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How to Produce Your Own Stand-Up Comedy Show

Updated on July 4, 2017
Regi Brittain profile image

A stand-up comedian and freelance writer, Regi Brittain loves life and wants to help you enjoy it!

Me on the mic at a show I produced.
Me on the mic at a show I produced.

How Do You Establish Yourself in Comedy?

The answer to this question is simply to begin. There is no mystery or magic to establishing yourself in stand-up comedy. Anyone who has the competency to get laughs at a comedy open mic can produce their own comedy shows. And producing one's own show with aplomb, repeatedly, is all you need to gain your first foothold in comedy.

Where Should You Put on Comedy Shows?

Quality comedy shows happen in full rooms. Therefore, you should never produce a show in a space that is bigger than the crowd you are likely to draw. I learned firsthand that a show for 20 people in a space that holds 200 feels like a failed show, and such a crowd is a lot harder to get laughing.

Experienced comedians and comedy producers know that a slightly crowded space helps to induce laughter. I would rather pack 50 people into a room that seats 50 than have them spread out in a room that seats 500. Laughter is infectious, and people in crowds have a way of laughing more easily.

It can be hard to estimate what size crowd you will draw to a show. Thought and guesswork are part of deciding where you need to put on a show, and finding a venue that will help you market to their devoted clientele is a huge plus. If you do not yet have a relationship with such a venue, start small, to learn the ropes of marketing and putting on shows.

For new comedy producers, the ideal venue should feature

  • A maximum capacity of about 50 people
  • A stage
  • Sound equipment, like mics and amplifiers
  • A spotlight
  • Dimmer switches for the house lights
  • Friendly management who are open to you moving chairs and tables

No one thing on the list above is a must-have item, but if a person who is new to producing comedy shows lines up a venue with all of the items listed, they will greatly enhance their chances of success.

How Should You Approach Venues about Comedy Shows?

If I were starting now, I would try to think of every space within 90 minutes of me that mostly meets the criteria in the previous section and reach out to ten of them. For me, 90 minutes is a comfortable drive, and I like to drive. Pick a travel time or distance that works for your temperament and situation, and web search for every venue that you think meets our established criteria.

With your list complete, politely contact all ten venues. For any that serve food, wait until slower hours, like mid-afternoon, to call. Check your target venues' websites for contact or booking instructions, and follow those to the letter. If a place says, "No calls, please," and you call, you will seem unprofessional.

Why do I say reach out to ten venues? Venue owners and managers are busy people, and I believe in taking massive action to complete goals. If you target only one venue, you will elongate the time it takes to find a good venue where management is enthusiastic about a comedy show.

By seeking business with ten venues, you give yourself a great chance at quick success.

Keep a spreadsheet, a Trello board or a database on a free CRM site to track your previous calls or emails, and to create reminders for callbacks or appointments. (CRM means customer relationship manager. It is software that sales people use, and there are several free, online titles available for use.)

Be persistent, but do not nag. Also, if you have a relationship with a bar, cafe or performing arts theater, contact them, or inquire with them face-to-face. Make those folks one of your ten prospects, if you are serious about putting on a comedy show.

Sometimes, you hit the sweet spot and fill the room!
Sometimes, you hit the sweet spot and fill the room!

What Type of Comedy Show Do You Want to Produce?

When you approach venues, it can help to have a vision for your show. Do you want to put on a showcase that includes you and four of your local comedy friends? Have you made contact with a regional headliner who you want to bring to your town? Perhaps, you want to host a show for two local comedians who you think deserve the spotlight equally.

No matter the type of show you want to produce, having it somewhat defined before you approach any venue can work to your advantage.

Types of Comedy Shows

Type
Number of Performers
Does It Have a Host?
Does It Have a Headliner?
Showcase
Several
Usually, but sometimes, you will see each act intro the next, a.k.a. "chain style".
Typically, every act performs for about the same amount of time, but sometimes showcases will end with a longer set by a headliner.
Three-Person
3
Yes -- the show's opener hosts.
Yes
Two-Person
2
Yes -- the show's opener hosts.
Yes
Co-Headlining
3
Yes -- the show's opener hosts.
Yes -- two of them.
Solo
1
No -- but someone might introduce the solo act.
Solo is a rare type of headlining.
This is just a gratuitous photo of me performing at my friend's show in a cidery.
This is just a gratuitous photo of me performing at my friend's show in a cidery.

