Comedy is unlike almost any other genre of the arts in that it requires public spaces for performers to practice in. Rock bands can write at home, painters don’t need time in a coffee shop, dancers need a studio, and authors can work anywhere. The very nature of stand-up, however, requires a live environment. No matter how good a joke is on paper, it doesn’t become a joke until it gets a laugh from real people.
That’s why it’s easy to catch stars you’ve seen on TV performing for free in bars and indie rooms across America. Atlanta’s legendary Star Bar has had comics like Tiffany Haddish, Hannibal Buress, Rory Scovel, and Ron White drop in on a Monday night to work out material in a smokey punk dive bar. Covina, Calif.’s Chatterbox is a 45-minute drive outside of Los Angeles but has found folks like Beth Stelling, Mark Normand, Tim Dillon and Brandon Wardell make the trek because the room is undeniable.
Of course, the vast majority of comedy shows aren’t like Star Bar or Chatterbox. Most of them are work out rooms, places comedians go to try new material in front of small crowds or friends. While the best rooms get all the credit, these secondary shows are just as, if not more so, important. Every great comic starts as a new comic, and new comics need places to practice to become great.
Which is where you come in. If you’re reading this article you know why you’re here: you’re thinking about starting a comedy show. The road that lies ahead is full of hard work, laughter, and the most uncomfortable silences you’ve ever experienced. But the reward if things work out will be a lifetime of incredible memories. Here are the basics of what you need to know to start a comedy show.
The first step to starting a show is knowing what audience you’ll be serving. Do you have a local comedy scene or are you trying to help start one? If you live in an established scene your process of starting a show will be dramatically different than if you’re starting from scratch. Think about what you want your show to be, and be realistic about what you can bring to it.
The best indie shows in America developed over the course of years, so manage your expectations, especially if you live in a town without a big scene. Traveling comedians talk, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in a major city or a running a show in a basement in Lawrence, Kan. Word gets out about a good show.
Take stock of what you’ll be drawing from. Do you have enough comics in your city to do a weekly show or should you start off with a monthly? If you’ve never run a show before we highly recommend starting off with a monthly show. Running a weekly show is an incredible amount of work, and it’s easy to quickly get overwhelmed. If you don’t have much of a local scene is there a city nearby that has a comedy scene? This can be a source you can draw from for new comics. Write down everything you know about comedy in your city so when a question comes up you already have a head start.
Shows need two things: space and comedians. Picking the right venue can be the difference between a failure and a hit show. This is where knowing your local scene comes in. Go see a local show that already exists to see how it runs, and then don’t try and start a show there. Poaching another person’s venue is a shitty thing to do, and can create bad blood with the people you want to work with.
Look for your own venue. For your first time running a show coffee shops and bars are great options, particularly if you’re willing to work on a slow night. Sell your show to the venue. Let them know how long you’ll be, how many people will be performing, and what kind of audience you think you’ll be able to draw. For your first show don’t ask for money, just time to prove that you’ll be an asset to the venue. Once you’ve proven yourself, it’s okay to ask for a percentage of bar sales or to put a cover on the door.
Make sure the room you’re looking at is good for comedy. A perfect comedy room has low ceilings, regulars, and preferably cheap drinks. If you wouldn’t want to hang out at your venue it probably isn’t a good venue. If you can’t find a bar, try a coffee spot, vegan bakery, or even your own backyard. Ultimately a show just needs space and comedians, so if you can’t find a local venue, throwing a few comedy house parties can be a good way to get your feet wet.
Most importantly, don’t lie to the venue. Don’t tell them you’ll get 100 people the first time on a Tuesday night. Don’t promise instant success. If they don’t have a microphone invest in a PA system so the audience can clearly hear the performers over any chatter in the room. The venue’s job is to give you space to perform. It’s up to you to make it a room that’s good for comedy. If you need something the venue can’t provide take care of it yourself to show you can be self-reliant.
You can’t have a show without performers. This is where knowing your scene and the surrounding scenes come in handy. The average comedy show shouldn’t run longer than 90 minutes, so for your first show plan for one hour. People will run long, you’ll forget to time someone, things will start late, etc etc. It’s better to have a show that’s under an hour than a show that runs two hours. Start slow.
