Always ask before you audition

Hey Dave – I have a big audition coming up. I’m not going to have any profanity in my (comedy) set, but I’m thinking of having a cleaner version and another one that is a bit edgier. I’m thinking of asking the panel of judges what type of set they want before I perform. Do you think this is a good idea? Thanks – DS

eintsteinquestioneverythingHey DS – Yeah, I always think it’s a great idea to ask the judges at a contest – or talent booker for a club or any other venue where you’re showcasing – about any restrictions they might have on material and language. In fact I emphasize this point in my workshops for a couple reasons:

  1. It shows experience. You can adjust your material depending on the audience – and talent bookers like that. (It’s a business – remember?)
  2. It can give you an edge over the competition. I know I talk a lot about how supportive the comedy industry is (nothing has changed my mind about that), but the bottom line is that they can’t hire everyone so you need to stand-out at showcases. Again – think business.

For an example, there may only be five performance spots available for a television show. But you know as well as I do that a LOT more than five comics will be auditioning. Of course being funny is the No. 1 factor – and face it, sometimes it’s who you know (am I right Hollywood comics?!).

So let’s assume everyone at the showcase is funny and knows the same people, so those requirements are met. The tie-breaker would be knowing who the audience will be and adjusting your material and performance for that audience.

You’re not going to perform the same set on The Disney Channel that you’d do on a Comedy Central Roast. Get it?

Here’s another example…


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If you’re auditioning for work on a cruise ship and walk on stage dropping “F-Bombs” and complaining in detail about your sex life, you might as well pack your bags and consider a career on dry land. Half of the on board comedy shows are early evening family events with blue-haired ladies and their preteen grandchildren in the front rows. Later after the kids are asleep the parents will go out for the adult humor comedy shows by the same comics in one of the ship’s late night lounges. But if you can’t show at an audition that you can play to both crowds, you won’t get hired.

cruiseHow would you know this if you’ve never been on a cruise or had a chance to pick the brain of someone who works cruise ships? The only way I know would be to ask the person auditioning you for the gig BEFORE you audition.

Of course this advice means nothing if you’re already settled into who you are on stage (your comedy voice) and it doesn’t work in certain venues. Trust me, I’m not trying to push everyone in the same direction or preach work clean at all costs. That would only create comedy clones and make the industry pretty boring.

Comedy is a creative art and a form of free speech. If you want to be an x-rated comic, go for it. Just don’t go to showcases where you already know your style will not be acceptable for work – like a kid’s show or family cruise. You’re not only wasting your time, but also taking opportunities away from other comics who would want to audition for the gig.

Here’s another example of knowing beforehand what you CAN talk about vs. what you can NOT talk about depending on the audience…

When I booked A&E’s An Evening at the Improv we had certain “rules” for the performances. During a noon meeting with the comics who were taping the show that night we’d go over the rules…

  1. Don’t make fun of God or religion. Our highest ratings were in The Bible Belt and we didn’t want to lose viewers. Higher ratings attract sponsors (again – think business).
  2. Don’t knock specific products because we didn’t want to be sued. You can’t say a specific car is dangerous or a specific fast food restaurant will give you food poisoning. (Do I need to say it again – business?).
  3. Don’t sing a song parody for longer than (I think it was) 18 seconds. Producers were not going to pay song royalties for television broadcast, which is what would happen if any song was played for longer than (I think it was) 18 seconds. At that time it seemed a lot of comics were singing funny words to The Brady Bunch Theme Song. They could still do the bit, but it would be cut out of the show if it went over the time limit of being “free.” (This time – music business rules).

What about comics that didn’t follow the rules? If you watch reruns of A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, keep in mind the comedians were each given 7 minute sets. But some are on screen for less time – like only 4 or 5 minutes. What’s up with that?


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They didn’t follow the rules.

In the business it’s easy to correct these mistakes in an editing room – or in the case of live performances, auditioning the acts first and not hiring the ones that can’t follow the guidelines.

In fact, when it comes to working clubs I can’t even think of a situation where you wouldn’t have an opportunity before showcasing to ask the talent booker if there’s anything you shouldn’t say or talk about. Even if it’s only in an email or phone call prior to going to the audition. They should be straight with you, since they know their audience and what they’re looking for better than anyone else.

The goal for talent bookers is to find comics that can appeal to the venue’s audience. This includes comedy contests since the business goal is to always turn first-time audience members into repeat customers. As a performer, you need to find that out. And unless your talent is mind reading, the best way I know to do that is to ask.

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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 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, Cleveland and Tampa Improv Comedy Clubsprivate coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newslettervisit

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