Showcases can be a ticking time bomb

October 21, 2014

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?

time-is-running-outYou don’t have enough time to prove how good you really are – right?

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.

images

No sweat!

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.

time is up concept clockAt 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

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Stick to your time on stage

October 13, 2014

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.

images-7Want 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.

pointing at watchBut until you’re working within that stratosphere of popularity, stick to your time on stage.

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…

images-9A 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…

MI0000162145Comedy is not pretty.

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.

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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 ComedyComedy 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

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Editing your promo video

October 6, 2014

Hi Dave – What is considered acceptable when editing your demo reel? I filmed a set last week that’s pretty good, but there are a couple spots where I didn’t get the audience reaction I had hoped for. I also messed up a joke and really don’t want it on the tape. Is honesty the best policy and should I send the whole set unedited? Thanks – D.

Hey D. – Honesty is always the best policy, but sometimes being too honest is too much. If you normally have great sets, then you honestly want that represented on your video / DVD / demo reel. But if great sets are few and far between, then sending out an edited video making you look like the next coming of Jerry Seinfeld is not going to help you in the long run.

images

Gimme another chance!

In fact, if a booker hires you or gives you a showcase off a great video and it’s obvious during your performance you can’t back it up, chances are you’re not going to get a second chance.

And by the way, it’s easier for me to refer to your demo reel as a “video” since that’s the term comedians, speakers and bookers have been using since Dave Chappelle was an open-mic comic. He was 14 when he started, so we’re going back a way in comedy history. But as I mentioned in an earlier FAQ and Answer, video tape is considered an antique and promotional videos now are either online or on DVD.

Now if you really want to get technical, a sizzle reel is what producers and show-runners (sometimes the same?) use to promote ideas for sitcoms, reality shows and other television projects to potential sponsors (advertisers). But I’m never one to get too technical. Just thought I’d mention that…

Ideally, you want to present an unedited video.

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That’s seamless gold – but sometimes seemingly impossible. There’s always going to be something going on in a club that you can’t control like people arriving late, talking in the back, ordering drinks, spilling drinks and yadda-yadda-yadda. There might also be tech problems with the sound system – or even a joke that always kills, but for some reason doesn’t work the night you’re taping. It happens.

Film_editing

My good side has to be on here somewhere!

So when it happens – something in your set that’s not truly representative of what you do on stage – then yeah, edit it out. Almost everyone does. I can’t remember the last time I watched an unedited video submission. But even though I know it and the comedian knows it – the best videos don’t make it so obvious.

Good edits make it look seamless. (Sorry, I feel your pain and will stop with the wordplay).

That’s also difficult to do unless you pay big bucks to a professional editor or have editing equipment and know how to use it. And yeah, I know there are some more youthful computer wizards right now shaking their heads in disbelief. I have a teenage son and he can film, edit and post a music video on YouTube in less time than it takes me to write these ramblings. If you can do that, pocket your big bucks and get to work. But if you’re old school (a term I’ve heard often from my youthful kids)…

There are a lot of editing programs for computers and tablets available and most of them are not even that expensive. In the long run, it would be worth the learning time and investment to do your own editing because your video should always be current and representative of your act or presentation. It doesn’t do you any good sending out a year-old video you’ve paid a professional editor big bucks to fix if you’re not even doing that material any more.

You should also be a better comic or speaker than you were a year ago and need to show that.

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I won’t get into specifics on editing, though I am pretty good at it (if I do say so myself). But here’s a good rule to follow:

Don’t make a LOT of edits and don’t make your video look like it has a LOT of edits.

images-4

The best policy

Make sense? It’s okay to cut out a few flaws here and there, but if it’s a jumpy looking set because one moment you’re standing on one side of the stage and the next you’re on the other side – or if you’re wearing different clothes for each joke (a telltale sign it wasn’t all taped the same show) then no booker will take you seriously. Instead of thinking you’re a great comic or speaker, they’ll be wondering what you’re trying to hide with so many edits. They might also think you did a half hour set just to get seven minutes of presentable material and would not be willing to hire (pay for) the other 23 minutes they’ll assume didn’t work.

So my advice is to make edits – we all do – when truly necessary. In other words, when the parts cut out are honestly not representative of your typical performance. But too many obvious edits will look too suspicious to bookers. The key to remember is when someone is hiring you to perform, they want to know what they’re paying for. Your goal as a comedian or humorous speaker is to show them. Honestly.

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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 ComedyComedy 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

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

More advice about corporate holiday gigs

September 29, 2014

The past two FAQs And Answers have been about booking holiday parties. Specifically, the higher paying corporate events. I’m always looking for feedback and happy to pass along experienced advice that can be helpful for other comedians and humorous speakers. So if you ever want to join in on the conversation, just send an email to dave@thecomedybook.com.

Comedian Dave Glardon did that and (with his permission) I’ve designated him this week’s “guest columnist.” I’m sure you’ll find his experiences in the corporate holiday market helpful. And when you finish reading, check out his website at www.daveglardon.com.

Thanks for sharing Dave!

