May 2, 2014

Run Your Own Damn Show

Let me preface this article with the following disclaimer: the last show I ran, Wonder Bar Comedy, was not a great show. It was often poorly attended, it didn’t pay anything, and you could usually hear the owner loudly play her piano upstairs. That being said, I like to think that myself and the variety of producers who ran the show with me at different points, did a good job and ran a show that was fun for both the performers and the two to four audience member that were there every week.

I've been doing stand-up comedy for over five years now, which makes me a toddler in the larger stand up world but a grizzled veteran in Chicago. I’ve worked clubs, colleges, theatres, independent showcases, and one time I did stand up at 4 pm at a biker rally cause fuck it (I was told to be clean. I remember the children enjoying it). Point is, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to run a show. And I’d like to share those things with you guys:

LOCATION:

A stand up showcase is like real estate: it’s all about location, location, location and also my step mom gave it a shot in between bouts of wine frenzy. Location refers to two different things: the location of the venue, and the layout of the venue itself. Let’s start with the second thing, cause fuck coherence. Your venue needs to be laid out in a certain way to make it conducive to comedy. Basically, you need to be able to remove all distractions. Comedy is a delicate art form, and people need to pay attention to the performer in order to be entertained. And people are, at their core, fucking idiots. As such, you need to be able to create an environment without a loud bartender, without flashing lights or TVs, and without a bunch of bar patrons who are continuing to carry on their conversations cause they didn’t know a comedy show was happening and are angry that your confessions of not having money or not getting laid or being really into some bullshit 80’s cartoon or whatever the fuck you people talk about are interrupting their plans to fool each other into mating.

So, find a room a separate room or a main room you have control over. Set up a microphone on a stage preferably, but at least against some kind of backdrop. The point is, create a sense that this is an isolated area where the performance happens. Just putting a microphone in a corner kind of breaks the illusion that we AREN’T just a bunch of lunatics who have hijacked a sound system. Light helps this too. Make the stage area well illuminated, and make the rest of the bar dark as FUCK! (Just during the show, that is…but we’ll get to that later!). Also, set up tables and chair pointed DIRECTLY at the stage, and as close to the stage as possible. A huge gulf between performer and audience is great for an arena rock show, and terrible for a comedy show. Cocaine is similar in this regard.

Another thing you want: a bar with regulars. When you’re scoping out potential locations (and you wanna look at a LOT of locations. It pays to be picket), go on a Tuesday night. This is normally one of the deadest nights of the week. If there are people there, that’s obviously a good sign. Not packed, necessarily, but if there’s even twenty people just hanging out then there’s a probable chance that you’ll have AT LEAST ten patrons at any given show. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough to make it a fun show if you run it right, which means the show will have a positive vibe and people will tell their friends about it. Remember this point, because it will come up later.

Now, let’s talk about the location of the venue. I used to work a lot at a “club” in the suburbs called The Laughing Chameleon. It got a lot of shit from comics, much of it earned. But it was in a GREAT location. It was in a big mall area called The Glen in Glenview. Here’s the thing: there ain’t a goddamn thing to do in Glenview except go to The Glen. So it had a boatload of foot traffic. The owners didn’t capitalize on that, and the people of Glenview don’t really enjoy comedy or laughter as a concept (they’re more into stuff starches into their face until they forget that they live in Glenview) so it wasn’t well attended.

You want to find a venue in a neighborhood that people spend time in after hours. Chances are, your showcase is going to take place on a Weekday. It’s harder to get people to come out on a weekday (we’ll get to promotion later), but you can do it if you aim at young people. People older than 30 tend to view it a social faux pass to have fun after 8 pm on a Tuesday. There’s too many good dancing reality shows and craft beers to pretend to like to make time for your stupid fucking show. So find a neighborhood where young people go do shit on a school night, cause they’re punk rock. Wicker Park and Logan Square are good. They’re both already saturated with shows, but there’s LITERALLY like 200,000 people living in those areas. I pulled that number out of my ass, cause I’ve never heard of Google, apparently. That being said, there could be a TENTH of that and there would still be enough patrons to go around.

