By Jay Whitecotton
Very little edited by Al Bahmani
First and foremost – feel free to dismiss everything you read here. I only wrote this as a reminder for myself. Comedy is wide open and an industry built on the illusion that what people do and how far they’ve gone is actually a thing.
Also – whenever something becomes obvious or overplayed – like jokes themselves – audiences become immune to it.
The whole industry is in constant change and nothing is forever.
Only promote things worth promoting.
It’s your word on the line and if you send people to shitty open mics, overpriced venues or blah events – they will never trust your recommendation again and also – think less of standup.
There’s a reason people will walk into a bar show – see the event and say “ugh – its comedy night, are you sure you wanna stay?” – it’s because terrible comics who only care about getting their name out are working in unison with terrible bar owners whose only goal is to con comics and people to go into their shit hole to buy drinks.
Comedy is the greatest thing ever. Laughter, jokes, it’s in almost every form of entertainment. However it’s also the most disrespected. (seriously The Martian wins a Golden Globe for best Comedy? Fuck you too Hollywood)
If you’re approach to doing standup is to ‘fake it, til you make it’ please just go ahead and kill yourself now. You are the salt poured on the earth that stops any real growth.
Put comedy ahead of your ego.
If you put comedy ahead of yourself, refuse to allow the self satisfaction that always becomes complacency and avoid pandering to get cheap laughs because you need to feel like a winner – you will get better at it and your act in turn will propel you forward.
If you choose to believe in your greatness, act like you’re too good to talk and thank an audience post show, or treat comics as lesser people or as just avenues to get rides to your merch table event – well – you might get some local success, but eventually you’ll suffocate on your own inflated ego and succumb to the graveyard that is teaching defensive driving.
Allow yourself to suffer a lil bit ya fuck. Entitlement kills art.
Also – Keep this in mind – you deserve nothing, You are owed nothing. People worse and better than you will always get opportunities they don’t deserve. That’s fine. Nobody – no one – deserves anything so just do the work. Take satisfaction in making things better, improving yourself and don’t sweat what other people do on stage. That’s their business. Do that and and you’ll put yourself in way better position to succeed than trying to create substance out of hype. Let hype naturally form from actual substance. Do the work you lazy piece of shit.
Venue and atmosphere is everything.
Before producing your own show make a checklist. What is the perfect set up for standup comedy? You’d be surprised how many people don’t even bother to deal with this. The venue is almost the single biggest difference between success and failure. An ok show in a subpar venue would’ve been an amazing show in the right venue.
Intimate room: Find something that can seat 50 people comfortably, 80 people packed to capacity, but if 15 people show up it still feels like a good worthwhile show. Room dynamics affects the quality of shows and future turnouts. It is everything. For instance – if you have 5 round top tables – DO NOT line up the back of the room with them because you think you need more single chairs up front. People instinctively don’t want to be anywhere near the comedy and prefer tables. Unfortunately, sitting far away makes it harder for audience and performer to connect, so put small tables up front as a way to encourage people to be close to the show. This will also insure that they have a great time while making your event feel more full. Trust me – when people in the audience see an empty front row – even if the show is packed – they still feel like it’s a blah event in the back of their head. I don’t know psychology, but I know this to be true.
During room set up try making it a point to sit in every chair. Can you comfortably see the stage?
Separate from the bar: This is hard to find, but if you can get it jump on it. You want a show room dedicated to comedy. It forces the audience to be people dedicated to the show and for those who are not – can leave and drink or fuck around outside the show at their leisure. Putting on bar shows suck because you are constantly having to deal with walk-ins who only came to hang with friends, play darts, etc. Plus nothing is worse than a margarita machine killing a punchline. This drastically kills shows and people’s ability to enjoy comedy.
