Pro Talk: 7 Tips for Ambitious Comedians

This is a guest post by Clayton Fletcher. Clayton is a professional stand up comedian who plays all over the country, has been on HBO, is a regular at Caroline’s on Broadway and has his own weekly show at New York Comedy Club. You can learn more about Clayton on his website here.

Clayton Fletcher

1. Get onstage as much as humanly possible
In my view, becoming a really good comic requires hours and hours of stagetime. When I started, I did every open mic in town and at least one bringer show every week. I would also ask to perform at family parties, office functions, basically anywhere and everywhere I could. There is just no substitute for stagetime. 

2. You will always be a bringer
What I mean is suppose that someday you become famous and you are asked to be the headliner at the Laughy Ha-Ha Club in Plano, Texas. They will invest fortunes in advertising your arrival, marketing your performances, and staffing their club so that you can have a great show. If nobody comes to see you, do you think you will be asked back? Always promote every show you are in. Especially in New York where there are ten million comics, one great way to get a leg up on the competition is to help the club out by letting your fans know you are coming! Since comedy clubs are businesses, they will appreciate the fact that you help increase their patronage!

To put it another way, if you were in a great band that had absolutely no following, how many gigs do you think you would be able to get twice? Why should comedians be any different?

3. In the beginning, stick to one club.
The other side of the coin is that if you are popular enough to have friends who want to come see your show, you should focus your efforts on one club. Many comedy club owners (Al Martin among them) pride themselves on developing young talent into tomorrow’s superstars. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a club owner say “I gave him his start and now he’s headlining for me!” or “Why should I book her? When she started out she did bringer shows and open mics every week at ______ Comedy Club! Now she wants to work for me?” You simply can not build a solid relationship with a club by spreading shows out in all the clubs around town.

Become associated with one venue and the rest will follow. If you are talented and you put the work in and show loyalty to a club and a producer, we remember this and look for ways to help you down the line. And then when you try to get work at Club B and C you can say “Well I do regular feature spots at NYCC and now I am trying to branch out.” It lends credibility much more than “I am doing bringers all over town” ever can.

4. There is more than one way to get there.
Many comics ask me what they should do if they do not have friends. Frankly, I am skeptical of anyone who claims not to know a single person who wants to see them perform, but if you are in this group, you still have hope! Get your stagetime in “non-traditional” venues. When I started out I did shows in sushi restaurants, pizza parlors, every bar in New York that had a back room, and quite a few that didn’t. Most of these shows were disastrous but believe me if you can kill at McMickerson’s Pub while the foreigners watch a soccer game, you will tear the roof off the Broadway. Again it all comes down to stagetime and finding ways to get it.

5. Write write write.
Comedians are writers. When you finally get up onstage, you should not be at a loss for words. Rework the old stuff, try to come up with new stuff. Never stop writing!

6. Produce your own show!
One of the best ways to get onstage early in your career is to put your own show together. You can learn to MC, you can begin to network with your peers, you might even create the next “hot new comedy room” in New York. Best of all, you will have the flexibility to do what you want for as long as you want onstage. But even then, if nobody comes to see you I doubt your neighborhood bar will keep Jeffy’s Comedy Night going for long. As I said, we are all bringers and always will be.

7. Be polite.
There are so many comics who seem to have never been taught manners. How many times haveI been dealing with a paying customer only to have a comic interrupt me: “What’s the lineup?” And howfew times have I actually been thanked for helping a new comic get an opportunity? Politeness is in shortsupply these days, so even a simple gesture of mutual humanity can go a long way.

In closing, I want you all to know that I am here for you and I am rooting for you. So build your act, find your persona, build your fan base, and we can all conquer New York City together someday soon!

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Ten Steps to Become a Great Emcee (Host)

Fewer and fewer comedians want to emcee anymore but emceeing skills train you to become very funny on your feet, handle hecklers and sound more conversational. All skills you’ll need before you can headline. With that in mind, here’s some MCing tips based on my personal experience and numerous conversations with other professional comedians.

