Comedy Club managers answer 15 questions from aspiring comedians via Reddit
Rocky Kev is the former online manager for Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia (club pictured above). A few weeks ago, Kev took to Reddit to solicit questions from comedians in that community that he'd pass along to comedy club managers across America with whom he'd planned conversations. After culling those into an FAQ, he came up with 15 common questions from aspiring comedians for actual club owners and managers.
These are his findings.
15 Answers Directly from Managers of Comedy Clubs
By Rocky Kev
Just Keep Grinding.
This statement is stupid to me.
Grind at what? Getting on stage? Being funny?
Passing out your business cards and praying an agent magically discovers you?
So many questions from novice comedians — all shooting from the hip, not knowing what to do or how to get there.
That’s fine. I’m here to help.
If you’ve Googled me, you might have noticed that I am NOT a comedian. In fact — I’m a marketer, who has worked in the comedy industry for half a decade. My job consists of performing website optimizations and conversions, advertising, developing leads, and attracting an audience.
tl;dr: I get BUTTS into SEATS.
What does a marketer in the comedy industry know about stand-up? To make sure this is valuable advice, I made a lot of phone calls.
That’s 40 phone calls with comedians for questions about the comedy industry. Then, a few requests online. Finally — I had 6 phone calls with the people behind the scenes to get answers. The result: nearly 45 pages of notes. (A couple dozen hours later, I edited it into this post of about 4,300 words.)
I’ve been called an idiot for not turning this into a book and selling it.
Yet, I’m sharing this for free. (So take that, GM who wanted me to sell this!) Information about the business of stand-up comedy is so sparse. I want to contribute and lend a hand.
You’ll notice that I don’t include manager names or which comedy club they operate. This is intentional. I reached out to current/former managers of major comedy clubs, representing both the East Coast and the West Coast, as well as a comedy club in the South. I tried to connect with smaller venues, but I had a hard time finalizing the calls.
Each manager I interviewed, I shared my intentions. They elected to keep their company out of this, so this article is more informative rather than an advertisement.
The goal is not endorse a few major comedy clubs and how they function, but for comedians to get maximum benefit regardless of the venue they approach.
Also, rather than provide information about each individual club’s method, I combined the similarities in their replies to give it broader reach.
Three things that you will discover in this super-long post
- FIFTEEN answers (plus a bonus) directly from the people in charge, to get you some direction on your comedy journey. So grab a Red Bull and take notes.
- These answers work if you take ACTION. Most comics will continue to grind it out. But the fact that you’re reading this means you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone.
- Finally, there is a request at the bottom of this post. So do follow through to the very end.
Now, on with the 15 questions.
1) Is it going to be an uphill battle to approach clubs without representation?
If you’re aiming for the headline act: You need representation and credentials. There’s hundreds of thousands of comics who think they’re funny. If you’re pushing yourself, you’re less likely to be believed, since you’re the one pitching that you are funny.
If you’re a two-person team (one comic, and one agent), you need to be highly recommended: from comedy club owners and other people in the industry. You’re also more likely to get hired if you come from an agency with a good reputation, or if your agent has a portfolio of successful acts.
Looking to be a Feature/MC: It probably hurts you to be represented by a agent. You’re going to get paid less. It’s better to actually show in person and talk to us directly (usually during open mics when we’re not busy).
“What do you look for in a MC/Feature? I’ve worked here, here and here.”
Mention other venues and we’ll do our homework and ask for their experience working with you. So don’t lie.
2) My comic buddies and I brings our own comedy show. How do we approach clubs for dates?
Approach it like a business. Tell us how you can bring X amount of people and how you plan to market. Tell us your business strategy for attracting an audience. Tell us how this is a profitable venture and why we should risk putting your show in front of our audience. Show us PROOF.
In your pitch, give us some recognizable comics (comics that I may know personally, or in the business). Or, share the results of your show at other comedy clubs and venues. Any other major feat and accomplishments from third parties [newpaper clippings, reviews, website posts, blogs, being in festivals] is a bonus. We need proof that this show works.
Without something we [the managers] can relate to -- it’ll be tough because we don’t have a relationship.