Staging: sparse, tasteful, cheap. You can do all of these with some cleverly arranged dark king sized bed sheets and Christmas lights. A stage should give elevation, but not uncomfortable to view and a soft LED light positioned close up top can get the job done. You want dark, you want intimate. Watch out for comics who step out of the light complaining they can’t see the audience. Yeah – that’s the point. Hit your mark and learn to tell jokes that don’t require crowd work. If no one is responding to you – focus on the craft and your performance. Not on “What’s your name, what do you do?” Little candles around the room are a nice, cheap, and effective mood maker.
Also – try to avoid long shotgun style set ups. Where the stage is at the end of essentially a long hall way. This creates focus issues and encourages more talk at the back of the room plus isolation from the performer. Set the stage in a way you can half circle chairs around the comic and you’ll be able to insure a better chance of intimacy.
Sound: Holy shit do people ignore this. Yes – you need a mic and a PA. What the fuck are you doing without this? No – it cant be rink-a-dink. Voices need to command and cut through. Rule of thumb I find works best is put your treble up, scoop your mid down a bit – then raise the bass according to the room dynamic. Nothing too boomy, but nothing too tinny either. Take your time and teach yourself the difference. This will save your ass every time.
Walk around the room during the performance. Can everyone hear? Sound changes when a room is filled with a crowd laughing. Are the speakers placed in a way so the front row isn’t cringing while the back is struggling to hear? (again – intimate room solves this almost always)
Seats: up close. Tables up front. Single chairs in the middle – high tops around the back edges. (see intimate room)
Temperature: avoid warm, avoid hot. Slight chill keeps people alert, laughing, and drinking (ie loosening up enough to laugh)
Location and parking: find a place where people would want to go. Good bar, designated smoking patio, and safe parking. If it’s too far or outa the way people won’t bother to ‘make the trek’. All this is pretty much based on individual cities. Some places 15 minute drives are considered nightmares while other places view them as the short cuts. DO NOT just choose a place because it’s got people always going there. If there’s a mass of people annoyed that a comedy show is invading their environment it makes for a hard time, kills growth and makes you look like a tool.
During shows: Don’t open doors if you can help it til 15 minutes before show time. Let them chill and socialize at the bar (if you have a separate room). Have someone work the door and seat people. Have upbeat music playing before and after the show. Keep it lit, but lower down to dark when the show starts. Basic shit people forget. Play music when the show is over. Do it asap as silence is creepy when the show ends. Other comics – volunteer for this shit. Act like you care. Also POLICE THE ROOM. If someone gets outta hand heckling. Kick them out politely and immediately. Be kind about it – we’ve all been drunk, but use it as an opportunity to train the audience on how to be an audience.
Found a place that fits most your criteria? Choose the best night for everyone. Talk to management. Make no promises that you’ll have immediate crowds, but explain what you want to do and willing to spend a year developing it. Don’t look for money and don’t accept a shitty Monday night because most bars will cancel events around Monday Night Football. If you take money out of the equation you have more control and freedom to run your show the right way. However if you prove yourself to the venue over time, you can possibly negotiate some cash to cover your promos. Just don’t expect the bar to help out or do it for you.
Bar/venue management is in constant flux and the greed factor is amazing. Especially when a new manager comes in all ‘swinging dick’ thinking he can tweak things.
It’s important to know that no matter how successful your show is – venues only want the ability to not think about that particular night. The freedom to focus on the chaotic hell that is operating an actual business. If you take all responsibility out of their hands except the night being guaranteed yours for a set period of time – you avoid most of the potential hassles. Far biggest is the one where we expect the venue to support with a crowd and then slack off on our own promotions.
That said – finding a place that will treat you right from the start with food and a tab is a goddamn treasure.
Build it first then get the bar/venue behind it. If you can’t build it without their help you probably weren’t ever going to anyway. Be honest, direct, and make sure you get a lot of time to make it a thing.
It takes forever to do this proper.
Know Your audience. Have Good Taste.
