Archive for the ‘rejection’ Category

Getting a referral is good – being a “pain” is not

June 17, 2019

Hey Dave – I was in a comedy club competition, I made it to the semi finals. But I was just asking if you know anyone I could maybe open for and if you would put in a recommendation for me. I don’t want any money, and I’ll go anywhere! I’ll take any help I can get. Thanks – H.A.

First a note to everyone: This email is from a young (18 years old) new comedian who has contacted me a few times. I’ve written back that I appreciate his enthusiasm and the fact that he’s really out there getting experience. I’ve also sent him back a private answer to his question because I doubt he emailed me thinking it would end up as this week’s FAQ And Answer.

That said; here are some thoughts about asking for referrals…

Gene not Johnny

I’ve written a lot about the importance of getting references for showcases and bookings. When you have a respected comedian telling a talent booker to hire you or to schedule a showcase, it’s like receiving the Golden Ticket in that Gene Wilder movie Johnny Depp remade about the candy maker.

I just can’t think of the title at the moment…

Oh yeah, Willy Wonka. I’m pretty sure I was already listening to albums by Richard Pryor – Wilder’s frequent on screen co-star – when that movie came out and it didn’t even register a blip on my entertainment radar. Trust me, I’m a loyal Gene Wilder fan, but didn’t get back into kid’s movies until I had kids.

Anyway, a good reference will usually result in being seen. It doesn’t guarantee a paid booking, but when it comes from a reliable and respected source you can pretty much bypass all the marketing advice I’ve shared in past articles when focusing on that particular talent booker. Phone calls, postcards, emails, websites, videos, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn are not needed to make a first impression when you can walk into a club and showcase for the booker because another comedian he/she respects put in the good word for you.

Of course, those marketing tools will be needed to stay in touch afterwards. But that’s not what we’re talking about today.

Admit one!

It sounds easy – yeah, I know. However, don’t be too anxious or overbearing to get that Golden Ticket referral. Otherwise you might wind up being a pain in the you-know-what and have your efforts working against you.

Of course, you want to have a good relationship with the referring comedian. You don’t have to be best friends, but at least know each other on a professional level (it’s a business, remember?). It’s pretty annoying when someone you hardly know comes up and asks for a referral:

Yeah, sure… what’s your name again?


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It’s also a no-brainer the person you want the referral from has actually SEEN you perform AND actually likes it. In fact, you should really wait for them to tell you:

Hey, that was a great set. I really liked it.” (Or something close to that).

And be sure they really did and are not BS’ing you just to be polite. Sometimes it takes a mind reader to know, but do your best to make sure they’re sincere.

Now in a perfect world, the comedian could offer to put in a good word for you with a talent booker he (or she) works with. It’s not impossible; I’ve seen it happen. But if not and you truly think they are sincere about liking your act, then go ahead and ask. You have to be aggressive in this business.

The key is not to be so aggressive that you become a pain in the you-know-what.

Here’s an example of how being a pain can come back and bite you in the you-know-what

When I was booking comics in New York and Los Angeles, I used referrals from comedians already working with us to help set up talent showcases. I still went through tons of promotional material and watched videos to find new comics, but if one of our regular comedians (already working for us) called or walked into my office and said we should see a comic he had just worked with, I’d add the referred comic to my showcase.

It would be a done deal and I’d thank the referring comedian for making my life easier.

But there were also times comedians would stop by and give me some inside scoop. In other words, they’d fill me in on someone who was being a pain. The scenario went something like this…

The already-working comic couldn’t even walk into the club without having the referral-hungry new comic asking him (bugging him, annoying him, etc…) for his help in getting a showcase. So, what would happen is that the working comic (the one being asked, bugged and annoyed) would make a point of telling me the new comic isn’t ready to play the club. BUT he was being such a pain in the you-know-what the comic could now say he had mentioned the new comic – and now he was off the hook.

Are you following me so far?

Yeah, I know it’s confusing. Basically, he could tell the new comic he dropped his name to the talent booker. This way (he hoped) the new comedian would stop bugging him. The ball was now in my court.

And do you want another behind the scenes insider insight? Okay, here’s the blunt honest truth…


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Since the so-called referring comedian wasn’t really referring and was also telling me the newer comedian was a pain in the you-know-what, I had been forewarned. There would be no Golden Ticket showcase. No way. I didn’t want to be hassled either. So, my response would be to tell the newer comedian I couldn’t work off any recommendations (a big fat lie – sorry to admit). He would have to send in promo and video just like everyone else.

Sounds a bit cruel? Yeah, well showbiz ain’t easy. You need to know how to play the game…

So, the whole process could backfire against the newer comedian. He hadn’t earned the recommendation, so the word put in by the referring comedian was more negative than positive. And on top of that, the word would get around that he could be a pain because it was probably safe to assume he was asking for recommendations in this same way from other comics at other clubs.

Similar to many other businesses, news and reputations can travel fast in the comedy world.


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The result was the newer comedian would find it more difficult to get an audition anywhere because he had earned a pain in the you-know-what reputation, rather than a good recommendation. He would’ve been better off putting that energy into working on material and getting on stage more.