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Hi Dave,

One thing I’d add. I’ve learned over the years never to believe the party coordinator when they say “give us your club show” because all it takes is one semi-prude in the room and things can spiral down really fast. That happened on my first corp gig, a retirement party. They asked me to keep it semi-clean, but in two separate emails reminded me that there would be no kids there and “please don’t baby us – we’re all adults“.

funny-ugly-mature-senior-woman-shock-surprise-book-24014412

He said WHAT?!!

Yeah. The first time I said “ass” the room went dead silent, and stayed that way for the remainder of my set.

I learned pretty quickly that in a corporate gig you have one person to please, and that’s the boss or the guest of honor. If they’re not laughing, nobody’s laughing. And if the company prude is getting visibly upset, the boss tends to stop laughing pretty fast.

So add one more to the “must please” list.

A few years ago I did two holiday shows in the same weekend – one for a group of women from various trucking companies, and another for a construction company. Both told me to just do my normal set. I was most concerned about the women, so I started off easy and tested the waters a bit. Every time I went a little dirty, they howled. So I ended up giving them my best club set and they treated me like a comedy god.

The next night for the construction company, I started off doing the same set. Before my set I sensed a lot of tension in the room, and I noticed as the owner moved around, nobody except his son and girlfriend approached him. During the show, they were seated at the front with their backs to the room. The boss chuckled at most of my jokes, but not enough that anyone could tell. Nobody else laughed at anything except when I picked on one of their competitors.

Massimo-DAlema

Expecting snowflakes & glitter

Found out later they’d just had a big lay-off and the VP thought a comedian would relieve some tension and improve morale. Thanks!

Anyway, I’ve learned to turn down the ones that tell me they want adult humor, or at least talk them out of it, because the odds of bombing are about five times greater.

If you want me for a frat party, we’ll get down and dirty.

Company Christmas party? It’s snowflakes and glitter.

There is so much to learn in this business and, after 11 years and about 1000 shows, what I’ve learned is that I still have an awful lot to learn. I just appreciate the fact that you do what you can to give the newer folks constructive and honest advice, while discouraging things that only serve to pollute the pool for the rest of us.

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I avoid most corporate and holiday gigs right now because I’m a club comic. Last year I rocked the house at the Stardome six nights in a row, but that was a well-honed club set that took me years to develop. When it comes to the private events, I normally pass along the name of someone better suited.

Last year a company contacted me about their holiday show. The year before they had a comedic magician, and he was already booked. That set off all kinds of red flags with me, and I told them they’d probably be better suited with someone else.

The woman insisted she’d heard I was really funny, and this is an adult party, so I should be fine.

o-SHOCKED-WOMAN-facebook

THAT’S an innuendo?!

I sent her a link to my full feature set from the Stardome. She emailed the next day to say that probably was a little rough for their party. I put her in touch with a couple of other guys. One was a comedic magician.

And Dave, the thing is, I’m not really dirty. Most bookers describe me as PG to mild R, depending on which jokes I use and which ones I leave out. I use a few words here and there that I can cut out with no problem, but my material still deals with adult topics with a lot of innuendo. I’d say 90% of my set could be done on network TV without giving censors a heart attack.

But to the point you made very clearly, adult audiences don’t always enjoy adult humor, especially in a more dignified setting. Sometimes all they want is Santa Claus and the little drummer boy.

Anyway, I’m glad you tackled this topic. It needed to be said.

And my web URL … oddly enough, it’s www.daveglardon.com. Imagine that! :-)

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Workshop Marquee 150

Dave’s next comedy workshop at The CHICAGO Improv

Starts Saturday – November 8, 2014

Includes an evening performance at The Chicago Improv on…

Wednesday, December 3rd

Visit WEBSITE for details, reviews and to register now!

———————————————————-

Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy 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

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Part 2 – Time to start booking holiday parties

September 22, 2014

Hey Dave – Last week you wrote about booking gigs for holiday parties. Good tips, like planning your promo, networking, and working clean. But you left us hanging about the money and how comics can charge more for holiday gigs. You said you’d cover that subject this week. So what’s the pay-off, you handsome devil? – Dave

Hey Handsome Devil Wannabe…

Okay, I’ll stop the BS. In case you haven’t figured it out, I wrote the above question. I could’ve just continued from where we left off last week by announcing “Part 2″ in bold, italicized CAPS, but what good is it to call these articles FAQs and Answers if there’s no Q kicking it off?

Guess I’m a stickler for sticking with the format. So with that said…

PART 2:

Most experienced comedians will raise their corporate performing fees for holiday parties. Notice I said experienced. Rookie, open-mic comics (though I love you guys!) should not get into the private party (holiday gigs) market until you have an act that is audience-proven and worth the money businesses will pay for entertainment.

Satisfaction guaranteedIn other words – like a good business – you want satisfied customers. Word gets out that you were an asset (business term) to the party, it could lead to more work. If you do a crash and burn, take the money and run (hack comic term) performance, that word could also get out – and your next holiday gig might be working for the caterer.

Know what I mean?

Yes, there are (as always) exceptions. For example, your aunt’s boyfriend offers you 20 bucks to say something funny at his retirement roast. If you don’t live up to the (headline) billing your loving aunt was probably using to influence this decision, you might just get a few dirty looks from the boyfriend and the other witnesses. Do the same (bomb) at a big-money corporate holiday event and you might have a hard time getting paid.

