Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Run That Room

Sooner or later (most likely sooner), virtually everyone who performs stand-up comedy for any consistent length of time will be presented with an opportunity to be in charge of a show. It is my strong opinion that everyone should give it a try at least once - but go into it with a plan in place. I have personally seen and/or been an integral part of countless flaming disasters, but that isn’t a reason to poo poo the idea at all. In fact, I think it’s all the more reason to give it a well thought out try. Nothing but valuable education will come from the process – even if it’s a gigantic flop. To be on the safe side, plan on your first few ventures being at least baby flops. Putting on any live event is flat out EXTREMELY DIFFICULT. Period. Getting people to gather in a room for any reason is a challenge that’s a whole lot harder than it appears. I’ve failed at it for decades.

First of all, it's a completely different animal. Running a successful comedy show requires quite a different skill set than performing in one. It is my recommendation that every performer experience what it takes at least once but preferably several times so as to get a realistic view of what is required to make an event work. This way, dealing with booking agents and venue owners in the future will have a whole new meaning as you’ll know exactly where they’re coming from. Chances are they’ll never quite get where the performer is coming from so hopefully it will present an advantage in your direction. If nothing else, you will come to despise the experience so much you never want to try it again. It will anger and frustrate you to the point of wanting to quit the business and/or run away to join a circus, monastery or foreign army. That’s where I was after my brief experience, but I’m glad I had the guts to make the attempt. I learned some valuable lessons which I’ll now pass on to you.

Sooner is better. My opportunity to run a show came sooner than later, and I’m glad it did. Much like swimming lessons, it’s better to have them early. Knowing how to swim at an early age instills a level of confidence in all other aspects of life as does having a couple of comedy show failures under one’s belt as one continues to grow helps build the callous required for survival. It’s all positive. Running your own shows early in the game will help give you much needed perspective from a point of view that’s completely different than the one a performer only sees. You’ll get the whole spectrum, and that should help you make much better decisions as you grow. At least it should. On the other hand, it can easily bring on painful side effects of bitterness, anger and frustration. I’ll admit it did for me, and I absolutely hated dealing with everyone associated with comedy for a long time. But I got over it, and now I realize how valuable the experience is in the big picture.

I should throw out a warning before going any further that although it may appear easy to wear the hats of both performer and booker at the same time, the exact opposite is true. Just as I try to vehemently discourage performers from putting ‘actor/comedian’ on one business card, the same holds true for ‘comedian/producer’, ‘comedian/booker’ or any other ‘slasher’ title. Focus is key. That’s not to say don’t try it for a while, but in most cases a true performer type will become so disgusted with trying to book shows he or she will never want to attempt it again and focus all of their attention on performing. Very rarely does someone do both well for an extended time, but it does happen. Plan that it probably won’t be you, and go from there. It will save you a lot of grief. What I’m talking about in this particular instance is running an open mic situation. It might be at a bar or restaurant or even an off night at a comedy club. This is for the rank beginner who has little experience on stage or off, but wants to make an attempt to try running a show mainly for a chance at stage time - which is a legitimate and worthwhile reason. These are tips to get started. Like with most new performers, there is a lack of experience combined with an overabundance of ambition and all too often that’s a recipe for disaster. Good intentions are just that – intentions and nothing else. Without at least some kind of a plan in place it’s easy to get severely scorched.

I want to offer up some practical ideas to hopefully help avoid the most common pitfalls I have seen happen over and over for far too long. If anything, hopefully you can come up with a NEW pitfall or two so I can do a follow up to this in the future. For now, these points will be enough to occupy your time and attention. If you can avoid even half of these snags, you’ll be way ahead.

