Danny Browning
  • Stealing Jokes – Ben's Thoughts
  • Ten Tips To Succeed During a Check Spot
  • The 8 Different Types of Comedy Audiences
  • The Pecking Order
  • Treat It Like a Job
  • Types of Shows for Beginners
  • Types of Spots
  • What To Do When Nobody Laughs
  • Why I Won’t Be a Pro Snowboarder
  • Your First Stand Up Performance