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What is "PROGRESSION"? And how do I progress?

AdvicePosted by Bobby Carroll Wed, January 14, 2015 14:19:38

The first part of this question popped up on an online forum today, and I was also asked it a few times over the last month - so with the tax return not yet completed and the desire to take a nice long break from that terrifying boredom, I thought I'd dive into this for this month’s blog.

Gig offers often mention "progression" as opposed to payment. What do they mean by this?

Essentially if you do well your reward is better slots at better shows.

A decade or so back most progression gigs worked on the lines that if you did well in a 5 you'd get asked back for a 10, then if you did well at a 10 you'd move on to paid 15-20s or MCing. That process used to take between a year and five years depending on how good or lucky you were.

That system sadly does not exist any more. We all know there's too many people (albeit mostly short term) trying comedy as a hobby or without the very clear aim of improving to get to professional standard. That guilty by association stigma is only part of the problem for the newer act with talent and determination. The opportunities have reduced too. I'd say the reality is until you have some kind of TV profile or real circuit kudos there really aren't any paid London 20s anymore. Free gigs and veteran acts doubling, tripling and quadrupling up on weekends in town have kind of killed off that entire next step for acts like you. "Out of town" is better, but with places like Brighton, Birmingham, Liverpool and of course Manchester having self sufficient scenes, they have less and less need to see / progress / book acts from far away unless they have same profile or consistency as the ones how can make bank in that there London any way.

A good promoter / booker probably, even with weekly gigs, only needs 50 professional acts they are willing to pay and have a regular business relationship with to fill all their slots with a variety every year. Maybe another 50 they take a chance on every now and again or who are so in demand you are lucky to get them come preview season. Give me a pen and a sheet of A4 paper and I could rattle out 100 names who fit that criteria in five minutes and I doubt any other booker would look at that list and disagree with the standard. But that's a 100 slots for at least a couple of thousand bodies gigging with some regularity at the moment.

So how does one make it easy for a newer act to join that list? When I started Comedy Knights as my full time income I wanted to make sure that progression was possible. I set up the Comedy Knights Fresh Comedian Competition to see about 150 acts a year in a live environment, meet them personally and see if they could consistently entertain the crowd and impress me. 5 minutes at a heat, 7 at a quarter, 15 at the semi and then 5 again at the final in front of an independent panel of judges. To make the final dozen meant I'd be considering you for paid work whether you win or not.

More importantly for my peace of mind to not make the final meant I was comfortable in not rebooking you ever again having given you a shot, not having to reply to your never ending mail outs, not feel guilty that your amazing talent was yet again being ignored by those idiots who know nothing about comedy yet seem to make a living running gigs.

Has that panned out? Have I progressed all 24 finalist so far onto paid 20s or MCing?

No… Most, yes... but some haven't worked out. A couple from the 2012 final have quit - scarily I've never heard from two again. Most have been offered some paid stuff from me. An opener slot here, an MC slot there. But they're still finding their feet in the main. Still working towards a bankable 20 of material, still figuring out who they are on stage in some cases. I'd say about seven finalist have comfortably slotted into regular paid work for me and are capable of delivering.

So out of 300 acts seen I've progressed 7 genuinely. Maths fans and incurable gamblers will know that makes the odds of going from open spot to regular paid act with me 43 / 1. That's a horse I would not back, a hand I would not double down on.

Achieving progression in an environment where the best can take up two or three fees a night, the middle is overcrowded and the bottom has a talent crisis requires strong degree of luck. So here's my tips on how you can give yourself some serious edge.

GOLDEN RULE: This overrides anything else you read. Be consistently funny. If you are always killing in a 10, with a set that doesn't change massively everytime I see it, and doesn't contain any thing so experimental or controversial that I can see a venue pulling the gigs if you did happen to die in a paid slot. Then I HAVE TO progress you. But to be clear "Be consistently funny" = "always killing in a 10". Not doing alright most times, not always having a good excuse about the room or audience, not doing as well as the opener - Always killing in a 10. I know if you consider this honestly that will explain why 99% of you have not moved forward with most promoters yet. It has little to do with your occasional deaths, or even your occasional triumphs, and more to do with the fact you haven't mastered the discipline of stand up to get to the point where you guarantee the goods every time you walk on stage. Be consistently funny.

