Producing Your Own Show: The Comics

I’m not an expert at producing shows, but I’ve put together four of my own and have helped out with a bunch of other shows. Producing a show is one of the best ways to get stage time before you’re “passed” at a club or booking consistent road work. When you produce your own show you need to be able to manage four equally important parts: the venue, the comics, the attendance and the actual show. This post focuses on the comics.

Congratulations! You’ve arranged for a venue. But unless you’re Bill Cosby, you can’t have a (good) show without other comedians. Even the most famous comics (besides Cosby) work with a feature and MC. Questions to consider when booking comics:

What criteria should you use?

Selecting comedians can be very difficult and highly politicized. Some key criteria to consider:

  • Do they have TV credits? Right or wrong, TV credits usually add legitimacy to a show and make it easier to convince the audience to show up.
  • Are they funny? This is pretty important but sometimes overlooked or purposefully ignored. Hopefully all your performers are hysterical but sometimes the other criteria in this list may override the “funny” factor.
  • Are they your friend? If you’re friends with someone, you might need or want to put them on the show instead of someone who’s funnier but who you don’t know.
  • Do they run their own show (or have a lot of connections)? The best way to get onto another show is to give that producer stage time at your show. This doesn’t mean they’ll put you on their show, but it certainly increases the chances.
  • Can you afford them? The same comic has different rates depending on the night and the show. Some will work for free. Other comics will do free spots on weeknights but not on Fridays and Saturdays. “Big names” can cost thousands of dollars per appearance but appear for free if your proceeds are going to a charity. Figure out how much money you can spend on comics before asking them to be on your show.

I recommend that you can answer “yes” to at least two of the first four questions for each comic you put on your show. And never hire a comedian you can’t afford.

What kind of show will this be?

The three most popular types of comedy shows are stand up, improv and sketch. When a show combines two or more of these, it’s called a “variety show.” Do you only want to have it be a stand up show? Will you have an improv or sketch group in the middle of the show? What about a musical act. There’s no right or wrong answer here, but you have to make a decision.

How many comics or acts do you want on your show?

Do you want to have a standard “MC – Feature – Headliner” show? Do you want to have 5 or 6 comics doing 12-15 minutes each, or do you want to do comedy American Idol tryout style where everyone gets 5 or 6 minutes? I find it’s usually best to have 5-6 comics on your show. This is based on my experience in NYC and LA where there are thousands of great comics and very little stage time. Even pros with TV credit end up doing 6 to 8 minute spots so they appreciate longer sets. This also lets you select more comics which ups the odds the audience will have a good time if one doesn’t do too well. Also having more comics leads to you establishing or maintaining more relationships. Most of the bookings you get will be through other comedians, and they’re more likely to help you if you’ve already helped them. (Just don’t expect them to help you, I’ve found that more often than not, spots are not reciprocated, but that may just be me.)

Who will be the host?

Everyone wants to be the headliner, but the MC can make or break the show. If you’re trying to turn this into a weekly or a monthly show, you should host at least the first two or three times to give the show consistency. Also, the first few times you’re asked to perform in a new comedy club, you’ll most likely be the MC. You might as well build this skill before you need to use it, even if it means sacrificing being “the headliner”.

How many minutes will your show run?

I find that once a show hits the 100 minute mark (1 hour, 40 minutes) audiences start to get impatient and bored. Even if every performer is hysterical, there is only so much comedy one can watch before needing a break. You also don’t want to make the show too short: the audience may feel they “didn’t get their money’s worth” and the wait staff might not have enough time to sell the prescribed amount of drinks.

Are the comics you want available on the date of your show?

You’ve figured out who you want on the show, what you’re paying them and how much time they’re doing, but the comic might already be booked! Do you have an alternate plan, or are you going to change the date just to accommodate one comedian? Most comics that work at comedy clubs set up their gigs (“give their avails”) right before the start of a week or of a month. I recommend giving comics at least two weeks notice if you’re going to book them. Four to five weeks is much better.

Up next: How to draw a crowd

Wanna try stand-up comedy yourself? I teach a Comedy Class in New York City. I also do private one-on-one comedy coaching (in-person or via Zoom).

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