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Tired of waiting on others to book you? Sick of driving 30 minutes just to get 3 minutes of stage time? Think you can do it better? Would you like to make some money and network with other comics? Here’s what you should know and be prepared for as you decide on how to start your own room.

Prepare Yourself- In order to start your own room you should already have a solid set, or at least something to build on. Prepare your pitch before you go in to talk to a venue owner and don’t go at peak business times, they won’t be able to talk to you. Have a set date/time you’d like to do the show, frequency, pay, and a business card or some way for them to contact you and follow up. The more professional you look and sound, the better the chances of sealing the deal.

Start Small- In your quest to find the perfect room don’t bite off more than you can chew. You should look for a small bar, preferably with a low ceiling, little distractions in the way of pool tables and TVs, and it should have a set up that is ideal for comedy (few booths, good viewing angles, no window distractions). I find a lot of success with smaller bars in smaller towns that don’t get a lot of entertainment regularly.

Get a Sound System/Lighting system- Many of the venues I think are ideal for comedy do not have a sound system set up and renting one can cost a fortune. This system is incredibly affordable, compact, produces excellent quality sound and I have done rooms that seat 500 people with it. Bad sound shows poor preparation. I would also suggest a small portable spotlight. Many venues do not have adequate lighting and a poorly lit performer will kill the set.

Stick to the Basics– No show should be over 2 hours. Ever. Yes, they do continuously running shows in LA, but you are not in LA. Your crowd will walk, become restless, or get tired no matter how good the comics are. Weekday shows shouldn’t start past 9, no one will come because they work the next day. Try to set a regular schedule of the shows, it helps audiences know when to expect another show. Start out once or twice a month and work your way to weekly if there is a following.

Decide on a Format- This is probably the most important part of your show being successful. Different rooms have success with different shows, but here are a few suggestions:

  • – Open Mic: Show Up, Sign Up. No more than 12 comics, 4-5 minutes each. Be aware, some open mic comics will be vulgar, unprepared and may be unprofessional, this is unavoidable at a true open mic. Host does 10 and sets the tone for the show, letting the crowd know what to expect. These types of shows are not for the older audiences that are easily offended and usually work well in dive bars or some hipster scene bars. Give it a title like “Raw Comedy Night” or “Open Mic Mayhem” and don’t try to sell it as the pros taking the stage, because it very rarely will be. Show should not exceed 1.5 hours. Crowds get tired. I usually only pick this style of show if the bar is desperate for patrons and hope that by having 12 comics out, at least half will buy a beer and keep the business afloat. Don’t expect more than $50 from the owner on these shows.
  •   -Showcase: 5-7 comics don’t 7-10 minutes each. These comics are hand picked by the host. You usually want the better comics or newcomers that want a bit more time on these shows. Audiences like a bit of variety and too much of one comic can be a bad thing if the bar isn’t into the show. Again, keep the show about 1.5 hours and bill it as a showcase. Let them know some of these comics are touring and successful so they feel like this is more than an open mic. You can usually get better money for these shows from the venue since you will be providing quality entertainment. Shoot for $150-200, expect to get $100.
  • – Standard Show: 3-4 Comics, Host, Feature, Headline and occasional guest spot. These are much harder to pull off but can be successful and great networking tools for you if you can put money in the pockets of other comics. Show should be 1.5-2 hours. Promote it as a professional show and let the bar know they are getting top talent and should pay as such. Pay should be at minimum $150, $75, and $50, or $275 a show. Some venues you can make this on a door deal, but don’t be dependent on that and don’t charge at the door if the venue usually doesn’t charge for shows. I lost $200 on a show that had a low turnout, and the venue cancelled more shows because people that did come turned away at the door because of the cover charge. If it is a restaurant, you might consider a deal with the owner that comes with a show and meal, and you get paid from that. For instance, I’ve worked several Italian restaurants that do $20 for a meal and comedy show and the comics get paid from the venue out of that.
  •    -Competition: 10 comics, 5 min each, and audience voting. Give a cash prize and encourage comics to bring people out to the show to vote for them. This can be a great way to revitalize a dying room and get new people in the door, and it can also attract better comics that otherwise wouldn’t show to an open mic without the hopes of getting paid.
  •    -Alternating: I have seen a few successful rooms do showcase shows once a week and then put on a pro show the last week of the month. These can be successful as well if you market the last show of the month at each prior show. You don’t even need a new budget for the show, just collect $100 each show, put aside $50 from the first three shows and use the extra $150 at the end of the month to pay a headliner.
  • -Theme nights: These are great for bringing out folks that may not otherwise attend a regular comedy show. LGBT, Service Industry, Urban, College Night, All Female shows, Geek Night, really any theme you can think of. Theme nights also open new avenues for promotion as you can get the college, or group you are promoting to promote in their circles as well.

