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

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

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Producing Your Own Show: The Venue

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 venue.

The venue is the first step. If you don’t have a venue, a date and a time, you can’t do much else. When choosing a type of venue you usually have a four main options:

A Comedy Club

Description: Many comedy clubs have nights or scheduled times where anyone can “rent” their room to produce a show. Most clubs keep all the drink money (the business model of a comedy club is to sell drinks), while you get to keep the cover charge (or a percentage of the cover).

Pros: You get to perform at a comedy club. This gets added to your “performed at” credits and it’s usually easier to get someone to come to “The Comedy Club” instead of “Moe’s Diner.” (Big exception: When you want Moe to show up.)

Cons: Until the owner or manager gets to know you, or until you have a consistent reputation for drawing a good sized crowd, most clubs will not give you a prime time spot which makes it harder to draw people.  (Prime time spots are usually considered to be Fridays and Saturdays and anything that starts between 7:30 and 10PM .) You also don’t have time to build up a following for the show. If your first show has 3 audience members, you likely won’t be allowed to produce another one at the same club for a long while.

A Bar or Restaurant

Description: Many bars have slow nights (Sunday to Thursday) and/or slow hours (after the happy hour but before the party crowd) and would be happy to get someone else to bring people into the bar.

Pros: It’s easier to have a weekly show while slowly building a following. There are times when the bar is completely empty and many mangers would prefer 3 patrons to no patrons.

Cons: Bars can get loud. Not everyone that’s at the bar is there for the comedy show, and they’re paying customers too so you can’t tell them to shut up. Also, if you’re trying to make money on charging at the door, this might be harder as bars won’t want to turn away other patrons. However, you can try to negotiate a cut of the drink sales.

A College (or other classroom like venue)

Description: You can rent or reserve a lecture hall or classroom at a college.

Pros: Lots of people that live in a small geographical area that are young and looking for entertainment.  There’s usually no alcohol allowed.

Cons: If you don’t have an “in” with a college, it’s hard to reserve a room “off the street”. If you’re going to charge money, many students are broke. And there’s usually no alcohol allowed.

Conference Rooms, Hotels, etc

Description: Any room with chairs can be turned into a comedy show. A hotel conference room, an office or your parents basement.

Pros: Depending on the specifics, you have full control of how to run the event.

Cons: Lack of credibility. It’s harder to convince someone to come to “12 Dark Alley Street” than to “The Comedy Club” or “Moe’s Diner.” This applies not just to audience members but to comics who will perform too.

Other thoughts to keep in mind:

  • Will you need your own mic, amplifier and/or mic stand?
  • Is there a stage? Can you bring one?
  • Does the manager or owner treat you with respect? Are they fans of comedy?
  • Is the venue easily accessible?
  • How much parking is there? Is it free? (You can ignore this if you’re in NYC)

Up Next: How to Select Comedians

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

Other Comedy Tips:

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Seth Godin’s Linchpin Talk

Last Friday I was able to attend a talk by Seth Godin about his new book, Linchpin. The book (and this post) isn’t directly related to comedy, but the talk was amazing and I feel the need to share my notes on it. I’ve added my two cents of commentary about most of the quotes, and  since I’m obsessed with comedy most of my thoughts are about how to apply Seth’s ideas to comedy.

Regardless of what you do, you should be reading Seth’s blog. And check out two of his video presentations here and here.

Some of the “quotes” below aren’t exact, but they’re the general idea of what Seth said.

“I write because I have to, not because I want to.”
My two cents: I love this statement. I’ve been reading George Carlin’s biography, and he mentions a similar process where he reads and reads about a given topic for a while, then when he can’t take it anymore he writes what he has to say.

“A genius solves a problem in a way no one has solved it before”
My two cents: Every time you write a joke, you’ve solved the problem of how to make someone laugh in a way that it hasn’t been solved before (assuming they laughed).

“Corporations are factories and no longer working. The old model was factories are more important than the people in them. This is no longer true.”
My two cents: Being unique is good. Comedy is about having your own perspective.

“First factories made interchangeable parts, then they started making interchangeable people. Modern society trained people to work in factories and trained people to buy stuff (obedience). School is a type of factory.”
My two cents: When I heard this I was really happy that someone way smarter than me was giving me further justification for dropping out of a “top school.”

“Art = changing and moving people, not just entertainment”
My two cents: My comedy is not at this level yet, but it’s where I want to take it. Right now I’m working on mastering the process of how to make an audience laugh. The next step is mastering how to change and move people through laughter.

“The first guy who puts in a urinal into a museum installation is an artist, the second is a plumber”
My two cents: Be original.