People want to drink, fuck, and possibly smoke. That’s the first thing you have to accept. Seeing a comedy show is rarely first. There’s a reason it’s called Netflix and Chill as opposed to ‘See sad people talk about their failings and Chill’. There’s a lot of competing forms of entertainment and if you want people to see comedy (especially local) you’re going to have to make it special and worthwhile. It also requires like minded people and talent. This is where taste and direction is absolutely important. You’re going to have to decide what your goal is.
What I write here is purely my own tastes and may not measure up with yours. Please keep that in mind. My personal view is not booking shows where comics are screaming nigger, cunt, and rape as if they’re making a statement (this falls into ego ahead of comedy category for me) I don’t have any qualms with those topics in comedy, but most the time the people doing it are just covering up the fact they can’t write jokes and criminally boring and cliche. Demand better for yourself and earn the right to tackle those subjects.
That said – if your goal is to do a no rules, metal af, slayer themed comedy show – then you’re attracting a specific crowd that won’t be turned off by those subjects. However – this one rule applies across the entire spectrum – the jokes still have to be funny and performed well no matter. Do you, but develop some goddamn taste.
I also avoid ethnic themed shows for the same reason. “Oh cool, let’s do an hour on Mexican stereotypes.” These shows can attract full crowds and can be very rewarding – crushing with ‘been there done that’ jokes that play on stereotypes, but most comics who get sucked up in that start believing they’re anything other than a future Jeff Dunham puppet. Develop taste, demand better, kill your pandering ego. Plus – if your audience is made up solely of people looking for basic bitch racial jokes – no one will grow on stage and you paint yourself in a corner unable to book better and more original acts. Well done – you created a bad place to do comedy.
You Can’t Do It Alone
If you are a comic looking to create a space that allows you to get better on stage, develop an audience and more – know that you can’t do this by yourself. You can do it once for sure, twice, maybe even up to 6, but eventually you either stop crafting new bits or get worn out doing all the promos for your event. Know this. Get a group of comics together who will think like you do or trust you enough to follow through. Everyone will have to work together. Assign simple promo/show duties divided up. That will free up time for all to handle their own personal writing and be able to knock out their small share of the promoting. Does this mean get the funniest people in your town? Maybe not.
“Friday Night Hot Chicks Open Mic” at UCB East. Photo by Paul Oddo
What if you’re new to comedy, but still want to produce shows you can grow on? Great – that’s how I started, but instead of promoting my name – I came up with a name for a monthly show that presented comics I loved to watch. Funny people I could introduce to an audience I felt would appreciate seeing great acts. This is how you build substance. Nobody trusts your constant hype of yourself, but promote a show that’s about the comedy first, that’s about a good time, in a good venue for the sake of good comedy – and you’ll earn a good name and better act for it. People will trust your word and thank you for it.
Your host has to be a good comic who can keep a show together. Don’t throw up the rookie open micer to run the list because he can bring a crowd or isn’t smart enough to know hosting is actual hard dedicated work. When you pull this kind of shit you’re creating a clunky atmosphere and a bad show. Care about the event you stupid self entitled fuck. Comedy before yourself or lose a good thing.
Start on time and lead off with the best comics you have – then mix up the acts for variety sake. Towards the end you can mix in whoever you know is taking chances that week or someone new with potential. By then the audience is on board loose and hopefully in a supportive mindset.
(Doing the opposite of this trains your crowd to show up late and not respect the show thinking the start is just filler crap)
Creativity over Funny: You got to be funny yes. Absolutely, but anybody can pander for laughs. Farts are goddamn hilarious. Being creative is a challenge that should trump all. Its what gets you to write more. It’s what pushes you to get better. Being funny isn’t always the issue, but it’s the first thing comics attack themselves for not being. More often the idea is funny, but you sucked at getting to it, or communicating in general, or digging deeper into what the actual point of the joke is, or coming up with a creative avenue in the bit that would make you excited to say it on stage (or maybe you weren’t comfortable yelling at 30 drunks who just got done playing trivia now trapped in your comedy show while three different margarita machines squeal through your setups).
