Standup Comedy: 4 Tips On How To Break In From A Pro
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No two comics have the same origin story, no path to success can ever be duplicated or guaranteed, and everyone has to figure out everything in between for themselves. That said, one thing every great comedian has in common is that each had a pivotal moment in their lives where they decided to leave behind a day job that wasn’t making them nearly as happy as telling jokes.
The following is for those people who have dreams of becoming a comedian, and comedians who feel they’re approaching that do-or-die moment. I may not be able to tell you where you’re gonna land once you take that leap, but what I can offer you are some tips on how not to trip on the way to the edge of the cliff.
Keep Perspective On Your Goals
Grab a sheet of paper and a black Sharpie. Now, write down ten things you dream of accomplishing in your comedy career. Maybe, “Eat cereal with Jerry Seinfeld is one of them.” Maybe not. Anyway, just go nuts listing your biggest career goals. But be sure to leave a little bit of room at the bottom, because when you’re done I want you to take a red Sharpie and write this message in that space: IF ALL THIS DOESN'T HAPPEN - THAT’S OK.
The purpose of this is not to get you covered in Sharpie ink or to crush your dreams. It is not meant to discourage you from ever trying everything you can to achieve these goals. It’s only to remind you that if you ever fall short of anything on that list, you are not a failure.
The comedy business is a world of constant rejection. Every club, venue, booker, producer, agent, manager, network, etc. has only so many slots to fill. And for every one of those slots they have hundreds of people desperate to try out for it, fifty people they’ve already worked with they know they could offer it to, fifty more famous people they’d give it to in a heartbeat, and they could list twenty people off the top of their heads to call in case anyone cancels at the last minute.
You’re gonna lose count of how many times you hear the word NO. That’s the default setting of this industry, so try real hard not to get bitter about it. The best you can hope for is to keep trying enough times to get a MAYBE, eventually get good enough for them to want to say YES, and if you’re incredibly lucky you’ll earn the kind of success that makes them say PLEASE.
You also need to make sure you have people in your life who are not only willing to support and encourage you on this journey but also keep your ego in check. You’re never gonna grow as a comic if you only surround yourself with people who perpetually kiss your butt, nor will you if you’re only listening to haters. No good comes from trying to succeed just to spite everyone who doesn't laugh. You need to have people around you who cheer your successes but aren’t afraid to give you constructive criticism.
Get The Practical Things Tight
Now, let’s get to the practical stuff if you're thinking about making comedy a career. Your 9 to 5 may no longer bring you happiness, but there may be some benefits the job offers that you should take full advantage of before you walk away from it forever.
If you have health insurance through your employer, use it. Maybe go in for a complete physical exam if you haven't had one since Obama was president. If you have dental or vision, go in for that as well while someone else is paying for it.
As far as finances, I'd say save as much money as you can before jumping ship. Generally, you'll want to have enough savings to support you for a minimum of three months. Although ideally you may want to have enough for a full year because until you get your comedy career established. You might not just need an umbrella for the occasional rainy day. You might need to survive a monsoon.
I'd also advise paying off as much of your debt as you can, preferably all of it and build up your credit score. You'll be paying lots of dues so try to limit paying off piles of bills on top of that. Have at least one credit card that you can charge little things to and pay off monthly.
Lastly, have a reliable car, keep it maintained, and have full coverage insurance with roadside assistance. Get comfortable with that car because you’re gonna be spending a lot of time in it. Not every out-of-town gig is gonna be near an airport or on a bus route, and even if they are, they might not be paying you enough to afford the ticket. Besides, having a car can even get you booked on gigs for no other reason than the headliner needs a ride.
Its Your Business, Run It Like One
When you start working on your own as a professional comedian, you’re running a small business. And you're the one employee who does multiple jobs simultaneously in order to sell one product: You. Yeah, You.
You’ll need to become an expert in social media, public relations, sales, marketing, logistics, accounts receivable, accounts payable and occasionally you get to go on stage and tell a few jokes. Most importantly, you are your own agent and your own manager. What’s the difference? The agent is who answers the phone when an offer comes in. The manager gives the people on the other end a reason to dial your number in the first place.
In order to run this business legitimately, you will need to pay taxes and doing your taxes could be daunting. Luckily, there are accountants. Yeah, nobody who wasn't an accountant has ever said that, but it's true.
For example, as a professional comedian, you'll spend a lot of time and money on promotion just getting your name out there. When you're paying for stuff like that, write-offs are very important, but you'd be surprised what the IRS considers a legitimate business expense. You may qualify for X if you do Y, but if you do Y, you may not qualify for Z. Follow that? Me neither. So don’t be a hero and try to figure out what's a legit deduction, farm it out to a professional.
Contests And Festivals Are More Legit Than They Seem
Comedy festivals and comedy contests often have a reputation for being scams. You have to pay a submission fee, send them your info and a video link, and wait to be told that not only did you not make the cut, but you’re also not getting that entry fee back.
If you do make it in, you'll often have to spend money for travel and your own accommodations, all for the chance to perform on a show and not get paid for it. Sure, that sounds pretty scammy.
Well, festivals and contests have to charge a submission fee. If they didn’t, your chances of getting in would be way worse. Hundreds more comics would sign up because they wouldn’t be risking anything by signing up.
The fee is there for two reasons: 1) to weed out anyone who isn’t taking their comedy career seriously enough to be willing to invest in it, and 2) for the organizers to cover upfront expenses like venue deposits, promotional materials, office expenses, and paying people to review all of the submissions. Personally, I’ve worked behind the scenes of many festivals and contests, and believe me… It’s not a scam. Scams actually manage to turn a profit.
The entire point of submitting for comedy festivals is for comics to get a credit you can use to impress booking agents. You get to say you performed there and got to open for whichever big name act they brought in to headline. Plus, you get to hang out with other comics who could help get you booked on other paid gigs, or at the very least you might make a new friend whose couch you can crash on when you’re in town.
Bigger comedy contests typically bring in industry reps like club managers, bookers, talent scouts, etc. as judges. And they sometimes dangle contract offers as part of the prize package, so by being a part of the contest, you’re auditioning for all of them at once when you’re on-stage and getting a chance to network with them when you’re off-stage. If you know how to schmooze properly, you may leave with more booking opportunities than you would’ve had by winning the contest. So before you enter, look at what they’re offering and who they might be bringing in to judge.
Maybe it'll be Seinfeld and you two can have that bowl of Trix together.
Dan Fritschie is a writer and comedian based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He toured as the host of The World Series of Comedy, and in 2019 he was the winner of The Funniest Comedian in the Heartland competition. He was also once featured in People Magazine, just not for his comedy.
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