Lastly, you want owners that WANT to have a show at their venue. If you enter into an agreement with them on the basis that they’re doing you a favor, you’re fucked. This is a mutually beneficial relationship – they’re offering you a place to perform and you’re bringing in patrons to drink their watered down beer and 95% mark-up whiskey. The more they work with you (printing up flyers, putting up the event on their Facebook page, etc.) the more beneficial it will be for everyone.

PROMOTION

Once you’ve locked down a good venue and a great name (Just call yourself “Disney’s Saturday Night
 Live” cause fuck it) it’s time to start promoting. Getting people to come out to your show has been, in my experience, the hardest part about being a comedian BY FAR. It’s tedious, it’s heartbreaking, and it just reminds you how deeply unpopular you are. But it’s the shit you got to do to get to the fun part.

SIDEBAR: This is one of the reasons I don’t really respect people who ONLY work clubs. Clubs are great, I love working them. But they’re easy for a number of reasons, amongst them the fact that clubs do all the promotion for you. You just got to show up and be funny, which is the easy part. It’s like going to war and not having to fight in any battles, but you get to fuck all the sweet 9/11 pussy anyways. But I digress.

It’s tempting to just say “the only way to have a successful show is to just know a bunch of people and get them to come to the show”. But that’s not entirely true. Certainly, having a wealth of personal connections (having a producer who grew up in Chicago is very helpful in that regard) is a great way to get people out to your show. But it’s not the only way.

Let’s talk about internet promotion. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Myspace, Friendster, Pornhub, etc. You got to do them all. But, in my experience, they don’t really work. At least, they don’t work at first. Make your Facebook page, do your twitter account, and do everything you can to generate as much traffic there as you can. If you’re lucky, it’ll get like 5 audience members. And when you’re running an independent showcase every person counts.

The mailing list is a better way to get people out to the show. Make sure every patron through the door every single show puts their e-mail on the list. Send them an e-mail every week (I advise using Mail chimp) with videos of the comics and that shit. After a few months, you’ll have a couple hundred people on the mailing list. Maybe fifty of them will actually open it, maybe ten of them will come to the show.

Handing out a shitload of flyers is a good way to get some audience members. The rate of return on flyers is about 1% percent or so. This means that, for every 100 flyers you hand out, you’ll get ONE person in through the door. It doesn’t sound like much, but if you can somehow con the venue into printing out 500 flyers a week for you, that’s five patrons right there. Print out like fifty stickers and like fifty posters (just legal size paper will be fine, shit don’t got to be glossy or nothing) and putting those up anywhere you can, will get another five or so people there.

Do the math, and that’s 35 audience members. You get another five local comic showing, cause local comic will come support your showcase if they think they can either get booked or laid from it, and that’s 40 people. Not bad at all. And there’s a number of other ways to get people there, like giving away free tickets on Craigslist, arranging meet ups on Match.com (not kidding), reaching out to local media, posting shit on Reddit, and more. Basically, if you want a good turn-out, you got to do EVERYTHING you can think of. Even then it might not work, but it’s all you can do. And, at the end of the day, the best promotion is word of mouth. Run a good show, a professional show, and people will tell their friends about it. Young people like doing cool shit, like owning a chia pet or wearing parachute or going to indie comedy shows, and they’ll spread the word like it’s goddamn syphilis in Paris.

BOOKING YOUR SHOW

Now, this is the touchiest subject I’m going to tackle here. There are a few precious exceptions, but basically every single Chicago showcase is booked by other comics. This is cool in a lot of ways, but it can also complicate things in a lot of ways. Bookers are the people who stand between you and doing the things you want to do. Having the bookers be your peers can lead to simmering resentment, and a lot of times booking a comic gets complicated because you have to start worrying about that comic’s reputation and how associating with them is going to affect your potential bookings at other showcases. Shit’s fucking LABRYNTHIAN, yo.

We did something interesting with Wonder Bar Comedy, something that (to the best of my knowledge) no other showcase does. We did not book by committee. We traded off weeks, and everyone got to book a different week. And we had a strict rule: we didn’t have to run our booking by each other, and we wouldn’t complain about who someone else booked. I think this led to a more interesting, more diverse show. More than once the other producers would book someone I thought wasn’t very good, then that person would show up and make the audience laugh. We all have personal tastes, and that’s totally cool. So having three different voices at play means that you’ll cover each other’s blind spots.