As a booker I’ve felt the wrath of clients who thought a comic was so bad that they refused to pay – or have demanded a refund. Do you think I’d work with that comic again? No way. I’ve also known a few contacts in the business world that have actually picked up the phone and called me – and other booking agents – and warned us not to use a certain comic for ANYTHING.

Believe me, bad reviews seem to travel a lot faster in his biz than good reviews.

So – let’s put it this way. If you’re just starting out as a comic and working your way through the open-mic circuit, chances are you’re not going to be headlining The Improv next weekend for big bucks. Use this same business sense when it comes to booking holiday parties. This is also true for humorous speakers still doing free gigs (your open-mic circuit) to put your presentation together.

Yes, there are very small parties with very small budgets that experienced comedians wouldn’t even consider doing. Let’s say in the $200 or less range. If you’ve had success doing 20 CLEAN (G-rated) minutes and can throw in a few holiday references, then partner with another comic who can do the same. Offer the potential client a 30-40 minute two-comic holiday comedy show and split the money with your new partner.

Seriously. It will give you experience, corporate credits for your resume – and gas money.

Do you really want to break into the market?

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Be smart about it. Don’t go in thinking you can stretch out your current 15 minutes of material by working the crowd for 40 minutes and get away with it. That’s why experienced headliners and strong features can clean up doing holiday parties. They already have the material and the stage experience.

Which brings us back to the beginning? You remember, right after that handsome devil reference…

Most experienced comedians will raise their performing fees for corporate holiday parties.

The holiday season is a short time of year to make a lot of money. Think about it. You may have to start promoting months in advance, but the season only lasts a few weeks in December. Parties can (and do) happen every night of the week, probably starting close to December 1st and going until Christmas Eve. But you have to realize there are only a few Friday and Saturday nights in those weeks when most of the parties take place.

Happy CEO

The Boss – and we’re not talking Springsteen…

The boss (the client that hires you) will be spending big bucks on the party room, (restaurant, hotel, conference center – wherever), and also on the food and booze. If he’s got half a heart and seasonal cheer, he might also be springing for bonus checks and even possibly gifts for all his employees.

So relying on what we know about today’s economy and that odds aren’t good Donald Trump is funding this holiday bash, a good guess is if the boss is hiring a comedian – chances are he won’t also be hiring a band, deejay, hypnotist, balloon artist, or Carrot Top. For a lot of companies, it’s not in the annual holiday party budget anymore.

So if the boss goes with hiring a comedian instead of another option – that comedian is the main entertainment attraction for the annual holiday party. This is the party everyone in the company will be talking about until next year’s annual holiday party.

If the comedian goes down in flames, the party would be a major bust and the boss would have to live with that reputation for an entire year. No one will remember what finger sandwiches were served. But if they had to sit in a room and listen to a comic not make them laugh for almost an hour… well, that’s memorable.

Therefore, the boss needs to hire a good, experienced comic. And if the comedian has the experience to make the party a huge success, then he deserves to be paid well for the effort (and should know it).

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Here’s another way to look at this. A hypothetical conversation – from the comedian’s point of view:

My fee for your secretary’s retirement banquet is $500. I’m really not busy that evening anyway and it beats sitting home waiting for the phone to ring. BUT if you want me to perform at your Christmas party, it’ll cost you $750. Why? (As the client is coughing and choking). Because four other businesses I’ve contacted are also having their parties that same night and I’m going with the best offer.

With a good business plan, luck, ability to schmooze, and geographically desirable locations, three or four of those holiday business parties can be booked for the same night at staggered times. That’s $750, (or whatever fee you charge), times four… equals… well, the total is staggering compared to what you might earn for two shows that same night in a comedy club – which is why comedians love holiday parties.

But once again, a major word of warning…

Not happy customers

Know your audience

This may all sound like easy money and temp you to jump into the holiday party pool headfirst (with no sunblock – a reference to last week’s Part 1 if you’ve paid attention). But keep in mind what I said earlier. The entertainment, (comedian or humorous speaker), can make the party a success or a bust. You need experience and a proven act – and some holiday references and jokes wouldn’t hurt. And the material must be CLEAN. No X-rated or R-rated stuff for all the reasons mentioned in Part 1 of this article. The only exception would be if this was a request from the client and worked out in advance with his approval.

Also never forget – experience counts. Just like there are no short cuts from playing an open-mic one weekend to headlining at The Improv the next. It doesn’t happen unless your aunt’s boyfriend runs the club and is pretty secure in his job.

If a client is willing to pay big bucks, you have to be willing to put in the work first. If you have the stage experience and proven material, then go for it. If not, start writing now and getting on stage as often as possible with an eye on next year. As mentioned last week in Part 1, the promotion process for performers starts right about now. You know, while we’re still thinking more about sunblock than Santa Claus…

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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 ComedyComedy 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

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Time to start booking holiday parties

September 16, 2014

Hey Dave – What’s the deal with doing Christmas parties? I know some comics who booked a few last year and made good money. – T.R.

