Over on the Connected Comedy Facebook page this morning I asked readers which of several topics they’d like me to write about next. Predictably, most people requested that I write about “The Dirty Secret Of Comedy Clubs,” so that’s exactly what I’m about to do.
But first, I’d also just like to point out a quick reminder about the importance of headlines in promoting your content. I believe that The Dirty Secret Of Comedy Clubs was requested almost unanimously because it was the “sexiest” headline of the potential topics I offered (others included “How To Teach Yourself To Be Successful,” “Why You Should Think Like A Comedy Club,” and “The Golden Rule Of Social Media.”)
Sure, there may have been interest in my thoughts on those other topics, but the most teasing headline was the one that really captured people’s attention. The same will apply to your videos and blog posts – the better the headline, the more clicks you’ll get.
Anyway, here’s what I think is the dirty secret of comedy clubs: They don’t really care if you’re funny.
Now, before my email inbox gets flooded with hate mail from comedy club owners, let me explain what I mean.
As I look at the comedy club business from the perspective of an outsider (I don’t own a club and I’m not a comedian, even though obviously I work in the industry), I see a major disconnect between what club owners and bookers value most and what most comedians think they value most.
Club owners are most interested in selling tickets to shows, because getting people in those seats to buy their booze and food is how they make their money. Sure, they’d like you to be funny because they understand that a good show is more likely to lead to repeat business than a bad show, but they also know that they’d take a moderately funny guy who can sell out their venue (with little work on the club’s part) in a heartbeat over a hilarious guy who isn’t able to sell any tickets (without significant marketing money spent by the club).
Comedians, on the other hand, tend to believe that the key to them getting more work is to improve their act and to be “funnier.” Of course this is a great goal and will have an impact on your career, but it’s not ultimately what club bookers are looking for. Trust me, if the room is packed every time you perform in a club you will get asked to headline a lot quicker than if you kill in front of a handful of people.
Now the reason I refer to this misunderstanding as the dirty secret of comedy clubs is because they don’t ever seem to explain this to up and coming (or established for that matter) comedians. Sure, maybe they tell their booking agents (who are equally at fault for not teaching clients how to grow their fanbases), but you rarely hear a club owner tell a comedian to work on his/her ability to draw a crowd.
Ironically, club owners are quick to offer artistic advice on a comedian’s act which creates the illusion that if you just get a little funnier, then headlining gigs will flood your way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.
For comedians, I’m always curious to find out how much time you spend working on your act compared to working on growing a fanbase that will show up and support you? In most cases, there’s a ton of time spent on the act and just about no time spent on the “business.” That’s fine if that’s your prerogative, but it’s also the reason that the vast majority of talented comedians wind up so frustrated as they watch people that are less talented than them progress further in their career.
Even though I think this is the biggest dirty secret of comedy clubs, I’m sure lots of you have some of your own thoughts about comedy club secrets. I’d love to hear what you think so please leave a comment with your opinion…
20 thoughts on “The Dirty Secret Of Comedy Clubs”
Yes. I have some comments.
First – in a broad sense, I agree with you. Not specifically, or only on the matter of “funny.” But on the difference between reality vs. perception and how so many comics sadly are not able to distinguish between the two.
After a 30-year recess from performing comedy, I jumped back in about 5 years ago. I was closing in on 50 and just wanted to see if I still had it in me. I did. And I do. At the time, being a “new” novice, the only world I knew was that of comedy clubs or open mics. So that’s where I jumped. Almost immediately it became apparent to me that, at nearly 50, I was not going to “become” a famous comic by begging for 5-minute sets every 10 weeks on the hope that perhaps someone from Hollywood might see my act and sign me up for their next sitcom. What I realized was that, as you say, the business side is at least AS important – if not MORE important – than developing a killer act.
Thus began my quest to find out where nearly 50-year old funny guys can go to actually earn money AS a comic. For me there were two primary avenues – comedy for corporate events and comedy for church events – both of which tend to nearly always request “clean” comedy which, for me, was not an issue since I work clean. My focus now is on securing paying gigs for events that enjoy clean comedy – I’m comfortable with that and know how to deliver that.
I did not intentionally say “goodbye” to the clubs – and I never would. There are so many great comics in those clubs and, to be honest, I really miss not hanging out with them on a regular basis. But for me – and I would say, for MOST comics – that is NOT where the future is. The future is in the comic taking a good hard look at how badly they want this to be a career and then doing what it takes to work towards achieving that career. If it’s only hobby, then have fun. Enjoy. Delight in the fact that some club owner gives you 5 minutes every 10 weeks to help him sell booze. But if your desire is to actually BE a comic – to earn a LIVING at it, then treat the clubs as a wonderful stepping stone – but not much more than that.
