5 Signs A Comedy Club Is Struggling

Every year, to my utter dismay, at least one comedy club at which I’m used to working goes out of business. In all honesty, that number is usually closer to four and, each time it happens a little part of me dies inside. It’s always sad when the lights come down and the doors close for the last time on a place that once let me grace the stage.  I will say, however, that when a comedy club does go out of business, it is usually not a huge surprise. There are warning signs that begin months or even years before the axe eventually falls.

What follows are five signs I’m used to seeing that raise a red flag in my eyes that a club’s days may be numbered.

5. The Professional Host Becomes the Amateur Host. Most comedy clubs follow what is known as “The Three Comic Formula”.   That’s three consecutive comedians on the bill (Host, Feature, Headliner), each to varying degrees of experience.  When a club is struggling, one of the first signs that the people in charge are trying to save money is when The Host goes from being a professional (albeit new) comedian to being some local amateur who has barely been onstage.  Amateur comedians are alike in that they each want the chance to perform onstage in an actual comedy club and are more than happy to do so for free.  The club automatically saves as much as $500 per week.  Sometimes the amateur is actually hilarious and a great host, other times he is simply going to stand onstage and awkwardly ask the audience to turn off cell phones and to order the nachos.  Meanwhile, a professional Host is in the back of the room, drinking himself stupid out of depression over the lost work.  The irony is that, in order to save money, the comedy club decided that a solution was less comedy.

4. The Advertising (Including the Website) Disappears. Ever heard a comedian on the radio? Sometimes we sit in on local stations, yapping with the Morning “Zoo Crew” about our gig that week at Uncle Knuckle-Fuckers.  Someone pays for that.  Yes, just like putting up money to have a commercial on the radio, a comedy club typically pays to have a comedian sit and talk to “Chucky and the Dyke” on Z-203.  When the club starts to lag?  No more radio.  Those full-page ads in the paper stop, too.  A jarring (and depressing) sign that a comedy club is in trouble is when the website suddenly stops being updated.  It’s bad enough that some websites already look as if they were designed on a Commodore 64, but even worse when “Next Week: Richard Jeni” is posted across the front page.  Sometimes the club closes altogether but the site remains online.   A defunct club in Buffalo listed a show with me and Lisa Lampanelli as “Coming Soon” three years after it closed.

3. Every Other Comedian is “Local”. Pretty much every comedian in New York or LA lives in New York or LA.  But every other major city in the North America relies on out-of-town talent for its comedian pool.  Sure, there are plenty of local comics in any city, but the Headliners and Features come from out of town at least 95% of the time.   When you start hearing that the Feature act is “A Local Act” every single week? That’s a strong clue that someone is trying to save some serious money.  Although the Host is rarely given lodging for a gig, The Feature almost always is.  Use a local feature and you need one less hotel room. This is absolutely no problem if you have, say, fifty quality Feature Acts living in your city. Unfortunately, too many clubs re-use the same local talent all the time.  After a while, audiences tend to notice that the Feature Act is the same guy they saw doing it there just two months earlier.  When is a club really in trouble?  When every Headliner you see listed is touted as a “Local Favorite”.

2. A “Three-Comic” Show Becomes a “Two-Comic” Show.  Even after you get rid of the hotel for The Feature Act, you still have to actually pay The Feature Act.  Hosts will often work for free, but Features never do.  Once a club has saved money by using local acts and yet still finds itself in the red, the decision is often made to eliminate one of the comedians altogether.  This often happens after other steps have already been taken and is rarely the first action a club would ever take to save money.  But it does happen, and more than you’d think.  Suddenly, the show switches to a two-comic format, with The Host also acting as The Feature, although quite possibly still unpaid.  When the show becomes a DJ who announces “THE comedian”, the days of comedy at Wacky Sacks Comedy Hut are truly numbered.  Again, the irony here is that many comedy clubs decide that the best cost-cutting measure is less comedy.

1. The Venue Drastically Changes. Rent ain’t cheap, and owning a bar certainly isn’t.  A stand-alone, full-time comedy club is an expensive venture, and doesn’t even look good on paper.  Comedy clubs aren’t open as many hours as bars and tend to push you out the door in two hours.  Sometimes the owner of club wants comedy to continue, just can’t afford the location.  Unfortunately, local audiences often fall in love with the location first, the comedy second.  It always starts with a club going from having shows all week to suddenly only being open on the weekend.  From there, the club closes altogether and suddenly relocates and becomes “Comedy Night at Dave’s Bowling Alley”.  It’s admirable that the owners want the comedy club to live on, damn the odds…but it’s hard to get audiences as excited as they were when the show looked like something you see on TV.   Know what you don’t see on TV? Stand-up Comedy in a bowling alley.  Just sayin’.

Like every other comedian I know, I never like to see clubs fail. In fact, what I really like to see is more and more clubs opening all over the place, much as it happened during the 1980s. Unfortunately, it does happen and, when it does there are usually signs. I’ve only named five, but there are many.  I’d name more, but am off to do a show at a laundromat.

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3 comments

  1. Excellent article as always, Ward. I think a major reason is comedy is promoted horribly. The big “advertisement” you’ll see at a lot of places on the east coast in states such as Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, etc… Is “NYC Comedy Night with comedians from NYC.” They don’t make it sound cool, so the young people who go to bars and clubs to see bands and DJs, either don’t know at all or don’t go to the comedy club. Yet, that same demographic spend endless hours online watching videos, reading blogs, watching standup clips, replaying the Charlie Sheen roast, etc. That’s why it’s good that guys like you and I generate a ton of online content, and making an effort to connect with our fans and build our following. The audience at road rooms has usually become older married people who go out twice a year, and don’t buy many drinks. When the unknown acts that have the kind of appeal that the younger, more party going crowd will really connect with, the clubs need to make it known to them. And then, the club will sell a lot more alcohol and that’s where their real money is. At too many places you show up not even knowing what type of show you’re going to see. Look at the amount of clubs that go from a young dirty comic one week, to a christian comic the next, then a cerebral act, an old school catskills style guy, then a music act, then a prop act; and you have know idea what you’re going to see. I think variety is good, but if people don’t know the type of comedy they’re going to see, why would they come? It’s like with music, if you go to see “Guns N’ Roses, you might not go to see “Coldplay.” People would come out more if they didn’t see it as going to a comedy show, but that they were going to see the type of show they want to see. The clubs need to do a better job of marketing the acts and types of shows, as well as finding sponsorship and cross promotions to go along.

    Keep up the great work!

    James

  2. Forgot the “showcase” format.. When a club starts “showcasing” local comics instead of using features. Also, when the club starts relying on their “comedy school” and puts those students up on pro shows.
    One last one.. “Use the code word ‘FUNNY’ at the door and get in free!” In a desperate effort to just get people in to buy the 2 item minimum, they start giving away their show. Usually also means local or lesser known talent headlining or even worse CO-headlining!!

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