Updated July 2019
In this post I’m going to explain how aspiring stand up comedians, whether in the USA or India or Singapore or anywhere can get more stage time, aside from “network.” I live in India so I may give examples here but the advice is practical anywhere. I’ll first talk about the career track of a stand-up comedian the first five years and then explain the most effective way to get on better and better stages.
TLDR: If you want something done, you gotta do it yourself.
Getting On Stage as a Comic is HARD
I’m in the US for a few months and the harsh beauty of stand up is that no matter how many credits you have on TV, how many millions of views on YouTube or how many Twitter people like you…when you’re doing this as a profession there is something you have to quickly learn and accept:
NOBODY GIVES A SHIT.
Hunting for stage time is going to be a normal part of your career. It’s like business development…no matter how cool your job is, you will have to follow up on leads, send emails, and yes, possibly…cold call.
Just like an office worker checks his emails in the morning or marketers need to offer you their products via InMail – so to do you need to be actively taking control of this craft you’ve committed yourself too.
It’s not easy, you will get A LOT of negative responses (to be fair, they’re many good people who are just busy) but eventually, you will start filling up your calendar and your own routine will be sorted.
Most comics (including myself) sit around for years thinking some magic guru will pluck them from the open mic scene, mentor them and push them up the ladder. It might happen for a few, but the reality is if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.
You’re creative with your comedy, so now get creative with your comedy career.
Stand Up Comedy Career Progression (example)
Year 1 in Comedy: Open Mics & Overcoming Stage Fright, Hecklers, Learning to Write
Bomb for many. Kill for a few.
Think you know everything after watching Carlin, Burr, CK, Stanhope, Hicks, Mitch, etc.. (Hint: They don’t give a fu*k about you either, but I’m sure are still amazing human beings)
Get accepted by fellow comics. Judge other ones, thinking they’re hack or sellout even though they’ve been in your exact same shoes.
Make friends. Make enemies. Many quit here.
You will put out an 8-minute clip of your standup thinking it’s awesome when in reality it’s terrible and shot on your shitty phone. Your friends laughed to be supportive and your ego will swell. You will message me and other comics to watch it. If we’re nice enough to go through it (cause that chick we’re stalking isn’t responding and we have the time), you will then overstep and ask us to share it.
Then we will block you.
I’m not being an asshole, I’ve just made this mistake and it’s the equivalent of emailing your friend’s friend who is a VP at Google with your resume when the HR department exists for a reason. Trust the process, learn the rules and then bend them. I admire the grind, and I’ve been both too aggressive and too passive.
All I can say is be patient but not complacent.
Years 2-4 in Comedy: Featured Shows + All of Year 1 Again:
Based on contacts you’ve made and crowds you’ve impressed, start getting booked at bars, birthday parties, comedy clubs, company events, etc.. Bomb at these shows and realize while open mics are required, making comics laugh and making a general Friday night office/college audience laugh aren’t the same thing.
They don’t care about your super clever pedophile joke Brad.
Continue the same hustle at open mics, maybe even hustling harder. I’m shocked in California that some of the most successful comics still go to the shittiest open mics – but that’s the same reason for their success. You should be actively announcing your existence as a comic to all your Facebook friends by now.
Now you will need them to attend shows, share better videos, give you support, etc.. And if you’re worried about your job noticing your comedy hobby or your friends judging you – then please quit now. If you don’t commit to it, you’re already setting yourself up for failure. Some of the best real gigs I’ve gotten also come because my entire social network knows I do this as that one guy on their newsfeed and will think of me when events happen. Use the tools at your disposal, not run away from them.
Know some guy who owns a restaurant? Do a show.
Have a team outing at your office? Do a show.
Wedding friends asking you to say something? Do a show at the reception bro! Or simply volunteer to emcee and squeeze in a few inside jokes, which is also great practice for writing quickly for events (ahem, award shows, TV shows, news, etc…)
Year 4-7: Headline Shows, Many Featured Shows, weekly open mics:
Same as before but now try to actively push on 30-40 minute spots, try to book your own dates at bars/venues, etc..
More heart break, a few mores successes.
Travel, spend money, and look for other avenues to have your voice reach people. Continue to get rejected but don’t even think of it like that – it’s just another day at the office, like traffic on the way to work.
Before you give up on these depressing timelines, just know that I’m in year 9 of actively doing this (and year four of doing it without a day job) and I’m barely in this bracket in India, and probably in the second bracket in the US.
So don’t worry if your timelines don’t match up. I’ve seen guys and girls doing it for a year already booking big clubs, and I’ve seen similar folks doing it 10 years and still at an open mic.
It’s commendable to think that if you just work hard and you will climb. Mama raised me the same way.
But real life isn’t so black and white.
So now that you kind of understand the process, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of the day to day.
How the hell do I actually get more shows, now that I want to do this every day?
Well to be blunt…while you’re learning comedy, don’t forget to learn the business of comedy.
And after the jokes, what exactly is the business? It’s about getting strangers (aka non-comics aka audience members) to come to a venue, watch comedy and ideally spend money (e.g. ticket sales or food and drinks).
If you look at this like a startup or a company, it eventually becomes fairly simple.
How To Perform More as a Comedian
YOU COULD OPEN YOUR OWN VENUE WITH ALL THE FREE TIME YOU WASTE AT CRAPPY MICS
Jokes are like your morning poops.
They never come when you plan for them but more at a time you don’t expect.
As a result, you end up having a LOT of free time. You’re waiting to perform, you’re out for coffee with friends, you’re day dreaming in your cubicle, whatever.
So what is a comedy show?
