If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a comedian looking to put on a great comedy show! That, or you’re a perverse outsider trying to get a lick of insider secrets. SCOOT! SCRAM! GET OUTTA HERE! I’m just kidding. You can stay.
All together, I have over 8 years of show-running experience. A veteran comedian told me early-on that hosting a weekly comedy show would be a great way to cut my teeth. Within my first three or four months of being a brand new comedian I started hosting an open mic at The Staircase Theatre on Thursdays. I was paid two brownies and a Coke. That mic lasted about a year and was the invaluable experience I needed to set me on the right path going forward.
Then we switched to Sundays where I would book 4 acts, charge $5 at the door, each act would get a dollar per customer and the fifth dollar went to the venue. We had a few nights where everyone went home with two dollars. Sundays was a hard sell in Hamilton so we had to shut it down.
My biggest successes were through the Brantford Comedy Festival, a six-week comedy competition that I’m still the host of until this very day and the two years I spent hosting the Emerson open mic at Emerson 109. These are the two mics where I took my failures from the past, made some changes and really began to understand what it takes to create a great comedy show. I apply those concepts now to the shows I run at Mancala Monk and the Elaine Mae Theatre.
Over the past 8 years, I learned about audience consideration, environmental psychology, venue needs, the importance of a great host and comedian habits. These elements can come together the right way to make a great comedy night or the wrong way and make for a bad one.
DISCLAIMER: I am not the first comedian to write on the subject and I won’t be the last. But what I’m addressing today isn’t how to run a great show in a club or in a theatre. I’m talking specifically about independent comedy shows whether they be open mics, monthlies or something in-between.
So what does it take to run a GREAT comedy show? Let’s dig in, shall we?
First and Foremost, Consider the Environment
Our environment, the world in which we live and work, is a mirror of our attitudes and expectations.
― Earl Nightingale
There’s an argument to be made for hole-in-the-wall junker shows. It’s important for comedians to have a place to fail. What gets forgotten along the way that it’s equally, if not more important, for comedians to have a place to succeed. Sure you”learn the ropes” from open mics where the TVs are on and not a single patron is there for comedy. But at some point that education runs thin.
Actually, not at some point, there’s a specific point.
The moment the comedian becomes confident in their ability and starts really working on their act, that’s the point those mics are almost useless. When you have material or specific skills you need to work on and hone, those are not the shows where you’ll exercise those muscles. They simply exercise a different set of muscles: confidence, stamina, adaptability and conflict resolution.
A good mic allows you to exercise the more practical elements of the actual craft: timing, pacing, tone, complex material, long-form stories, set construction, etc. Plus you have a fairer gauge of the audience’s reaction.
The first step to a good mic is the right environment. What exactly constitutes as “the right environment” you may ask?
- The audience is there for the show. Meaning they’re not simply in the same venue while a show is happening. They came specifically for the show. This eliminates a lot of sports bars and niche bars that draw audiences for other purposes like pool tables or the NHL playoffs. If those venues don’t compromise those elements, i.e. closing down the pool tables and turning off the TVs during the show, it’s going to be an uphill battle. A bad show for the audience is a bad show for the performers and visa versa. Makes no sense to set yourself up for failure when there’s always a more suitable venue somewhere else. This ties into my next point.
- No distractions. You don’t want anything that takes away the audience’s attention from your show. They already have enough distractions in their front pockets (phones, fun jangly keys, etc). Turn off the TVs. Close the doors if you’re in a side room. Don’t let the bar noise filter in. Turn off any unnecessary lights. Don’t have music playing over the speakers while the acts are on. Stuff like that.
- Make sure it’s a good comedy room. That means typically square or rectangular. You don’t want blind spots. If a portion of your audience can’t see the show, chances are they won’t pay attention to the show. This could very well lead to chatter and distract the other audience members from enjoying the show. If it’s a rectangular room, either congregate the audience into one half of the room so it’s controlled and you don’t lose them through distance or perform horizontally. Take in considerations like where the bar is located, where the bathrooms are, things like that deem what would be the best experience for the audience physically.
I did a show last year in a very large venue with a mechanical bull. I got to tell jokes while riding the bull and that was a bucket list item I never knew I had. The audience was sparse, about 15 people. Put the same comedians and the same audience in a broom closet, it would be one hell of a show. (By that, I just mean a more intimate environment.) But because of the sheer vastness of the room physically, it was an uphill battle for everyone across the board.
Second, Consider the Venue and Their Needs
Intensely selfish people are always very decided as to what they wish. They do not waste their energies in considering the good of others.
There’s a distinct difference between doing a comedy show for others and doing a comedy show for yourself. I’m assuming if you’re running an indie comedy show, you most likely don’t own a venue. Which means you don’t pay the rent, or the hydro, or the staffing costs, or the insurance. There’s a lot of a venue has to go through just to host the night and they’re hoping that your show will not only bring in customers, but repeat customers.
I’ve seen great shows in good venues get closed down because of bad choices. Usually due to a comedian in their early years giving themselves permission to say something shitty into a microphone. I’ve talked openly before how I did this in my first few years. I got myself kicked off of NXNE the first time because of lewd drunken behaviour. I was banned from a college for using aggressive language against the audience.
These were huge mistakes that I’m glad I made early on.
Obviously, if I could turn back time, I would stop young dumb Clifford from making those mistakes because there was pain and shame associated with those experiences that I would rather not live with. But the greatest comedians I know have made epic mistakes and learned from them. The best comedians consider their audience. “What do I have to do tonight to make them laugh tonight?”