Let’s talk about the concept of “headliners”. A lot of shows use this term, but I’ve never much believed in it. First off, I think it’s silly to make someone do a club headliner length set (45 minutes to an hour). No offense to those who do it, but in my experience doing a showcase style show, where you get five to six performers and they all do ten to fifteen minutes each, works better in the informal setting of a bar. Not to mention, and this is going to sound shitty, but there are VERY FEW people in Chicago who can actually a really solid forty five minutes. Fuck knows I can’t.

And I don’t think the concept of a headliner really works as a promotional tool. No one knows who any of us are, so no one in the city is going to bring out an audience. So, calling someone a headliner on a poster is a way of saying “I like this comic, and I really wanna spotlight them”, which is admirable, albeit unnecessary. But it’s not really a big deal either way, to be honest. I’m probably just being insecure. But in shows I run, I prefer to simply put up five comics I think are funny, and consider them all pretty much equal.

And I got to say it: don’t refuse to book people cause of what you heard about them. Book people you think will make your audience laugh. Your audience doesn’t know all the personal drama we comics have. And, also, who gives a shit about what people post on Facebook? The fuck are you, twelve? I’ve even heard some people say that they would never book someone who asked for a booking. Grow up. Your show’s not that precious. If someone is funny, give them some time. Simple as that.

Okay, rant over.

ACTUALLY RUNNING YOUR SHOW

So, the big day is upon us. Like the bride on her wedding night, you’re about to get fucked by a comedy dick and you better pretend that you like it or he’ll demand your father gives back the goats he gave you in exchange for your maiden head.

The afternoon of the show, you producers should be flyering. Call off work that day. If none of the producers can get off work early enough (AT LEAST four hours prior to the show time) then you probably shouldn’t be doing a show on that day. Station yourself outside EL stops, preferably, but anywhere with massive foot traffic. Be prepared for a rough time doing it. You’ll get rejected OVER AND OVER again. It’s like asking hundreds of people to the prom, and they’re all that Polish exchange student who wouldn’t go with you. Put on a smile, make eye contact, and if at all possible be a cute girl.

Set up your room at least an hour before show time. Play music through the sound system. Turn the house lights down all low and sexy, but not all the way. Have someone at the door taking e-mail addresses and seating people close to the stage. People, when left to their own devices, will sit far away from the stage because they think all comedians are Dave Chappelle in the Nutty Professor and are going to mock you until Jada Pinkett tells you to fuck off.

Start your show promptly. Don’t start it thirty minutes after you say you will. This will make people leave. Right before the host take the stage, turn off the music and the house lights. This will get the attention of the audience, and tell them to shut their goddamn pig faces and pay fucking attention. Then have someone backstage, on the god mic, bring up the host. You should never have the host go on stage cold. It’s shitty for them, and it can create a weird vibe that resonates throughout the night. They should say some variation on the following: “Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to whatever the shit this show is called! Who’s ready to have a good time? I can’t hear you, I said who’s ready to have a good time? Please remember this is a comedy show, so turn off your cell phones and keep table talk to a minimum. No, with no further ado, I’d like to bring up your host. She’s great and has a bunch of credits and here’s a dumb joke and put your hands together for Tits McJokeFace!”

Then the actual comedy show starts. And if you’ve set up your room right and booked funny people, then all the hard work is done and all you got to do is get drunk and have fun. You’ve busted your ass just to get to do the kind of comedy you want in front of the kind of people who appreciate it. If you’re lucky, you’ll make like twenty bucks or so. If you’re SUPER lucky, you’ll build up a strong local fan base and get the respect of your peers.

So, good luck! This city needs more good local showcases, so I hope whatever one you do is great! And, yes, I will be messaging you on Facebook asking to get booked. Please do so, and don’t just say “um, yeah, we’re all booked up now”. It’s a bullshit excuse and everyone knows it.

Thanks and I love you!

Collin A. Bullock is a local comedian who recently left the Chicago Comedy Scene Facebook page, thank god. He’s one of the producers of Kick Punch Stand Up, which is every Friday at 8 pm at G-Mart Comics in Logan Square. You don’t really hate him, he just thinks you do. www.collinabullock.com