Archive for the ‘New York’ 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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June 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

SOLD OUT!

Performance at The Improv – Wednesday, June 26 at 7:30 pm

Workshop Marquee 150

Workshops are limited to 11 people age 18+

For details on upcoming Cleveland & Chicago workshops visit…

TheComedyBook.com

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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…

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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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 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 www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

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Contacting television talent bookers

June 4, 2019

Dave – I worked with a comedian last week who thinks I’m ready to do a set on one of the late night shows. I know there aren’t as many opportunities on talk shows as there used to be for comics, but Comedy Central does specials with upcoming comics and there are shows on netflix, etc. The reason I’m sharing this with you is because I was wondering if you could provide some insights as to how to go about contacting these talent bookers. The show I’d really like to be on would be Jimmy Kimmel Live. – MC

“Look! I’m on television!”

Hey MC – First of all, it’s good when someone else in this crazy business says you’re ready to move up in your career. Especially when they think you’re good enough for late night television. Otherwise, you’d have to look at the source of this praise – and moms and drinking buddies don’t count. When they’re peers and know the biz, you might want to start thinking about it.

Anyone with real experience in the industry knows it’s not easy to score one of these coveted late night performing spots that guarantees exposure to millions of comedy fans and talk-fest insomniacs. But what do you think?

Seriously.

Do you really feel you’re ready for television? Are you working on a regular basis at the best clubs? Are you getting great audience response and killing on stage? Is your material “right” for the shows you’re thinking about?

These are questions you need to ask yourself and seriously answer. It also helps when you have other people in the business saying you’re ready. That’s a positive and supportive step in the right direction.

My first thought is that you have to be seen. And it’s always best to be seen in person. I say this from experience and also by keeping in touch with friends in NYC and LA – so I believe it’s still true.

Looking for laughs!

The BEST way to get on television is to be SEEN in the clubs where the television talent bookers are hanging out.

For instance, all the high profile television networks that feature comedians are based in New York and Los Angeles. The talent bookers, producers, writers and other important “showbiz connections” from these shows go to the clubs in these cities. That’s a fact because I would see them all the time when I worked in NYC and LA. They would hang out and watch the comedians. They knew who had the material and experience because they’d see it first-hand. They could also request showcases so they could audition a number of comics on the same night in front of a live audience.

Even if they were interested in a comedian through a video submission, they would eventually want to see alive performance. It’s all part of the process because they need to be sure the comedian will be successful on the show, since that’s what talent bookers are hired to do –find good talent.

To backup that opinion, I’ll rely on the interviews with Drew Carey and Jeff Foxworthy in my book How To Be A Working Comic. I interviewed them separately, but their experiences were similar since that’s how this business (most often) works…

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Each told me he couldn’t even get the attention of anyone at The Tonight Show when they submitted videotapes (the old days) even though they had been headlining for years in the best clubs outside NYC and LA. And the reason why they weren’t working the NYC and LA clubs was because these are normally showcase clubs. You do them to be SEEN and not to make money. These guys had to make a living.

But each really felt he was ready for The Tonight Show. And each felt he only needed to be seen by the talent booker.

Eventually they both had to bite the economic bullet and move to Los Angeles. It was the only way they could be seen every night for The Tonight Show (in the days of Johnny Carson when it really was a star-making appearance). They took a big pay cut by not playing their regular clubs outside of NYC and LA, but it paid off for both in the end.

But if you can’t afford to do that, the next best thing is a great video.

You also need great references, experience and ways to market yourself without being a pain in the butt or getting lost in the pack. We’ve had a more than a few FAQs And Answers about marketing, but you can also check out the marketing and networking sections in How To Be A Working Comic.

How’s THAT for a blindsided sales pitch? LOL!! Now that I have that out of my system, here’s what else you should do…

Play detective.

Playing detective

When you’re in clubs and meet comedians that have done these shows, ask for advice. Ask what they did to be seen and how they were seen. If they appear to enjoy your performance (again – be honest with yourself) ask for the name(s) of people booking the comedians. If they don’t think you’re ready, they probably won’t tell you. You have to understand they have their own relationship with the talent booker and can’t make it seem they’re recommending every comic they come in contact with. It doesn’t help their reputation, so if they’re evasive drop the subject.