Anybody you book should have the freedom to fail. If you book a 15 comic showcase of short sets – give a few performers the chance to fail around the 9th -12th spot. Let them feel trusted to take some chances and grow. This will pay off huge down the road for everybody.
Everybody performing promotes: Make it a must. If you want good shows it requires community effort. I have a comic friend who actively says he refuses to promote any show he’s on. I won’t book him. If he doesn’t think he’s good enough to promote people to see, why would I ask anyone to see him either?
(All this still coincides with the very first rule btw – only promote good things worth seeing)
Avoid Poison: I know a lot of funny people who kill on stage, but create the worst atmosphere to hang or work around. They’re negative for the sake of being negative, treat new comics like lesser people, and shit on every crowd for not being exactly the way they think they should be. Don’t make em’ apart. All it does is kill momentum and make people not want to come back. Don’t get me wrong – I love negativity – it can be a blast! But if you’re trying to build something positive you won’t get far surrounding yourself with these types of comics who refuse to allow themselves to care. They bring everything down. Ask them to go. You don’t need that shit. It’s not helping.
Social anxiety: Let’s just get this out of the way. 99% of you DO NOT have intense social anxiety. You’re just an asshole. Oh you mean interacting with people is hard and uncomfortable? Yeah – suck it up you self absorbed piece of shit. Hang after the show and thank people for showing up. Go out and talk to people you meet about this ‘cool thing you’re apart of they might like’. Support comics on stage by watching and clapping as opposed to talking, interrupting, or other poisonous self involved bullshit.
Actually promote. Then do it again. And Again…
Let me let you in on a little secret. No one for sure knows what they’re actually doing. Producers are the biggest con artists in the fucking business. So much so that they often con themselves into thinking they’re competent. Look – the only thing that works 90% of the time is booking acts people want to see. Established names with valid credits. Can’t afford that? Then specialty gimmick shows often do the trick (to an extent).
Not one promotion tool works by itself 100% of the time. You have to do all of them – in advance – and then lather, rinse, repeat.
Here’s the checklist: Start with the name of your show.
Facebook: Create an event. Create a meme you can tag performers in. Post both – rely on none of it. Encourage shares and likes. Facebook has an algorithm that pushes popular posts ahead of posts with one or two likes. If you decide to create a page dedicated to your show, insist all the comics you collaborate with to invite people to like the page thru wall posts and instant messaging. This way you’ll have a large dedicated pool to promote events to. Do not invite out of town people to events or to like the page. Avoid getting bands, or old parents, or other comics to like the page. These people rarely actually go to shows and if they want to they can like the page on their own. If comics don’t want to help with this, don’t book them.
At the start I liked to make these events secret. I never made posters with a shit load of strange names with no credits. Sure it’s nice to see your name on a thing, but nobody knows or cares who the fuck you are so be good on stage – promote the show as a whole instead and people will figure out real quick who the fuck you are if you get good enough.
Text and Instant Messaging: Be polite, be sincere, and don’t just be ‘Promoter Person’. It turns people off (especially friends) – makes them feel like cattle to your ego. Yes you want your friends to see a great show, don’t hound them about it. Be a fucking friend and keep up with their lives. Ask about them. Actually give a shit and they’ll give a shit about you. (Life Hack: Being a person will also make you a better comedian) Also – don’t keep inviting your dead friends to your events stupid. Again – no – you do not have social anxiety.
Alt Weekly: Most cities have them. Look what they’re announcing. Look up the editor in charge of show announcements. Message them. Start a polite relaxed dialogue. Invite them out. Don’t be needy. Buy them a few drinks it’s a tough job they have to do trying to satisfy everyone at once. Don’t take it personal if they give you nothing back – they’re busy and paid like shit. Just stay in touch and be cool. If you develop great things they’ll go to you more and be there for you.