Now for the other things that are easier to achieve.

Be a nice person offstage. There are very few gigs you do alone. At some point in the evening you need to meet the promoter, other acts, the venue staff. More often than not you might need to spend a couple of hours with these relative strangers in the close proximity of a car share or a green room or a nearby cafe. You have no idea whose ear they have or what gigs they themselves might run (a large minority of industry people are failed acts). Come the cunt and you have no ideas what opportunities you have killed for yourself now and further down the line. I'm not just talking about being aggressively rude or stand offish. I'm talking about being easy to work with, not dominating the conversation with yourself and your CV, not telling jokes in an environment everyone else wants to relax in, not bitching, and listening to the information someone is taking the time to communicate to you. One of the reasons I like to meet an act personally at the comp before I book them elsewhere is my relationship with the venue or the act willing to drive or the act whose name does sells tickets is far more important than my relationship with the act who has not got twenty minutes yet. If I get the feeling you cannot get along with those people, I don't want to inflict you on them. There's no need to be false, complementary or generate false bonhomie. You don't have to be the greatest mates ever with everyone. Some of the quietest people offstage on the circuit are the universally most liked and respected. It's not a popularity contest, but being a dick comes with so many downsides.

Learn to drive, buy a car. Now owning a car is a licence for everyone to steal money out of your pocket - MOTs, speed cameras, road tax, insurance, parking fines. And I very much doubt owning a car pays for itself in your first few years. But here are all the benefits. You can get to a gig. Any gig. At a moment's notice (distances willing). You can give other acts lifts which reduces your petrol costs and makes you an asset to the promoter. You dictate when and how and where from you travel which late at night is a commodity you can't put a price on. Come tax return time a lot of your cost is rebated. Currently that is calculated very favourably for drivers. When you do turn pro you can get to all the gigs in your diary. You cannot drink, which means you do not waste half your fee at the bar killing time. A lot of acts reading this and a few promoters will be of the opinion "I don't care if someone drives the funniest act available should be booked" Nonsense... if the funniest act available cannot get to the gig they are then not available and you are booking an inferior line up for the sake of not organising a car share. The more acts who have the flexibility to drive and give lifts the better the bills we put on will be. Any other opinion is just someone not willing to figure out the logistics for everyone getting to the gig safely and cheaply. Owning a car gives you an edge. In some situations you know and I know will you only have gotten the gig to transport those three people sitting in the passenger seats rather than based on the merits of your set. But being the weak driving link on that bill will only make you better so don't take it to heart. This about progressing, not your ego. I can promise you most driving acts on my bill are the strongest link onstage and offstage.

Quit your day job. No... not really. Please don't. This is about being available to gig at late notice which having no other work commitments gives you. But before you draft your resignation letter consider the fact having a dayjob as long as possible is something to be proud of. You can pay for Edinburgh, that car and rent and groceries and bills. You can save for your first year, for the empty diary weeks and the cheque to follow months. Stay in your day job for as long possible. I guess what I really mean is you cannot have two careers. If you already are in your dream job, then stand up is just a hobby for you no matter how often you do it. You are not available to gig at the drop of the hat, cannot put setting off to Cumbria for £60 ahead of staying at work until 5.30. If you want to straddle both worlds, I understand the need for security but temp, find a role with flexible hours. But if you have no intention of quitting your well paid accountancy job then essentially every time you pick up a £100 gig that's £100 you are depriving someone from whom stand up is their sole income and only goal. Being flexible means you can pick up last minute work and being paid by a promoter really is the best the way to further paid work. Some promoters will always see you as an open spot no matter how much you improve. But once someone has paid you and you've done the business it is very hard for them to demote you back to middles - and more often than not that rare chance to jump up a level is not handed to you on a plate with months to plan, it is a one shot deal based on the promoter having no other option but needing to take a chance on you. Having nothing but comedy as part of your working day means you have time and the mindset to write and always be online for your comedy admin. That's one hell of an edge. But if you are not consistently funny then all the manners, cars and spare time in the world will not bring in the minimum wage worth of bookings. So don't quit until you are.