Christmas Party Invite

Time to spread the cheer…

Hey T.R. – Christmas / holiday parties are big business in the comedy biz. Corporate and humorous speakers (sometimes one in the same) can also score big during the festive season, but I don’t consider their bookings as seasonal as comedians in this market.

Why? Because comedians are considered entertainment and holiday parties usually want entertainment. Speakers with a message – whether informative, entertaining or both – can often find gigs at meetings and conferences year-round. For instance, I just spoke at a conference last week. With keynotes being delivered during breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings, and various workshops running concurrently over two days at this huge resort, there had to be at least 50 speakers involved.

I didn’t see any comedians…

Who's the boss?

Who’s the boss?

So with that personal observation in mind, we’ll focus this FAQ and Answer on comedians and entertainers looking to book holiday parties. But I’m also pretty sure humorous speakers will be interested in some of this stuff.

The time to get in on this action is now.

We’re hitting the end of summer and a lot of these holiday bashes are already in the planning stages. In fact, I’ve already gotten my first call for this holiday season, so the clock is ticking…

Most of these holiday parties are planned way in advance because the bosses (employers) have to rent party rooms or restaurants in advance for this once a year company-paid blow-out. They also know somewhere in the back of their minds the approximate date when they have to cough up holiday bonus checks for their employees – so that also goes into factoring when these parties will occur.

Once the party date has been confirmed, it’s circled on every employee’s calendar and they’re expecting the boss to show them a good time. Of course the smart employees won’t have too much of a good time, but for those who cut loose a little too much…

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Dave with the great Phyllis Diller

Dave with the great
Phyllis Diller

As the great Phyllis Diller once said:

I hate Christmas parties. You always have to wake up the next day and start looking for a new job.

Booking holiday parties is similar to working in the corporate market. You may imagine employees overindulging in the eggnog and walking around wearing Santa hats with mistletoe pinned to the white fluffy ball at the top, but the boss is still in charge of the toy factory. With lawsuits about sexual harassment, discrimination, mental anguish, and whatever other reasons and insults that could cause the company to continue paying a future former employee for not working at the company anymore (and their lawyer fees) the boss is not gonna take any chances. The only exceptions I can think of might be if they’re a strip club or a construction crew – and then they’ll most likely wind up having their parties together.

Okay, okay… I know!! Sometimes I think I’m funny when (maybe) I’m not…

Your audience

Your audience

What I’m trying to say is that except for the rare exception, company holiday parties have turned into family style events.

There may or may not be kids involved, but there’s usually an office prude or uptight spouse keeping an eye on everything. And the best way to avoid hassles is to stay politically correct. If you want to be offended by a comedian, go to a comedy club. If you want holiday laughs where no one has to wake up the next day and look for another job, hire a comedian that works clean.

Speaking of clean, a lot of the comedians who are cleaning-up dollar-wise with holiday parties start their booking efforts in late summer and early fall. Seriously. I can go into my files as a booking agent and see contract signing dates in August and September for Christmas parties. The performances were signed, sealed and deposits were paid while I was still trying to get my kids to put on sun block before they’d go outside.

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The process of promoting yourself for these shows is the same as I’ve written about for the corporate market. Only now you want to aim it for the Christmas / Holiday season. Put it right on your emails and postcards, and mention it if you’re calling businesses:

You are available for office holiday parties – and work clean.

Your promotions can start in late August (past that) or early September (right now). Do a mailing or emailing to your regular contact list, (you should have one if you’ve been reading these articles) and then follow up with phone calls. If you don’t have the proper contact person, ask who is in charge of the company party. That person is probably looking just as hard for entertainment as you are for gigs. With the right promotion and networking skills, (again – business techniques you should already have if you’re been reading these articles), you can make their life easier by hiring you as the entertainment. This will give them more time to choose the table ornaments and who should not be seated next to each other to avoid company in-fighting.

Goin' for broke!

Personal friends with The Man In Red

Again, it’s all about finding leads, networking and promoting – which are business techniques I talk about in my book How To Be A Working Comic and these newsletters.

I know comedians and speakers who have promo photos taken wearing Santa suits or with other holiday themes. Their websites and online networking are advertising their skills at entertaining for holiday parties. In the entertainment biz, the holiday season has already started.

But there’s more to this than just getting the gigs – it’s also about getting paid. And yes, the rumors are true. Entertainers can charge more during the holiday season than any other time of the year. But I’m going to ask you to hold that important thought for awhile. We’ll get to the part we’re all interested in – the money – next week. See’ya then!

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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

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

The cure for stage fright?

September 8, 2014

Hi Dave – I have terrible stage fright. I think I’m a pretty good writer, but I can’t even think about getting up in front of an audience without breaking into a sweat. Have any cures? E.M.

sweaty-guy

Is it me, or is it warm in here?

Hey E.M. – Don’t sweat it (sorry – you set me up and I couldn’t resist opening with that line) because you’re not alone. I’ve read that stage fright – or the fear of speaking in public – has been called the number one fear most people have. Even more than death.