  1. Come in with super high energy. You want to get the audience’s energy as high as possible.
  2. Start by saying “Hi everyone, we have a great show for you tonight.” Make sure you’re smiling and that you sound genuine.
  3. Get the audience to clap again with something like “Clap it up for yourselves” or  “Who’s happy it’s a Friday night?”Unless you get an amazing response, say “You can do better, let’s try that again.” It (subconsciously) communicates to the audience that you’re in total control.
  4. Go into crowd work.Either ask the standard questions like “Where are you from?”, “What do you do for work”, etc or try to come up with more interesting questions (in advance). Try to make jokes about their answers, or joke about the fact that their answers are boring. Don’t panic if some of your improvised joke attempts miss.
  5. Don’t talk to more than 3 tables in a row, or people will get bored and/or hate you.
  6. Do a couple of your jokes.
  7. Repeat step 4 through 6 as needed, establish the pattern.Alternately, you can open with a quick joke or two (not longer than a minute) and then go into crowd work. This works better on shows where the audience is unsure it’ll be a good show. The best is if you have crowd work questions that will lead into your material. Example: “Anybody married in here? Oh yeah, how long? When’s the divorce? Just kidding. But I’ve actually been married for twenty years.”
  8. Get a final round of applause, then bring out the next comic.Example: “You guys are great. We have an awesome show. Are you ready for your next comedian?” Make sure the comedian’s name is the last part of their introduction. You want to say “This next comedian has been on Comedy Central please put your hands together for John Doe.” Do not say “Your next comedian is John Doe, he’s been on Comedy Central.” BONUS: This is a personal pet peeve of mine: Don’t ask “Who’s ready to get this show started?” or “Are you ready for your first comedian?” The show has already been in progress since you got up there.
  9. When you come on stage between each comic, make sure to maintain a super high level of energy to keep the audience in their seats and excited about the next comic.First say, “how about another round of applause for [comic’s name].” Then either go into a joke or two, or just introduce the next comedian. If there are more than 3 comedians on the show, I don’t recommend doing time between the first and second comedian, so that the audience doesn’t think you’ll be slowing down the show after each performer. BONUS: If you can come up with a quick one or two line joke based on the last act’s closing bit, that’s a great way to keep the show feeling connected and as one. Example: If the last comic said something like “Then I passed out in an alley, and woke up without a wallet,” you can come up there and say “So I was in an alley last night, going through Joe’s wallet…”
  10. Most important, the emcee has to be a person.You can’t talk at people, you have to talk to them. (This applies to regular stand up spots as well, but especially if you’re the host.) If you don’t get many laughs as a host, but your energy is positive and you’re smiling the whole time, the audience is relaxed and engaged and the first comedian does well, you did your job (even if you don’t feel great about it).

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

Would you rather have someone else to host for you? Hire me. I’ve hosted hundreds of show including at The Lincoln Center.

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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

and

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

and

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.

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

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Why I Won’t Be a Professional Snowboarder

I’m pretty good at snowboarding. In fact, at this current moment, I’m much better at snowboarding than I am at stand up comedy. Last year, when I was frustrated with my day job, I thought about becoming a snowboarding instructor. I even looked into the certification process.

Ben getting some air

The snowboarding instructor idea is now dead. For my Christmas vacation, I spent 6 days snowboarding. The last 3 days of the trip, I didn’t want to get out of bed or get on the slopes. Especially the last day, when I got upset that the weather got better and we were going to go to the lifts. I learned that my maximum tolerance of snowboarding is 3 days.

Which brings us to Big Ben’s Big Law #62: Don’t consider turning a hobby into a career if you can’t do it for 10 straight days.

I’ve done comedy for 10 straight days and not been tired of it (tired of the lack of response at the open mics, yes, but not tired of comedy) so there’s hope…

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

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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.

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