Get a web presence. My business is I essentially sell acts onto people and businesses. I sell acts onto audiences. Or I sell acts onto venues who then in turn sell those acts to their audiences. Or I sell acts onto groups that want their own private performance. Once you are good enough, what makes my job easier is if I can show someone who has never heard of you something that proves you are worth buying. A website that doesn't look like it has been hobbled together on a Amstrad 464. A ComedyCV that clearly shows all your credits and achievements, good quotes and wins. A twitter feed with lots of followers that shows you being funny and pushing the gigs you are booked for to those followers. A high res photo that they or I can use for posters and press. And most importantly a youtube clip that looks professionally shot (even if it isn't) at a gig that's professionally set up with you do a set and killing from the off. If you are good enough to pay then none of these things should cost you anything but time to achieve and put online. When you don't have these things you are a harder sell to my customers and I might end up choosing the act who has ticked those boxes.

Reply to your emails. If I make you a gig offer then you should really get back to me within a day. Even if its to say "I can't say yes just yet, do you mind waiting while I confirm something else?" or even "No - Sorry not available" I hate having to wait a few days and then chase to hear a "no." A few of these in a row really clogs up the booking process and serial offenders eventually find themselves at the bottom of the list no matter how funny they are.

Never cancel a booking. You will cancel a booking - there's some good reasons (death in the family, bed ridden by illness, booking on a panel show on an actual TV channel, a corporate paying a grand cash). These are good reasons as if the promoter did get the hump with you for pulling out and decide not to book you again you know you did the right thing. For anything less by cancelling you are essentially saying "I'm willing to risk never working for you again for whatever I'm doing instead." Think long term, is that a promoter you really can afford to write off?

Be confident in what you do - whatever that is. Let's say you have a tough one or die. Falling apart as well as not having a belter is a guaranteed way for me never to pay you again. People who act professional get paid. I can justify to a punter or a venue someone "they did not find funny." I cannot justify someone "who did not even act like a comedian".

Finally, every gig you do ask yourself "Is this a progression gig?" If you want to progress you have to use your time wisely. Look at the gig you are at. Are you being paid? No. Is there someone here who has the ability to book you for paid work? No. Is any act on this bill getting paid regularly (and that I mean making a living from comedy, not splitting a few buckets and beer tokens a week)? No. Chances are that gig is waste of your time after a point. If no one is getting paid it is gig set up for someone's ego. It is nibbling away at the audience from a promoter who might pay you, it is giving you the wrong impression of what works at a well run professional gig. Even if you are still working for free, at least start giving it away at gigs that matter, not those that book everyone and anyone. Stop devaluing yourself. If no one is getting paid at a gig you are doing, there's no chance of you ever getting paid for doing that gig.

The 10 Best Books to Help You Become A Better Stand Up

AdvicePosted by Bobby Carroll Tue, September 02, 2014 10:01:16

Books On Starting Out

Greg Dean - Step by Step to Stand Up Comedy 9780325001791 Really is the finest basic manual for getting you from no material to payable 20 in comedy. Great writing exercises are probably what’ll keep you returning to the well but it really includes everything from the best way to generate stagetime for yourself to advice on not sleeping with waiting staff (... so American)

Logan Murray - Be a Great Stand-Up: Teach Yourself 9781444107265 This ‘How To’ came out a couple of years after I started gigging regularly and it covered a lot of what I had already figured out for myself or had read elsewhere so while I may not be its biggest proponent it still is very useful. It treads much of the same ground as the above book in a slightly more British scene centric vibe. For me it crystalised some ideas I was forming in my own head about what mechanics of performance and set formation. If anything as a book written by the comedy tutor responsible for the most people starting stand up in my lifetime (The Amused Moose course) it made me realise my purist attitude of not doing a course and feeling my way around the middle spots and new act nights that were around then was probably a wasted year. In retrospect I was at a disadvantage by not doing a course like Logan’s - it would have put me on the same footing and given me an equal confidence as his many better graduates who were legion when I was finding my way. This is a cheaper alternative to that or a taster as to what a good course can open your eyes too. The edition I read also had 30 or so pages of interviews with good gigging stand ups and if I hadn’t loaned my copy to someone else I’d reread them quite often.