Don’t be a pain and don’t try to push yourself on someone who may not see you as “being ready.”

You should also watch these shows and take notes. What is the name of the production company? Who is the talent coordinator listed during the ending credits? They don’t run these credits every night because of time restraints, but you can usually catch them once or twice a week.

Again, play detective and research online the production companies and names for their contact info. Make a call. Don’t worry about having to sell yourself right away. These talent bookers are not easy to reach, so you’ll only get The Gatekeeper.

Then ask for “help.”

Gatekeepers are assistants hired to keep you away from the people you want to contact. Again, from experience and hearing this a lot from working comedians and speakers, Gatekeepers seem to respond to that term better than grilling them with questions. Ask for their “help” in learning what is the best way to be submitted for the program. It could go through a separate booking agency, or directly through the show’s producer, writing staff or others.

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June 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

SOLD OUT!

Performance at The Improv – Wednesday, June 26 at 7:30 pm

Workshop Marquee 150

Workshops are limited to 11 people age 18+

For details on upcoming Cleveland & Chicago workshops visit…

TheComedyBook.com

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Then follow their “help” guidelines. Start the process of submitting your video and promo information – or work your way into the clubs where talent bookers hang out looking for new talent.

But in the meantime, continue getting experience and getting better. As I love to say whenever possible in these articles:

They may call it amateur night, but no one is looking to hire an amateur.

This is particularly true when it comes to television. And if you really feel you’re ready, don’t throw all your eggs into one basket (have I spent too much time outside of NYC and LA to have picked up that old saying?). Don’t just concentrate only on one show, (you mentioned Jimmy Kimmel Live).

Do the same with the other shows on different networks. Start getting your name out to the “right people” whether it’s through live performances at showcase clubs, recommendations, or online videos. Just be sure you’re ready, because no one with a viewing audience of millions of comedy fans or talk-fest insomniacs wants to hire an amateur.

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 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 www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

The best place to start doing comedy

April 22, 2019

Hi Dave – Where do you think is the best place to get started as a comedian? I know that every comedian wants to move to New York, but I’m about to move to Los Angeles in a little while and wanted to ask if that was a good place to at least start experiencing stand-up on a higher level. Sincerely – J.H.

Showbiz City!

Hey J.H. – It seems this question is asked in every one of my workshops. I have an answer that I’ll share with you in a moment, but I’m sure there will be comics in New York and Los Angeles – and in between – that will argue with me. Then again, I know there will also be many who agree.

First of all I’ve worked in all three places – New York, Los Angeles and in between – as a comedy talent booker. I’ve also interviewed a lot of working comedians and written books about the business. That doesn’t mean I know the definitive answer to your question, but I can share observations, experiences and opinions.

So with that being said, let’s start with observations…

New York and Los Angeles are the main focuses of the comedy biz as far as television and films are concerned. These are the entertainment media capitals of the world. That’s a no-brainer when you look at where the major networks, film studios, production companies, talent agencies and managers are located. If your aspirations are to be BIG in this business, you’ll eventually wind up working in these cities.

Every BIG comedian already knows that. It’s where they work and where they live – until they get so BIG they can afford to live someplace else and only go there for work in films and television.

The only place?

But these comics also need stage time to work on new material. And they still do this at their local clubs. It may make the morning headlines if Jerry Seinfeld surprised an audience by walking on stage in any other city, but in New York and Los Angeles it’s just another night at the comedy club.

From experience, I’ve seen it.

During my time at the LA Improv Seinfeld and Jay Leno (to mention only two) were regulars. They could walk in unannounced at any time and would immediately be asked to go on stage. My line to them was always, “Would you like to say hello to the audience?” Of course they would because they were always writing and working on new material.

And that, by the way, is great advice for any comedian regardless of where you are in your career. Continue writing and performing – the best ones always do.

The “star” comedians who were offered stage time the moment they walked into the club had worked hard for that recognition. They deserved it and I’m sure, appreciated it. The audience always loved it and the club owners, management and staff did too since their appearances are great for business.

All were winners – right?

Wrong.

The lesser known comedians that might originally have had those performance slots were either pushed back until later or cancelled for another night. And there was never any guarantee it wouldn’t happen again.

