There’s been a lot of shows popping up around Boston lately run by eager new comics. It’s great to have new places to perform and I always appreciate someone who is trying to do something different. However, putting together a successful show is much more than just booking a bunch of great comics (or your friends). Starting a show is a lot of work and if you are very new to comedy, or just someone who wants to book, there are a lot of pretty crucial mistakes you can make that can easily derail a show.
I run a pretty successful show that’s gotten a great response and some press. So, I thought I’d write up a quick guide on the basics of running a show, which I vetted with the UnScene team.
Shop around for venues
Finding a venue can be really difficult. You shouldn’t just take the first place that lets you use their space. Does the venue seem to be a good space for comedy or is the game gonna be blaring in the background during the entire show? How’s the lighting? Is it noisy? Are they willing to give you a budget? (At a bar they, should, at a performance space, probably not.) How’s the location? It doesn’t matter how great the space if no one is willing to drive out to a bar in the middle of nowhere.
Promote promote promote
Some venues will be more supportive of your show than others, but generally speaking, your venue does not give a shit about you. The venue is a business that wants to make money, so the better the show performs, the more supportive they’ll be of your show. Most likely, your venue will not help you promote your show, aside from putting a poster up. They can easily replace your show with a karaoke night full of idiots and make twice as much money.
While it’s totally cool to ask a comic to help you promote the show, be nice about it and don’t solely rely on them. Comics usually do several shows a week, so they don’t have time to heavily promote every single thing they do.
It is first and foremost YOUR JOB to promote the show. Facebook, Twitter, Eventbrite, a mailing list, flyering and putting ads in the local paper are a good way to get started. Make sure to make your promotional materials look professional. Not everyone has access to expensive design software, but there are plenty of simple programs with templates to help you get started.
You should know how a sound system works
If you’re starting a show, you should at least know a little bit about how to use a sound system. Make sure to ask your venue about what is available to you. Some places will have people on hand to help you out and some won’t. If you are using a small space with no sound system, it might be a good idea to invest in your own PA. You don’t want your performers to have to shout, and even if people can hear you, it feels a little weird to perform without a mic.
Generally speaking, wireless mics kind of suck because the sound has a tendency to go in and out. Also, I know those reproduction vintage mics look really cool, but those suck even more. Just a good old fashioned dynamic mic is all you really need. They are reliable and can take a beating.
Good lighting is key
This is one of those things that everyone overlooks but is totally crucial. Admittedly, it’s a little hard to control sometimes but you should come prepared. Know what your venue has to offer. A lot of performance spaces are set up for bands, not comedians, so their lighting needs will be different. Discuss your options and lay out your needs with the space BEFORE the show, not while it’s happening.
I’ve done zillions of shows where people try to fumble with the lighting last minute and the results are never good. You want your comic to be well lit. Crazy disco lighting is distracting, and too much darkness means you can’t see the comedian’s facial expressions, which can drastically effect how well a comic does on stage. Too much light will blind your comics and throw them off.
Get there early
Show up at least an hour early to make sure you’re not going to run into any last minute issues. Again, how’s the lighting? Is the PA system working? How is the room set up? Is the seating close enough to the stage? It’s best to take care of those things early so the show can start on time.
Your show does not need to start exactly on time on the dot, but don’t get carried away. Usually, you want your show to start no more than 15 minutes late. This allows any late audience members to arrive, without upsetting the people who showed up on time. Starting a show an hour late means your audience will get restless, and they might end up leaving the show early.
Know your comics
Know the acts of the people you are booking, don’t just slap a bunch of random people on a show. A recommendation from a comic you trust is fine, but seeing someone’s tape or seeing them perform in person is best. You want to make sure you have competent people on your show who compliment each other.
Lots of people WANT stage time, but blindly booking people means you’ll end up with a lot of:
a) crazy people
b) sad sack comics who’ve been doing it for several years but never get any better
c) super new people
Giving new people a chance is a good thing, but you want to balance that out with more experienced comics.
Knowing what your comics’ acts are like means you can put together the best show possible. Do you have a mix of high energy and low energy comics on your show? No matter how good a comic is, its always difficult for a low energy comic to follow a high energy comic, so put together the order of your lineups accordingly.
Know your audience
A lot of different things will dictate the kind of audience you attract, location being one of them. Love a brilliant alt guy who does anti-comedy? It might not be a great idea to book him at an Elk’s club in the suburbs with an age 50 plus audience. They are probably not going to get it. Want to book a regular guy who just talks about Dunkin Donuts and his wife and kids? That’s probably not going to go over well at a coffee shop in Cambridge full of college students. They might not be able to relate. Your job is to entertain (the crowd paid to be there, remember?) so book who’s appropriate for the show.