William Knoedelseder - I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Era 9781586483173 If you’ve ever read Easy Riders Raging Bulls about the emergence of modern cinema then this book, in both format and biographical revelation, is the equivalent for the birth of modern comedy, both on stage and off. It mashes up a series of interviews and anecdotes to tell about the birth of The LA Comedy Store (the model of which all pro clubs evolved from) to the point where suicide and strike lead to acts eventually being paid. As a new act you’ll take heart in the tales of new comedian living off ketchup and a chance of a 10 at the pro show, while for those of us people who care about the way the UK comedy scene is going (especially in London) it might shine a light on why pay to play, bringers and free entry shows with no budget are deemed so pernicious by those of us who make our living and love comedy. Politics aside, its is the third best “holiday” read on this list after Steve Martins and Johnny Vegas’s autobiographies.

Frank Skinner 9780099426875 & Frank Skinner: On the Road 9781844131907 Most celebrity comedy autobiography is Christmas stocking filler cash in… Jack Dee’s for example is a load of unperformed observational routines in prose form eventually leading to few pages about his first years in comedy. Very few of them focus on a life in comedy. Frank Skinner didn’t start gigging until his 30s so while there is a large chunk of papyrus spent on from his problems leading up to his becoming a (great) comedian when he gets there you are rewarded with a decent insight into what life on the UK scene is like and what becoming a comic entails (catch: if you are good). The same warts and all intelligent honesty and cheeky one of the lads charm he brings to his gigs is here in the books making them proper wry smile page turners. Of course for the delusional among you, or those who might prefer an unintended fantastical satire of what its like to be the best comedian in the world, there’s always Peter Kay’s second book Saturday Night Peter (subtitle Triumph of Will) ( alternative subtitle My Struggle).

Books That Will Help With The Writing Process

Gene Perret - Successful Stand Up Comedy: Advice from a Writer 9780573699160 Once you know what you are doing this book by a Late Night comedy talk show writer is the next step up. If you want to figure out how jokes really work or have exercises to get your 5 to 10, or 10 to 20 then this is the Tabula Rasa. Easily the most opened book I owned when I spent my Sundays working on new ideas or adding to established bits.

Steve Martin - Born Standing Up 9781847371034 The bible. When this came out to rave reviews from the comedy and broadsheet press EVERY comedian I met that month had a copy next to their notebook or under their arm. It is a beautiful piece of prose but Martin’s secrets to making you a better (or even the best) stand up are baked in it like chocolate chips in a cookie. What you should be looking for in it are inspiration (no one came from nothing to being the biggest comedy performer ever than Steve Martin), the idea of treating joke writing with same mechanical approach as magic tricks, the importance of editing out what doesn’t pull its weight and sticking to a bit if it works. Every time an act gives up on a bit that audiences love as (whiny voice) “I’m bored of it” or “I have Edinburgh coming up” I want to whack them over the head with a copy of this. You’ll never play stadiums if you jettison your best stuff, once you play arenas and the crowd gleefully recites your routines back at you and you are heading to Hollywood next week anyways THEN you can give up on a bit that kills.

Stewart Lee - How I Escaped My Certain Fate 9780571254804 And so from one of the most successful, joyous comedians to one of our self styled least successful. A stark contrast to Saturday Night Peter is held within these reprinted scripts’ lengthy footnotes, one comedian - widely considered a genius, who has had four television series under his own name commissioned, can sell out month long work in progress theatre engagements and the Fringe and his actual tours plus has the freedom to write West End musicals - has a bit of a moan about how shitty his comedy career has been. Sometimes it is hard to tell with Lee how high his eyebrow is arched as he paints such a bleak picture of his envious career, as he has carved himself a unique niche through good historical timing, talent and not quitting when the chip genuinely were down for him. For my money he is a true great and any book that puts down in black and white three of his finest hours with his own true insight and revelations in the detailed annotations has to be a must read for even the most mainstream, populist hopeful. There’s gold in Lee’s black mountains on how to keep producing award winning hours of comedy writing.

Franklyn Ajaye - Comic Insights: The Art of Stand Up Comedy 9781879505544 In depth interviews with some of the greatest American stand up comedians. Utterly readable and full of good and dubious advice.