Referrals can be the Golden Ticket.

But if you don’t have one, don’t try to force it. Work on getting so good on stage no one can ignore you and learn to professionally promote yourself. If and when a recommendation is made on your behalf, it’ll be like an extra coating of chocolate in that movie Gene Wilder made that I can never remember the name of…

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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 How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian: A Step-By-Step Guide Into Launching & Building Your Career.

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit

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Working the audience

April 8, 2019

Dave – I’ve noticed that in some (comedy) rooms you can just get up on stage and begin your material. Other rooms are a little stiff, but sometimes these rooms respond well with a more interactive style of comedy – where the comedian talks with the audience. Do you have any tips, questions or strategies one should use for this type of interactive comedy? – B.T.

How’ya doin’?

Hey B.T. – You’re talking about the dilemma comedy club MC’s / opening acts go through every time they step on a stage. Depending on the audience – and experienced comics and speakers already know each audience is different and has its own personality – the MC has to make a decision about how much material he can do and how much he’ll have to work the audience.

The decision is based on audience reaction.

I’ve heard a lot of comedians describe it as, “reading the room” or “finding the level of the room.” Whatever you might call it, the ultimate decision should be quite easy. If they’re not laughing at your material, then a good alternative is to start talking with them.

All comedians start out in the comedy club circuit as a MC, also known as the opening act. They may call themselves a headliner in their own self-booked show at a local venue, but no big-name (legit) comedy club will bring in an unknown as the headliner or feature (middle) act.

Working comics pay their dues.

After a bad set!

The only comics I’ve ever known that will try to headline a show without valuable stage time experience are either kidding themselves into thinking they’re ready – and think legit clubs are wrong – or are already stars. For example, I’ve seen (and in some cases, unfortunately worked with) a few television sitcom stars that wanted to entertain their loyal fans by appearing in comedy clubs. Overnight they think they’re going to become good stand-up comedians, but really have no stage experience away from a television sound stage.

At best they are considered novelty acts by talent bookers and club owners, and are coasting on their television (acting) fame. Clubs will book them because (remember, it’s a business) audiences will pay to see them once (a novelty). But if they’re not funny and can’t deliver the laughs because of lack of performing experience, it’s a good bet the novelty will wear off.

The next time they’re scheduled to headline ticket sales will go down.

To get back to my original point, all good comedians start out as opening acts. It’s the next level up from open mics and how they earn much needed experience in front of live audiences. It’s hands-on learning. And as MC’s, they gain experience reading the room and learn how to work the audience. It comes with the territory. As the first performer on stage MC’s have to set the tone for the show. Once you have that experience, whether a room is stiff or loose won’t matter.

You’ll know – through experience – how to adjust.


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There are no magic formulas for doing this any more than there are magic formulas to write comedy material. Using comedy legends for example, imagine putting Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor in the same room and telling them “This is the formula you use to write a joke.

That’s not how it works.

But it’s difficult to ignore the old standard lines or questions performers have used for decades to get an audience involved in their act:

  • “Where’ya from?” And…
  • “What do you do for a living?”

To be honest, if these questions didn’t work in getting an audience to interact with the performer, no one would use them. And I’ve seen both used quite often quite recently. But to make them work in your favor, you’d better be ready to think on your feet and be funny. The best way to do that is through:

  • On stage experience (hands-on learning) or…
  • Take a workshop in improvisation – and then get on stage experience

Every time you go on stage it should be a learning process. If the audience is not responding to your act, direct it more to them as individuals. Ask questions, talk with them, make conversation, interact and (importantly) be funny. If you can get their attention and make them laugh, chances are they loosen up and not be so stiff.

Talk to me!

Here’s an example:

When I was working at the Hollywood Improv, one of the writers for a well-known late night television show was also one of our top comedians. He was – and still is – a great comedy writer. His material on stage never failed to get an audience laughing, until one night…

He was on stage doing his act.

It was a weekend night with a room full of paying customers, so he was giving his best show and not trying out any new material. In other words, I had heard all his material before – and it always worked. But things weren’t going as normal. The audience wasn’t laughing. I thought for sure he was in trouble because his material didn’t seem funny to them. I didn’t know if he had a backup plan because I had never seen him bomb or improvise off a crowd.

Mainly because he never had to. His material was always killer.

Anyway, his proven jokes weren’t working that night. But he didn’t seem too worried about it. He took the microphone out of the stand (I had never seen him do that before) and stopped doing his material. Instead he started talking with the audience and asking them the same two “old” questions listed above:

  • “Where’ya from?” And…
  • “What do you do for a living?”

His responses were very funny, and he connected with the audience. Before too long everyone was laughing. I watched as he continued the conversations, while putting the microphone back in the stand. Then he started – again – doing his material (his regular act).


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The audience loved him. He was in total command and they laughed through the rest of his set.

