I went to an open mic tonight with a couple of friends. I went to the same mic last week, but was too scared to get up. This week, one of my friends got there early and signed me and my other friend up. It seemed rude to decline.
I hadn’t done stand-up in over two years, and it went as well as could be expected. I used the same jokes I prepared for last week, more or less. I was super rusty but it was nice to get laughs when I expected them, and people didn’t hold their own conversations during my set. It went poorly enough that I definitely want to try to do better next time but not so well that nobody who saw me tonight would expect me to be great next time, which takes the pressure off.
After I calmed down, the mic was fun. I’m glad that my friends like to stay the whole time because I always felt bad leaving mics early back in the day just so that I wouldn’t have to worry about a ride home. Plus, I like comedy.
After the mic, one of my friends let the host know that I used to be a Booker. I don’t like being introduced that way but I’m not sure if it bothers me enough to bring it up. I’d rather just be a person, or, at a mic, a comedian, not a former Booker at a comedy club a lot of comedians have had bad experiences at.
I always feel like I need to explain that even if 80% of comedians have a good experience and 20% of comedians have a bad experience, if you’re talking to one of the 20% and none of the 80%, your perception is going to be skewed. And, although I believe that comedy as a business is exploitative, I don’t know that I would say that my club is more exploitative than any other club.
In fact, they go out of their way to book newer comedians — not for altruistic reasons, sure, but is that better than a club that uses a strong gatekeeper who operates on a system of favorites and favors, or clubs that don’t book bringer shows but will allow “independent producers” to book bringer shows? Oh, yeah, Big Boy, your hands are soooooo clean!
To be clear, I think those are both terrible options, but, maybe due to being part of the 80%, I appreciate a club that goes out of its way to make room for less experienced comedians. I also had a lot of amazing experiences there, despite my reservations regarding the business itself.
Still, I end up getting defensive about the club, and angry at the exploitative nature of the business, and those are two reasons I hadn’t touched a mic in two years. I have more reasons, but those are two of the biggest.
I think I might start blogging about comedy — not just my experiences, but also tips and tricks for newer comedians. I think if I could only say one thing about the business of comedy, it would be that it’s easy to take things personally, but it rarely is. Sometimes it is, but speaking from experience, there are about a million comedians to one Booker*.
All comedians want to be booked. All comedians want to be remembered, all comedians want to be special. And I’ll say this, not as a Booker, but as a Human — everyone IS special. One of my favorite things was watching an unwatchable baby comedian get funny. Every single person has a spark, an essence; something that they bring to the world that no one else does. Watching a comedian tap into that essence is one of the most joyful experiences ever, and not just as a Booker — otherwise comedy wouldn’t be a thing that regular people pay to see.
The sad thing is that people want to believe that comedy is a meritocracy. That those comedians who tap into that essence the best, connect to their audiences the best, will be the most successful. This is not necessarily true. If thousands of comedians are able to tap into their essences and connect to their local audiences, but the world only has room for, say, a hundred legends or superstars, what happens to the other thousands of comedians?
Generally, they tour or do corporate gigs or have side jobs. Not everyone is “destined” to be rich and famous. The reason that baby comedians are so desperate for money and fame is because when they’re starting out, they can’t even get by, no matter how hard they work at it. I’ve known comedians who lived in their cars or other peoples’ couches or floors, for years.
I’ve met comedians who have been doing stand-up for twenty-plus years and are still grateful for a 5-minute spot on any show, whether it be in a club, in a bar, or on a street corner. I’ll be going to a comedy show in someone’s backyard next week. For a couple of months, I hosted an open mic in my carport.
Comedians love doing comedy. They’ll do it for free — hell, they’ll pay to do comedy and subsidize that decision with a job that actually pays. This love of comedy is what is exploited. The fact that comedians will work for free translates into comedy club owners deciding that “comedians don’t care about getting paid”. This is inaccurate. Not caring about getting paid is not the same thing as accepting that your particular skill holds little to no monetary value.
And we can blame the comedians all we want to, for choosing to work for free, as though if they all went on strike, the business of comedy would change. That’s not true. First of all, the overwhelming number of hopefuls desperate for any kind of stage time will always undermine any attempt at a strike. Second, as headliners rarely get paid a living wage to perform, they wouldn’t lose any income from going on strike. All they’d do is lose the stage time they need to be polished enough to go on the road so that they can afford to pay for their time in LA.
We already know that a strike won’t work. We have an alternative comedy scene that was built up by comedians fed up with being censored, under-booked, and underpaid by clubs. They created shows in bars and backyards and in tents. Here, they still weren’t being paid, but at least they could perform, and their type of comedy wasn’t dictated to them by club bookers and owners. But that didn’t fix the system. As stated, there are too many aspiring comedians who are desperate for stage time, particularly in a club, that a club is never at a loss for comedians to book.
Clubs don’t lack their pick of super-talented comedians. Clubs need audiences. In this city in particular, there are a lot of options for entertainment. Headliners who can sell out clubs all over the country, unless they’re Jerry Seinfeld or Kevin Hart or Iliza Schlesinger, can’t pull in crowds in LA.
For me, the solution is obvious: build up a reputation, as a club, for nurturing and showcasing the next superstars. Have every show’s line-up stacked with people who are funny enough to be famous, but aren’t. Hire promoters to make sure that there are at least a few butts in seats so that word-of-mouth has a chance to grow.
Or, you could do what LA has chosen to do. Put on bringer shows. A budding comedian doesn’t have fans yet, but do you know what they do have? Friends and family. So, you can pack a lineup full of inexperienced comedians and they will help sell out your rooms. And the shows are terrible and nobody in the audience wants to go back. The comedians who purchased the tickets for their friends and family, and possibly their two-drink minimum, try to focus on the fact that they got to perform at a Real Life Club instead of on the fact that they were not only not paid, but they (in a lot of cases) lost money on the gig.
These comedians realize that they can’t afford to be amateurs for much longer, and feel urgency to move up to paid gigs. Unfortunately, paid gigs in LA are few, far between, are granted mostly to touring headliners, and don’t pay as much as you would think.
So, what happens? Budding comedians become more experienced and less bookable. Their friends and family lose interest in watching terrible shows, but these comedians aren’t skilled enough to be booked on better gigs. A kind Booker will try to find room for them, but there’s a prolonged period of limbo between bringing and featuring, unless you get very, very lucky.
This business model leaves clubs desperately clinging to whatever audience they can manage to trick into a show, and comedians being bitter about particular clubs or producers. Comedians who once found comedy freeing become disillusioned and doubt their self-worth.
The art of comedy edifies; the business of comedy exploits. If you want to maintain your sanity, surround yourself with decent human beings. Anyone can get funnier. Decency is a skill that takes a lot more time and dedication to develop. Be careful about the environments you let yourself become involved in. If you find yourself defensive, angry, or increasingly cynical, take a step back. Pinpoint the source of this poison and cut yourself off from it, whether it’s a person/people or location(s).
I promise, there are enough decent people to be around and enough decent places to be that you don’t need to subject yourself to any environment that brings out the worst in you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that purposely dosing yourself with iocane powder will make you immune to it. That has only ever worked for the Dread Pirate Roberts.
*This might be slight hyperbole.