I’ve been doing comedy for a long time and have never been part of a comedy festival. When I was early on in my career, the only one’s that were happening on a larger scale were the San Francisco and Seattle Comedy Competitions. In their earlier days these competitions were important as some important people in the business would attend them, especially SF. It wasn’t on the level of Montreal or Aspen, but a lot of industry people were there. Those cities were kind of far away from my base and at the time, plus my act didn’t seem that festival friendly.
More recently, there have been comedy festivals breaking out everywhere. I thought that is good overall for standup, as it gives a lot of younger comics more opportunities to be seen. I decided to do my first comedy festival last week and here are my reflections on it.
I should begin with how I found myself there in the first place. I had on my calendar that I would be headlining a club, instead of doing the festival. The club I was doing was booked with a few other gigs I had put on my calendar a few months back. Coming up on the event I went to the clubs online site to see what promo they had on me, only to discover I wasn’t on the board. Someone else was. Not a good feeling. So I contact the booking agent and they said they never had me down for that week. What can I say, this happens every once in awhile. You don’t feel happy about it, but when you are booking agent that books tons of rooms, it can happen. I respect this booking agent, so I just had to bite the bullet. It sucks, as I had to contact a lot of fans that I have in this market and tell them I wouldn’t be there after all. Oh and I would losing about 100o bucks (including merch) that week that my bill collectors would not look positively on. Did I mention it sucks. What I had to remember was that some of this was on me, too, as I never checked my iteniary that had been sent out when I initially booked all these weeks. I just put them into my cellphone calendar. As I discovered looking back on the inteniary emails, after the fact, was the date was never there. Lesson learned.
Trying to make this into a positive was that I had been contacted by the promoter of the Comedy 10K Festival (Jeff Johnson) not long after I had thought I had booked this week. He had wanted me to be part of this competition. I was interested because it was in the state I had grown up (Iowa) and there were some judges that were going to be there that I wanted to get in front of. I am not 25 and single, though, so I had to take the week that pays, so I told him I wasn’t available. Well, when I found out a month before the event that I would be open now, I contacted him. He told me that someone else had dropped out and I could pay the entry fee and get into it. Great. Maybe this lost week was a blessing in disguise.
So I get my date. I have to begin by saying this was an incredibly well-run event. The Diamond Jo Casino (where it was held) has a beautiful showroom to hold an event like this. (NOTE: I will be headlining the room on May 16th, when they get back to their regular Wednesday show.) I couldn’t get away from my kids to attend, but according to the comics that were there the golf tourney they had as part of the comedy fest was a first-class affair. Really nice touches like free buffet coupons and having a camera crew there that would tape your show for free made the entry fee seem like a drop in the bucket. Now, I still had to pay the transportation costs to get there and put myself up, but these are the costs of business, right?
When I got to the event, I saw the list for performing during my round. I had felt I had a decent shot at winning, as I knew there were only 2 other comics that were on my ability level. After looking at this list, my chances I realized went way down because I would be going up first that show. Now, if you aren’t aware, in comedy, going first is never good. The crowd isn’t warmed up and ready to bring their big laughs. It’s kind of like track and field or horse racing where the middle positions are the best places to win from. I can tell you that I have judged a lot of comedy club competitions and I can never remember someone who went up first winning. It is just a death spot, as you have to work really hard just to bring the energy up. I know this reads like an excuse, but I would be interested in hearing from someone who has been part of a major comedy competition who won going first. (Spoiler Alert) I can tell you that no one in Comedy 10K won their round from that spot and that includes a comic that I know a lot of people thought was going to win his round on Friday night.
Why I didn’t try to throw a fit and get moved to a better spot was that I was appreciative to Jeff for getting me in last minute and working around my schedule. I also didn’t want to come off as a prima donna, even though a couple of the comics in my group were amateurs and could have been moved there. (I know that sounds evil, but hey, I didn’t actually throw my weight around, so don’t get on me about it.) The MC of the event, the Midnight Swinger, is one of the best entertainers in the business. He busted his ass to make people pay attention from the start, but between explaining how the event works and keeping it short so the show wouldn’t go long, there wasn’t a lot of time for him to do standup material. (I know, more excuses. Well, fuck you, it’s my blog and my story.)
I hit the stage with as much positive energy as possible. I started with a local type joke just to hopefully get them on my side and it kind of laid there. Foreshadowing. The rest of my act was set up as 9 minute chunk about how my life has changed since having my special needs daughter and then my twins that came after. It’s the kind of material I thought would be great for a festival. Personal, raw, PG-rated, and with lots of laughs. Going up first I just felt like I never had a chance. To standup in a contest and deliver stuff that usually gets huge responses (like the last time I was in that same room), only to have the material receive about 60 percent of the response I usually get is stunning. My closing bit about breast-feeding did really well, but by then, the crowd was getting warmed up, so I’m not surprised. It was like the audience was ready to get started about 7 minutes into my set.