Comedians have the freedom to say whatever they want into a microphone but just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Think of it from the venue’s standpoint. If you’re saying shitty things into the microphone, many of the customers are going to turn to the venue owner and be like, “Really? You’re allowing this in your venue?” Because what happens under their roof reflects on them. It’s easier for them to ban the comic or close down the show then lose a customer in the name of “free speech.” That’s not to say you can’t perform more complex or taboo subject matter but be self-aware of your skill-level. A good question to ask yourself is “Am I skilled enough to pull this off?” If not, then the question is what do you have to do to develop that skill.
At the end of the day they got bills to pay and customers to please. On the flip side, doing your best to make sure the audience has a good time ensures that the bookers and venue will want you back and you might have just doubled your work and/or stage time.
That’s why it’s good to have some sort of monetary compensation for the show. Where the venue either is paying an allotted amount to the performers or there’s a door deal. Charging for a show typically promotes a certain amount of value unless you’re on a structure where free shows with full audiences serve as an advertisement for a bigger upcoming show that you want to make big on. So a string of free shows make sense if there’s a pay-off near the end. The Brantford Comedy Festival runs on this structure. Six free competition shows leading up to a 1100 person gala with a 10k competition. This structure involves sponsor involvement and community word of mouth and takes years to master.
Speaking of sponsors, getting beer sponsors involved to reduce prices for the comedy nights and promote their brand through free swag is a great way to create a better experience for the audience and bodes well to the venue. Especially if you’re supporting local craft beer. (Shoutout to Cameron’s Brewing! Brap Brap!)
Third, Consider the Audience and Their Needs
We can’t all be comedians, some people have to do the laughing.
― Mokokoma Mokhonoana
Even though this is third on the list, it’s first in my eyes. The audience always comes first. They are the ones spending their money for a night out to be entertained. We have no idea what their home lives are like or what personal issues they’re trying to momentarily escape. Let’s give them that. Let’s give them a night that takes them away even just for a little bit. It’s about laughs but not all about laughs.
It’s about the experience.
These days anyone can get a laugh anywhere. Go to Youtube and watch a cat fart. Go to Twitter and read 140 characters of pure gold. There’s comedy virtually everywhere. Comedians exercise one of the world’s oldest traditions. Gathering together, sharing our thoughts, sharing our tales and laughing with one another. This is still old school and it’s still one of the greatest experiences a human can go through.
Think about it. A great comedy show means a room full of people who would most likely disagree with each other over this or that on the internet, people with different world views, come together for one night, put that all aside, and be with one another. I would go as far to say, these small temporary moments are the closest we’re ever going to get to world peace.
And I treat it with that amount of respect. I didn’t always. I had to learn the hard way. And hopefully if a newer comedian or show runner is reading this they can avoid my early mistakes.
Fourth, Consider the Comedians and Their Needs
Comedy is a distortion of what is happening, and there will always be something happening.
― Steve Martin
So far you’re probably sitting there like, “Okay so I have to think about EVERYONE but ME!!!???” And I know how much that sucks. I’m a comedian and I LOVE thinking about me. I’m probably my favourite thing to think about. Well have no fear! It’s time to talk about YOUR needs! You being “the comedian” in this instance. In case you’re some weirdo non-comedian who kept reading this. SCAT! SCRAM! Just kidding.
The comedian needs practical things to do their set right. A working microphone, good volume, no speaker crackle. An environment with little distraction. An attentive audience that is there for the comedian. Everything we’ve been talking about is inevitably FOR the comedian so they can do their job to the best of their ability.
When I’m running a comedy show, I want everyone to win. I want the audience to say, “That was awesome! I can’t wait to come back!” I want the comedian to say, “That was awesome! I can’t wait to come back!” I want the venue to say, “That was awesome! Let’s do this forever!”
This is what I mean by creating spaces for comedians to succeed. It’s important to fail but ultimately we want to be the best comedians that we can possibly be. Performing on great shows for audiences who are 100% into it? Well, nothing compares to that.
Last but Certainly Not Least, Be the Hostest with the Mostest
A party without a cake is just a meeting.
― Julia Child
Anyone who knows me knows how much I cherish the role of the host. It’s my personal philosophy that a host can make or break a show. I like to create a narrative throughout the show. A mix of curated material and crowd work. Sometimes I’ll use some hosting tricks to get them into the show. Which usually entails getting to know the audience, giving them nicknames, making them an integral part of the experience.
Even after the show I like to go and shake everyone’s hands and try to get their names so I can involve them for next time. This is especially helpful for weekly shows. Having a regular audience for a weekly show breathes life into the comedy experience. Just make sure you’re switching up the acts a lot so there’s always something new and exciting for them. If you’re going to have some repeat acts, make sure they don’t repeat material.
Keep it fresh for the audience.
A host that makes it solely about them can derail the show unless they have developed the skill to host from a “selfish persona”. You’ll see comedians overtime who develop their voices find a way to sell their voice as a bit of a persona. It’s not at put on as that but they slide into an easily communicable archetype that the audience “gets” and creates a sense of fluidity for the show.
Those are some good first steps to follow if you want to run a great comedy show. Ultimately you’re working towards a goal of running a great for the audience, the performers and the venue. There’s an overwhelming sense of accomplishment when it all comes together and I definitely wish that for you. Good luck!
Did you like this new series Indie Comedy Secrets? Today’s post was about Running a Great Room but if there’s more “secrets” (obviously not secrets because I’m fricken blogging about it) that you would like to know, write your suggestions in the comments below and I’ll save them for future posts. The next ICS won’t be for at least two weeks as I would like to mix my blog up between comedy-centered content and personal content but maybe, if you’re lucky, I’ll throw in a bonus for you!
Please share this post and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Anything you would like to add that I may have forgotten? What are some of the best comedy shows you’ve ever seen or performed on? Why were they so great?
Thank you for reading and see you next Thursday!