Thursday, June 5, 2014

“Hey, We Should Start A Showcase!”

James Webb
“Hey, We Should Start A Showcase!”

This seems to be an increasingly popular sentence among Chicago comedians right now. Every McLean party, every open mic, every show; you can hear faint echoes of those words from all corners. Sometimes those words blossom into action. That action births a show. Then, like roughly 90% of all brand new shows from the last two years, that show dies. Yes, friends, it is finally time to face facts: there are too many goddamn showcases.

Now before you hang up and never call again, let’s take a step back and contemplate this openly and objectively. To do this, we must look at the steps leading up to that dreadful sentence. Those steps are paved with 3 specific sentences most of us have overheard, be them internal dialogue, or at a comedy event. Let me also preface this article by telling you that I am NOT a comedian, which has given me profound insight into (and considerably more time to learn) how a show truly works from both a producer’s and an audience’s perspective. I’ve been a fan of comedy (that means YOU) ever since I knew what words did, and I’ve been producing shows and managing theaters since I was a wee lad (some of which were atrocious, others not as terrible).

This article is not going to be about how to be a comedian, but it will be about the perils that producing a show can have on your comedy goals, especially if you aren’t ready yet. Some of the things you’re going to read may sound extremely discouraging, mean, or jaded, but that is not the intent of this article. This article is here to do three things: Address something many, many people have been way too nervous to talk about for the past couple years, be the voice of reason in your head before you take that leap into giving up time most of us don’t have to do something most of us DON’T NEED TO DO to be successful, and save you from a world of potential soul-crushing heartbreak you wouldn’t experience if you just wait a couple years (or never start a showcase at all), as starting a showcase can halt your comedy progress altogether. With all that in mind, have you ever heard someone say:

Webb is A Co-producer of Stand Up Stand Up
“I’m sick of not getting booked. Hey, we should…”

Look, buds, not everyone gets booked for a show right away. Shit, it might even be a couple years before you get your first 8 minutes in front of a paying audience in some basement bar. And there’s a very good reason for that. Quality is derived from hard work + time. Let’s say your life took a different turn several months back and, instead of trying stand up that first time, you took a gig building houses. A couple months in, after a long day of construction and a few beers with some friends, you suddenly realize: “I’m sick of living in my apartment. Hey, I should build my own house!” Dude, you’re drunk. You don’t even know how deep the joists need to be for a proper terrace, let alone which side of the sink the hot water faucet goes into. Sure, you may have an idea of how the basics work, but do you really think you and a handful of equally inexperienced buddies have what it takes to build, maintain, and eventually sell a sturdy palatial mansion? What happens when you build it and the town gets word of how dilapidated it is? Is anyone else going to want you to build them a house? Doubt it. Same thing goes for getting booked. If you’re not ready to be on a showcase, are you really ready to start your own? What you really need is more time in front of an audience to build your confidence and your set. Wait WAIT HOLD ON NO WAI-

“I need more stage time. Hey, we should…”

The Stand Up Stand Up Crew
No no no. I mean yes. Well, both. See, you probably DO need more stage time. That’s one of the reasons you shouldn’t even dream of starting a showcase. If you do, you’re going to get the exact opposite of stage time. Here’s why: You’re starting a show with other people. Those people are going to “need more stage time” too. You’ll start a rotation, get bumped if someone you book needs your spot, and lose out on time you could otherwise be using to make your sets better at a mic. “I can go to a mic/show if I’m not up tonight, though.” Well... You’re going to have more offstage obligations. Unless you start a show where you have some HUGE IDIOT whose sole focus is behind the scenes stuff for the show, giving you just a little tiny bit more time to get your act together, you’re going to be doing a fuckload of work yourself. Marketing, booking, planning, tech, setup, teardown, managing the room, dealing with the bar, lighting comics, timing comics, taking pictures/videos/tasteful nudes, editing pictures/videos/tasteful nudes, uploading pictures/videos/tasteful nudes, finances, Facebooking, tweeting, pinning, gramming, barking, flyering, hustling, and bustling are just the tip of the iceberg for you, my friend.

Example of SUSU's great comedy posters
Plus, before you start contemplating that list, you have to find a room (which is incredibly difficult these days seeing as there aren’t many rooms left), and when you do find a room, is it conducive to comedy? There were (and are due to every show in that place dying a week later and no one learning their lesson) a ton of shows done at one particular bar in Chicago where NO SHOW SHOULD EVER BE DONE (yes I’m talking about a real place, and most of you know where it is), and it kills me to see posts about it every week. Just because a bar manager/owner says “Yes” does not mean you should plop one of the most important things you’re going to do in your comedy career down. You have to shop, weigh your options, and choose. Once you do pick “the one”, is it easy for your audience to get to? What night of the week is best? What other shows are in the area that you’ll be pulling audience from/competing with? If you are absolutely serious about making this happen, these are just a few of the many questions that should be in your head at all times. For those who are truly invested in making a showcase work properly, it really is a full-time job. With no benefits and minimal (if any) pay.