Will your show fill a 200+ seat venue? We need to know that answer. If not, find a bar, or a small theater to test your idea out. Then come to us when you have that validation.
Stage-time is precious. Your show has to outperform any one-off shows that we [the comedy clubs] can put on. We need evidence that this WILL be successful (not MAY BE successful).
3) Is there a range we should approach clubs for about payment?
We have a set payment for hosts/features. Take it or leave it. It’s not about greed. We have to keep the lights on. Pay for staff. Pay for inventory. Pay for marketing shows.
When you’re a host/feature — bite the bullet on the travel cost. It’s a saturated market; people desire these gigs. There’s a hundred people who are willing to do the show. If we need a comedian tomorrow to fill a vacant spot, we can fill it within 4 hours.
Until you’re a headliner, you’re not going to make much at all. If you travel with a headliner, they may pay you out of their paycheck.
4) How would they find talent in small cities that don’t have a big comedy scene? Is it up to the individual to come to a city with a bigger comedy scene and be discovered?
We [the managers] are working 6 days a week. We’re busy people, you come to us. When we do look for talent, we rather go to big festivals so we can see the best of the best.
If you’re in a small market, expand. Comics should always go to where the scene is. Immerse yourselves in it. You don’t want to be the funniest person in a small town.
In a small market, you’ll never be that funny. You need to be around stronger comics to grow. Any major city with a huge diverse audience type will help you develop as a comic.
[One manager’s point of view]
I never recommend going to NYC/LA. If there’s a city nearby you, go there.
Many comics go to NYC, and perform at a terrible bar show with 9 other comics but no real audience. They get delusional, think they’re funny, but their only audience is comedians. They lose sight to what an actual audience is like.
In other major cities, you can do both. Be in front of comics, and be in front of a live audience. In these major cities, you’re more likely to getting booked at other clubs. You’re working with headliners, making connections. When you go to New York, you’ll already have the experience, the network, and the cash-flow from headlining.
[One booker’s point of view]
When you think you’re ready to headline, wait 6 months and work the smaller scenes. Then come back to me.
5) I’m a road comic. How do I get a gig (or guest spot)?
For headliner shows, the headliner decides if guest spots are available. They run a tight program. Many headliners want to control that time down to the minute. Others may want their own friends to guest spot. If you don’t have a relationship with the headliner (or the management team to give you a good word), it’ll be impossible to get on.
Without any recommendations, it’ll be harder to get your foot in the door.
If we had to choose between our own local comics, or some out-of-towners, we rather choose our locals to give stage-time.
As managers, we weigh the following: Do I let one of my own comics develop a stronger set, or let a road comic with no relationship get on stage? Convince us why we should take a paycheck away from someone in our scene and give it to you.
So overall, it’s not a win-win situation. You get on stage and get paid, while we [the club owners/managers] are left with all the risk.
We’re also not struggling to find new talent. No reason to take a chance with untested road comics.
If you don’t have anyone in the industry to vouch for you (bookers, professional headliners, or other clubs), then go to the open mic. If you’re really good, we’ll give you a guest spot. After that, we’re more likely to give you work in the future — and will happily recommend you to other clubs.
6) What do they look for in a tape from an out-of-towner that doesn’t have any real credits?
When people email us out of the blue, we only watch the videos when we’re bored or something in their email catches us. (Like recommendations, previous work experience, reviews).
Also, it’s luck that we even bother to open it. We have a club to manage, and a hundred other emails to sort through.
In other words, your video will likely to get you nothing.
The email on the other hand:
If you happen to email us on a slow day (like a open mic day), and we’re not busy, we’ll take a look. But when we get hundreds a week, we’re very trigger happy to press the delete button.
In that email, we’re looking for a down-to-earth conversation. A nice email, a recommendation, and a way to see more of your work. If you send us a poster/ad that looks like you’re hyping yourself up -- we’ll toss it.
What we look for in the video, we’re looking for something original. Nothing hacky like “Hey where are the ladies at?” Something new. Some type of angle we’ve never seen before. Quality doesn’t matter. But we have to hear the audio.
If you’re polite, willing to learn (rather than demanding a gig) and perform at our open mic where we can see your material — THEN we’ll see about actual work.
