It’s been more than five years since I produced and promoted my first standup comedy shows, and today I wanted to share some of the things I learned from my initial experience in the business side of live comedy shows. I’ll spare you all the backstory, but the first two standup shows I ever produced were monthly shows in Los Angeles that were designed to cater to two very specific audiences – potheads and porn fans.
The first show I ever produced was the High Times Comedy Show, which was sponsored by High Times magazine, predictably featured marijuana-loving comedians, and appealed to a stoner crowd. Here’s a video of some highlights from the show – keep in mind this was way back in 2006, so the quality of the video is, well, about what you’d expect in 2006:
After some initial success with that show, I launched the Vivid Comedy Party, a show which featured sex-themed comedy, interviews with porn stars, and was sponsored by the adult entertainment company Vivid. Needless to say, both shows led to some pretty interesting stories.
But today, I want to focus on some of the lessons I learned from producing those shows that I think will help you in your own productions.
1. Communities Are Powerful
The biggest reason my initial shows were successful was because they were designed to appeal to specific pre-existing communities. Generic standup comedy shows are designed to appeal to anybody who likes to laugh, but that’s not a true community. In these cases, both of the shows I produced appealed to specific niche audiences – people who liked pot or porn.
This was a huge advantage in launching the shows because it enabled me to attract an audience that I knew had a shared sense of humor, and then to book comedians that would appeal to and connect with that audience. Plus, it was much easier to market the shows because if you want to market to an existing community, you can usually figure out where to find them.
If you’re thinking about launching a live show (or web series or podcast for that matter), I’d encourage you to consider what kind of existing community your creation will appeal to – it will make everything from the content to the promotion of your creation much easier and more likely to succeed.
2. Every Community Is Different
In some ways, what I did with the Vivid show was exactly the same as the High Times show – I found an existing community, paired up with a brand that resonates with that community, booked comedians that had a shared sensibility with that community, and promoted the show to that community. However, one thing I found is that every community is different. Each community you encounter will have its own set of unique challenges and habits that you’ll have to take into account.
For example, stoners aren’t big on buying tickets to shows in advance (shocker, I know), so it made it very difficult to gauge how well tickets were going to sell for a given show. Crowds that come to a show featuring porn stars want to see the porn stars…but they don’t necessarily want to see the porn stars on stage trying (and usually failing) to be funny. So we had to come up with unique ways to work them into the show without putting the pressure on them to perform comedy.
This led to segments into the show like Inside The Porn Actors Studio, in which a comedian would interview a porn star. The first one I ever did actually featured Zach Galifianakis interviewing porn star Monique Alexander – you can check it out here in all its hilarious glory:
The important thing to remember when you’re appealing to a specific community with your show is that you need to understand the tastes of that community and take those into account as you plan the show.
3. If You Have A Community, You Don’t Need A Headliner
One of the most difficult things for a comedy producer is trying to figure out how to make the economics work of a live show – it’s tough to sell tickets to comedians that nobody’s heard of, but it’s also tough to make money when you have to pay a name headliner to draw people to your show. But, if you’ve got a concept that appeals to a community, then you can draw people to the concept and book good comedians that people may not have heard of because audiences are coming for the concept, not the comedians.
This worked great with both of my shows – stoners wanted to come see a night of stoner comedy and trusted that the people performing on my shows would be funny even if they hadn’t heard of them. And the same was true with the Vivid show – people came to see dirty jokes about sex and porn stars, they didn’t need to be familiar with the headliner to be convinced to come to the show.
If you’re going to produce a show, I’d highly recommend coming up with a show concept that will attract people even if they don’t know the comedians who are performing.
4. The Curiosity Factor Matters
I think it’s important to produce shows that sound intriguing. Whenever I told people that I was producing stoner comedy shows or “porn comedy” shows, they were inevitably curious to hear and see what that was all about. Those show concepts just sounded kind of wild and interesting – even to people who weren’t members of those specific communities.
In fact, lots of people came to the High Times shows that didn’t even smoke pot and women tended to love the Vivid shows as much (maybe even more) than men. I think this was in part because they were initially curious to see what the shows were all about, and found it fun to see what it was like to be surrounded by these interesting communities for a couple hours. It was unique, different, and fun.
If you can create something that’s unique enough that it sounds interesting, that will go a long way towards attracting people to your shows.
5. You Don’t Have To Be For Everyone
I’m not going to lie – there were a handful of people that walked out of every High Times and Vivid show that I produced. They were either offended, or were expecting just another typical night at a comedy club, or they just weren’t feeling it. But I didn’t look at this as a negative – I thought of it as a positive because I knew that these shows weren’t meant for everybody.
I believed that these shows were designed for very specific audiences and communities and that in order to appeal to those communities I would have to be willing to accept that some people wouldn’t like them. I think if you’re really doing something unique and trying to connect with people who have a specific point of view, then there should be some people who hate you just as much as there are others who love you.
Don’t feel like you have to appeal to everyone, because you don’t. You just need to appeal to the people that you’re trying to connect with and if you can do that, it won’t matter that a couple people walk out on you.