It’s a sound system (mic, speaker, mixer, stand), a venue (bar/club/coffee shop/backyard) and an audience.
Sound is a commodity, most venues have it or it can be rented cheaply. I tell every single new comic I meet in India – whether a year in or ten years in – find a venue, start a show.
You want the secret sauce to this career? THIS IS IT.
It’s the most obvious tip that I so blatantly tell you now because just like “Junk food is bad for you” most don’t want to deal with the work involved and just ignore the most obvious solution.
FIND A VENUE, START A SHOW.
Go on Yelp, Trip Advisor, Zomato, Facebook, Event Brite whatever….email restaurants and bars, speak to your friends who own or work at one – and start a fU*king show.
I spent my first year in California going to some of the worst open mics started by drug dealers and slobs because you know what…they had the balls to speak to venues and get it done and I just wanted to find a platform that already existed, no matter how shit.
Once you do this, you start getting good at online promotions, understanding the business and before you know it 20-100 people are coming to your event.
You get the stage time, you find out comics will come easily and you pretty much get into the system.
Most comics sit around and whine that they’re not getting shows or everybody is against them – but this self-destructive nature is just you scapegoating reasons for your shortcomings.
You’re waiting 4 hours to perform for 4 people – there is a much better way to utilize your time. You could spend 2 hours promoting your own pub show and have 10 people next week. It’s not hard, it’s just work.Sanjay Manaktala who quotes himself.
The best comedy shows aren’t put together by people who are smarter than you.
They just know how to execute.
Yes You Need Online Presence:
Look at amazing comics like Joe Rogan, Bill Burr, Andrew Schulz, and the folks in India doing amazing things on YouTube/Snapchat/Facebook etc.
Things like videos and podcasts are an amazing way to utilize your downtime to reach out way more people, who then come to your shows. Even if I put out a video that bombs at 1000 views or a podcast only 500 people listen to, that’s still way more than whoever sees me at an average show.
Over time, all these things tend to add up.
If comedy were a company, under the hierarchy you would have Stand Up Comedy (your main product), but then YouTube (your website and also your product), podcasts (your R&D and also your product) and Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Instagram (your marketing team and also another creative outlet of thoughts/ideas and distribution channels).
I know the analogy is not perfect, but you get the idea.
Even with Facebook and YouTube reach down, stand up Comedians can market for free to at least 1000 people (friend list) daily, yet they put ALL their efforts in the open mic that has diminishing returns. Maybe, just maybe…move the dial just 10 percent?
You need to be actively flexing your comedy muscles throughout the day in order to churn out jokes consistently.
A lot of comics say “I dunno bro, I just get inspired and then want to churn it out at the mic” but forget they’re 20 other hours to the day.
When you’re hired for TV or ad films, you think they’re gonna wait around for you to get inspired or they’re gonna ask for 10 quick jokes about Trump or Modi or whoever.
I’m not saying go be a hack online chasing followers by copying stolen memes and Facebook pirating other videos – but work on all aspects of your product.
I hate Twitter (and snapchat) but I’m trying to understand why they work, and to some degree I get it. Tightening a thought down to 140 characters and saying something people resonate with is a fantastic skill to have which improves the way your brain thinks about new ideas or current events. And if you get 1000 RT’s on a Trump in Korea newsbite, guess who’s citing your tweet on CNN.com which is then booking you at a better show next week?
People like snapchat because it’s personal, and some people do better on a Snap view count than the $1K video they spent money on.
Someone like Bill Burr doesn’t need to put out his podcast weekly as I’m sure he’s busy or tired from all the crazy shows he does – but he also knows millions of people him discovered him through this platform and now it’s vital to what it does, aka packing his shows. (There is actually a video somewhere in which Bill talks about recording his podcast on a Voicemail because that was the only way to do it at the time!!!!)
Comics who have paid their time at the open mics/grind but also know how to play this social game have so many more tools in their arsenals, and that helps them book bigger shows and draw bigger crowds.
Promoters and clubs are still trying to run a business (and believe it or not, many just love comedy and want to break even) and care about seats, not that you’re funnier than the guy on stage. He’s working in 20 other things behind the scene, while you’re not.
So get to it.
I once heard (I forgot where) that a comedian without Twitter is like a rapper without a mix-tape – meaning you need to advertise like everybody else bro.
Real-life is not a meritocracy, and you know it.
I’ve met investment bankers making $300,000 a year that I knew were the DUMBEST dudes in college, and I’ve met some of the smartest people living off of peanuts (and vice versa).
And in comedy, people booking the shows aren’t going to always book you because you’re the funniest. They just have a room to run and need to get people in the seats and leaving happy.
Guys will think hot girls are getting stage time for the most obvious reason, others will think this person is on stage because they’re rich or always bring people – but to be honest, who gives a shit?
The problem with this business is it’s so personal, and comics always want you to loosen up for their jokes but can’t really loosen up themselves.
You will meet and work with so many people in this career that you can’t afford to make cliques with fellow comics or stop meeting/shunning new people.
So many comics whine and crib, while others are just nice to everyone and do their shit.
Which one do you want to be?
Being honest, genuine and of course funny is still the most important thing you need to do in comedy, but there’s one last point most people forget…comedy isn’t about the one hour you shine on stage, it’s about the 23 hours you grind off it.
Even if you have the best app, or the best product, or the best restaurant…who in this digital age of expensive news feed real estate is going to take the time to care? So many restaurants don’t want to invest in Yelp, so many businesses don’t care about having a Facebook…but those less talented ones that do are the ones who are getting the stage time…and then getting better than those same businesses.
I urge you…please…focus on what you do off the stage and you’ll get plenty of more chances on it.