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


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


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.

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