Set Expectations on Both Sides- This is where the most problems occur.

  • Their Side: Let the venue know the show you plan on putting on and also what you expect from them. Many bars expect you to be the one to bring the crowd and think of your show as an afterthought. Tell them these demands must be met: All TV’s turned off, all pool tables closed, and in house promotion of the show is mandatory (a flyer on the window and bathroom stalls, and preferably a table tent). Make sure the venue also has an ideal seating arrangement. Ask them to move chairs, get the audience close to the stage, facing you, and tightly packed. They have to trust you to set up a great atmosphere for the show. I would also suggest that you negotiate a free drink for performers and maybe a few free drink tickets to give away to audience members to keep them engaged. Talk to the bartender and remind them, the more people they talk to about the show during the week, the better the turnout, and the more tips they make. The venue has to be on your side or it will always be an uphill battle.
  • Your Side: In addition, you need to help the venue. Promote all drink specials, encourage people to stick around after the show, never talk bad about the room and if another comic does then don’t have them back. Remind everyone to tip well, and compliment the service if you see them doing a good job.  The venue needs to make money in order to give some to you, so help them any way you can.

Promote- Promoting is not posting in all of your comedy groups. Promoting is finding an audience that wants to watch comedy, not perform it. Promoting means setting up a facebook event and inviting friends (local only, don’t piss off your out of town friends with a weekly invite to a show 1500 miles away). You should also do up a flyer and print it and have it at the venue. I would also suggest investing $50 and making a banner to be put up during the show. Make sure it says when the shows typically are so that people know this isn’t a one-off comedy night. If you’re serious about it you can also do a drawing for free drinks and have people submit their emails and create an email list to promote. Barking also works if it is a heavily trafficked area. You can use sites like eventful, and craigslist to post about it, as well as posting in your local newspaper and entertainment magazines, most of these are free or cheap. Anything to spread the word.

Run the Show- It is up to you to handle this room. You NEED to have a great host. Maybe you are that host, maybe you aren’t. Just because it is your show, doesn’t mean you have to host it. But the host sets the tone and the rules for the room, a bad host will kill a room quick. Keep the show moving, pick it back up in dead areas, get to know the patrons, and develop a relationship with the owner. When you select comics, be particular. Don’t just have your friends on every show. Don’t give overly preferential treatment to certain comics and always keep a tight ship on time. Find talent, network, and build a loyal following with customers and comics. It is so vital that you own the room and really shape it into what you want it to be.

The First Night: The first show has to set the tone for the rest of the shows. If a bar wants to start doing comedy next week, say no. Put it a few weeks out and give yourself time to build anticipation. You HAVE to get a crowd out the first show. Hand select the comics, even if it is an open mic, and make sure that the comedy is not overly offensive. Set up the stage ahead of time, prepare and make sure that everything is tested and working. The first show is the first impression and you want as little room for error as possible. In most cases, the first show will be free to the venue and they are trying it out. Let them know, if it goes well you expect pay though. Do not keep doing free shows if you are making the venue money. Honestly, if you are smart and really want the venue to work you will find a good headliner with a local following to bring into the show and just pay him or her out of pocket. The investment will pay off if the crowd gets a good show and keeps coming back week after week.

That should be enough to get you started. Email me if you have any questions.

Got some more advice or success stories? Feel free to share in the comments below.

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