comedy advice

Popular is not the same as good

I have lived in two different comedy scenes and spent time traveling through dozens of others and I’m here to tell you: The best local show in your town is just the best local show in your town- so don’t freak out if you’re not on it. Every city has a show that becomes the goal of new comics. A show that is "the best" and acts as some marker that tells people, “You’re in, kid!”.
It’s easy to get caught up in the culture that surrounds shows like that because if feels good to be part of what is popular. The downside to these shows is that more often than not, we are having too much fun to recognize shitty behavior until something bad happens.
Because sometimes those local heroes running the best show in town are not so great.

Some shows are run by ignorant people, like someone who still doesn’t get why their joke about a black trans school shooter isn’t working. [a real joke someone decided to write]

Some shows are run by shady people, like someone who gets paid but won’t pay their performers. [a real thing you will experience until you quit comedy or die]

Some shows are run by gross people, like someone who rarely books women and when they do, introduces them as, “a beautiful lady that would never fuck me, but did in my dream last night!” [a real thing that was said about me as I went onstage]

Some shows are run by struggling people, like someone who isn’t dealing with their drinking problem and you watch basically almost die every week. [a real thing you shouldn’t ignore if you notice it.]

Sometimes the person running the show does something truly fucked up, like physically harm another person-level fucked up. Usually this comes after all the other things we ignored because no one thought it was their place to say something. It’s complicated to navigate comedy scenes because they are a space with a lot of unwritten rules. Half of us treat it like a frat and the other half treats it like a job but either way, there isn’t anyone to report to. Bad behavior slips through the cracks all the time because who wants to be the person complaining about everyone’s favorite show?

There are shows I stopped supporting because of the things I see happening at them and for a long time I was anxious that it would hurt my success, but the thing I have learned didn’t. Every show that has a booker I’m at odds with over their sexual harassment, their racist jokes, whatever it may be, is still running their show and I am still telling my jokes. We just don’t do it together.

My point is: Just because a place is popular doesn’t mean it is a space you have to support. Don’t be afraid to confront bad behavior and if you’re scared to, try bringing it up to a peer first. More often than not, they have also noticed and maybe together you can do something about it. There will always be people using their position to get away with stuff and just because you can’t guarantee it will stop doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If it doesn’t work and some sad loser that treats people poorly gets mad at you, there will always be other shows, so don’t just settle for cool shows in your scene, demand that they be good ones too.

Time spent doesn’t always equal experience earned

You will meet an endless amount of people whose biggest credit is that they’ve “been doing comedy for (some number) of years.” This is information to be taken with a grain of salt.
The amount of time someone has done comedy does not solely speak for their ability and someone’s ability does not always reflect how long they’ve been doing comedy.  Appreciate the people who have put in the work for a long time but do not bow to anyone just because they’ve been around forever.

When I started doing stand-up someone told me that I wouldn’t get booked on anything that mattered for at least a year and I believed them. That seemed like a reasonable amount of time to have to work on being good enough for something, especially when someone who had done comedy longer than I had said so. But what ended up happening was that I worked really hard and I asked for opportunities instead of waiting for them. (More on that here.)
When I was around 7 months into stand-up I booked a gig doing 5 minutes of material to open for a national headliner at a club. I came home proud of myself for my accomplishment but within days I felt like I had done something wrong. People asked me, “How did you get that?” with a heavy inflection on the “you”. One person accused me of having a romantic relationship with the male comic that was hosting the show and said that must have been why I got the spot. The same thing happened the first time I got booked to do 20 minutes. I think I was about 2 years in at the time and once again this accusation of, “How did YOU get that?” made me wonder if maybe I didn’t deserve the things I had been given.

I spent a lot of that first year letting comics that had been around longer than me give me bad advice because I assumed they knew better. Once I posted a clip from an open mic set that I was proud of (In hindsight it wasn’t really that good but I was proud and who cares?) and another comedian told me it was stupid to post that on my blog because if anyone saw it they would think I was being too cocky for a new comic and wouldn’t like me. I had people tell me not to make a website or market myself because I wasn’t good enough to have a website or be marketed. All of these people were people whose opinion mattered to me greatly because I wanted “in” but none of those people are people who ended up actually affecting my career. You know what did affect my career? Having a website to refer people to. Having a clip available to send out when I wanted to book shows or submit to festivals. Having the ability to look at the results I was getting as a performer and to deciding for myself what my value was without waiting for someone to tell me.

While you try to find your footing as a comic,  you have to learn a lot. If you're any good you will never stop learning new things about how to be funny. Don't underestimate your own experience or let anyone make you feel inferior just because they’ve been at open mics a year longer than you or some other inconsequential qualifier. Every single comic is in a constant state of growth and anyone who tells you they’ve reached their final form is a liar. The probably aren’t very funny either.

“Ask not what the booker can do for you, ask what you can do for the booker”

    “How did you get that?” is probably one of the most commonly asked questions in the comedy community. In the last year I’ve gotten booked more than ever and it's no coincidence that it also the year when I started asking about the shows I wanted to be on instead of waiting for them to notice me. I know asking isn’t always a popular thing to do, which part of me understands. When you’re new and untested, it takes a certain level of hubris to demand to be booked before you’ve shown that you have the skills to back it up. But I also was confused by it because in my experience, asking for what I want professionally has always yielded more better results than not.

Before I did comedy I worked in the music industry interviewing bands and reviewing albums. Before I worked in the music industry I was a person that wanted to work in the music industry but wasn’t sure how to break in. I started by writing an email to a local radio station that played the kind of music I wanted to write about and asked if they would consider me for an internship. I was 15. There wasn’t an actual internship that I was applying for, but I knew that I wanted to be part of what they were doing at 98.3FM so I politely explained what I wanted to do, why I thought I would be great at it and when I was available to begin doing it. I got lucky and the right person read my email and over the next several years I worked my way from intern to full-time host. Once I had honed my industry skills a little, I knew I wanted to interview bigger bands and review major release albums. When I was 19 I started a blog that next to nobody read but I just kept writing. Eventually that blog became the portfolio of writing I submitted to major publications and by 21 I was freelancing for publications that were big enough to grant me access to the major names I wanted to sit down with. I’ve approached comedy pretty similarly: I decided I wanted to do it, I found ways to practice and once I felt confident, I started asking the people with opportunities if they thought I would be a good fit for what they do. As silly and fun as comedy is, if your goal is to do it at any level beyond open mics, you have to treat it like a job and it is pretty rare to get a job that you don’t apply for.

If you have been doing the work and consistently developing your act at open mics, but haven’t gotten booked on a show, more than half of the time it is probably less that you’re not funny enough and more that the person running it just hasn’t seen you yet. Even in the smallest comedy scene, there are a lot of faces that cycle in and out and it is ridiculous to expect everyone to pay attention to the trajectory of your growth. 
In my experience the people that books rooms are much more likely to consider your booking request if they’ve seen you watch their show before, because how can you know you want to do a show if you’ve never seen it? Sometimes comedy is a give and take in this way but it is important to remember that attending a show is in no way a bargaining chip. You don’t get to say, “Well I came to your show so now you have to put me on.” but you do get to say, “I think your show is great and I would love to be part of it. What can I do to be considered?”.  Try striking up a non-booking related conversation with them in person and then send a polite follow up message expressing your interest. There is a huge difference between putting a show runner on the spot and asking, “When are you going to book me?” and submitting your work for their consideration.

Final recap: Be present and pleasant. If you're actively trying, are funny and cool to work with, you're going to get booked- eventually. It's always nice to be invited to do a show but if you sit around waiting for people to discover you, you’ll be doing a lot more sitting than stand-up.