Flyers: Make a small number. Make them look like professional tickets or make them look cheesy on purpose, there’s a wide selection of taste to draw from and just so long as they’re simple and not filled with the names of a bunch of people no one gives a shit about – you’ll do fine. Don’t just hand them to strangers. Go to bars or popular spots you can talk to people in idle conversation and offer them info on this ‘cool thing you do if they’re down to check it out’. Again – You don’t have social anxiety. Go with friends and performers on the show. When you do it alone it feels weird and 9 times outa 10 – you give up on it. DO NOT just stash them on cars or in alt weeklies. That’s lazy and also rude as fuck.
Suck it up and be a person.
Meetup groups: there is a lot of them online join or start one.
Instagram and Twitter: good to have, but if you don’t have a pool of people working them together they don’t get you that far. Take pictures of the shows, post them on your pages. Let people see that people are attending your shows and liking it. This is huge and builds community.
Talk to people, get emails, Facebooks, whatever. Follow up. This is the number one thing that works – THAT NO ONE WANTS TO DO. Suck it up. Do it or watch everything fall apart.
All of the above – every week and forever. By themselves they will not work, but together you give yourself the best opportunity to succeed.
Big vs. Small Market: If you’re in a big market you have the luxury of a lot of talent, but the handicap that they probably can hit up some shit mic the same night without having to do any of the above work. If you’re scene is small then you have the luxury of comics who will be eager and excited to see growth enough to do the work, but probably not enough to sustain a weekly show. (ie – If you have 20 comics doing 4 minutes you can have a nice showcase and opportunity to work in more new sets, also 4 minutes prepares you way better for tv late night auditions. You can make this show weekly, but if you only have 7-10 comics in your scene– you can probably pull off a monthly at best)
Jokes repeated bore and wear out an audience. Constant new jokes that aren’t ready do the same. Hit all the shitty mics you can and save the above type of work for one show worth promoting. That way you can develop material and stage chops, then test it out when it’s mostly formed in a good creative and trusted atmosphere. This will also make you look good to the audience that naturally builds around you.
The problem here is a lot of comics will get better, stop going to the hard mics, get lazy, dwindle out, or worse – get better – move forward and do nothing for the scene coming up to support them and teach them to do what they learned. Things will eventually fall apart and many involved will put their egos ahead of their comedy and think they’re above doing the work anymore.
Entitlement breeds complacency. Complacency kills art.
Try to avoid that or at the very least be conscience of it cuz it happens to us all no matter what level you are at.
There Is No Money.
Like none. The money’s at the end. To get to it – you have to do the work. If there’s no environment to do the work right – you have to make one. Everything above is a helpful suggestion on how. Take it or leave it.
You can do free shows, $5 shows etc, but if you’re goal is to cover gas money to pursue becoming a standup comedian. You rarely get it for years.
If you’re a promoter looking to capitalize on talent by using them for the promise of ‘exposure’ and taking a $10 cover for your ‘trouble’ – well you’re a piece of shit and like the ‘fake it, til you make it’ people – Kill yourself. Radiation is something that also requires exposure and yours is about as worthwhile you charlatan.
If however you just want to cover printing and promotional etc – ask for donations. Let people pay what they want, be cool, or work as a collective with the emphasis on becoming better at comedy – so you can eventually be badly paid unappreciated touring comics. It’s about comedy first, ego second. There’s a reason why I didn’t make money a thing when looking for a venue. When you take money out of the equation – it becomes about the art. When you throw some nickles in, everything seems to get fucked up.
If you do this right – you’ll eventually be able to create networks with national acts and opportunities you never would’ve had by grinding out the same bullshit bar shows and no taste open mics. If you’re lucky enough to make a career out of it – honor these shows whenever you get a chance and be supportive. It’s real easy to fall off the high rung and have to do it all over again as many comics often do.
Do the work right. Avoid paying Lip Service. Follow through on your Word.
Jay Whitecotton is a Stand Up Comedian from San Antonio, TX now living in Austin. He’s written columns for magazines without any journalistic credibility – toured professionally as a guitarist, despite no lessons – and sold a script that was never made into a movie… – He likes dragons
Originally posted with permission of Jay.