[One manager’s perspective]
The truth of the matter, why are we doing a stranger a favor? What have you done for us? This is a business. I’m not going to take the chance on a stranger — and we get nothing in return. There is already a local scene that we can get comics.
If you can’t create a benefit for the club to use you, then there’s no equal exchange. A benefit being, say you had a huge twitter following. Or you have connections to newspapers, blogs, websites, etc. Or you had success in getting x number of people to your last 10 shows. Something that says you have something to offer me.
Otherwise, it’s more work for us, with little pay off.
7) What do they think is the best way to contact the owner/GM about doing spots? Networking? Sending a tape? Doing mics?
Saying hello in person.
It’s that simple. Find a open mic, politely introduce yourself, then let your actions speak louder than your words.
To continue that relationship and let us notice you, there are two things we look for.
1 — Consistency.
We look for people serious about comedy. We want people who see comedy as their bread and butter, not their hobby. If you’re performing less than 5 times a month, you’re treating it like a hobby.
Be ferocious in signing up for the open mic (ours and other places). Go to bed a little later -- it can pay off in the long run. The comics we hire are active in the local scene, and go to many open mics around the city. If you’re active and doing comedy, someone is going to see you and recommend you to us.
If we notice you’re frequent to our open mics, and many comics (and our employees) recommend you, we’ll invite you to perform.
2 — We look for recommendations.
Make friends with those in the scene. Look for comics who are where you want to be, and connect with them. A call from a headliner to us will get you in the door immediately.
Network with as many traveling comics. When you do travel, you have a way in to get recommended or get on shows.
Something comics miss — be nice to the staff! If our staff is talking about you, then we need to know why. In one year, a staff member may have seen at least 200+ shows. So their recommendation means a lot to us.
Overall, we’re going to remember people who are part of the scene. We’re not going to remember you (guy over the phone or cold email us).
Comics are always looking for a short cut. It’s show up, be funny and someone will vouch for you. There’s no secret.
8) If your local club (the only club) wants nothing to do with you, what do you do?
Wait it out.
Or travel to neighboring towns/cities.
Those comedy clubs will come around. If you’re funny, they’ll definitely come around.
Focus on being a great comic, rather than trying to work with that club.
[one manager’s perspective]
We had a comic banned because of the previous owner. When I took over, he was in tip-top shape to become a feature comic.
[another manager’s perspective]
A group of comics was upset at the lack of opportunity at my club. They made their own shows in bars/theaters and came back as stronger comics. We were happy to put them on our stage.
There could be a lot of reasons why a club doesn’t want to work with you. Sometimes, it’s a personal thing -- you’re arrogant, you’re hard to work with, etc. But most of the time, you’re not ready.
If you think you’re ready, talk to someone with a decade of comedy experience and ask them for feedback. If you don’t have someone to talk to, then you are 100% ABSOLUTELY not ready.
Our staff goes out to watch shows in other venues. Just because the club doesn’t like you doesn’t mean the staff feels the same. Develop a good relationship with the staff. How the staff thinks feel you will trickle up. If you’re a dick to them, that’s a quick way to make the comedy scene distance themselves from you. Nobody wants to associate themselves with the comic who hates the staff.
The last thing you shouldn’t do is talk shit about the club. If you talk shit, there’s nothing to gain from it. Absolutely nothing.
[one manager’s perspective]
One of our local comics had a bad night and let off steam on Facebook. I asked him to take it down, but he refused. So he was banned from our club for the next 3 years. 3 years — gone! For one stupid mistake! Now he works with us, and he regrets running his mouth.
Bite the bullet, and remember that there’s many paths to success to stand-up comedy.
9) What does your comedy club look for in a host?
We look for comics who have some type of personality. Be clean. Someone who can get the crowd going. Someone neutral (non-offensive). Doesn’t do crowd work. Easy to work with. We want comics to be reliable, that they will be there in a pinch. Comics that are willing to listen. And willing to be a team player.
We don’t want our hosts alienating the whole crowd in the beginning of the show.