How Often Will Your Comedy Show Run?

Comedy shows can be one-time things, or they can have periodic residencies at a venue. Most people who read this article will probably hope to produce more than one show.

I like to test a show at a venue with two or three monthly shows. If that goes well for the venue and me, then I propose extending our arrangement.

Plan Your Lineup Carefully

For me, and for most of the comedians I have asked, the ideal show length is about 80 minutes. If you go beyond 100 minutes, audience members will start to feel like they are being held hostage by the show. Very likely, some of them will leave.

It is okay to leave comedy audiences wanting more, so they will come out to your next show. Plan your show's lineup accordingly.

As seen in the table included in this article, you might put on a variety of types of shows. No matter the style you choose, communicate to everyone on the show how long they have to perform. Do so in advance of the show. Also, ask people if they need you to "light" them toward the end of their sets. If you have been doing open mics for a bit, you will know what that term means.

When I put on a showcase-style comedy event, I like to divide 60 minutes among all of the acts. I know some acts might go a little long, but I have planned for that by scheduling well under my 80-minute ideal-show length. Thus, I don't have to light anyone unless they say they absolutely need it.

To me, the ideal showcase has four or five performers, including the host. I used to schedule more, back when I was unintentionally holding audiences hostage. Four or five acts is a just-right size for a straight-forward, relaxed comedy showcase.

You may have a list of eight or ten friends that you want to book in your first show. Divide that list into two lineups, one for each of two shows. Doing so will give your first show a better shot at great success. Be sure to advertise the second show at the end of the first show, and that outing will get a potential-success boost, as well.

Should You Tailor Your Comedy Show to a Niche Audience?

Generally, we live in the niche-marketing era. This applies to show business, as well.

Today, people's attention spans are divided, and few entertainment concepts connect with a broad audience. This is quite true of stand-up comedy.

Think of ways that you can customize your comedy show for a specific audience. Here are some ideas to get your creativity wheels rotating:

  • Think about your professional ties.
  • Put on a show that would directly appeal to the clientele of the venue where you will produce your event.
  • Is your venue a country club, a blue-collar bar, does it cater to segment of the population in a positive way? Do the same with your show's angle.

What Is Your Comedy Show's Marketing Plan?

The web could use a little more advice on properly marketing comedy shows. I personally feel that I have plenty to learn in this area. I will update this section as I become more adept.

Here is what I know thus far:

  • I have personally not seen much return from posters and flyers.
  • I have gotten shows covered in print and on television and seen little benefit from that.
  • I firmly believe that personal invitations, via face-to-face conversations, email and Facebook Messenger, are much more effective than putting out a mass message.
  • Connecting with venues that will help you market your show to their loyal clientele can go a long way toward a successful show.

If you politely convey to everyone on your lineup the importance of personally requesting that people attend the show, and if you work with a venue that will happily help you market your show to their clientele, people will come. (I mean, people will come if you schedule the right showtime. I like to start my shows around sunset. Most comedy shows should happen at night.)

Pay What You Like -- My Favorite Way to Charge for a Comedy Show

Currently, I love to produce "pay what you like" comedy shows. This type of show also gets billed as

  • Pay what you can
  • Pass the hat
  • Pass the bucket
  • Suggested donation of X amount
  • Free with requested donation

I prefer "pay what you like" for these reasons:

  • Serious artists should always place a value on their work.
  • You can communicate the concept of "free" without using the word and taking value away from your artistic product.
  • I am in tune with an abundance mindset, and "pay what you like" communicates optimism while each of the other options can have a negative connotation.

You might find yourself in tune with different language. Use what works for you. This strategy works well for me, and I have received only positive feedback from audiences, to date.

To run a "pay what you like" show, bill it as such in your marketing content. Just mention it once or twice, depending on the medium and what feels right to you, and all will be well.