Be involved in the community
This kind of goes along with knowing your comics. Being involved in the community means more than just going to your favorite open mic once a week. You should know other comedians, who’s who in the scene and what other clubs/shows are doing. There a lot of unspoken rules in the comedy community, and the best way to learn them is to just to be there. If not, you might accidentally piss someone off without really knowing why. Don’t get defensive. Take advice if people offer it. Comics can be dicks sometimes but most of us are just trying to help.
At least TRY to pay your comics
This is a tough one because it is damn near impossible nowadays to find a venue that’s willing to give you a budget for a show. Large showcases are usually unpaid, but if you’re going host-feature-headliner you’ll be expected to pay them. A lot of shows also do a short showcase with headliner. In that case the headliner usually gets paid.
Unpaid shows on weekdays are okay, but in general, unpaid shows on a Friday or Saturday are a big no-no. (There are some exceptions to this rule but know that you are NOT the exception.) If you’re doing a show without a cover DO NOT do them on the weekends. This also goes for bringers, although bringers in general are frowned upon, unless they’re at a club.These types of shows devalue everyone as a comic and comedy in general.
Think I’m wrong?
Post that you’re doing a free/unpaid/bringer on a weekend on any comedy message board and see what happens. There. I just saved you from getting ripped apart by 1,000 angry comics.
Make sure you know the basics of hosting
Hosting and doing a regular stand up set are entirely different animals. You can’t just wing it, although many people do. The job of the host isn’t to be the star of the show. It’s to keep the show moving and keep the audience happy.
You can do time in between comics but you do not NEED to do time in between every single comic. This will usually cause the show to go long. You SHOULD do time between comics if the previous performer had a rough set and you want to keep the audience in a good mood for the next comic.
If there’s one very simple thing you need to know about hosting it’s this: For the love of God,
SAY THE NAME OF THE PERFORMER LAST.
It may seem obvious, but I’ve encountered this 1,000 times. The comic’s name indicates that it’s time for the performer to step on stage. Otherwise, you don’t really know when the host is done with your intro and you just stand around awkwardly not knowing when to go on. It’s always polite to ask your performer what they’d like for an intro. Some comics don’t care, but others have something they’d like to promote, or a credit they’d like the audience to know about.
***IF YOUR COMIC IS A LADY***
I know, guys. Lady comics are scary. They are pretty much space aliens with opinions and teeth. How could this be happening? Your dick and brain get all gummed up. I get it. So how do you introduce a lady comic who didn’t ask for a specific intro? I’ll give you a hint:
EXACTLY LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.
You do not need to mention a female comic is a girl. You do not need to comment on what she’s wearing. You do not need to mention whether or not you find her attractive. You just need to say the same thing you’d say about a dude.
Here is an example:
This next comic coming to the stage is super funny. You are gonna love her, (insert name)!
Again, this might seem silly, but you have no idea how many ridiculous intros I’ve gotten from people who couldn’t wrap their head around that I could be both a comic and a lady AT THE SAME TIME. It’s possible people, believe me.
A 90 minute show is best, 2 hours max
Remember how excited you were to see Lord of the Rings and then you watched it in the movie theater? About an hour and a half in, you were like, ‘Jesus will this move ever be over?’ And then you were there for ANOTHER hour and a half? The same works for comedy shows.
No matter how good your performers are, your audience is going to get restless if the show is too long. If you have a headliner your audience will have mentally checked out before he/she even steps on stage. Keep it on the short side and everyone wins. You don’t have to be a time Nazi, but keep track of everyone’s time, so things don’t accidentally run too long. I know some people hate being lit, but light people. It helps.
Does all of this sound difficult? Don’t think you’ll have enough time or energy to put together a good show? Easy solution! Don’t do it.
There’s no point in putting on a crappy, half assed show. It annoys comics, makes audiences less likely to see more comedy after a bad experience and dilutes the scene by draining away comedy fans who could be supporting better shows. If you don’t think you can pull it off, well, do us all a favor and don’t do it at all.
I do my show about once every six weeks. Why? Because that is absolutely the most I can handle without totally half-assing it. Between a full time job, several nights of shows a week, helping run this website and trying to stay a sane, rational person, this is the most I can do. And that’s fine. A weekly show is a lot of work and time. Go for quality over quantity.