“All value accrues to people who decide what to do next.”
My two cents: The audience doesn’t decide what to say next, you do. That’s why you’re getting paid and they’re not.

”Don’t engage in any activity where the upper limit is already known. This is why there are no famous bowlers. You can’t do better than a 300.”
My two cents: I don’t think there’s an upper limit to comedic success. Although Seinfeld has set a pretty high bar.

“The means of production (computers) are now owned by the workers.”
My two cents: Get up off your butt and do something. There’s no excuses left for not taking life by the horns. You don’t need a manager or promoter anymore, you can do it yourself with a cheap laptop.

There’s a difference between learning and getting an A. You should give yourself a D. Then learn it for yourself. Same mindset as, “I’m gonna pant something and everyone will hate it.”
My two cents: Would you do this joke even if nobody laughs? If so, it’s probably a good joke.

“Kulag’s law states that the most important people in an organization are the lowest in the hierarchy. Your company interacts with the street level team.”
My two cents: Even when you become a well known comedian, your manager or agent won’t build your following nearly as well as you will at every show.

“A coffee shop in London has a disloyalty card. “If you go to ten of our competitors, we’ll give you a free cup of coffee.””
My two cents: The next time I print business cards, I will put a bunch of other comics on the back of it. “If you liked my comedy, you might also enjoy watching x, y and z.”

“Abundance and sharing lead to change. Generosity undoes the factory.”
My two cents: I want to connect with my readers by providing free, useful information. Down with factories!

“Artists always take responsibility for their choices.”
My two cents: If a joke doesn’t work, it’s my fault, not the audiences.

“In cross country skiing, if you lean more forward than anyone else, you’ll win. But the more you lean forward the greater the odds you fall on your face. Do it anyway.”
My two cents: Take risks, some will pay off, some won’t. Learn from it and take more risks. (Don’t confuse this with taking a gamble.)

Avoid “Pulitzer Prize Fighting”. Having rankings or numbers brings in a whole other category of people who only want to win the prize (# of twitter followers, etc).
My two cents: I can do a better job ignoring the number of facebook friends, RSS subscribers and twitter followers and focus on making meaningful connections.

Other Quotes from the talk
(I’m out of change for these)

“If you can break a job into small enough bits, you can get it done for practically free”


On the current economy and opportunities: “Just because the tide is out doesn’t mean there’s less water in the ocean.”

“All value is created in moments when you have the most choices. So find situations with too many choices.”

Elizabeth Gilbert: “Nobody gets engineer’s block but they get artist’s block.”

“Anxiety = failure in advance”

“The place with no prize has the most opportunity.”

My friend was also in attendance (although I didn’t find out until after). Here are her thoughts.

“Fans, Friends and Followers” Quotes Part 2/2

This is the second part of what I found to be the most important quotes from the book Fans, Friends and Followers. (Part 1 can be found here.)

“My idea of success is the ability to make your films your way, and share them with people all over the world. That’s success.” -M dot Strange (56) 

“In neither case did we think, “A-ha, this will get people to buy our records.” It has always been our position that the reason you wind up in a rock band is you want to make stuff. You want do creative things for a living.” -Damian Kulash (62)

“Every show I do, people sign up for the mailing list. Bill Clinton considered his presidency a permanent campaign, and that’s the way you have to look at your career.” -DJ Spooky (65)

“I spend more time interacting with the audience than I spend recording and producing the show.” -Brian Ibbott (76)

“I figured that the way to do it is to give out your complete archives for free, which increases the viral nature of the site, and it turns casual fans into die-hard fans, and even evangelists for your art online. It can take years of relationship-building before someone considers themselves a fan, and is willing to plunk down money.” -Dave Kellett (83-84)

“I understand why people don’t want to put in the time it takes to develop an audience and a business, or who don’t think they can make it work. It’s definitely an investment of time – maybe close to a decade – but most careers take a decade or so of investment before something really happens. Think about a doctor. The careers worth having are worth working for over years and years.” -Dave Kellett (85)

“As an artist, you have to do it because you love it. If you’re doing it for that reason first, you’ll find you’re producing better work, which attracts an audience. They can tell when you’re enjoying it. That carriers you through what are going to be lean years.” -Dave Kellett (85)

“I do several different things. I write, I act, I do stand-up, and I make films. You can now do a hundred different things, and they all come together to form your career.” -Eugene Mirman (100) 

“The only advice I have is, you should go do things and try things, and in ten years, you’ll most likely succeed.” -Eugene Mirman (100)

“The whole thing is, you’re freelancing. If you expect that some big company will swoop in and give you a bunch of money and make you a star – that’s a flawed business model.” -Eugene Mirman (101)