Now the biggest reason I got into this contest was to be seen by a couple of the judges. This competition had some A-list judges and a couple of them book rooms that I’ve wanted to get into for a long time. I didn’t even talk to them after the show, as not only didn’t I win my round, my show as I mentioned above only got about 60 percent in laughs that it usually gets. My head was kind of spinning in a negative way at this point.
(I do want to mention that I don’t believe I would have won my round, even if I would have been put in a better spot. Comedian Dan Chopin had one of the best short sets of straight up standup comedy I’ve ever seen. I have never seen Dan before, but I’ve heard his name since I started doing standup and he crushed that night. He went on at a good spot in the show, but he was smart in bringing what I’m guessing was his greatest hits. He didn’t try to do some long-form chunk like I did, but instead just brought out his heavy hitters and delivered them with perfect timing. I had total respect for what he did and he was a very gracious winner. Congrats you son of a bitch.)
Not to just make this all about myself, let me use a couple of friends experiences at the competition to further illuminate the postives and negatives of what can happen. Both of these comics are good feature acts. One of them is who I consider one of the top 5 feature acts I’ve ever worked with. He is amazingly consistent night after night. The other comic is a guy that I like a lot, but has a lot of high and low type shows. Well the latter had the set of his life and ended up just missing out winning his round, but from what I heard he got some great offers to feature some A-rooms in the future. I’m happy for him on one level, but my guess is he will struggle in a couple of these rooms, as they are not the type that I think he will shine in. My friend who is the Top 5 feature act had a bad set, as he followed a really funny and high energy comic, which was death to him. Now he is worried about losing the weeks he gets from the booking agents that were there that he was already working for and he feels like the chances of working for the people he was trying to impress are shot. I know that feeling. This is all of because of one 10-minute set.
Another example I will use is that one of the biggest names in the competition had the worst set I have ever seen them have. They had a primo spot (number 3 out of 6), but they had a couple things happen that I believe got into their head. First, before the show the MC went over the rules and mentioned that the judges want you to do your material, not talk to the crowd. Great advice. Unfortunately this is a strength of this comic. I heard they seemed confused by this advice. The bigger issue for this comic was that the first person in their group was very similar in style and substance. It took some of the novelty off of that comic and watching the show it seemed like it got into their head. This can happen.
So let’s go down the list of pitfalls that can happen when you perform at a festival/competition.
- You could follow someone who is very similar to you.
- You could follow someone who does very similar material.
- You could follow some high energy act. Having only 10 minutes isn’t long enough to change that energy with the crowd.
- You could get a bad audience and struggle to rise above that.
- You could go first and I don’t have to go over the pitfalls of that.
These are just things you need to consider when you perform. Add to it that if things don’t go well, that is the vision that the judge is going to have for you forever. It is the best or worst of situtations, as having the chance to get a big time booking agent’s undivided attention is an amazing gift, but if one of the above happens, you are left trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces. It’s a far riskier adventure than I had any idea about before doing this event.
So as I said above, I didn’t even talk to any of the judges, except for one that I bumped into on the way out. I went back to my hotel room and had a restless night sleep. I drove home the next day feeling extremely low. What had I just done? You build up a reputation in this business of bringing quality performances night after night, only to do a set that was received about as well as what you get when you are a really good MC. (Legit excuse: I basically was.) So that is what I was left with. The positive that happened was that on my drive back I got a call to fill-in as to feature for my friend, Ron Sexton, who plays the character Donnie Baker on the Bob and Tom Show. I killed going up before him, made good money doing it and most importantly, I got a chance to get some of the depression out of my system. Some of the depression…
For some comics I think comedy festivals are a great place to be seen. If you have a festival-type act, you are especially well-served doing one. Having said that, many headliners have built their show being great for 50 minutes, not 10. It takes a whole different skill set. From looking at the roster of finalists at the Comedy 10k, I’m happy to report all the comics that made the finals were strong acts. That says a lot for the judges and the talent there. I just wish there was a fairer way of doing these competitions where going up first or following someone who is a bad fit wouldn’t be such an important equation in the result. I guess that is the dice you roll when you do one of these. Maybe that is why they held it in a casino.
FINAL NOTE: I purposedly left some names out as I don’t want to make anyone feel badly about what I wrote, but I wanted to include the scenarios that happened just in that one night, so I could better show what can happen. I included Jeff Johnson and Dan Chopin as I feel like everything I said about them was a positive. Congrats to them and also the Comedy 10K winner, Dale Jones. I have never met Dale, but I know his recent bride, Jodi White, so life is going very well for him.