The Comedy Business: Types of Spots

This is a continuing series of posts about the business and production side of stand up comedy that most people don’t know about. Click here to view part one which explains the different types of shows.

The Stand Up Format:

Every stand up show has multiple performers. Even the stand up heavyweights that play in 20,000 seat stadiums like Dane Cook (love him or hate him, he plays huge venues) have at least one comedian perform before them to warm up the crowd.

For well known acts, the format of the evening is usually: Opener, Middle and Headliner, with the emcee coming on in between comics. For clubs that showcase new talent, there can be anywhere from 7 to 25 comedians performing in a given show so the format would be more like: Opener, Middle, Middle, Middle …. Middle, “Headliner”.

The types of spots:

Emcee: Your host for the night, he (or she) usually does some crowd work at the beginning, introduces every comic, and keeps the show running on schedule by giving every comic the one minute warning light. (Comics are told in advance how much time they will be given on stage and it falls on the emcee to remind them when time is running out.) The emcee is not expected to tell many of their jokes, but if a comic “bombs” (gets very few or no laughs) then the emcee is also expected to tell a solid joke or two to win the audience back over before the next comic gets up on stage.

Opener: The first comic that the emcee introduces. He is the opener and usually has the shortest amount of time. His job is the warm up the crowd and get them laughing, so that they are ready to be rolling on the floor for the later acts. It’s interesting to note that even with the same material, a comic will get more laughs later in the show. At the start of the show, the audience is not warmed up and is less receptive.

Middle: Can be one or more comics that go between the opener and the headliner. Some (bringer) shows don’t have a headliner, so everyone is a middle comic except for the opener and the:

Check Spot: Considered the worst spot to get. This is usually right before the headliner goes up and is when all the tables in the crowd are given their check. This is the worst spot because most people momentarily stop paying attention to the show and examine the bill, get out their wallet, and figure out who owes how much. Some talking usually occurs. And since not everyone is able to receives their check at the same time, constant talking is heard throughout the check spot. This spot can also be part of an emcee’s job.

Headliner: The last person to go. Usually, producers “save the best for last”. At major comedy clubs and stadiums, this person’s name is usually the reason you decided to come. Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock are two examples of headliners. By this point, the crowd is nice and liquored up, and is usually familiar with the comic coming up next, so they are expecting hilarity. During open mics, the last comic to go up is also called the headliner but in a derisive /sarcastic context.

How The Lineup is Determined

“The Lineup” (which comic gets which spot) is determined by the producer of the show. A producer can be an individual renting out a performance space, or the comedy club itself (usually represented by a manager). The lineup can be created days or weeks before the show (in the case of well known comics) or it can be created during the show, where a comic is given a 2 minute notice that they are up next.

The producer’s relationship or contract with each comic, how many people came to see a certain comic that night (if it’s a bringer) and the comic’s name recognition / the comic’s level on the comedy ladder (a post about this topic is forthcoming) all help to determine the line up.

Paid vs Free Performances and Guest Spots

The same factors that determine where in the lineup a comic is performing also help to determine whether the comic is getting paid, being given a guest spot, or has to do something in return for stage time (bark or bring friends).

A guest spot is a “present” to the comedian performing. A comedian can be given a guest spot for a number of reasons including: being friends with the producer, doing something helpful for a producer previously (like bringing a lot of people) or because the comedian being given a guest spot also produces a different show and the has “traded spots” with this show’s producer (most producers are also stand up comedians).

Once you are able to make a crowd laugh consistently, you need constant stage time to keep improving your craft. Producing your own show and trading guest spots with other comics is one of the best ways to gain extra stage time, exposure to other audiences and to network with other comedians.

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

Other Comedy Tips:

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The Comedy Business: Types of Shows for Beginners

People are always curious how a comedian gets onto any given show, especially a newer comedian. The three main types of ways for getting on stage as a new comedian are:

Bringer shows

What is it: Each comedian has to bring X number of people (between 2 and 15 at most places) who are willing to pay a cover charge, order at least 2 drinks and listen to a lot of different comedians, a good amount of whom are not that funny. There are usually a couple of professionals in this kind of show to ensure that the audience gets at least some laughs.

Pros: You get a real live audience, and since part of the audience knows you, they’re more likely to laugh at your jokes, which may help the people who don’t know you to start laughing as well, that whole laughter is contagious thing.

Cons: You run out of people to invite to shows really quick, the audience can be too supportive to the point that you don’t learn what’s truly funny, and you end up stressing about all your people showing up instead of concentrating on your act.

Barking for a Spot

What is it: You stand outside of the club, usually on a busy foot traffic corner, trying to stop people, hand out fliers and convince them to come watch stand up. You usually stand outside or “bark” for 1-3 hours in exchange for 5-10 minutes of stage time.

Pros: You don’t have to stress about bringing people, most clubs will pay a couple of bucks for each person you successfully convince to come to the show, the audience doesn’t know you so the laughter is genuine, and you learn cold calling skills, which can be useful at winning over a tough crowd (and lots of other situations).

Cons: You have to stand outside for 2-3 hours, you get rejected 99% of the time (although learning not to take rejection personally is good), and if the club has more than one show that night, you’re outside the entire time except for when you perform, so you can’t learn from / listen to other comedians.

Open Mic: 

What is it: You pay $5 for five minutes of stage time. Some places say you just need to buy a drink instead, and most cities outside of New York / LA / Chicago don’t charge you money to get on stage. Actual stage time ranges from 3 minutes to 8 minutes depending on club.)

Pros: Anyone can get stage time and if you plan it out, you can do 2-3 mics a night (in NYC at least).

Cons: Anyone can get stage time. You know those guys that weren’t funny at the bringer show? Well they’re better than many of the people at the open mics (this varies from city to city though). Also, in NYC the only people that come to watch open mics are other comedians, who are not very helpful when you’re trying to learn what a real audience will find funny.

Stay tuned for my next post about this which will cover: Guest spots, Self Produced Shows, Paid Spots and different spots during the show (Opener, Check Spot, Emcee, Headliner, etc).

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

Other Comedy Tips:

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Comedy Economics

After paying all the comedians, I wound up earning $30 for doing about 15 minutes of stand up. There’s two interesting calculations you could do:

1) $30 for 15 minutes means I’m making $120 an hour. If I were to work a standard 40 hour work week for 50 weeks, that’d be $120 * 2000, or $240,000 a year. Pretty good. Even if I only work an hour per night, which is much more feasible, that’s $3,600 a month ($120 * 30) or $43,200 a year. Still livable.

2) After factoring in train costs ($18), I’m down to $12 profit. I left my house at 4PM to get to the show and didn’t get back home until 1am. Putting the flyer together took me 2 hours and booking all the comics took another hour. That’s 9 hours yesterday and 12 hours in the past two weeks. Factor in the time it took me to write and practice the jokes this past week alone, and that’s 12 more hours. That’s a total of 24 hours of my time, which works out to 50 cents an hour, or $1,000 a year if I’m doing this full time. If it’s the more reasonable one hour per night calculation, I’m gonna be earning $180 a year.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not complaining at all. I love comedy, being on stage and making people laugh. I just find it interesting to analyze the business side of comedy. If it were about the money I’d be spending my free time doing investment banki… umm… something more profitable.

One quick comedy example: Norm McDonalad earns $40,000 a night in Vegas, which sounds astronomical ($12 million a year if he works 300 nights). But if his analysis time breakdown is anything like mine, what Norm gets isn’t as good as it sounds. (I recommend that article.)

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

Other Comedy Tips:

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