Hosts need to be working and writing new material. Aim for 12 minutes. There may be times when you have to do more, so 20 minutes makes us comfortable. We use hosts a lot for repeat work. If you’re doing the same 10–15 minutes for a few months, we’ll get tired of you.
You’re a warm-up act. You work for the headliner and for club. Anything the headline requests, deal with it. If the headliner says no impressions, no jokes about mothers, no blue material- accept it. You serve the show on a whole.
10) How do I get people to attend my shows? (Shows that I set up in a bar/theater/etc.)? I want your advice as a comedy club.
Our comics are excited to talk about the shows they’ll be on to people they meet. They post it. ReTweet it. Spread the word. They’re always marketing themselves. (in a non-douchey way)
They ask to post up posters and postcards in their favorite local businesses.
They’re also actively going out to expand their own exposure. They’re writing articles for newspapers and websites, they’re creating podcasts and getting on the radio.
Headliners sometimes buy advertisements online with their own money.
If a comic is helping to promote their show that they’re on — we are more likely to put them on our shows. If we know you can market, that’s a huge one-up for you. Attracting a audience is a much more valuable skill to us than just being funny.
[As a professional marketer, my tips are below. It’s not Facebook strategies or optimizing ads, which changes every day. This is evergreen marketing, meaning it’ll help you all through your life. — RockyK]
The first step is getting people to know you, like you and trust you. I recommend ‘Influence’ by Robert Cialdini.
The next step is about build your own audience. I recommend ‘Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World’ by Michael Hyatt, or ‘Engagement From Scratch’ by Danny Iny. You can get the full book ‘Engagement from Scratch’ for free here: http://www.firepolemarketing.com/engagement-toolbox/
These books will get you started. Get the audio book if you’re too lazy to read. Skip a Joe Rogan Podcast episode, and replace it with one of these audio books. It’ll be the best $20 investment you’ll ever make. And you’ll learn 2 years of Business school in a few hours.
11) Should I use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram video, etc.?
Social media absolutely matters, but it’s not a game changer. If you’re funny and friendly, it’s not a make-or-break decision.
We love social media just like you. (If you don’t, fuck off.) We go there to relax. If your update makes us laugh, congrats! You’re now on our radar and are more likely to get on our stage.
Social media is a opportunity to get more exposure to your work. It does affect us because we’re on social media too. We’re more aware of you. We’re thinking about you. We’re seeing you work out your material. It’s not immediate, it’s subconscious. But it’ll put you in our mind when we’re booking.
Social media is also useful when you’re promoting shows that you are on. Promote the shows you’ll be on days and weeks in advance. (It pisses us off if you’re promoting a show an hour before you get on). This is not just our shows — it’s all of your shows. It tells us that you’re not afraid to market yourself, and as a added bonus, showing us that you’re actively working the scene.
Do it for the sake of cultivating their own fans and following. You never know what is going to be the big thing that makes you famous.
If your Facebook post brought 30 people into your show, that’s something you can brag about to us.
13) Rather than being reactive and getting “discovered”, what are some proactive steps one can take to start getting spots at a club? How do I get noticed by you?
You want to be the guy who the staff is repeating your jokes the day after. So make friends with them. Call everybody by name. Tip well. The club will be more likely to remember you. If your name keeps floating around with my team, we’ll be more willing to check you out personally.
You don’t want to be the guy who’s funny and walked out on the tab or didn’t tip the bartender.
Introduce yourself to us, the management team. Do it during open mic. Don’t pop in on a Friday night while we’re busy, pitching shows. That rubs us the wrong way. Pick a time when we’re hanging out, introduce yourself and keep it short and simple. If someone introduce themselves — we’re that more likely to take a look at them. You have to keep in mind that we are STILL WORKING.
Introduce yourself before you’re even in the position. We’re not booking someone we’ve never seen. So make that connection early.
There’s also recommendations.
Show up for open mic and make a great impression. Or be highly recommended by other comics/clubs/bookers. A headliner’s manager recommended a comic to us — we immediately get him on stage to see him.
Recommendation from other comics is important as well. If comics on our payroll recommend you, we’re pretty likely to give you a opportunity. It may not be easy to have that recommendation, which is why it’s important to connect with the local scene.
