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.

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