The main benefit you will receive from running your own comedy show will be getting plenty of hands on experience dealing with a wide range of people. I didn’t say that would be a pleasant experience, but it is a necessary requirement for growth. Not everyone loves comedy as much as you might, and it might come as a shock at first. That’s natural, but it shouldn’t end your dream. You will also inevitably find yourself in a situation where you feel someone has wronged you, taken advantage of you or somehow disrespected you in a way that goes far beyond anything of a business nature. These cuts can and do go very deep, and last for many years. This is unfortunate but also very real and few if anyone I’ve ever heard of speak at all about this part of the process. This is the delicate nature of the human animal in general, and the entertainment business tends to magnify and exaggerate all of our human emotions both positive and negative. It can really get intense sometimes, and quite often a newbie can get overwhelmed by it all and take it personally. I know I did, and that was a huge mistake. Then I made it worse by lashing out and adding gas to an already dangerous situation. More about all that later. For now, let’s discuss running a show. I want to plant some seeds in your head that will pay off for years to come. You’ve got work to do. All of that being said, here are some golden tips I really wish I’d had when I ran my first shows:

Call your event anything other than just ‘Open Mic’.

‘Open mic’ is a term that means nothing to the public, but can be negative to comedians. Open mic situations are too often brutal, mismanaged and a total waste of time for all. Something with a bit of zip like ‘New Talent Standup Comedy’ or ‘Fresh Funny Faces Showcase’ is a lot better. A true open mic allows musicians, poets, actors and anyone else who wants to get on stage. It’s ok if you want to run one of those, but if you’re trying to focus on standup comedy I’d suggest it be somewhere in the name so people who see an ad know what it is. YOU know, but they don’t.

Make sure the venue wants you to be there.

This is an absolute must. It’s crucial that the venue supports what you’re doing, but often that’s not the case. The owners mistakenly think there will be a bum rush of people just because there’s a couple of posters hung in the bathrooms of their pool hall. It takes effort from everyone to win. A so-so facility with support of ownership is a lot better than a nice facility that doesn’t care if you’re there. It’s a team effort, and you need to be working together with to make sure everyone is on the same page. It’s NOT easy, and can be a source of major pain and aggravation. Be wary.

Try to get a commitment from your venue of a regular time.

It’s never a perfect world, but a showcase builds an audience if it can develop over time on the same night in the same place. If a venue moves the show to different nights or puts in a wedding reception or bowling banquet, it makes it tough to redirect those who did come to see comedy. Consistency is the best way to achieve growth. Strive for it whenever possible. If a venue can’t or won’t work with you, look for one that will. Audiences need to be constantly fresh, and if you aren’t able to get the word out nobody will be able to help you with word of mouth advertising.

Set up your performance space properly.

Rarely are conditions ideal in a venue other than a comedy club. Often it’s a bar or other venue with issues. Try to pick the best sight lines so people can see the show. Make sure the stage itself is lit well, which usually means using a spotlight. Make sure tables are placed close to the stage. Make sure the microphone is tested and turned on before the show. Is it a wireless? ALWAYS install a new battery before you begin. Make sure there’s a microphone stand, but NOT the kind meant for bands with the ‘elbow’ in it. A straight mic stand is cheap. Carry one in your car. I do. Many times comedy shows are done in a ‘side room’ or upstairs or a place without bathrooms nearby. Audience members have to walk a ways, and it can be distracting for comedians if they have to walk past the stage, which does happen. Plan around this if possible. It can be a hassle.

Promotional materials you never knew existed are often easy to obtain.

Most venues have beer, liquor or soft drink sponsorship available to provide signage for you to use at no cost. Try to get a banner that’s hung behind the stage, and table tents to put on tables so other customers can see it on other nights. It wouldn’t hurt to have a postcard size handout that’s given to people on the way out to remind them of future shows. Business cards can be useful too.

Social media

I don’t think the expense of a website is necessary, at least in the beginning. It IS wise to get at least a Facebook page set up announcing your show. There are also usually entertainment listings in most newspapers and they’re free. It takes an effort, but find them all and keep them current.

ALWAYS charge a cover, even if it’s only a buck.

This has been a major point of contention since day one. ‘Free’ means ‘worthless’ in terms of a show, and attracts the lowest mouth breathing humanoid life forms crawling the planet. I’ve seen it for decades, and it’s not about to stop. If someone can’t or won’t pay ONE DOLLAR to see an entertainment event, you don’t want them in your audience. Trust me on this one. Free won’t fly. A door fee makes the audience invest at least a little something in the show. It adds credibility, respect and professionalism to the entire show and also elevates it past the level of ‘another open mic night’. You can use the cover charge to have a raffle, buy prizes, invest in ads or (gasp) keep for yourself for your efforts. Whatever you make will be EARNED. You’ll find it won’t be easy.