Material wise, we’re looking for well thought-out jokes. We want comics who come to open mic consistently. They’re taking comedy seriously. Come every week. We want to see new content, new writing. We want to see you working on your craft, not mindlessly repeating your jokes over and over again.
If we like you, we’ll put you on some showcases in front of different audiences. If you work well, we’ll offer you a job.
14) I’m new to comedy, where do I start?
We wouldn’t suggest you start at comedy clubs. Try starting at bars. Low key places. Anywhere that lets you talk. Stuff that’s easier to get your foot in the door, and less pressure to perform.
Go up as much as possible. Be open minded. Introduce yourself to the scene, who will introduce you to more open mics.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your skills will not either. In stand-up comedy, it’s a grind. Find your voice. get your feet wet and understand what works for you on stage.
You shouldn’t be afraid to bomb. We would rather see someone take a risk than someone doing the same 3–5 minutes every single week. If we put you on stage half a dozen times and you’re doing the same material, we’ll remember that when we’re planning out our calendar.
But if you’re constantly working on your craft, tweaking it and making it better — we’ll notice. Even if it doesn’t go well, we want to see comics try something new. Test yourselves. Your set will fail and comics shouldn’t be afraid of that.
Most bookers know that the crowd plays a factor. One set won’t make or break it.
We always give second opportunities. We would never judge someone on one set — so don’t be afraid to bomb. In fact, how you react if you fail also plays a part in your next opportunity with us.
15) As a new comic, what is the best way to get on your good side? What practices are useful for a comedian trying to get work a local club?
Showing up and being a polite nice person. Be humble, be funny.
Don’t get in trouble. Be responsible. Be respectful of time and staff. Don’t be hammered on stage. Don’t be loud in the back of the room. Don’t always play to the back of the room (you’re playing to the audience, not to the back, where the comics hang out.) You’re there for the benefit of the paying audience.
Also, NEVER EVER go over time. (You ruin the timing of the show and completely disrespecting your peers.)
When you work with us, you’re representing the club. That includes on Social Media.
If you’re funny, do well on stage, and you’re respectful, we’ll be more likely work with you. If you’re arrogant (like you’re the greatest thing since slice bread), demanding, and expecting special treatment — we’ll overlook you when we’re filling up our calendar.
If we constantly hear that you don’t tip, or you’re a dick, or said something rude to the staff — we don’t care how funny you are. We don’t want to use you.
[One manager’s perspective]
They should stop telling me that they ‘crush it’. I hate that word. “I crushed the room.” No you didn’t. I was there. If anything, you’re just delirious.
Bonus) Any other suggestions that might make it easier for us to get our foot in the door?
Nothing else outside of all the stuff from before.
Show up and network. Be out with the scene. Be around consistently and say hello. Make yourself known without being a nuisance. If the staff likes somebody, they’ll say something. Get recommended by someone. If the employee starts telling your jokes, you win.
There’s no real shortcut to this.
We’ll never know who’s going to be the next Judd Apatow. From where we stand, we don’t want to break relationships with ‘the next big comic’ and have a bad taste in my mouth because we were jerks.
We want to give opportunities to younger comics. The show and comics are such a huge priority.
But comics have to keep in mind that we’re also running a bar, a restaurant, a box office, staff, etc. We’re a business first. If we can’t keep the lights on, then you don’t have a stage to perform on.
15 questions, answered by the puppet masters in the industry.
When you boil this advice down to a bunch of short notes, these answers may seem obvious.
But here’s the thing-
MOST COMICS DON’T DO IT.
So here’s my request.
What is ONE action that you plan to do immediately?
Leave it below in the comments. Your comment will inspire another comedian to take action too. (And heck, you’ll at least start networking!)
If you like this post, do me a favor and share it with your peers. I don’t care about being viral or getting fame. I want to help comedians.
Does this advice jibe with what you know from your own experiences, either as manager or owner of a comedy club in 2015, or as a comedian working in the clubs? What would you tell comedians today? Other than, "Get out of the business! There's too many comedians already!"
Please let me know what you think in the comments. Thanks, Rocky, for passing this along!