Unless a venue already has other methods established, like passing a bucket, I like to leave envelopes on tables and (when applicable) the bar. I wait until about halfway through the show to mention the envelopes. At that time, I try to mention them with a soft sell that emphasizes that it is our pleasure to entertain the audience for the evening, and everyone in the show will be thrilled with any amount folks feel inclined to put into the envelope.

Some nights, you will be surprised by how much folks put into their table's envelope.

I like to print a short message on the my envelopes. It reads, "Pay What You Like," and, after some space, it says, "Thank you!"

If your venue does not have tables, you may have to go with buckets near the venue's door(s). In my experience, on a personal-comfort level, it is easier to collect envelopes after people leave their tables than it is to hold a bucket as folks file past you. Also, I think audience members feel more comfortable with the envelope method.

The next time I put on a pay what you like show in a room without tables, I will probably pay someone to work the door, as though the show had a cover charge, and just tell people that they can pay any cover price they wish for our professional show. How will that work out? The only way to know is to test it.

If you put on a pay what you like comedy show, please tell me how it goes in the comment section at the bottom of this article.

How Much Will You Charge?

There is a saying in show business that goes, "If you don't place a value on your show, you won't value your show." What does this mean? It means never advertise your production as free.

I assume that you want to produce your own comedy show because you are ready to move on from mostly performing in open mics (which rarely have full and interested audiences). You have gotten your comedy sea legs, and now, you want to put your imprint on a production and be in charge of how much stage time you have. At least, that speaks a lot to my motivation when I began putting on comedy shows.

If you relate to what I said above, then you have the confidence in yourself to put on a professional show with a price tag. Now, how do you communicate that price:

  • You could charge a cover.
  • You could sell advance tickets with a lower price than the day-of-the-show cover charge, and you could use a site like eventbrite.com or brownpapertickets.com to help your efforts.
  • You could run a "pay what you like" show.

Whatever you do, value your show. Don't call it "free". Free shows set audiences' expectations too low. Value your show, and put thought and effort into the artistic product you will produce for your audience.

(Note: Some venues will let you have 100% of "the door", which is what American venues commonly call the collective cover charge. Other venues will do a split, giving you an agreed-upon portion of the door. Finally, others will "buy the show" for a guaranteed amount. In those cases, you and the venue will need to agree on whether a cover charge will be collected. If there will be no cover charge, you could market the show as a special affair presented to the venue's patrons thanks to the generous ownership. Find a succinct way to say that, without calling it a free show.)

How Do You Give Your Future Comedy Shows Their Best Chances at Success?

Put on a stellar show this time! After all, nothing sells like word-of-mouth marketing, and that is exactly what you'll get if you blow your crowd's mind with a hilarious, well-produced comedy event.

Keep things fun. Try to book people who mesh with each other and who don't seek to cause drama.

Also, keep the show moving forward. This is the host's job. Stress to your host that their job is to get the show rolling and to keep it rolling. They have whatever amount of time you assign them at the top of the show, and they should not do any material between acts. When hosts do material between acts, it slows the show's momentum.

I do have one caveat. If an act bombs (as every comedian sometimes does), the host should do a minute or two of material, if possible. Between acts, the host resets the room. Sometimes, resetting the room means reeling it back in from a tough performance.

Your next show's marketing begins with this show. If your audience has a good time, they will tell their friends and help you fill the room next time.

Thank you for reading. May your gigs be hits!

Are You Serious about a Career in Stand-Up Comedy?

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Get the Right Gear for Putting on a Comedy Show

If you find yourself only getting interest from venues that do not possess proper sound or lighting equipment, you will have to decide whether to invest in it yourself. For those interested in making such an investment, I offer the following list of items you will need to properly produce your shows:

  • Microphone
  • Mic stand
  • Dual amplifiers (speakers)
  • Two speaker stands
  • Two Spotlights or LED bars
  • Two lighting stands

You can go with one light and one light stand. Using two, set up on opposite sides of the room and pointed at your mic stand, adds depth to the face of the performer, and facial expressions non-verbally communicate humor.

If you buy everything on the list, you will spend more than $500. You might even spend $1,000. Only make such an investment if you intend to produce comedy shows regularly.

© 2017 Regi Brittain

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