Another Poster
All of that, AND you don’t get to work on your set. You won’t (or at the very least SHOULDN’T) be
trying out anything brand spanking new during your showcase set, and if you’ve only been doing this for a year or two, it’s likely you haven’t even polished your finest bits enough for your own show. Which means you’re going to suck. And if you suck, your show is going to suck (especially if you’re hosting, which sets the tone for the entire show), and if the show sucks, no one is going to come back to your show. And not just the audience (which BOTTOM LINE is who the show is for, and we’ll get to that in a second), but the comics you book. If the show is consistently terrible, who’s going to want to come back and do the show? Why would any working comic gravitate toward a show environment where the audience is set up to hate them regardless of how good they actually are? You should be dying to make the show as fun as possible for your performers AND your audience, so how can you expect to do that if you haven’t yet developed the skills necessary for you to get booked on other shows, let alone run your own showcase? Most importantly, you should be able to have fun doing the show, so make sure you go to mics, work it out, and ha-

“You know what would be a lot of fun? Starting a…”

Artwork from C2E2 by Richard Pollak
No dude. These things take a TON of work to get off the ground. That huge list of things up there is only the surface of what it takes to get a show going, and even if you manage to get those things in a row, you still have a pretty big chance of becoming another casualty in what we can call “The Yearly Bubble”. It happens annually without fail: A dozen or so shows will start early in the year, four or five will make it to the end of the year, and three or four will hang around for a bit longer. It’s a Thunderdome of comedy shows where 90% of those involved lose. Since, oh let’s say spring of April of 2012, there have been 46 (you’re goddamn right I counted) new showcases, mics, and variety shows in Chicago that came out. Of those 46, 37, died, and either stayed dead, moved and failed, or relaunched only to die again. And not all of them were terrible. Some of them were actually really great. Remember The Last Thing The World Needs at Belmont Pourhouse? That was one of the best mics in town. It should have gone on forever, and it died due to factors completely outside of the producers’ control. Will it come back? Hopefully. SHOULD it come back? Absolutely. Will 20 other Tuesday mics start up in terrible places where no comedy should ever be performed for anyone in a million years? Dolphinately.

Now this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a fun thing with all your best comedy buddies once in a while. PLEASE DO THAT! COMEDY IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN! Just don’t call it a showcase, do it for money, or advertise it as anything other than you and a bunch of people hanging out. I think there’s a word for that. Party? Yeah, let’s go with that. You don’t have to start a showcase to have fun with all your comedian friends. In the end, you’ll likely have MUCH LESS FUN with those people. So hang with your pals, be merry, and for the love of Christ don’t start that show. There are plenty of other quality shows happening that night to fill the nonexistent void of funny things around town. At least 3 every night. That’s “At least”, meaning “Likely many more than”; “3”, as in “One for the South Side, one for the North Side, and one for the West Side”; “EVERY NIGHT”, or “More than any single neighborhood in the city has any time to attend.” That’s a lot of competition, especially if you’re fighting to be seen in one of the best comedy towns on earth. Which leads to the most important reason you shouldn’t start that showcase:

Every showcase reflects what Chicago comedy is to the entire world.

Prob The best
Go to the grocery store and shop for an apple. What do you look for in an apple? You want it to be
solid, beautiful, big, shiny. You see that apple amongst a pile of bruised, moldy, unripened apples. You’re gonna put that apple back, aren’t you? The intelligent consumer would, because “What if that apple got some mold in it? What if that apple just looks ripe, but inside it’s still hard and gross? What if this apple makes me sick?” That’s what the most important people in our world will think about the good apples in our pile. Those people, our audience, are going to judge each and every aspect of your show. They are the most telling, important marketing tool we have, and we need to make sure they always leave happy and fully satisfied. The next day, they’re going to tell everyone they know all about that show, and in today’s hyperbolic society (shit, even this article is full of hyperbole), where EVERYTHING is either THE BEST THING EVER or REALLY FUCKING TERRIBLE, they will judge us all as a whole. 

Mr Webb
Now granted, Chicago was recently named the funniest town in the universe or something by a bunch of people at some newspaper (and they were mostly talking about Second City and other improv), but in no way does that mean all of us are funny. Some of us still need to work out all the kinks before showcasing our skill to the world. And that’s how we got to be the best there is: hard work, and good timing. Once you’ve worked out your set at mics over a few years (like literally anyone else who’s had a show last more than a couple years), then you’ll be ready to start having some real fun bringing all of your funniest friends (RIP) up to a well prepared audience. And it really is a lot of fun once you have everything in order. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking your time and easing in to things. Apply the same logic you would to any career. Just make sure you’re truly ready to go before you make that leap. And when that time comes (and it will), you’ll have all the tools necessary to keep Chicago at the top. Until then, go here and here, attend everything on those sites, apply for an internship at a show that needs help, learn from other people’s mistakes, grow, and never give up. Or start a showcase too fucking early.

Contributing Writer -  James Webb 
Webb will have run 50+ different shows over 15 years by the end of May 2014, and is currently a producer and founding member of Stand Up Stand Up, one of Chicago’s best showcases. He is also a producer/tech/artist for The Whiskey Journal, Double Feature, Shit Show, Thank You Very Much, The Blackout Diaries, The Lincoln Lodge, Laugh and a Half with Tony Valle, and a ton of other shows, theatrical productions, podcasts, and entertainment throughout the city.