What I Would NOT Do If I Owned a Comedy Club

Tim Cavanaugh is one of the best people I've met in the comedy biz.

A follow-up to my last piece on If I Was to Open My Own Club… I’ve been in the business for almost 2 decades and I’ve seen quite a few clubs come and go.  Here is what I wouldn’t do if I opened a club.

  • Build in a high-rent area.
  • Spend a lot of money on the interior of the club.

These first 2 go hand-in-hand. It’s not a dance club you are running. Find a location in a decent area of town with lots of accessible parking.  Your biggest competition in my mind are movie theatres, so try to make it similar in admission price. Your advantage then becomes the audience having a better time at a live show than pretty much anything a comedy movie can offer, plus they can catch a buzz if they want. I also have found that when a club is too nice the audience can get a little too comfortable. Kind of like a rock club. Being a little grungy gives it character and I think also inspires the customer to drink more.  **Only exception are the IMPROV-type clubs, who I think are as much about their food as their drinks. You better have deep pockets to open one of these clubs up.

  • Have a gambling or drug problem.
  • Have no people skills.

It might seem like this would be logical, but I’ve run into multiple former comedy club owners that had super addictive personalities. Hard to pay your light bills when the first person you need to pay is your dealer or bookie. These types are also addicted to being the center of attention. This is not why you open a comedy club. If you are such a narcissist that you want to be the center of attention, become a comedian. Plenty of us have that problem, which is why we would be lousy running the club.

Treating the comics well is important as an owner, but it is even more important to build a staff that respects you and works hard. I’ve seen plenty of comedy club staffs that hate the manager and owner.  I can remember working for a restaurant where I felt the same way and let me promise you that is not a recipe for financial success. It seems simple to gain the respect of your staff, but it doesn’t happen enough.

  • Don’t spend any money on sound and lighting.

This is a huge mistake. I’ve been to clubs that spent lots of money on a beautiful bar and then had shitty sound and horrible lighting. The number 1 problem I think most one-nighters have is bad lighting. You might not think that is important, but seeing the facial gestures of the comedian is vital. Let me put it this way: If you were flipping around on your TV and came across a movie that you found the plot interesting, but the lighting made it difficult to watch, would you stay with it? Oh and tip to younger comics. Even if the light is really bright in your eyes, don’t step away from it and stand in a darker area.  Like in Poltergeist, go to the light, Carol Anne! Go to the light! I’ve seen confused comics wonder why they weren’t doing better and more than any reason it had to do with their face not being illuminated.

  • Encourage comics to drink during the show and after.

Some places encourage the comics to do a shot on stage as they think it will cause the audience to do the same (increase the ticket average.) Maybe it will, but it is bad precedent to set.  Performing on-stage takes mental agility and I’ve seen only a couple comics who were consistently better drunk.  Not to say that many comics aren’t  helped by having a little libation lubrication, but not getting shitfaced. There is a fine line for an audience improving because of the same alcohol help. A little is good, a lot is bad. Late show Saturdays are notoriously tough for comics as it is usually the most drunken audience.  Not much you can do about that, but it is definitely not helped by encouraging the audience to become bombed.  Recently a club I did came up with a last ditch effort of a 20 dollar ticket, which included all you can drink.  Glad I wasn’t booked for those shows. The club is no longer open.

I find less and less comics are alcoholics. Sure the life lends itself to it, but because there is no shortage of comics who need work, getting bad reports have caused more comics to stay sober. I’m no teetotaler, but I don’t stay after shows and drink with the staff very often—because I know that I’m only a man. Made of flesh and blood. Only trouble to be found. Getting my drift? Having said that, I know that by not partying with the staff has hurt my career at a few clubs, as positive reports sometimes come more from the personal relationships you build with the staff more than what you do on-stage. If I was a club owner, I would give the comics drink tickets. 2 per show.  That is enough. If a comic wants to blow their money on getting bombed at the club, let them do it, but don’t encourage them to do it on your dime. (I know this will piss off some comics. Sorry. Write your own blog on the subject if you want to argue the point.) Related subject: Comics drinking with staff and fucking the waitresses.

  • Charge the comics for soft drinks and food.

I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve done shows where the bar/club charged me for a Diet Coke. That is fucking ridiculous.  How much is that going to cost you? 10 cents.  It is rare when there’s free food, but here is why I think it should be given to comics. It barely touches the bottom line, but gives the comics a feeling of good-will towards the place. If you don’t want to give away steak dinners, fine, but offer up the sandwich/salad menu or say up to 10 dollars of free food and the rest is on the comedian. Most of us are not getting rich, so every little bit helps. I rarely eat at comedy clubs or one-nighters because I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend 14 bucks on a meal that is costing them less than half. I was a kitchen manager, so I know how much food costs are, so I would rather eat fast food and save my money so I can buy some nice stuff for my kids at the end of the month.

  • Not policing the room.

I get that the economy is not good and it is really hard to get people to pay for live entertainment.  Having said that, if you let rude audience members wreck the experience for the majority of the crowd, they are not as likely to come back.  You need someone with some skills to deal with rude people, not just some new waitress who is worried most about her tips. A great comedy club setting is one where it is collective group of people all doing their jobs to make the show the best it can be. This is the best chance for a club to have an atmosphere where everyone thrives. I’m not one of those business consultants who says that all it takes, but it definitely will help.

  • Papering the room on the weekend

Papering the room means giving away free tickets. A few freebies is okay, but if give most if not all the audience free tickets on a weekend show, well then, you are fucked. It’s not a long-term business model. Also, when an audience gets a freebie that makes them believe that the comics can’t be very good. I can see in a full-week club papering the room to get people through the door on a weekday night, but definitely not on an early show on the weekend.  I have seen too many rooms do this that ended up closing and if they were competing with another room, they might have wrecked the market, as people don’t like to go back to paying when they’ve gotten it for free.  For other examples of this rule: See Napster and Paris Hilton.

  • Only Book Comics you like
  • Don’t worry about who works with each other
  • All booking agents are the same so go with the cheapest

If I owned a room, I would definitely bring in some headliners that I like even if it I thought the audience wouldn’t love them. Maybe 4 or 5 times a year. I would bring them in on weeks I thought we would be busy no matter who was there.  The rest of the year I would bring in comics that I know would do great with the audience and make me enough money to keep my club open. Not hacks, quality comics, but maybe not the ultimate artist.  I would also book middle/feature acts who would compliment the headliner. It’s amazing how often that part is not considered. As long as the feature act does their time and their own material, I don’t really care what the preceding act does, but a lot of headliners don’t mix well with but just a certain type opening act.  That should be considered.  Sure someone once booked Jimi Hendriz once opened for the Monkees, but it doesn’t mean it made any sense.

Not all booking agents work for all clubs. Example: If you are a booking agent based on the West Coast, you probably don’t have a great idea what is going to work in the South or Midwest. I can remember working with a Hispanic comic who had just been on the Tonight Show. The city I was in had a small Hispanic population and his material ate it all week, as he was performing for Whitey. Same goes for some NYC act who spends 10 minutes on riding the subway or living in a high-rise apartment. Find an agent who knows your region. The booking agent that brought the Hispanic headliner to suburbia had been to the club once in 15 years.  Sure our culture is becoming more similar with the net and cable TV, but there are still some real cultural differences that make a big difference in some markets, especially in the South.

***************

I’m sure there are other things that I haven’t offered up,  but this is the list I could come up with off-the-top of my head.

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