One final comment – – comics need to realize that if they don’t show up to a club, there is no show. And club owners know this. The owners know that the comics, in order to fill that need to perform their killer material, will do whatever it takes to get on stage… they will pay for parking, pay for food, pay for drinks – the COMICS will PAY to get on stage! This system is totally backwards… but club owners know this and that’s one of the reasons the comedy clubs stay open. Yes, the comics who’ve put in years of time, playing the political game with club owners, DO get paid – but not what most people imagine. Again – perception vs. reality.
Again – I love the clubs, but more important – I love the COMICS who hang out in the clubs. For me that’s what it’s all about…
Hey Dan, thanks for the lengthy and great comment. I agree with a lot of what you say – clubs have their place and I’m certainly not anti-club, but too many comics wait around for the clubs to give them a career and, like you said, it’s not gonna work out that way in most cases.
No question this is true, and there’s a reason why it’s easy for us to get talented headliners on non-paid spots at local bar shows in New York. Because, in NYC, a club only cares about your tv credits so that their street team can sell you…At the end of the day, few clubs actually care about developing a comic – immediate results are sought… And, that’s what screws the up and comer into having to produce “bringer” shows, and those typically don’t happen more than once per month for any particular club.
One idea you might want to talk about is the importance of working for a street team… Or, maybe you already have – I just started viewing this site within the past two weeks.
Thank you for the tips. I found your facebook bit to be quite helpful!
Hey Scott, welcome to the site and thanks for the comment. I’ve always wondered why clubs don’t try to do more to work with comics to build their fanbases, but I guess in most cases it’s because they figure as soon as a comic can sell his own tickets he moves on to theaters and leaves the clubs behind anyway.
What do you mean by “the importance of working for a street team?”
As a comic is building themselves up, and trying to get more stage time – at least here in New York – it helps a lot to sell tickets for a club (including for shows you’re not in), while waiting for the payoff of having that club book you, and also give you a show to produce. I sell for one of the top clubs in NYC, while producing there and at two other clubs… But, I find that helping a club sell tickets makes a big difference in terms of getting more spots. This might be less the case in other cities where comedy clubs might just sell out, but here in NYC, we have twenty plus clubs, and it’s ultra-competitive with so many headliners available. For an up-and-comer to get stage time, we really need to work our tails off…
Gotcha. Just curious – what kinda stuff do you do to sell the tickets? Is it mostly just approaching people on the streets? And if so, what have you found to be the most effective way to “sell” somebody on coming to a show?
I’ll be the first person to tell you that I’m not particularly good at selling tickets (for shows that I’m not on). I just can’t fake an enthusiasm that I don’t have for comics I don’t know. Now- if a great comic I know is on a show – yeah – I can push a show pretty well. But, in NY, we have big name headliners at almost every club.
The standard opener for those selling tix is “Hey, where are you from?” – and they try to engage the couple in conversation before trying to steer the conversation into buying tickets to a comedy show. Very few people are good at it. (My day job is in sales, but a more relaxed, non-pressure form of sales – this to me is very difficult).
I also have some ideas about producing shows. I haven’t trademarked or made a website for it yet, but I find that by having some sort of giveaway – you can find up and comers who will bring their friends – especially when you’re also backing that up with a couple headliners. I also give them more time than the typical “bringer” show – I try to give them eight minutes rather than the typical five or six. But, I also let them know that I’m limiting the number of up and comers, and that this is a partnership. If they do a really good job bringing, and their funny – they’ll get future guest spots. And I back it up. I’m training two of my bringers to become club producers. I say training in that I’ve given them a course, and I’ll match them both up with myself or my current producer – to coproduce for the first few runs. Training wheels.
Scott, you are advocating both “barking” and bringer shows? In general, neither of those things are beneficial to comedians at all and just play right into the exploitive nature of how some clubs treat comics.
Obviously some comics can make it work, but I can never see myself swallowing my pride in order to trick tourists into going to a show.
So…how does one grow his or her brand? The article is good and accurate but hardly a secret.
In some ways I’d say that every post on this site is about how to build your brand in one way or another. But if you’re looking to start somewhere, maybe check out these posts I’ve done about promotion tips…
I’ve had a similar experience to Dan as I am also an older guy who stepped back into it after a long lay off. The clubs are an awfully difficult place for an older person to be. The audience is usually twenty-somethings with their own cultural experiences they want to hear about.
