When I started doing comedy in the 90′s there were only 3 ways to get on a booking agents radar.
- Send a VHS tape of your show. (Remember those?)
- Get a well-respected headliner to give you a referral.
- Do a guest set for them.
There was only a couple of comedy festivals then, so this was your pathway in. You would have to try to call booking agents constantly to get to watch your tape. It’s a lot easier today where the much less intrusive email or instant message is used. We all know it’s a lot easier to watch a YouTube clip then it is to fire up the old VCR.
Since it was so hard to get booking agents to answer your calls or watch your video tapes, I did my share of guest sets. In truth, I hated doing them, but sometimes you need to stand out from the faceless promo packages you send. Here is why I hated doing them.
- They are usually done on a weekday night, so often you are performing for a small audience.
- You end up going up very early, as the MC is usually told to cut there time to accommodate you. They often have the kind of set that reflects their not being happy about this. You end up hitting the stage to a cold audience.
- The amount of time you will get is usually 5-10 minutes.
- Sometimes you will drive 5 hours to do this unpaid guest set only to find out that the manager/owner never even watched you. It’s one of the most depressing feelings you can have as a comic finding this out afterward, but you can’t respond the way you deserve to because you have no power in this relationship and you don’t want to burn a bridge. FUCK!!!
- After you get done you have to have that awkward conversation about what is your next move with trying to get a week at the club.
Despite all the negative stuff involved you were still better off to do the guest set. I can tell you performing as part of regular show versus coming in for the club’s open mic is almost always preferable because the typical open mic can be a train wreck depending on the week. Ultimately, if that is what you have to do, you have to weigh your options and go for it, but realize it’s a tough road. Just outlining all the things you have to do get established as a comic and it’s a wonder anyone ever makes it to the next step. My hat’s off to all of you comics that have made it to the working feature level. Think about how many 1000′s of open mikers have tried to get to that level, only to give up or never get any traction.
So I did a lot of these showcases and had some success. Eventually I got enough great reports from my live shows and built a strong enough resume that I didn’t have to do these guest sets anymore. Outside of doing Dave Stroupe’s showcase night a couple times at the Funny Bone in Columbus, I don’t think I’ve done a 5-10 minute set trying to get work in over a decade. That changed last night.
I was out on the road and ended up having a night off. I try to make sure this never happens, as I end up losing money for the night since I have to Priceline a hotel to stay at. Well, I couldn’t put anything together for my Thursday night in-between my Wednesday in Western New York and my Friday in Western PA, so I got an idea. I have always heard great things about Jr’s Last Laugh Comedy Club in Erie and it was a good middle ground between my gigs, so I decided to contact them to do a guest set.
Before I did this, though, I checked their calendar to make sure they didn’t have some special event comic. If the comedian is a draw they are not crazy about having some person get up and change the balance of the show. There is a rhythm to having a MC, Feature act, and Headliner. Another person added to that mix does make it a little different. Well, I was happy to see that the feature act was my friend, Keith McGill, and the headliner was a guy who I always wanted to meet, Don Reese. Don is a fellow Iowan, though unlike me, he has lived there his whole comedy career, while I left the state after college. I had always wanted to meet him.
I contacted the owners who are very hands-on with their club. They told me they weren’t sure they would be able to watch my set, as they were going to be busy doing other things at the club. I pressed telling them that if that was the case, I would understand, but I couldn’t imagine the opportunity to do a guest set there would ever happen again for me, so I still wanted to give it a go. I sent them a you tube link and sent them a list of my credits.
Jr’s Last Laugh is the kind of club I would have tried to get into a long time ago, as I feel cities in the Great Lakes region are my sweet spot. Why I never approached them before was that they are famous in the biz for only wanting clean comics. While I could always construct a clean enough show for corporates, my standup club act was always closer to R-rated, so I stayed away. Well in the past year I have written 30 new minutes which has made my show closer to PG in rating, so I felt it was time.
So I get to the club at 6 pm, because they have 630 showtimes. It seemed kind of early to me, but there were close to 100 people there, so they obviously know their business better than I do. While it was great they had so many people at a Thursday show, they were doing a special event for veterans, so the average age was around 60. There were plenty of people in their 70′s there. I’m not sure who still works the road that would love to see that age range, but I pride myself on having a show that can work with all age groups, so I wasn’t overcome with dread.
The owners told me they had to run a tight ship that night as they were having a big karaoke contest after our show, which they would have to turn the room for. Because of that I would get 5 minutes. I’m not going to kid you, I wasn’t happy to hear I would get 5 minutes. I would follow the Host. The MC was a really nice guy, but while trying to stay kind here I would just offer up that he did not have a great set before me. Following a MC who might have gotten one laugh was not going to help my cause, especially since during that 5 minute set I would need to turn the crowd around and demonstrate my personality instantly.
I brought as much positive energy as I could right from the start, to turn around this cold crowd. I then went very personal about my life after my initial joke. This seemed like the best formula I could offer to this group, in this situation. I haven’t done 5 minutes in a long time and I guessed on what would work with this audience. It went pretty well. I walked off-stage to a really good response.
I’m going to admit something here which I don’t think will come to be a big shock, but I have never heard another comic say publicly. When I do a guest set/showcase I am quietly rooting for the other acts that follow me to have a below average set. I know, self-centered, but surviving in the comedy world you are graded on a curve. Well, my friend Keith McGill did not help me out on that front, as he had a really strong set following me. Any other time I would be happy for him, but last night it would have been nice if he could have mailed it in:) Keith headlines a lot of rooms, so this was a strong show and I didn’t envy Don Reese having to follow basically 2 headliners. Don did a good job with this audience though, so the club definitely got their money’s worth last night.
After the show I thanked both owners for the opportunities and just told them I would be in touch. They were slammed with the following karaoke contest crowd coming in, so I knew this wasn’t a good time to press them on future dates. We will see what happens. I did guest sets/showcases for almost a decade, so I paid my dues, but I’m glad I don’t have to do them anymore. Good luck if you are doing this on a regular basis. It’s all part of the journey.