After he was off stage, I told him I had never seen him perform like that – working off an audience. He laughed and taught me the lesson I shared with you today. He told me it’s how every comedian starts out. He had been an MC at small clubs for years while learning to write great material. He had the experience setting the tone for the shows by reading the audience and knowing how to get them – and keep them – involved. When the material wasn’t working, he would work the crowd by engaging them in conversation.

So, without a magic formula, how do you do that?


Have a comment? Please use the form below.

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 Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.


Bombing on stage

December 19, 2018

Hey Dave – I entered a local comedy contest tonight and did virtually the same set that I did during a showcase that went very well at The Improv. Tonight I think it kind’a bombed. I had it recorded and did not get the same good laughs. I remember you saying that audiences are different. But as good as The Improv felt, tonight felt pretty bad. I would love to get your feedback… Thanks – MB

Now THIS is bombing!

Hey MB – If a television network ever comes up with another reality series about being a comedian, you’re eligible to move into the house. Welcome to the real world of comedy. Don’t feel bad. Seriously – don’t. Not every single set or every club will be a great experience.

It’s a learning process.

I’m not sure where the contest was, but you mentioned your showcase at The Improv. That’s a real comedy club – as opposed to most local open-mic rooms. Newer comedians in my workshops experience this when they actually get to rehearse and perform on stage at The Improv. Again, this is a real comedy club. The comics are prepared and psyched to perform and already know the audience will be supportive.

And the reason it’s a supportive audience is because when you go to The Improv – or other real clubs like The Funny Bone, Gotham, Zanies, The Laugh Factory and others (I know I’m missing most of them, but you get the point) you’re in a real comedy club.

That’s why the audience is there – to see and laugh at comedians during a comedy show.

Learn what NOT to do!

It’s not like some open-mic rooms where a bartender shuts off the television and announces, “Now time for a little comedy” to a group of beered-up sports fans wondering what funny person is responsible for turning off the game.

When you’re just starting in comedy and going out to open-mics, you never know what you are going to encounter. Compared to doing a workshop or any type of training in a real comedy club, it’s going to seem strange and very different. The audiences – as they are in most live venues – are unpredictable. And the important thing to remember when you’re just getting started is that you’re still very new at doing comedy.

You deserve a lot credit just by going up on stage. It takes nerve and a lot of people can’t do it. They only think and dream about it, but never take that first step.

And BTW every single comedian I know has bombed BIG TIME – and usually at least a number of times – at some point in their career.


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That’s how the business works. It’s a learning process of many successes and failures in an effort to get it right – or as close to right as you can get as a creative artist. The “star” comedians I’ve talked with about this can look back and have tremendously funny stories about bombing. They will also tell you it’s how they learned to write, perform and make it in this crazy biz. So keep in mind that you’re not the only one to have gone through a bad set.

You’re not alone. In fact, you’re in very good company.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. There’s a great book I recommend for comedians called I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics. It’s by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff, who are talented, experienced and funny comedians. It includes stories of bombing by Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Chris Rock and dozens more. It’s very funny and very true. You’ll also have a good understanding of the learning process and realize what you went through – bombing at a local comedy contest – is nothing to lose sleep over. Some of the comedians in this book were so bad in the beginning they were lucky to get out of the clubs alive. But it didn’t stop them from pursuing their dreams.

You’re goal as a beginner is to keep getting on stage.

Don’t let this experience stop you. You need to feel comfortable in front of an audience and it takes time. I went through that process myself while putting together my corporate and college programs. I was trying to remember what to say and in a panic mode when the audience didn’t laugh or pay attention. There was a lot of sweat.

But you have to keep going on stage. Eventually – even slowly – you’ll start getting it together. You’ll feel more comfortable and that will improve your delivery, which will make your material work better.

Tape your shows and go over the audio and / or video.

It might be painful (I pretty much hated watching mine) but you have to do it. Look for something – anything – that worked (got laughs). That’s a keeper – even if it’s only one joke or bit. As the late Richard Jeni told me for my book, Comedy FAQs And Answers, any laugh you get is a brick to build on. Find out what made it work. Was it just funny? Did you deliver it in a way that made it funny? Was it the wording? Did you have a certain expression? Whatever it might be, build on that. Keep it in your set and come up with another laugh. That’s your second brick and how you build an act.

Write and rewrite. As a comedian, you’re an entertainer. How would you tell this to an audience in a way that would entertain them? This is how you develop your comedy voice.

It takes time.

And finally, if comedy were easy everyone would do it. Because it can be fun, exciting, and creative and – let’s face it – you’re in the spotlight. You’re the center of attention when you’re on stage. Some people crave attention. But for a real artist – a real comedian – it’s much more than that. It’s also a chance to express yourself and tell audiences about life, thoughts and opinions as you see it and experience it.

How cool is that?!


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I’m positive there were people in that audience wishing they had the nerve to get on stage and do what you were doing – even though you thought you were bombing.

Bombing on stage is a big part of the learning process. After figuring out what went right with your earlier set, figure out what went wrong with this one. Make changes and try to cut the chances of it happening again. It will (I promise you – ha!), but as you keep working at it the chances of bombing will go down. It takes experience.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

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 Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing.