Hey Dave – Without revealing my secret identity, I heard you talking not too long ago and know you were pretty upset with a comedian who went over his time and was on stage too long. It’s probably safe to say he overstayed his welcome. Care to elaborate? – G.
Hey G – What are you? A secret agent with a secret identity listening to my not-so-private conversations? Oh well, I guess it could be worse. Instead of a sleazy private eye snooping on me, you could be a self-centered comedian – or humorous speaker – who goes over his allotted time on stage.
Want to kill a potentially great relationship with a comedy club or make sure you’re never invited back for a return gig at a college or corporate event? When you’re given the light (the signal) to end your set and leave the stage – ignore it. Go ahead and do another 15 minutes, half an hour, an hour… or two… Everyone will surely love and worship your amazing and boundless talent that you’re compelled to share so unselfishly for however long your ego needs to be stroked on stage.
And in case you don’t recognize sarcasm in the written word, insert a capitalized “NOT!” after that last sentence. In a creative profession that thrives on having ”no rules” (being original and unique is a big plus) going over your time on stage breaks a big business rule – and is a big minus.
As always there are exceptions that depend on your status within the industry and everyone starting out in the business needs to realize that. There are fundraising efforts – that are planned in advance – to set records for time on stage. I’m pretty sure the current one is still held by comedian Bob Marley who did forty hours of stand-up a few years ago and raised $12,000 for the Portland Maine Barbara Bush Hospital.
That’s truly awesome, but not what we’re talking about today.
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Another exception is having your own hit television show or enough name recognition to sell out theaters and arenas. That’s like being the favorite child or grandchild. You get special privileges.
For instance, a major star like Dave Chappelle can go for a (then) world record on stage, as he did in 2007 at LA’s Laugh Factory, (over 6 hours). He broke the record set not long before that by Dane Cook (almost 4 hours) who – as you know – is another major star.
Stars of their magnitude can stay on stage as long as they like – when it’s their headlining show in a theater, arena or (sometimes) a club. That’s the power of star power. It’s like seeing Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, or U2 perform three hour concerts. Their fans are into it, paid big money to see that particular artist, and these acts have the material to entertain for that length of time.
Reasons why? As always, I’m glad you asked…
It’s a business – which is a fact I emphasize in many of these FAQ’s and Answers. Some club owners are in the entertainment biz because they enjoy it and like to nurture and promote new talent. Others are only in it to make money. But the bottom line for both is if they don’t make money – and yes, this includes the nurturing types – they go out of business. When a club goes out of business, comedians have one less place to work.
Clubs earn money selling tickets, selling food and drinks – and keeping expenses (rent, utilities, inventory, payroll, etc…) under control. The comedian you reminded me of in this week’s FAQ – and I won’t mention his name – actually told club management after the show that he was doing them a favor by going more than an HOUR over his scheduled time on stage. He pretty much wanted a “thank you” for giving the serving, kitchen and bar staff more time to sell food and drinks.
That consideration for the club deserves a bigger laugh than any he received on stage. After all, Dumb and Dumber was a popular movie and now this comic is the live version. Good thinking! (Again – this is written sarcasm so please add a big “NOT!”).
You know why? Because the business doesn’t work that way…
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Shows at this particular club (a world famous comedy club) are timed. Staff arrives at a certain time, the doors open at a certain time, the show starts at a certain time and the comedians – opening act, feature act and headlining act – are given set times. The headliners, of course, are the privileged members of the family, but most know how the business works. As Steve Martin said in The Jerk:
“I get it… It’s a profit deal!”
The behind the scenes business – kitchen crew, servers, food-runners, bars, box office, security, management – revolve around the show schedule. For instance, the box office closes when the headliner goes on so customers won’t complain about getting ripped-off when buying a ticket after the show has started. So that profit opportunity for the club is ended when the headliner walks on stage.
Are you following me so far? Good, because I’m not done yet…
A sad fact about the nightclub biz is that some people like to skip out on their checks. In other words – if they can sneak out without paying they’re getting a free night out. The truth is that in most cases the servers – the waiters and waitresses – are stuck with these checks and have to pay for these uncollected profits out of their own pockets. They foot the bill and end up paying for these jerks (and I’m not referring again to Steve Martin) to have a fun night out.
Not fair – is it?
This is why comedy clubs have “check spots.” Experienced comedians know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s when the checks are put on the tables to be paid by the customers. The show doesn’t (or shouldn’t) end until all the checks are paid – by the customers. That makes it difficult for deadbeat customers to blend in and sneak out with the customers that have already paid. It’s a sad truth about the nightclub business.
So based on the time allotted for the show, last call (for ordering drinks and food) is given when there is still enough time during the headlining comedian’s set to give customers their checks – check spot – and collect the money. No more drinks or food are served after last call because the checks are paid-up and closed. When the show ends and the final comedian has walked off the stage, customers can head to the bar or another club if they want to continue drinking and eating.
This means the final two profit opportunities for the club – food and drinks – has ended.
But what about keeping expenses under control? When the staff has finished serving and collecting paid-up checks, they have to hang around and wait for the show to end and the customers to leave. And while they’re hanging around waiting, they’ve also lost any opportunity to earn additional tips because the checks are closed and they can’t start new ones for thirsty customers because no one knows when the show will end.
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In the case of the comedian referred to above, that meant the staff waited around for an hour – on the clock and getting paid by the club owner – before they could finish their shifts, shut down the club and leave.
Doesn’t make great business sense for a good business plan – does it?
I’m sure you can imagine the chaos this can cause for clubs that have two or three shows on a weekend night. If the first show runs even 10 or 15 minutes late because a comic goes over his time, the audiences coming in for the later shows don’t know this. They’re on time and lined-up to enter the showroom, while the earlier audience is still inside. When they’re leaving the new audience is trying to get in… Well, I’ll refer to another Steve Martin quote that also works from the management point of view when it comes to crowd control…
I don’t need to tell you what the management and staff are saying behind the back of the comedian that went long. I’ll just let you know it is not pretty.
The same holds true for corporate and college performers.
These business people and students are usually on a schedule. It could be a class, dinner, cocktail hour / social time – whatever. The contracts I’ve seen for these types of gigs are very strict in their performance times. Go short (leave the stage before completing the time you’re contracted for) and the clients won’t want to pay you. Go long and they won’t even think of booking you for a return engagement since you’ve disrupted the event schedule.
Of course there are other reasons why you must stick to your time on stage. The No. 1 reason for beginning comics and speakers is to prove to talent bookers and club management you understand how important this is and won’t cause a potential nightmare in the future. But in an effort not to take longer than expected when you started reading, I’ll stick to my time and sign off. I think you get the idea.
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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