Keep the show to 90 minutes.

This one can be tough to adhere to, but still try. Sometimes club owners want to keep people in the place to drink and want a three hour show. WRONG. Comedy or anything else wasn’t meant to go on that long. It just wasn’t. 90 minutes is enough already. Leave them wanting more, and if they do they can come back next week and see it again. There is never a need to go on all night. I’ve seen all kinds of three and four hour hellish marathons that serve no purpose to anyone on any level. There is no real audience, only aspiring comedians waiting to go on and perform for a room full of other aspiring comedians. It’s useless, pointless and there’s no need for you to do it.

Have a ‘headliner’ at the end of every show.

Here’s a ‘secret’ that shouldn’t be one. It adds credibility and justifies cover charges. It doesn’t have to be a full time headliner, but use a higher than beginner level act that can do a solid 15-20 minute polished structured set. It will cap off the evening and reward those who stayed all night. It will also be an excellent opportunity for the one in that final spot to gain valuable experience at closing a show, but not have to have a full 45 minute set. It’s win/win, and there’s a structured build of the evening rather than one bad act after the next with no direction. Give them a SHOW.

Experiment with the signup list.

How do you want it to work? Do you want comics to bug you in person for stage time? Believe me, they will. Do you want it done via email? Text? Cell? It’s a system you have to establish and everyone is different in their preferences. Find what works best for you, and communicate that to the comics you are working with so they can get used to doing it how you prefer. Let them know.

Running order of the show is important.

Handle the order of the show like a baseball manager handles the batting order of a team. Some acts are better than others, and others are as different as an act can be and might not go well back to back. Try for the best order that will give the best show for the audience. This will take time to learn, and experimentation is necessary. Sometimes you’ll guess wrong, but learn from the error. Try to make the first act after the host upbeat and a little better than rank beginner so as to give the audience hope there may be reason to stay around. It’s not realistic to expect every act to be a killer, or it wouldn’t be a showcase. Part of it is the ‘crash and burn’ aspect, but there needs to be something worth seeing to make an audience stick around as long as possible. This can be tricky. The headliner will be the other ‘book end’ of the show, and in between it’s up to you to mix it up and make the best show you can. Some nights won’t be easy, but try to split up similar types of comics and keep the order fresh. Example, don’t put two music acts back to back. Split it up.

Hosting the show correctly is of extreme importance.

It’s a good idea to have a host of a show who’s done it before, but that’s not always possible in these situations. If it’s your show, you should rotate between host and performer and go up in all positions. That’s the only way to gain experience. If you do host, do a couple of minutes up front and warm up the audience before bringing up other acts. NEVER do any time after the headliner. Give each act a positive upbeat introduction, and the last words out of the host’s mouth should be the act’s name. Far too many do it wrong, and it doesn’t make the rest of the show look good. A good host is the backbone of a good show, and the position shouldn’t be treated lightly. It’s an entirely separate skill set to be a good host and I’ll talk much more in detail on that subject later.

Have FUN!

Unfortunately, fun can be the first thing lost when putting on your own show. There’s so much going on that it’s easy to lose sight of the idea that comedy is supposed to be fun. Enjoy the ride, but prepare for some bumpy terrain. That’s how it is, and don’t let the down times ruin your fun. These are some solid basic tips to get started, and I’ll have more to say on many of these points in the future. I would suggest recording your early efforts, not so much for yourself but for others to see how far you’ve progressed. I don’t have any recordings of my early efforts, and although it saves me from embarrassment I know others would love to see it. That’s it for now. Break a leg!

Dobie Maxwell - Contributing Writer
Dobie is a 30 year veteran and nationally touring comedian that has worked with comedians like Jay Leno, Jeff Foxworthy, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Dennis Miller, Chris Rock, and many others.