If there are only ten comics in your scene to draw from, make a point of encouraging them to bring new material each week. If your scene is exclusively straight white men encourage friends of different races and genders to try their hand at comedy. Keep your ear to the ground about what’s happening in the scenes around you, and invite comics from other cities to do your show. Always make sure you give a car full of traveling comics gas money. Even beyond being a moral thing to do, it will ensure those comics tell everyone you treated them right. Word of mouth is incredibly important.
Don’t start off by trying to book a big name, especially the first time you run a show. You don’t want to experience the nightmare of bringing a hero to your small town only to throw the worst show they’ve ever done.
Do make sure your lineup is diverse for the sake of your audience and performers. As a bearded straight white male comedian, there is nothing worse than being on a show with six other people just like me. A diverse lineup creates diverse laughs, meaning you won’t have to worry about people’s jokes or experiences running together. The world is full of rich and different perspectives. If you show that to your audience it makes for a much richer experience than simply throwing up five people who all look and live the same.
Be professional when you contact people. Let them know how much money you can give them for gas if they’re out of town, don’t take “no” personally, and say thank you. Politeness goes a long way, particularly when you’re working on a budget.
Pick a name for your show if it’s a showcase and keep in mind the name is your first impression. Don’t be an asshole when you name your show. Dick Party or Queef Room may be funny in your head, but do they make folks want to walk into your room?
Here are some of the names of shows I’ve helped run over the years: The 1 AM Secret Show, All You Can Eat Comedy Buffet, Thrash, Altercall, Date Night, and Happy Hour Comedy Hour. Each name was designed to tell you what the show was, from a late night party to a nice evening showcase. Pick a name that lets people know what to expect.
Your most important job as a producer is getting people out to your show. The first show you run will be easy if you have friends. Ask everyone you know to come and tell them to ask everyone they know to come. If your city doesn’t have an established comedy scene this is much easier. If you live in L.A. or New York, god help your soul.
Make a poster and put it up in the venue at least two weeks before the show. Make a Facebook event and invite everyone you know. Contact your local radio stations, alt-weekly newspaper, and even local news to see if they’ll give you space to talk about your event. You never know if someone will say no until you ask, so go out on a limb. Be professional, polite, and know when to take no for an answer. Follow up with any nos a few months down the line.
If your city allows fliers on light poles, put ‘em up downtown. Hand out fliers outside of concerts you would go to. This helps you find like-minded people to build your audience. Bust your ass telling everyone about the show. Most people you tell will not come, but if you tell everyone you can easily draw a crowd. Be excited about the show and people will pick up on it.
The big night is here. It’s time to run your first show. Get the venue at least two hours before it starts. You want to be there before your performers are. Test out the mic, whether you’re using your own or the venue’s. See what the lighting will be like in the room. Set up chairs in front of the stage if possible. Play music that sets a fun tone. I love death metal as much as the next guy, but it doesn’t create a welcoming vibe unless you’re marketing to death metal fans.
Create a lineup. Start with the second strongest comic you have and close with the strongest. This builds momentum, kicks the show off with lots of laughs, and gives you someone to save the room if a performer bombs in the middle of the show. Time every performer and give them “the light” when it’s time for them to wrap up. The average set on a showcase is six to ten minutes. Give them the light, usually the flashlight on your phone, when they have one to two minutes left in their time. Hold performers to their time. You as the producer are responsible if the show runs long, even if its the fault of the comic.
Police the room, but be nice about it. During the show walk around and ask anyone who is talking to please be quiet, but be nice. Just ask them to whisper or take it outside, but don’t be a jerk. An angry audience member can derail an entire show, start shouting or even try to fight you. Starting from a place of kindness is essential.
Make a note of anything that didn’t work during the show. Were their trouble makers in the room or on stage, did the audience have a good time, etc. If you notice the lights are too bright this time, make a note for later. After the show talk to the venue, from the manager to the bar staff. Get their feedback on the show. Sometimes they’ll notice things you don’t, but even more importantly they’re your voice on the inside. Treating the venue staff with respect is a vital aspect of building loyalty with your show’s home. Act accordingly.
Once you’re done write down what you need to do differently next time and then get started planning. After all, now you have a monthly show, and there are only three weeks to go before you have to do this again.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.