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July 22, 2019

How to Film Stand Up Comedy

Do you want to know how to shoot stand up comedy at your bar or pub show, comedy club, small theater or private event? Sanjay Manaktala has done comedy for years, run and gunned at his own open mics and produced shows as part of the daily hustle of being a stand-up comedian. In this post he’ll explain the camera setup and audio gear required to record your comedy sets for Instagram and Facebook or YouTube and whatever other social media platform is hot tomorrow.

Guide to Shooting a Stand Up Comedy Live Performance

Hello fellow comedy industry comics and producers.

If you landed up here you’re probably curious how to film your stand up set properly.

Since we all know in comedy that less is more and to cut the fat, here’s the artwork I mocked up together for most of you that will pretty much answer most things I’m about to say.

How to shoot stand up comedy
3 DSLR’s with the appropriate lenses, one wide-angle, and two slightly side angles which need not be an equal distance away from the middle. You’ll likely do most of your edits/cuts on your act outs, since emotion/setup/tension you need intimate close-ups/middle shots. One thing I forgot to add is if you can, record audio laughter from your phone in the middle of the audience, or use the H4N 4 channel setting if you really need to. Also, tripods should be at the height where the camera is at your neck level.

Stand up comedy isn’t impossible to film, or particularly very difficult…if you have a crew. And of course, you have a crew for every open mic with 5 people, right? I mean of course RIGHT!?!?!

Ok, so that’s where it gets difficult.

Unless you have a team of 4-5 people constantly helping, checking levels, angles, lighting, aperture, and focus…live shoots…even in a small bar can be quite hectic.

So before I begin explaining how many camera and lenses you’ll need, let me warn you. You’ll probably record about 10 gigs before you get it right. A million things will go wrong the first 5-10 times. I put this guide together so it’s 10 mics and not 100.

And then all you got to do is make sure the right crowd, the right set, the right delivery, the right response and the right night.

Russell Brand Bangalore Sanjay manaktala Comedy Central
Russell Brand came to India and I opened for him across 3 cities, but somebody forgot to tell the cameraman that sometimes wide is too wide.

List of things that go wrong when you film your sets, whether professionally, with DSLR’s or with cell phones:

  • Venue sound guy increases the audio level to your recorder, ruining your audio from the mixer/sound recorder. Now all you have is hollow camera audio.
  • Somebody stands in front of your cameras.
  • Audience chair hits tripod, moves the angle of the camera.
  • Camera SD cards cut out or get full.
  • Audio gets full or recorder dies because power settings/battery/memory card was wrong.
  • You moved out of the frame and no camera got you, during your best act out.
  • Weird hissing from audio recorder because mixer had some loose wire or feedback or cell phone hum.
  • Aperture was too perfect and depth of field was too crisp, so you’re barely in focus since you move a lot.
  • Batteries die after 20 to 45 minutes because the opener took too long, and your best joke was at minute 46 and it was the best response you ever got and OMG FML.
  • ISO is too high and footage is way too grainy.
  • Your set or delivery was off or you messed up one word and now the callback in your clip doesn’t make sense and will confuse the viewer. (not a technical issue but hey anybody feel me?)
  • Performer kept walking out of the spotlight so all was fine except his/her face is underexposed (e.g. dark bags under eyes and just looks off). I just did this at my show yesterday.
punchline sacramento indian comedian
The Punchline in Sacramento has great lighting, but you’ll not get this type of lighting in most bars. Also, this is a cool angle for a picture but for a video it should be a little more zoomed in since it’s not dead center, we’d use this angle instead for a close-up or middle shot.

I know $50,000 shoots in India and America where they messed up audio, and that’s the single source of failure. If one camera goes out you can always switch to another, but audio, oh boy, you really got to be careful.

So What’s the Best Way to Record Stand Up Comedy Shows?

So if you’re trying to do what I strongly believe most comedians are already doing, which is playing the digital long game ala Andrew Schulz and most others, you have to find a way to constantly put out clips on IGTV, (Vertical) Instagram Video (Square), YouTube (duh) and Facebook (although nobody will watch it probably by the end of 2019).

VIDEO GEAR YOU NEED

First thing you need is 3 DSLR cameras.