Discovering Your Voice

Johnny Vegas - Becoming Johnny Vegas 9780007382729 The newest book on this list and for my money the most useful and the best written. A great read - Michael Pennington’s childhood and teenage years are funny, heartwarming, familiar, troubling and a right readable romp even at their darkest moments. Those first 150 pages of larks and misery though are the building blocks that not only herd Michael towards a life in comedy but form the attitude, confidence and material of Johnny Vegas. The only biography that offers a soup to nuts insight into the formation of a comic persona, if you read this with a comedian’s eyes Becoming Johnny Vegas is the most important work on discovering your “voice” as a stand up. If you are too dim to scoop such cream from it though, the rest of the book is an authentic look at Johnny’s rise from open miccer to UK comedy phenomenon. Just look at the included photo of his gigging diary before he made it “Frog and Bucket” “Up the Creek” and the like every weekend. I doubt many acts have a schedule that impressive before their debut Edinburgh hour these 18 years later.

Tony Allen - Attitude: Want to Make Something Of It? The Secret of Stand Up Comedy 9780906362563 Before Becoming Johnny Vegas came out, this would have been the only book I could have recommend on finding your voice. The advice within -beyond the overriding tenet that finding your voice is the most important thing needed to excel at stand up - is obscure as the book is mainly a potted history of solo performing with an emphasis on the Eighties alternative comedy boom were Allen was a key figure. It belongs on your shelf but these days feels more like a trailer for Allen’s workshops (which seem to unfortunately no longer run) rather than a true guide to give you the tools to discover your voice without attending. As a UK history of alternative comedy and your first clue on your road to being a better comedian it is still more than worth a read. Perhaps now Tony is no longer running the course to which this is the introduction to, he could type up the keys to the kingdom that his course promised to divulge?

How to be an "Opener" at a Comedy Gig

AdvicePosted by Bobby Carroll Mon, August 11, 2014 11:21:18

Last year I typed an overlong blog on all my thoughts, philosophy and advice on being an MC. It has been shared in a few places, quoted and misquoted in a few others, had over 10,000 hits and inspired two newer acts to email me the same question, "I've never opened a pro gig before, how do I do it?"

Here's my edited (and added to for public consumption) response I sent to both of them.

It depends on the gig. A lot of people think good openers should be high energy, inoffensive, friendly and able to move in and out of their sets like an MC.

I disagree as a) I used to be a decent opener and was none of those things but the last b) it is the collective thoughts of uninspired promoters who think a good opener is an extension of the MC as they book rowdy rooms or MCs they do not trust to do their job properly.

If the MC is good then all you have to do is your best set. No new stuff, nothing you are uncertain of, nothing you know is a risk in the room in front of you. Just your greatest 20 minutes you've worked up over years of being an amateur.


As your job as opener is to get the audience to listen to long periods of scripted monologued material and feel it is worth them doing so. Do your set and wait for the laughs. It might take a longer pause as they get used to the rhythms of a stand up routine or 5 or 10 or 15 minutes of smiles and stares rather than laughter but get them used to listening, waiting and enjoying the punchline. The MC has made them part of the show now you need to panel beat them into focussing on the acts rather than themselves.

So you need at least 20 minutes of working material before you start chasing paid opener slots. And at least is the bare minimum. You should be able to fill the time with quality, not be diluting 12 and a new idea. Also you are feeling this audience out and if you are limited in your repertoire then chances are you are handicapping yourself. Let's say your killer 10 on Super Mario Brothers has not hit home with the audience made up of dinner ladies and OAPs. It's probably best not follow this up with your Sonic the Hedgehog bit - no matter how much it kills elsewhere. Those hundreds, almost thousands of unpaid middles spots and open mic nights should have given you a chance to come up with something, anything that is not 90's gaming console based. Even if its not your usual A game, you should have an excess of bits and routines before you start taking professional's comedians fees.

There's no advice I can give them about what material to do and what type of act to be. To be honest by this juncture - you have made all these decisions over your months and years gigging unpaid. If the promoters has given you the slot based on seeing you in a middle then they must trust what you've done infront of them before and use that as your guideline as to what they hoped they were buying.

Don't be negative with the customers - even if the faces in front of you are stoney cold they might be enjoying but not comfortable enough to laugh yet. Later, they'll laugh more at lesser acts but you "loosened the jam jar lid" (to quote Paul F Taylor) before the middles popped it off. That's why you are paid and they aren't. Often, too often actually, unpaid middle spots email to tell me they got a much better response than my paid opener, expecting no doubt I'm going to cancel all that act's work and pop them into the vacated slots. I've been known to reply "You should email the opener and thank them for priming the audience to enjoy you."