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Spring 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Chicago Improv

SOLD OUT!!

Performance at The Chicago Improv – Thursday, May 30

Workshop Marquee 150

Workshops are limited to 11 people age 18+

Summer 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv TBA

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So another option…

There were always a lot of open-mics during my time in both cities. But the best ones were always crowded – and I’m not talking about audiences. A comic might sign up for an open-mic at 6 pm and not get on stage until 4 am. I know because I saw it happen all the time. But if you were a night owl and fortified with patience, at least you could get in five minutes of stage experience in front of a few night owls fortified with alcohol before last call.

The complaint I hear a lot is that most open-mics in New York and Los Angeles are bringer shows. Comedians are required to bring in paying customers – sometimes as many as ten or more – before they can go on stage. If you’re just moving to either city, do you know ten people who will pay to see you? Every night?

Getting a crowd!

So it’s tough to get stage time if you’re just starting out. Not impossible, just tough.

Another obstacle is the main reason why you’d want to perform in New York or Los Angeles. Comedians want to be seen by the industry people who can help guide them to BIG careers. But are you ready to be seen? If not, then you might want to wait.

I know I’ve used this example before, but it’s a good one worth repeating. So here’s the experience part of this answer…

A New York comedian who also happens to be a very good friend, had GREAT sets the very first two times he ever went on stage at an open-mic. This rare experience convinced him that he was ready to be seen and BIG. He scored a lottery number at a MAJOR comedy club in the city and his third performance EVER was a BIG audition. He bombed BIG TIME and this first impression came back to haunt him.

Years later I saw him killing regularly at open-mics. I was working with a very successful talent booker and recommended my friend for a showcase. The booker turned me down saying she had seen the comic before at that MAJOR comedy club during his audition and was awful. There was no need to see him again when there were so many other comedians she hadn’t seen.

She was remembering him from years before!

In some cases first impressions count BIG TIME and can last a LONG time. The comic would’ve been better off keeping a low profile at the beginning of his career, until he had more experience and was truly ready to be seen.

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I don’t know where you’re located, but my opinion (you knew it was coming – right?) would be to check out your local comedy scene before making a career move to New York or Los Angeles. Do your bombing (and everyone does when starting) under the radar. Eventually, you’ll know when you’re ready to be seen.

Plus the comedy world is actually pretty small. Good comics know who the other good comics are. And the word spreads – which is networking (the best PR tool).

Los Angeles producer and talent manager Dave Rath said in my first book How To Be A Working Comic, the goal is to be the best comedian in your city. It doesn’t matter where it is because eventually they’ll hear about you. They always do. Other comics will talk about you and even recommend club bookers, agents and managers take a look at you.

In past articles I’ve called that your Golden Ticket.

It’s a personal recommendation from a respected source. People in the entertainment industry that work with talent are always looking for new faces. That’s how they stay current, grow their businesses and make money.

But I won’t fool you into thinking they’ll regularly travel to your city just because they’ve heard you’re funny. You should consider visiting New York or Los Angeles to get a feel for the comedy scene. Hang out in the best clubs and watch the shows. Try to get onstage at open-mics and showcase clubs (pay admission for ten people to be your required audience members if you have to!) and see how you do compared with the other comics. If you’re confident in your material and experience – and audience response, then you might consider making the move to one or the other.

So the answer?

You can start out and become a great comedian in New York and Los Angeles. Lots of BIG comics have. But before packing up and moving, work in the comedy scene where you are now. Get stage experience and get REALLY good (REALLY funny!). After all, that’s what the talent people in New York and Los Angeles are looking for – comics that are ready to be seen and ready to work.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

Finding stage time in Los Angeles

March 11, 2019

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’m hoping to hit one of the popular comedy clubs in Hollywood and see if they’ll let me do a guest set. I’m wondering if you have any recommendations. I’ll be there next week for six days. – S.

Here’s your first sign!

Hey 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.

Unless you’re already a headlining comedian with lots of credits and contacts in the business that “know who you are” – it’s REALLY tough to get any type of stage time at the popular Hollywood comedy clubs when you’re just visiting. The acts that live there have been investing their time and energy hanging-out, showcasing, schmoozing, taking workshops, bringing paying audience members (bringer shows) and basically doing whatever it takes (hopefully within reason) to get on stage.