  1. Main Camera Angle: This shot is not exciting, and its awkward cause it usually shows your full body. But it’s the safety shot for when the other two aren’t cutting it.
  2. Right of the stage (e.g. right of the main camera) – so will be like 5-10 feet away, slightly angled at you on stage, waist up.
  3. Left of the stage, ideally super tight, in case you’re standing still and really connecting with the crowd.

AUDIO GEAR YOU NEED

Tascam or Zoom H4N (the standard). It’s about $200.

how to record stand up comedy audio
I’ve done big-budget shows where we just got forgot to hit record. YES, I’m serious. Also, the red text says “stand up comedy audio setup” so don’t worry you didn’t miss anything. (too lazy to upload it again).

I like the Zoom because you can record the output of a mixer directly into it, and you can then use the other mic it has to also record field audio. I hated it for the first few years, thinking it was ugly, bulky and just not user-friendly or intuitive. Now I know why it’s the standard.

ON the 4 Channel Mode: If the DJ or sound console is near the crowd, you could let the sound guy give you the XLR output into the Zoom’s Channel 1 (make sure you set the input to 1 and not mic), then let the Zoom’s top mics get the crowd laughter. This is in 4 channel mode.

Amazon India: Zoom H4N Recorder Standard Live Show & Podcast Recorder

If the sound dude is too far to also let the audio recorder point towards the crowd, then simply put your phone on a tripod in the middle of the audience and capture crowd laughter that way, and sync it to your voice later. Or you can record video and now you have the same sound plus a backup video.

What about just Recording your Stand Up Set on your Phone?

For those of you who aren’t looking to release your clips online and just want a standard way to make sure you’re not lazy about recording your spots, now let’s see the best way to use your iPhone or Android.

Priorities for this format are normally:

  1. Good Audio (most phone’s mics are better than DSLR cameras for audio these days) so I don’t think you should buy those mic attachments.
  2. Focus (you’ll have to lock focus on the previous performer or on the microphone stand as you need to be in the same plane for focus.
  3. Frame (get a wide shot since you don’t plan to release it but want the whole stage in case you get some magic)
  4. Lock exposure for the same reason.
  5. Stability (e.g. tripod with small cell phone attachment).
  6. Tripod (Full size)

All you need for this is really a tripod, phone attachment and well, your phone.

A lot of comics put get those dinky small tripods, and put them on a table, which then gets fists slamming the table, silverware sounds, and an awkward angle looking at the performer.

NO NO NO.

Use a full size $15 Amazon Prime tripod, a $4 phone attachment and put your phone in the middle somewhere.

best camera setup for comedy show
The Setup SF is one of best gigs in the Bay, and has a standard camera angle that works for their basement show, which would be great for gigs in Chicago and NYC/Boston also. https://www.instagram.com/p/B0HCWc0Azk_/

Best Lens for Comedy Shows

I’ll get to the camera’s themselves, don’t worry. Lenses are way more important.

I know so many comedians who get caught up in the gear because that’s an easy way to *cough* use that as an excuse to not focus on their act.

Oh yeah, focus pun, did you catch it?

You know all that spiritual meditation stuff you make fun of?

Google something called “resistance” and realize all that Amazon review reading is a form of that.

I still use a 2011 (8-year-old) DSLR Canon 7d camera and my newer comic friends always ask me “Hey man what camera do you use?”

The real question: Oh wow you actually use your camera?

But you could easily take a Udemy course for the price of the beer, and record some quality content at all the crappy mic’s you do and at least get some nice crowd work nuggets (which oftentimes gets more views than the bits themselves as of 2019 lord-help-us internet).

Regardless, instead of bugging your friends with 900 reviews and questions, I’m going to say something straight up:

You can record a great bar set, with sharp focus, decent zoom and proper exposure (brightness on you the performer) with most Costco/stock DSLR cameras. You’ll probably just need to be creative on camera placement and stage lighting.

Lets duke it out in the comments.

I only know Canon equipment, but using the numbers for zoom/focal length (50MM) and brightness/aperture you can get gear from any brand.

For example, for the Canon 50MM 1.8, the zoom is 50 (which is a good upper body but not much negative space) and the aperture is 1.8 which means good for low light/dingy dive bars where you do comedy.