Opening is harder work than going on in the middle as the audience is more inhibited. Some jokes will fall flat or get smiles rather than ovations - accept that is par for the course and don't undermine yourself. So you aren't having the gig of your life in front of the sober people who are a bit self concious? Someone thought you were good enough and your material was good enough to pay to open this room. Don't make them rethink that but saying anything disparaging about yourself or your set unless it leads to an actual punchline. They might not know you aren't having a great one but if you start telling them... they almost definitely will. And once that happens you are wasting words being unfunny devaluing any future chance you have of the rest of your material working.

An opener fills them with confidence that the jokes are worth listening to... not that they've done better rooms and audiences than this before. Every time you are negative about yourself or your room or your audience you are essentially wasting time, time you are being paid for, saying "If I wasn't opening I'd be having a better time". If you can't open without doing that don't take the money, don't risk your reputation, don't start the night on the backfoot for everyone else.

If you are onstage, doing your best stuff and not getting the response you'd know you would get in exactly the same room in the middle section just stay true to yourself on stage. These words of Mel Gibson's should be your internal mantra if you consider throwing yours toys out of your pram

Be thinking. If I pay you to open I personally want you to stick to material as much as possible... but don't just go on and recite. Alter your pacing if you feel they aren't laughing enough, give them more of a chance to laugh. Use eye contact to bully parts of the room into laughing. You don't have to skip around the stage but be engaging.

Keep stirring the pot - if you've watched the MC interact with people (and you should have watched the MC interact with people) you should have a few characters to bounce material off of. Don't worry about asking them questions, just lead into material by addressing it at the most appropriate person the MC met in the first 10 but keep your foot on the pedal so it doesn't turn into a conversation.

Here's some examples of prefixes that show how in half a dozen words you can relate your next bit of script and make it seem a bit more like you are telling it uniquely to this room:
"Larry is a ladies' man... [insert routine about internet dating / sexual failure / being married here]"
"Rhonda likes a drink... [insert story about drinking / going out / doing something embarrassing here]"
"Mildred will remember this [insert routine about white dog poo / dial up / finding porn in bushes here]"

This'll make your script feel more in the moment and spontaneous without you having to write a custom built 20 for each gig.

All the above assumes you are walking onto a well MC'd audience.

Now if the MC has lost the room, or never found it in the first place, you have a tougher job. Going on and sticking to script might anger them further, going on and rehashing what hasn't worked for the MC will be even worse. If you really think the MC has put you in a position where you'll die doing material straight off the bat in front of this audience just go on a chat to them in character. Literally just a minute of Hellos / here's something weird about this room I've noticed / the worse gig I did was [punchline]. Ease them in before forcing them to make a decision as to whether something deserves laughter or not. Then hopefully if you have re-engaged them and let them know you are a human who wants them to enjoy the comedy they might listen and laugh along to your 20. Don't be mean about the MC though unless they've been purposefully nasty and unprofessional. MCing is tough and that poor schmuck has not only died but has to keep going on.

Stick to time. You've earned the audiences trust and laughter, doing a longer amount of stagetime than you are probably used to... SO... Don't get greedy. When you reach the end of your planned 20, or your vibrating watch buzzes or the lighting flashes you off... just wrap up and get off. For you, overrunning is the most obvious route to not ending on a high. For everyone else, your selfish extra few minutes are the butterfly wings that cause the rest of the night to spiral into chaos. It encourages the newer guys in the middle to overrun too as they take their cue from the paid act. Once everyone starts adding an extra few minutes to their allocated stagetime it eventually makes for a restless audience who feel the sections are too long and do not remain patient and stay seated until the break. Just 15 additional minutes of collective runtime to the gig means couples with babysitters or people who travelled and have a last train or booked cab might not even stay around for the headliner. And not to belittle your sterling work as Opening 20 but the headliner is how us promoters get audiences in, and the high they leave the room on is how we get people to come back. By overrunning and inspiring everyone else to overrun you have had a palpable negative effect on the repeat business of the gig.