And now that I’ve set this bit up, Jerry Seinfeld has a very funny observation about the subject…

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Now that we’ve established you’re suffering from a very common fear, you need to be told there’s no quick fix. But there is help:

Preparation and experience.

The best advice I have for aspiring comedians going on stage for the first time is to prepare in advance what you will say. Unless you have an innate (natural) talent for ad-libbing and improvising, don’t just try to wing it or hope something funny will happen. You can work on those aspects of your performances later when you’re more comfortable on stage. Do your best to either write out or at least outline a short comedy set – and know it. When starting out at open-mics you can even take your notes on stage or have them in your pocket to use in case of an emergency – like a security blanket. After all, your first times on stage will not be auditions for The Tonight Show, so put the odds in your favor of at least getting through what you want to say in spite of any nerves or stage fright.

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I’ve talked with comedians about this because as mentioned above, you’re not alone. It can be very scary walking on stage by yourself in front of an audience for the first time. One thing most (I want to say all, but can’t remember for sure) of them told me was that they relaxed (a bit) after getting a laugh. It meant approval from the audience, which gave them enough of a confidence boost to continue talking. So let’s include that one in the advice column:

Try to get a laugh as soon as possible.

The best way to do that is to open with what you feel is your best chance to get that laugh. It could be your funniest joke, line, bit, prop, story or whatever. I remember a very famous comedian opening his set at The Hollywood Improv by pretending to slip and fall down because he “accidentally” knocked over a drink on the front table while walking on stage. Silly? Yeah. Stupid? Some might think so. Did it get a laugh? HUGE!!! He stood up, the audience was still laughing – and he was in complete control for the rest of his show.

X Factor 2008 - Week 4

That was funny? I don’t think so…

Yeah, I know he had a lot of stage experience – but that experience told him to open his show with a laugh. And in the comedy biz, laughter can build confidence. If you don’t believe me, imagine how you’d feel on stage without it.

You won’t really know how funny your material is until you try it in front of an audience. But when you’re just starting out the goal is to actually have something to say, rather than opening your mouth and risk having nothing come out. Preparation may not cure stage fright, but it could help take away some of the nerves and make that first step easier since you’ll already know what you will say.

Many experienced comedians have also told me the first laugh they received from an audience is what made them continue going on stage. The word most used is “addictive,” (a word that’s been popular in the comedy biz for a long time). When you get that first laugh it feels so good you want to get it again.

There’s no guarantee and as mentioned, this is not a quick fix for stage fright. But one thing I love as a coach (and also when I used to attend countless open-mics in NYC and LA) is watching a new comedian get more confidence with each laugh from an audience. Seriously, I can actually see it on their faces and in their delivery. It’s very cool (for lack of a better term at the moment).

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When they get a laugh – that great addictive feeling – it helps motivate comedians to see if they can make it happen again. It’s the main reason to get back on stage. It builds confidence and dedication to do comedy.

That in a nutshell is the preparation part. The rest of the cure comes through experience. Stage time. The more you do something that is enjoyable or at least somewhat successful, the less you should fear it.

At first you may just have to psych yourself out and do it.

article-0-0EE24E1E00000578-297_468x386

Think I made a big mistake!

For example, I hate heights but love roller coasters. Yeah, I know… but I don’t have enough money for a shrink…. Some of the tallest in the world are in an amusement park not too far from us and they scare me to death just looking at them. My knees literally shake (like the first time I did an open-mic in NYC). But I (actually my kids) wouldn’t let it stop me. I may have to ride it once, twice – or even a dozen times with my eyes closed, but eventually I’ll take a look around from the top of the highest hill and watch the rest of the ride while screaming all the way to the end.

Much like the first time I did an open-mic in NYC…

Consider stage fright similiar to other fears you’ve overcome. You might have been scared about a first day of school, moving to a new city or starting a new job. But you kept with it and eventually felt comfortable. It can be the same going on stage and speaking in public.

I know comedians that have told me they’ve never gotten over stage fright. They just wouldn’t let it stop them and learned how to deal with it. They say their nervousness keeps them more aware – more real – on stage. There’s no way they could ever sleep walk through their act – which is what you call it when someone goes on stage and just repeats their memorized act word for word in a way that’s old, stale and boring both for the audience and the comedian. Their heightened nerves keeps them more in tune with everything that’s happening in the room and their minds in the moment.

And that’s where you need to be when you start taking advantage of your innate talent for ad-libbing and improvising off an audience.

As usual, I have one last example. Fans of classic rock should love this. The younger comics? Just humor me for moment…

george-harrison-john-lennon-shea-stadium01

One good laugh should lead to another

My latest book is about The Beatles‘ 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium in front of 55,600 fans. At that time it was the largest rock concert ever held and The Beatles were the biggest rock band in the world. They had played hundreds of shows and performed live in front of millions of viewers on the most watched television programs in the world. But the one common thread I found from all the interviews I did with people that were with them backstage at Shea Stadium was how nervous they were. The Beatles were shaking in their Beatle boots. But after they were introduced and ran onto the stage, their preparation (knowing their act) and experience (hundreds of shows) took over. By the end of the concert they were doing comedy bits between songs and having as much fun (probably more) than anyone else there.

Stage fright? I don’t know of a quick fix or a cure. But I do know if you want it bad enough, preparation will help you get on stage and experience will keep you going back.

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For details about upcoming 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Finding stage time in Los Angeles

September 2, 2014

Hey Dave – I won a contest for a trip to Los Angeles to appear in a commercial. Unfortunately, since I’m not in SAG, (Screen Actors Guild), I’m being buried in the background as an extra. I’m pretty stoked about the trip though. I plan to hit one of the comedy clubs in Hollywood, but was wondering if you have any recommendations for shows, venues, etc… I’ll be there next week, (six days). – S.

Hollywood_signHey S. – Congratulations! Winning the contest is very cool, but sorry you’ll be buried in the background of the commercial. Consider it an incentive to get a SAG card. Then again, I had a SAG card for a lot of years and they still kept me buried in the background…

Here’s the scoop and as always, you may find it’s different for you, but it’s REALLY tough to get any type of stage time at L.A. / Hollywood comedy clubs when you’re just out there visiting. The acts that live there are investing their time and energy hanging-out, showcasing, schmoozing, taking workshops, bringing paying audience members (bringer shows) and basically doing whatever it takes (hopefully most within reason) to get on stage.

DUESThe L.A. comics are paying dues and positioning themselves to eventually be seen. You’re a visitor for six days with no dues paying receipts and no reason to be seen by anyone that could put you on stage.

The bookers (and I was the one at The Improv in L.A. so this is experienced information) are NOT going to give you stage time if you’re just visiting for a week and then leaving. It doesn’t do them any good job-wise. Bookers need to spend their time showcasing comedians they can use in the immediate future, rather than someone they may not see again.

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I don’t mean to discourage you, but it’s very unlikely you’ll get on at The Improv, The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, or the other high-profile and popular clubs (the ones that draw industry people as well as locals and tourists). Your only chance is to score a recommendation from a comedian who is already a regular at the club. And I’m talking regular regular and not someone that just moved out of the open mic scene into MC’ing Sunday and Monday night shows. If you’re on Budd Friedman’s or Jay Leno’s holiday card list, you might have a good chance of getting on stage at a major Hollywood comedy club within six days. Otherwise, don’t waste your time or energy only hanging around, hoping you’ll be noticed and asked to do five minutes. It doesn’t work that way.

Now that I’ve said that, here’s how you can still make it a productive comedy visit…

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Go online and start searching. I just did by Googling “Los Angeles comedy open mics 2014” and came up with 296,000 results. Start reading.

Don-Adams-239x300These will be your best options for stage time in Los Angeles. Like in NYC, there are plenty of performing opportunities in small places you’ve never heard of. But always call the venue in advance to make sure they’re still doing open-mics or even still in business. Some of these clubs are here one week – and gone the next. But that doesn’t matter because there will always be another one opening in a bar, coffee house, pizza parlor or bowling alley. All it takes is a dedicated and stage deprived comedian or future comedy entrepreneur to convince an owner he can make money charging a two-drink minimum while providing up-and-coming comics with valuable stage time.

Wherever you find comedians, you’ll find comedians looking for stage time. They have to – or they won’t improve as comedians.

It’s also important to contact the club or if possible, the person that books the shows and find out what you need to do to get on stage. Reserve a time? Bring paying customers? Just show up? Sometimes if you admit you’re only in the area for a short time they’ll be kind enough to give an out-of-towner a few minutes on stage. You never know unless you ask.

You’ll also want to go to The Improv, The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, etc… just to check out the scene. As long as you’re in Los Angeles, get a taste for it. See one of the weekday shows. Weekends are always for tourists and feature comedians you can see at home on television. You want to see the up and coming acts;, the ones that are still hungry and pushing their way to the top. That’s where you’ll want to be eventually.

The comedians performing on the “big name stages” will give you an idea of what it takes to get to that level. You’ll also see some of the same acts at open-mics trying out new material, along with many just starting their comedy careers. It’ll be a great comedy learning experience and as long as you’re there – take advantage of it.

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For details about upcoming 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Freedom of speech comes with a price

August 25, 2014

Dave – What are the implications of mocking a device or its creator? For instance, I’ve made comments in my act about a medical device that could be construed as less than savory, yet funny. But the backers of this device are my current employers and have been known to be surly regarding their investments. I know of one nurse who wrote a novel about her experiences and was summarily fired. Not that I fear such action, but… well… I still have a mortgage. – M

Hey M – Any topic is pretty much fair game in comedy. But you’ll have to make your own decision about this one since it involves your current employer. I believe in and support freedom of speech. But in practical real-world situations (your mortgage would qualify as one of those) you have to consider the consequences. If you think the material will come back and bite you in the you-know-what and cause you to lose your job, then it’s best to keep your mouth shut.

images-4I like to point out that “star power” makes a difference in how far you can go with free speech. If you’re making a living as a comedian, then making fun of your former employer (former husband, wife, teachers, presidents – you get the picture) is no big deal. They’re all fair game. But “star power” also only goes so far.

For an example, think Charlie Sheen. Once considered indispensable for the success of the sitcom Three and a Half Men, his choice of words aimed at his employers is why Ashton Kutcher has taken his place as one of the “men” and earns million dollar pay checks.

Freedom of speech is the center of the comedy universe. From talking about your family (Ray Romano) to taking on the government (The Smothers Brothers). It’s about telling it as you see it and why comedians look up to legends such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin.

On the flip side of this universe is the comedy business. What you say can sometimes affect your career. Here are some thoughts…

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When I scheduled comedians for the television show A&E’s An Evening At The Improv, we had to give the performers some guidelines on material. These were strictly for business reasons such as ratings and legalities.

First of all, demographics showed that our largest viewing audience was in the U.S. Bible Belt. Therefore, we couldn’t let the comedians make fun of God or religion. If they did, a lot of fans would stop watching the show, advertisers would stop buying commercial time because there wouldn’t be as many people watching their commercials – and everyone involved in the show would risk losing their jobs.

Secondly, no one involved with the show wanted to get sued. For example, comedians couldn’t say McDonald’s sucked or Taco Bell gave them heartburn. Those companies would come down hard on the producers to protect their reputations.

2527358Comedians were warned before show tapings not to practice their freedom of speech when it came to these topics. Of course some ignored the warnings. But it didn’t matter because they didn’t have any control over the final outcome – it was all business related. That’s why you can watch episodes where certain comics are only on for four or five minutes instead of the standard seven minute set. They didn’t follow the “rules” and the forbidden material was cut out and left on the editing room floor (this was before the “delete” button became the norm with digital filming!).

It’s also important to note saying the F-bomb on network television is still forbidden. You can say it at certain times on certain cable shows, but not on The Tonight Show. So as a comedian, you have to play by the rules if you want to sit on the chair next to Jimmy Fallon.

But on stage in a comedy club, comedians can say those things. You can make fun of companies, religion or whatever you want as long as – and this is the business side talking – you bring in paying customers. Most club owners support the art and creativity of stand-up, but are still in it to make a living.

Now in your case, as a beginning comedian who still needs a regular paycheck until your career takes off, you have to protect yourself. How far will your employers let you go before they get offended and fire you?

I’ve had more than a few comedians in my workshops who were police officers. I always found it interesting because some felt they had to use a stage name and never mentioned police work during their sets because they were afraid their superiors would crack down on them. Others didn’t care and talked about being a cop and what they did on the job. It’s a personal decision that I couldn’t make for them because I couldn’t predict the repercussions.

So in your case – since you’re not a “star comedian” yet (but soon – right?) you need to figure out what or if there will be any fall-out or flack from your bosses if you do this material on stage. You want freedom of speech, but you also have a mortgage.

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One last thought. Even “stars” have to be careful in certain situations. Without mentioning names (but if you’re really into the comedy biz I’m sure you can think of a couple), they’ve made headlines practicing free speech on stage by making horrendous remarks about race or sexual preferences. It probably wouldn’t have been that intense or newsworthy if they only performed in comedy clubs, but these comedians were well-known from starring in sitcoms and movies. There were a lot of protests and they eventually had to publicly apologize to salvage their careers.

images-3I happened to see one of these (no names!) comedians a couple weeks later at a popular comedy club. He confronted the situation right away and admitted to the audience he got in a lot of trouble for what he said. He promised he wouldn’t talk about it and was finished with the subject. But as a comedian – he then told the audience he was going to  pick on a different group instead and launched into that material.

Some audience members laughed while others didn’t.

But he was practicing the art of free speech and made a choice about how far he would go regardless of what the consequences might be. That’s a personal decision and you have a right to make it. But just make sure you have both your artistic and business thinking caps on when you make it.

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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 ComedyComedy 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 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

Will lack of references hurt?

August 12, 2014

Hi Dave – I just took a look at the registration for an upcoming comedy festival. The form asks for any references. Does it hurt that I don’t have any? Can I put your name down to verify that I’ve at least completed a comedy workshop? Thanks for your thoughts. – L.P.

Hey L.P. – References can be another word for networking – which is a key buzz word in almost every industry today. If you know the right people who can give you a good referral, it’s almost like having a free pass to be “seen.” But if you haven’t yet built up a list of right people, don’t let it stop you. You still need to put yourself out there, (network), and make good contacts, (references), along the way.

Computer-Addcition

Wait… I’ll find what I’m looking for… just a few more minutes…

I subscribe to a lot of informational emails on a variety of topics. Some are about the entertainment industry and business in general. Others are about training or help in researching different projects like a book or presentation. Google Alerts are great for that and for, (hint, hint), writing comedy material.

My point is that I use these emails to keep up with what’s happening with stuff I’m interested in and the world in general. And the one thing that’s hammered into my head every day is that a lot of people are looking for work. Not just comedians, but people looking for real jobs. And yes, being a working comedian or humorous speaker is a real job. But I’m talking about the real jobs (think 9-5) that real comedians try to avoid like hecklers and hack jokes. Everybody’s filling out registrations, (job applications), and one of the sections will always ask for references.

One of the email lists I subscribe to covered this topic last week. It was from someone looking for a real job (9-5) job, but the advice also makes sense for comedians like you who might be registering for comedy festivals or looking to contact talent bookers, (avoiding a real job).