The L.A. comics are paying dues and positioning themselves to eventually be seen. You’re a visitor for six days and honestly (because we know each other), not yet a headliner, feature act or even scoring MC sets at major clubs. That seriously means – and I’m sorry for being so bluntly honest – there are no reasons for you to be seen by anyone that could put you on stage at a major Los Angeles club.

Major Hollywood comedy club

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.

It’s part of their job requirement.

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 the talent booker’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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Spring 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Chicago Improv

Dates – TBA

March 2019 workshop at The Cleveland Improv

SOLD OUT!

Workshop Marquee 150

For details and advance registration for upcoming workshops visit…

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Go online and start searching. I just did by Googling Los Angeles comedy open mics 2019 and came up with 7,180,000 results. That doesn’t mean there are over seven million open mics, it just means there are seven million sites available for you to begin looking.

Start reading.

These will be your best options for stage time in Los Angeles. Like in New York, Chicago and other major cities, 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.

Pay as you go!

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 a venue 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.

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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 star 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.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

What should you wear on stage?

January 14, 2019

Hi Dave – I was wondering what to wear / how to dress on stage. I notice there are not very many women in comedy. The ones that are maybe my favorites – Wanda Sykes, Paula Poundstone, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres, etc… I can’t help but notice, they dress like a man. Did you ever notice that?

So should I wear a tie? Of course I’m not going to wear a tie. I’m also too old to look hot in a tight pair of jeans. I have tight jeans, (lately all my clothes are a bit tight), but I don’t want to gross anyone out. I’m not fishing for compliments. I just wonder if I should dress up, dress down, look masculine, feminine, should I wear black, should I wear some color…? What I’m not going to be like is Phyllis Diller and dress crazy. Thanks – J.

The always fashionable Phyllis Diller!

Hey J. – I realize I’m talking with a woman of comedy and it’s not (the late and great) Phyllis Diller. And to make another point, I’ve never been known for my fashion sense. Keep in mind your question was not sent to Calvin Klein, which is the only name I know from the fashion design world. And that’s only because he designed my underwear – which is probably getting a little too personal for this FAQ and Answer session.

I also know there will be comedians and humorous speakers reading this who will think it’s not an important question. They’re wrong because it is. In fact I can’t remember doing a comedy workshop where this question wasn’t asked. It’s also been asked by working comedians I’ve booked for various gigs.

“What should I wear on stage?”

The answer depends on who you are on stage and where you are performing. You have to consider both to find the correct answer.

When I started out on the club scene in New York City, I don’t remember stage wear being an important issue. For everyone starting out, writing and stage experience were the biggest concerns (and still should be for any comedian). We didn’t hang around the NYC Improv wondering what the comedians should wear on stage. It looked to me like whatever you put on that day before walking outside was what you wore on stage that night.

But I also learned a lesson about what to wear on stage from another comedian I worked with at the NYC Improv. The look is best called successful and the advice came from one of the funniest comedians I know, Rondell Sheridan. In fact it was such good advice, he shared it in my book How To Be A Working Comic

“I think I only did stand-up three times before I passed the audition at The Improv,” he said. “I always had a good gift for ad-libbing, and a couple of things happened in the audience during my audition. Plus, I dressed up. None of the other comics dressed up for the audition. I sort of looked like I’d been doing this for a long time.”

This is a lesson in showbiz.

Murray Langston The Unknown Comic

Of course the number one factor is to be funny on stage. But your image can also influence an audience and talent bookers. If your material and who you are on stage – your comedy voice– says you’re successful, then what you wear should help convey that image. If you’re street – then dress street and not in a 3-piece suit (you punk!).

Whether you believe it or not, what you wear on stage also puts you into a category. In showbiz, they call it typecasting. I was surprised to go from a comedy scene in NYC where t-shirts, sports coats, jeans and sneakers were referred to as the comedy uniform, to Hollywood where there were actual lists in talent booking offices categorizing (typecasting) comedians because of what they wore on stage. The ones I remember distinctly were:

  • T-shirt comics
  • Sweater comics
  • Sport coat comics and…
  • Suit comics

I’m being serious about this. It’s the truth – and anyone who has ever been behind the closed doors of the booking industry knows it. In fact, you can check it out yourself by going online and watching reruns of the classic stand-up comedy shows that influenced many of today’s comedians like A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, Caroline’s Comedy Hour, Comedy On The Road and others.

