Last week’s FAQ and Answer was about staying within – sticking to – the amount of time you’ve been given to perform on stage. If you missed it, the article is still posted through the link below. One question that wasn’t sent in, but I’ve been asked quite a bit is about showcase times. To be more specific, why are showcase performances usually so short?
To clarify for anyone just getting into the comedy or speaking biz, showcase is another word for audition. A successful showcase can lead to work (auditioning for talent bookers, event planners, etc.) or representation (auditioning for a talent agent or manager).
Why use the word showcase? I dunno… maybe it sounds more professional or less stressful, but it means exactly the same as audition.
I’ve been involved in a lot of showcases for comedy clubs, television shows, corporate events and college gigs. And here’s a behind-the-scenes truth about this business. The industry people – talent bookers, agents and managers – looking to hire or represent performers want to make the most of their on the job time. In other words, they don’t want to spend every night of the week going to a club and only seeing one performer showcasing each night. It makes much more sense (time management) to see a number of performances during one show.
They also don’t want to sit through ten, twenty or thirty minute sets when it’s obvious within the first three minutes the showcasing performer is not what they are looking to hire.
This is why industry showcases include numerous performers doing short sets. For instance…
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When I was auditioning comedians for the television show A&E’s An Evening At The Improv, I would schedule showcases for Monday evenings at The Improv on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. I’d block out about 35 minutes to see ten comics do three minutes each. The extra five minutes would be a buffer for MC introductions and time for the acts to get on and off the stage. If everyone kept to their time – and it was more than just expected they would – then Mission Showcase would be accomplished.
Within that short period of time ten comedians would have an opportunity to book a television show.
And it wasn’t just me in the audience on Monday nights watching the showcase. There were talent bookers for The Tonight Show, HBO, MTV and other shows and networks checking out the new comics. They knew this was happening on Monday evenings and everyone could all get a lot of work done in a little over half an hour.
But it was never a surprise when some of the comics complained that three minutes was not enough time to showcase their talent. But you know what?
They were wrong.
Three minutes is PLENTY of time for an experienced talent booker to know whether or not they want to hire the showcasing performer. In my case, if you couldn’t prove you were ready to perform on A&E’s An Evening at the Improv within three minutes (to be honest it was more like within 30 seconds) then you weren’t right for that particular show. This was also true for the other talent bookers watching these showcases.
If a comedian couldn’t demonstrate what he can do on stage within the first three minutes, there was NO WAY a talent booker will hire him to do those same three minutes on a television show. Even if the comic suddenly became hysterically funny at the end of this showcase – the first three minutes will have lost viewers channel surfing for better entertainment.
It’s similar to auditioning for American Idol, The Voice or So You Think You Can Dance. Before anyone makes it to the televised episodes, thousands of hopefuls showcase in front of one, two or maybe three judges off-camera for (trust me on this because I’ve been there) much less than three minutes. If performers can’t impress the judges within that time frame – they can forget about moving on in the competition.
Lesson? If you think you have what it takes to get on any of those shows, don’t waste any time during your showcase. Bring your A Game and go for it asap.
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It’s also important to realize this is your opportunity as a performer or humorous speaker to make a good first impression with the industry people. It shows you’re professional by knowing the importance of sticking to a schedule – their schedule. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read last week’s article.
Another reason to stick to your showcasing time is consideration for your fellow comedians or speakers.
It doesn’t matter if your showcase is done in front of a large audience, like we did at the Hollywood Improv, or just a few judges similar to Last Comic Standing, The Voice and American Idol. Anyone watching a lot of performers doing short performances will get burned-out faster than if they were watching one great performer during the same time frame.
For example, Jerry Seinfeld can do an hour set and leave the audience wanting more. He’s a seasoned professional entertainer. No one can argue that. But newcomers won’t have the experience or material to hold an audience that long. It takes time – stage time – and talent to reach that status. And if you’re already there – like Seinfeld – then you wouldn’t be showcasing anyway.
And no one can argue that either…
So one way to make these talent showcases fair (there’s a word you don’t often hear in showbiz) is to keep the talent bookers and audience from being burned-out for the later performers. It’s not fair to the performers at the end of the showcase. Here’s another example…
During my comedy workshops ten aspiring comedians perform five minute sets during our evening graduation show. That’s 50 minutes – not including an MC warming up the crowd for ten minutes to kick things off and doing short introductions for each comic. That brings our show to over an hour, which is getting into Seinfeld territory on stage.
The audience is fresh and excited in the beginning. And by keeping each comedian’s set short and funny, chances are the audience will not get burned-out by the end. There may be performers they don’t care as much for, but the next one will be on stage within a few minutes. The audience interest level can be held.
At one workshop performance a few years ago, the FIRST comic in our show – for whatever reason – never took his eyes off the first few rows of tables. He kept his head down and never looked at the people seated in the back. He had been told to watch for my signal from the sound booth (back of the room) telling him his five minutes were almost up and to finish his performance.
Except he NEVER looked up. He kept his head down and didn’t stop talking.
He had a good five minutes – which is what he had created during our workshop. He had been prepared and did a good job. But when he finished his five minutes, he just kept rambling on. He didn’t stop talking.
Suddenly, it wasn’t funny. In fact – it was the complete opposite. The audience lost interest. You could see them breaking up into small discussion groups at their tables, looking at the menus and trying to order drinks to ease their pain.
When he ran out of things to say, he finally left the stage. The audience had already checked out mentally and the comedian who was unfortunate enough to have the next spot had to work TWICE as hard to get the audience back (get them to pay attention). It was not an easy night for either comic – or even the next few that had to follow this showcase killing disaster.
The comic that went long found me at the back of the room. He had lost track of time and had no idea how many minutes he’d been on stage. So when he asked me how he did, I had to give him an honest answer:
“You did ten freaking minutes!” I said.
Okay, I hope I didn’t sound as angry as that looks. But I was being honest. I took time to explain how what he had done affected the show. It really wasn’t fair to anyone that night – including him, especially since the first five minutes of his set was great. The additional time he did onstage (unprepared in advance) left an impression with the audience that he wasn’t very good after all.
As far as I know he’s still doing comedy and since talent bookers are hiring him, I know the lesson was learned.
So whether you’re showcasing or doing a paid gig, remember the importance of time. It’s a ticking time bomb – and we all know how comedians and speakers HATE to bomb!!
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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.
For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com
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