Hi Dave – I need some information about how much an average pay is for stand up comedians. I have an opportunity to open up a (local) coffee house and I was thinking of doing a comedy night once a week with two or three comedians. – G.A.
Hey G.A. – This is a question that comes up a lot and probably the toughest to answer. I’ll do my best, so here we go…
I always emphasize that comedy is a creative art just like playing music, writing a song, a book, painting a picture, or taking a picture. If you want to make a living through creative art, then it becomes a business. And as one of my favorite comedians (in the world!) said in my book How To Be A Working Comic:
It’s called show-BUSINESS and not show-ART.
Professional comedians expect to be paid for their work. A club owner expects to make money by charging customers to enjoy the comedians. They both have to make a profit for the business to work. That much is clear – right? After that is where it gets a little muddy.
You mentioned a coffee house doing a comedy night. That puts it into the “local” category and I hope you don’t mind I added that observation into your question. It lets me off the hook a bit because it doesn’t include established road clubs such as The Improv, Funny Bone, Comedy Zone, Zanies, Laugh Factory – and all the others that comedians would travel to and spend a few nights doing more than a few shows.
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The name clubs stick pretty close to the pay structures they use for openers and middle acts. The headliner’s fee is usually negotiated by their agent and can be based on the comic’s credits, number of tickets sold, percentage of sales (tickets plus food and alcohol), the amount of promotion is required to do (television, radio and print), and other business stuff. So when it comes to booking and paying national acts…
So let’s get back to the local scene. Let’s say – as you did – you want to run a comedy night at a local venue.
Beginning comics usually work for free at open-mics. The valuable stage experience is their payment. Comedians can’t improve unless they perform. Open-mic club owners are giving them that opportunity and make whatever profit they can from selling drinks and food. If the club is successful and continues, both parties should be happy.
When it’s more than an open-mic, like you’re referring to in this question because you want to pay the performers, then you’re most likely looking for more experienced comedians than you’d find at a beginning open-mic room. It could mean a cover charge, advance ticket sales, and food or drink minimums. In other words, a bigger profit for the club than running an open-mic.
Now we’re talking show-BUSINESS and that profit needs to be shared with the talent.
The comedians you book are providing a service. They’re being counted on to attract paying customers and use the experience they earned performing free (paying their dues) at open-mics to provide the type of entertainment that will attract new customers for future shows and repeat business. Remember, if someone has a great time at your comedy show, chances are good they’ll want to come back for another great time.
And as I always enjoy pointing out to potential clients that contact me about booking acts for their events – you get what you pay for.
The comedians who’ve worked hard and invested time, energy and talent to provide a quality performance – in other words, experience to deliver proven laughs – need to be paid for that effort. How much? Again…
For this specific question, since you referred to a local venue doing a comedy night, the following is a pretty accurate guideline to use. This would also work for bars, music clubs, bowling alleys, or any place else looking to book a once a week or one-time small venue show for a profit.
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A comedian just breaking into paying gigs will most likely be hired as an opening act or MC. My experiences after leaving NYC and LA (the lowest paying places for beginning acts) and booking shows for smaller local clubs has found $50 to be pretty normal for a 10 or 15 minute set. If a club owner wants to go with a three person show like the established road comedy clubs – but keep local comic pricing – a middle act doing 20-25 minutes should expect somewhere between $50 and $100.
That depends on the size of the potential paying audience and the comedian’s experience. For many local clubs that do comedy shows once or twice a week, a middle act is almost a luxury. Most of the smaller clubs I’ve worked with try to keep their expenses down and go with a two comic show.
That leaves us with the headliner. The star of the show and the performer all club owners rely on to provide the quality entertainment their customers are paying for. A great headliner should mean repeat business and new customers for future shows. A dud headliner might mean this comedy club is booking a country singer for next week.
An experience local comedian who might be working as a middle act in the established clubs should be looking at anywhere between $100 and $200 for a 45 minute to one hour headline set. Whether it’s the upper or lower end of that scale depends on the comedian’s experience.
In other words, the comedian’s credits. For example, if he’s been on television he would have more drawing power (will sell more tickets) than someone who hasn’t. He would also expect to be paid more than someone who hasn’t.
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Okay, I know that’s vague. But from personal experience hiring comedians and working with club owners and talent bookers, these are pretty accurate guidelines for smaller local clubs that want to do more than an anyone-regardless-of-experience-can-get-on-stage open-mic night. It’s also similar to what they might pay a local musician or deejay for a night’s worth of entertainment.
Again, the bottom line is that you usually get what you pay for. So whether you’re in a coffee shop or social club hoping to put on a good show, forget about booking your cousin’s girlfriend’s youngest brother who thinks he’s funny and will work for free. You may be laughing all the way to the bank before the show starts, and then crying through his set full of knock-knock jokes while your customers are making plans to spend their money in a different club next week. In any business looking to hire, it’s always best to go with experience – and pay that person for his experience.
So for the definitive answer to your question:
Comment? That’s what the form below is for. In the meantime, thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!
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.
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