When it came time to book these television shows, the producers knew it was always good to present a variety of comedians. This would attract a wider range of viewers. For instance, unless it was a theme for a particular episode, not everyone would be interested in watching a line-up of only prop comics or of only political comics.

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The great thing about these shows was if viewers didn’t like one particular style of comedy, chances were they’d continue to watch because they might like the next one. It’s often the same when booking live shows. The headliners don’t want the comics before them doing the same act.

What you wear on stage should help define your comedy voice.

And to base this off what was just explained, not all television viewers will be interested in what successful comics wearing 3-piece suits have to say. Others would have no interest in a show featuring only comics in ripped jeans and t-shirts. Just like with music, comedy fans have different tastes. So to cast these shows, it made the job of deciding who would be scheduled on what episode a lot easier for talent bookers by referring to the lists.

This way audiences would see a variety of comics during each episode.

This is also true for auditions set up through comedy clubs. For example, when I was working at the Hollywood Improv I remember getting calls from casting directors for movies, sitcoms and talk/news programs like The Today Show looking for specific types. If they wanted to audition young guys in their 20’s for a role, we had a list of comics that fit that type. If they wanted to see political comics, we had a list for that also. We didn’t have to waste a lot of time going through our complete roster of comics.

We already had it narrowed down.

But getting back to today’s original question, here are some quick thoughts…

Dress for who you are on stage. If you’re upscale, dress the part. If you’re on the streets – look it. Don’t dress like a bank president if your material is about being broke. And if you’re not crazy, don’t dress like (the late and great) Phyllis Diller.

You need to give this some thought and make a personal decision about your image and how you want an audience to see and remember you. One of the greatest examples of stage clothes influencing an audience and actually enhancing the comedian’s material was when Steve Martin wore his white suit.

A Wild and Crazy Guy!

If you’re too young to remember, look him up on YouTube – or check out the cover of his book, Born Standing Up (which I highly recommend reading). He’s wearing a white suit… looks expensive… looks classy… BUT he’s wearing bunny ears or has a fake arrow sticking through his head. Then he’s acting like a “wild and crazy guy” and the perception works because audiences believe he is crazy because he’s so dressed up, but obviously not normal.

Many comedians and speakers fashioned a look their audiences would remember. Rodney Dangerfield – uncomfortable in a jacket, white shirt and skinny red tie. Drew Carey – white shirt, skinny tie and glasses. Kat Williams – pimp (I’ll say no more). Early Robin Williams – suspenders. Early Margaret Cho – Valley Girl. Later Margaret Cho – hip, rebellious. Dave Chappelle – street. Larry The Cable Guy – redneck. Pee Wee Herman…

Well, you should have a mental image by now for all these performers and others. What they wore on stage helped create that image. Again, the number one factor is that they are all funny. The look enhanced their comedy material and their comedy voice.

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Another consideration is where you are performing.

I’ll make this fast: If you’re doing a black tie event or a corporate gig, don’t show up in ripped jeans and a t-shirt. If you’re performing at a NASCAR rally – call Larry and ask to borrow one of his Cable Guy shirts.

Just like your comedy material and promotional material, it’s a good idea to put some thought into what you wear on stage. Remember, it’s show-BUSINESS. And in the business world, packaging (a recognizable image) promotes sales (getting paid bookings).

And finally, to address one of your other questions, I never really thought about the female comedians you named all dressing like men. As I mentioned, I’m no Calvin Klein and my fashion sense is pretty limited. If it fits the comedian’s image, then it’s fine with me.

But I’d also like to point out Amy Schumer, Rita Rudner, Loni Love, Sarah Silverman and… well, I could also make a long list of women that don’t dress like men. Does it make a difference from an audience point of view? Not that I’ve noticed. If the clothes fit the material and the performer – who they are on stage and where they are performing – it works.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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

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