I think the writer is correct about the club owner caring more about if you fill seats than how funny you are. He would have to be. Not to say, they don’t appreciate funny and want to have comics that are funny and can fill seats, but they have to be primarily focused on bar receipts, or go out of business. The most important currency anyone in show business can have is fame. If your famous, people will make a special effort to leave their homes and come out to the see the television star. But, think about it, funny is still very, very important as far as having a big career. How many unfunny people actually have big careers? Only a couple who manage to somehow slip through. Seems to me being hysterical and fresh still is only thing that will get you the big career. Clubs are just clubs. There is a lot more to a big career then clubs.
I learned this “dirty little secret” very early on. On my second or third try at stand-up, I was able to “bring” more than 20 people to the club where I was performing. The new talent producer called me later to invite me to do another gig at this club – I never received a call after the first gig (although the feedback I received was that I was funny), so a big light bulb went off in my head: ‘Ah, they want me back because I brought in a lot of people!’
That’s tough to do on a continuous basis, and I’m not getting any younger.
I was recently introduced to your website, so thank you for your insight. I will check out some of your other blogs as time allows.
Hey Laura, welcome and thanks for the comment.
Great article, as a real cop, and real comedian, I had quite a following of cops. These cops and families were coming out to pay other people, to see me for 5-10 minutes, while waiting to see me after 12 other comics. Through Judy Carters workshop, I learned and a light bulb went off in my head!,, rent a theatre or venue yourself, and my people started coming out and paying me, to see me !,, what a concept. On two occasions having rented the venue way in advance, others who wanted to rent the same space, offered substantial money for me to change my date, I was able to make a good some of money before even having the show. Ofcourse there is a lot to renting the venue, getting an insurance policy, bar guarantees, security and other issues, but having total control of the show is priceless,, if you do have any kind of following, your crowd gets to come out and see you in the venue of your choice, your date, and just you and whoever you hire as the mc and headliner or feature, whatever the case may be. You can’t burn your following out, you have to space your shows, but your fan base will grow because your starring in these shows, and giving good entertainment and an experience for your crowd, they don’t even know there paying you to see you, they don’t care, they buy the ticket and are there to see you. I have even hired headliners, paid them, and I opened for them in my show when I was not ready to headline yet. Then the headliner was so happy for the bigger than normal check i paid, and the packed house, they later hired me as their feature on the road and in clubs, which led to relationships with bookers for other clubs. I say if you can, create your own show, and if you have a following, have your fans pay you, and not a club owner.
The ugly truth is clubs in the major metropolitan areas no longer feel it is their responsibility to provide an audience. Why should they? There is no shortage of comedians desperate for stage time who will provide an audience. The business has been completely turned on its head with the club owner thinking their real estate investment should suffice. It’s extremely difficult to be a good artist and audience hustle upper. They are both difficult things to do well.
Agreed, but i think it creates an enormous opportunity for independent producers, to get the right venue, and the right artists, and put on a great show, sell the place out, and provide an opportunity to newcomers to open the show with 10-15 minutes. These clubs, kill, kill, kill, with the revenue from alcohol sales, 300% mark up. if I get the door receipts and 10 people come in, I make 150.00, they could make 250 300, just on the bar receipts from the group of 10.
somehow there is a better paradigm for comedy. I know when I hire headliners for cop training events, and retirements, I sometimes pay headliners more in one night than some clubs pay them for the week.
Clubs care about making money, and that means you are a “Marquee value”. Populartity is created and must be maintained by regular exposure in the media. My business LA Comedy Awards is founded by this premise. It’s free to enter, and good media exposure. Post on our facebook wall twiter or messages us. Categories are filling up fast.
LOL, I love the part where you said comedy owners offer advice… You are totally right! Funnier does not equal headlining gigs.
Great points, Josh… the only problem I see is that if you don’t have a particular niche for your act, then it’s very hard to build your own fanbase… a lot of comedians I know don’t have a very narrow target audience of fans… except based on age… branding for comedians is easier said than done, in my experience… comments, anyone?
For example, who was Rodney Dangerfield’s SPECIFIC niche/target audience other than the middle-aged working guy with everyday problems and struggles? In today’s age, I still don’t see how he could build a fan base without TV/Media exposure as he would still be considered a versatile club act… I’d love all your comments… thanks…