So for the setup above, I would have:

  1. Camera 1: Middle Wide Camera be any lens that is 18-35MM (really wide) and can do an aperture of around 2.8
  2. Camera 2: 50-150MM (or higher) that can zoom into the performer from his waist up, and has an aperture of 2.8. Depending on how big the stage is you’ll have to move this camera closer than the other two since it might be TOO wide and get way more than just the stage.
  3. Camera 3: 50MM to 85MM (fixed, no zoom) that will be locked into the performer’s chest/shoulders/head/neck for those really deep, intimate, tension building moments. You’ll have the hardest time recording this as the performer will constantly step in and out of the frame so I hope your tripod moves or pans well.

NOTE: I’m not a lens expert so if any film guys want to comment please do. This is just what works for me.

Best Camera for Recording Stand Up Comedy

There are a million cameras for anything, so I can’t really suggest any here because that’s like a whole blog post and it’s way too complicated. All I can tell you based on the diagram above is that any $600 Costco or DSLR Camera is fine, provided you have the right lens.

Most people spend way more on the lenses than the camera.

For India, if you have gear, this is pretty much the bundle you’d need. Or any similar spec’s with a different manufacturer.

INDIA: Canon EOS 1500D 24.1MP Digital SLR Camera (Black) with 18-55 and 55-250mm is II Lens, 16GB Card and Carry Case

These days people also have what’s called a bridge camera which is a hybrid of a DSLR and Camcorder or point-n-shoot, which apparently have good low light functionality and zooms all in one, so if I get time to research those I’ll add some links here. I plan to buy one soon as well because all those Peter McKinnon videos are slowly chipping away at my wallet and I feel like it’ll just be easier to use those.

Whichever camera you want to buy, check the youTube reviews of those cameras and look for “low light test” videos or “live show/concert” and “zoom video of *your camera model” to imagine how it would hold up at the bar or comedy club you perform in. If the camera has good zoom and brightness on an outdoor street-light scene, you’re probably good.

A Note On GoPros:

GoPros are ok for crowd shots if you can get lighting on your crowd (which isn’t ideal for their experience).

But for video, you won’t get good audio from the camera and it will be SO WIDE that the youTube viewer will realize you’re in some dive bar. Better to shoot in small places and make it feel more glam than it really is.

A Note on Camera Placement

If you can’t place your camera’s like my diagram above, simply move it wherever you can and then adjust your zooms/tripod heads.

So if your middle camera can film fine but there is something or someone obstructing your side camera’s…simply go back, go forward, whatever until you get an angle that works.

Then you’ll have to change lenses to make up for being further back or closer or higher or whatever.

BONUS: Best Microphone for Recording Stand Up Comedy

The Shure SM 58 is hands down the best microphone for pretty much most live events, and you can get them for like $80 or get a Chinese rip off which has the exact internals for like $30.

Again, don’t go all gear-head and over complicate your life, I use this mic for everything and it’s the best for a reason.

And it’s not even expensive.

CONCLUSION aka my big closer

Comedians need to be recording their sets DEFINITELY for themselves, and in the long run for the benefit for their career and audiences. They also need to be watching those sets rather than just knowing it’s on their phone, and upload those fun crowd moments that happen daily.

As Dwayne Perkins told me in ten mistakes comics make, recording and WATCHING your set between gigs is actually doubling your stage time, since you were probably going to do the same nonsense again without any adjustment.

dwayne perkins advice podcast
Solid advice from someone that does Conan like every year.

The internet continues to democratize stand up and you need to find cheap hacks to get near Netflix quality production with $500 of consumer-level Best Buy gear.

And if you REALLY know what you’re doing, it’s totally possible.

A million bars and restaurants have epic stages for music, that has good acoustics, the brick wall, great seating, good lighting, and optimal camera placement.

Imagine if you can produce a killer show, record your fun bits and use that platform to launch yourself? That’s more or less what DryBar comedy is doing, and it’s giving the public what they want. Minus some lawsuit I heard about music or DVD rentals something.

I hope the above information helped because when I tried looking online I could hardly find anything and just kind of figured it out as I went.

If you have any suggestions, hacks, tips or corrections, please do let me know in the comments or on social media!

Happy gigging!

Let me know if this helped you or any comments?