From time to time, I get questions from newer comics–or from people who have flat-out never set foot on stage but are curious about it–whenever I’m in one of the dozens of cities in which I perform. I’ve always tried to be the most honest person I can be when it comes to this business, and I rarely–if ever–offer generic answers to serious questions. You will not hear me say “Just do it” or “Believe in yourself and it will happen” or any number of empty slogans that can be read on a motivational poster. Instead, I try to be sincere and honest about what a new comic in this business can expect. It’s not 1987 anymore, and our business is not booming like it did that year. What follows are 5 Points of Advice For New Comics. I’m sure my comedic brethren will agree on most, if not all, of them.
5. Do Something Else. I remember taking an acting course when I was a teen. The instructor came in and said “If there is anything on this planet that will make you happy other than being onstage or performing, go do that other thing”. People thought it was harsh. It’s brilliant, and it’s great advice. Being a full-time performer is more than just a job or a career (which you will soon find out it is, despite the initial fun of entertaining others), it’s a serious commitment that delivers tons of rejection almost immediately…and then keeps delivering it for years after that. Yes, stand-up comedy is a ton of fun and the laughter of the crowd is infectious. Once you hear some, you want to hear more. That said, it’s a brutal business, the competition is fierce, and less that 10% of those who try it will make a living at it. Less than 5% will become rich and famous. Bob Newhart recently said that professional comedians are the second-smallest group in the world, next to people who have been US Presidents. Think about that. I’m 38 and have been onstage since I was 6 years old. I did my first open-mic at 18. I don’t know how not to be a performer. Unless you feel the same way, do not pursue this line of work. It sounds harsh, but it’s good advice.
4. Take a Business Course. My friend and fellow comic Davin Rosenblatt recently lamented “You know what this business lacks? Business People”. He was right. Entertainers are often terrible when it comes to managing their business. This includes comics who want to make a living doing stand-up to comics who open their own comedy clubs. In fact, many comedians who open clubs wind up going out of business because they’re good at comedy and not good at running a business. Comedians themselves often wind up broke because they manage their money poorly, schedule their dates horribly, and have no business skills whatsoever. Here’s a statement that will get me a lot of shit, but I stand by it: Being a good businessman will help you more than being funny. Why? Because we’re all funny, to some degree or another. We’re not all good at business. Instead of spending that money on a comedy course at the local club, spend it on a business course. Learn to negotiate, to manage your time and money wisely. Even if all you learn is how sell shit on eBay part-time to pay for your gas, do that. Even better: Take a PR course. Being able to write a press release will help you more than being hilarious will in the long run. Every comic is hilarious to someone. Most comics, however, are not good at promoting themselves to the media. Learn to be both.
3. Learn False Humility. There are going to be times when you say “Thank you” and walk off the comedy stage to the sound of thunderous applause and laughter. It is stupidly addictive and an amazing rush. With that rush comes an understandable swagger. And why shouldn’t it? Why should you not have a bit of an ego after you’ve destroyed an audience of anywhere from 20 to 200 people in one fell swoop? Well, because so many people who run the comedy business hate that, that’s why. Having an ego is a sure-fire way to piss off comedy club owners, managers, and bookers. You just killed onstage? The club owner sees that all the time. Acting like you know it just makes you look like an asshole in the eyes of those who work in the non-performance side of the biz…especially to those who never set foot onstage. It’s like the guy in the Ferrari pulling up next to your Hyundai at the red light and winking at you over his Ray Bans. He’s not trying to be a dick but, man, you think that guy is a douche. So, until you have a name that draws people through the door, I suggest you learn from my mistakes and learn some false humility. Nothing will serve you better than having an “aw, shucks” personna. If you did well, it’s because of the club, the promotion, the marketing, or just the audience being that great. Then, down at the end of that list, it’s because you’re a great comedian. Got it? Trust me, I lost a lot of work over the years because of what I thought was confidence but was seen as cockiness. Oh, and drinking and having a drug problem is forgivable. Being arrogant and sleeping with the woman the manager wants to sleep with will get you banned from clubs.
2. Get a Reliable Car. This should actually be number one. Find a used car that gets great reliability ratings and buy that car. You can afford a flashy car because of your day job? That’s great…if you’re going to keep the day job. If you’re looking to be a full-time comic, however, skip the flash and go with what will last. You will not, especially in the first several years of being a pro comic, be flying very much. Unless, of course, you have that great day job or work part-time with the airlines. If you’re a full-time road comic, you’re going to be in that car more than you’ll be in your apartment. For 10 straight years, I put 65,000 miles on my car(s). I had a sweet SUV that looked great and was fun to drive…and broke down every time I thought about getting it washed. The mileage sucked. It sucked all of my income out of me. Trust me, noting will cripple your motivation like watching all of your money go into your car, over and over again. While you’re at it, get a reliable mechanic. I had one that was screwing me over for years and I didn’t even know it. Find a mechanic you trust who won’t rake you over the coals every time you need a new alternator. You’re going to be replacing those, by the way. As well as tires. You will be buying lots and lots of tires, so learn about them. And believe me when I say you’ll want a car with a back seat. There will come a day, like it or not, when you’re probably going to sleep in the thing. That is when you will regret the Miata.
1. Get With The 21st Century. I mentioned taking a PR class or Business 101 course. In addition, learn to get with the 21st Century. The last people to get with the times is always the stand-up comedy industry. Clubs and comics were the last people to get fax machines, cell phones, and even the last people to get online. There are bookers out there still not using email or watching demos online. Just because others are slow does not mean you should be, as well. I can’t believe how many people want to be (or are) professional stand-up comics who do not have a basic website. Those who do astonish me more by never updating the goddamned thing. Tour dates from 2009 and just a “Welcome” page that looks like it was designed by a Commodore 64. If you don’t look like you’re taking the business of comedy seriously, why should anyone think of you as a professional? You’ve got ideas, so learn to blog and do it often. Update your calendar regularly, or just don’t have one listed at all. Upload photos, have a video chat, learn to podcast…do something. And put it online for the world to see. You shouldn’t Google your name and find it five pages down. Get videos of yourself and put them on youtube. YES. DO THAT. If you’re so paranoid about people stealing your material that you won’t put it up for potentially millions of people to see…why even bother with this job at all? Your goal is to be seen, so be seen. Yes, it’s work. But do not be fooled: This is a job, and it takes a lot of work to succeed. No one is going to care more than you do whether or not you succeed, so you should start being your own best cheerleader right now. And, by the way, if your “Website” is just your old myspace, you don’t just need to take a business course, you need to follow the advice of Point Number Five.
There you have it: a simple, obvious, and brutally honest look at this business called “Show”. I should point out, of course, that there are exceptions to every rule. But those who are the exceptions never set out to be that way. So much of that is dumb luck. It’s best not to rely on dumb luck and to try and stack the odds in your favor. Comedy is about being funny, but the comedy business is about so much more than that. It takes a thick skin and a little brainpower to get the wheels turning in your direction.