So I’ll pass it along here.

kevin-bacon-9710-kc1

Only six degrees from where you are now

You never mentioned making-up references, so I’ll commend your honesty and assume it never crossed your mind. That’s good. If you start putting down references you don’t have, sooner or later it will come back to haunt you. The comedy biz is actually a smaller world than you might think and there’s a lesser degree of separation between you and Jimmy Fallon than the more famous Six Degrees of Separation between you and actor Kevin Bacon.

If you don’t know the game I’m referring to, Google it.

If you start dropping names in a small world, sooner or later that “name” is going to find out and deny any knowledge of your existence. You might also run into a booker who is good friends with the “name” and can back you into a tight corner.

Either way, your reputation will take a hit as word spreads through the, (smaller than you might think), comedy world.

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Also never claim experience you don’t have. Your sister’s best friend might be good friends with someone working at The Tonight Show who mentioned you once to Jimmy Fallon. Drop his name on your reference list and bookers will expect a set that Fallon would be proud to endorse. But if you’re barely out of the open-mike scene… Well, word will get out and all you’ve achieved is locking in your career at the open-mike level until you get a real job of the 9-5 variety.

images

Okay… here’s what I really meant to say…

The best advice is “honesty is the best policy.” There’s a reason why that’s an old saying – because it’s true. If you’re new in the comedy business, a good talent booker will see that during the opening of your set. There’s nothing to be ashamed of – everyone has to start somewhere. But if you have potential, a good talent booker will recognize that also. You may not be ready for prime time, but you could make a good impression and be remembered in the future. And as you grow as a comedian, that too will be evident and respected.

So to repeat myself, if you don’t have references now, don’t let it stop you. Fill out the registration and put down whatever you have – even if it’s just open-mikes, benefit shows or even a comedy workshop. The talent booker might recognize potential from your video (which all festivals and bookers will require if you’re not available for a live showcase) and give you a shot. Believe it or not, a good talent booker enjoys discovering a “new face.”

If it doesn’t happen for you now, you might be remembered the next time you apply. If you show growth and experience in both writing and performing, that will definitely help the recognition factor. And by that time you might also have a few references from the right people, which can only be earned by putting yourself out there, doing great sets and networking.

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August 11, 2014 – Like everyone in the comedy world, I’m shocked and sad about the death of Robin Williams. I don’t need to tell you how important and influential he was not only within the comedy community, but also the entire entertainment industry. People are expressing their sadness, shock and sorrow on the internet. Read it and you’ll understand.

images-3

A comedy genius.

Robin was already a major star when I got into the comedy biz. I was fortunate to see him once in awhile through my work with The Improv in New York and Los Angeles. I won’t pretend we were buddies or anything like that. He had true friends in this business – the comics he came up with and performed with and hung out with. You guys know who you are and I send my condolences to you also. You lost a good friend.

But I was fortunate to be his buddy for one night – and it’s a very fond memory I share whenever anyone asks me if I’d met him. It was many years ago in New York City and before I had ever started working in the comedy biz. The kicker is that the place we hung out is where I would start my comedy career later.

I was managing a restaurant in Gramercy Park called The Honey Tree. Really REALLY “seasoned” comics from the NYC comedy scene in the late 1980’s will remember it as a weekend comedy club I ran with my good pal, comedian and comedy coach Chris Murphy that we renamed The Funny Tree. There are great stories about that place and the comedians that stopped by looking for stage time, but not as good as this one about Robin Williams…

One night I was working late. My girlfriend at the time called and said she was hanging around the New York Improv with Robin Williams. My response (and I thought this was very funny since I had borrowed it from a movie or TV show) was: “Yeah, right. Now tell me a western.”

In other words, I thought Robin Williams was too big of a star just to be “hanging around” with regular people. Turns out I was wrong…

About half an hour later the door to The Honey Tree opened and my girlfriend came walking in with Robin Williams.  Okay… sometimes westerns can be based on true stories.

We ended up hanging out for about an hour. Robin drank club soda and I drank a mix of club soda and Tab (that’s how long ago this was!). We had a fun (for me) and informative (especially for me) conversation about acting – not comedy! In fact, his first words were, “No jokes” – after I had already given him the “Orkan salute” (Mork fans know what I mean). We talked about his upcoming movie (wish I could remember which one), the reason why he was in NYC (I think it was the movie) and SAG – The Screen Actor’s Guild (I had just become a member).

We finally walked out to Third Avenue where he hailed a cab to go downtown. Again – there had been no jokes. Just good conversation.

Once he was settled in the back seat of the cab he rolled down the window. As New Yorkers know, the rear windows on taxis only come down about halfway. Next thing I knew he crammed his upper body through the open window and did his best “Robin Williams schtick”  – ranting, screaming, mugging, yelling, howling and laughing – as the cab took off down Third Avenue.

And you know what? It was like a private performance by Robin Williams. I’ll always have that memory.

He brought a lot of laughter to a lot of people – and I can’t think of a more important and valuable legacy. Everyone misses him already.

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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 ComedyComedy 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 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2014 – North Shore Publishing

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