I'm typing this thinking "I'm probably putting stand ups off of opening" but you have to improve as a comedian and once you are funny and have enough material you can't hide in the middles forever. Sofie Hagen wrote in a blog earlier this year "Always open. The story goes like this: Anders Matthesen (probably the biggest comedian in Denmark) would always show up at open mics and demand to open the gig. The room is cold, in Denmark especially, as there will always be people in who’ve never seen stand-up before. So he’d open and take the punches and get really good. I’m not sure if it’s still like this – but when I did the open mic circuit in Denmark, when the MC asked, “Who wants to open?” everyone better fucking put their hands up, otherwise you’d get a dirty, dirty look, saying “Oh. You don’t want to be good? You just want it easy? Fine.”and you could expect to be offered fewer spots from then on."

I agree with Sofie. Once you are good enough to regularly rock an open mic you should be asking to go on first. There's no money in being the biggest fish in the small pond of new act nights, so use them to become an act who can confidently open as that's your next most obvious step up in the industry. Unpaid slots should be as much about building your sea-legs and skillset to be a paid act as much as to try new material.

The thing to remember that comedy is a constantly evolving biosphere. You are improving but sometimes to grow you need to move up to harsher environment. If all the above does not illustrate things are not as easy opening as they were being the new guy then doing it a few times will. You'll find out bits that worked at 9.20 in the evening do not work at 8.15 - edit them out or tweak them for your new role. Just because you are now in harsher terrain does not mean you are not doing things right, it just means more is expected of you so evolve with that. Once you start doing regular paid opening slots at smaller gigs and for promoters who have championed you early on that 5 at The Store or 10 at the Glee will seem like child's play. The only thing better than your first paid 20 is walking onto a room that may have once terrified you, knowing you have it easy tonight as another act has been paid to open.

How to MC a comedy night.

AdvicePosted by Bobby Carroll Thu, August 08, 2013 09:28:57

Here is a guide on how to MC a stand-up gig. MCing is not like doing a set; you don't get to walk on fill an allotted amount of time with your best material and walk off a hero. You basically have to get the audience ready to enjoy a night of comedy, set the comedians up so they walk on to the best environment possible and reset the room if something strange happens during a set. And then walk on again. And again. And again. It can be a thankless task but if you are in anyway decent at the craft of hosting you can find yourself with more professional stagetime and cash in your pocket than those who can just recite a script to an already up for it room... So here's some guidance on the technique and philosophy of good MCing.

You've got one job!
Your sole job as MC / Host / Compere is actually very simple: you need make sure the audience are ready to be entertained by the acts. You've been given ten minutes to do this. Walk on, get their attention, then hopefully with jokes (but most likely through being friendly and enthusiastic) turn all those disparate couples, work colleagues, groups of mates, stag parties, bar locals and loner comedy nerds into one conjoined hive mind determined to laugh, respect and enjoy each comedian booked to do their set. And when you do this one job well, after those 10 minutes you can announce said comedian is about to walk on stage and that unit of strangers you've charmed together will "go wild and crazy" just like you've asked them to. If you get them laughing in the first 10, applauding the opening act they've yet to even meet and sitting attentively through that act's set - you can essentially reward yourself with a pint as you've excelled in your MCing duties.

But you have other jobs.
You do have other jobs. They may not be the priority (that is above) but a good MC does them. Let them know the format of the night, just when there'll be breaks and that there’ll be a headliner is enough. Let them know they can't chat, heckle and their phone must be off. You don't have to be a dick about it - polite but firm. You do need to get the audience cheering and applauding but don't chastise the one or two who don't. You should find out who is in the room but you don't need to ask everyone individually what’s their jobs or when they met. You do need to deal with any troublemakers in the room (hecklers or interrupters or those distracted from the show) but do not go all guns blazing straight off that bat. A good MC will let the audience know what is expected of them but also find a few landmark audience members for the other acts to bounce off of.

Before you walk on.
Instead of spending the 10 minutes before the show in the green room talking about who books the FunnySpleen in Swanage and what a dick they are... go out and look at the room. What is unusual about the set up or interior design? Who is sitting where? Who looks up for it? Who looks interesting? Who looks stand off-ish? Who looks like they might be a landmine in the room you do not under any circumstances want to step on? The last two you might want to think twice about engaging, but anything or anyone else you log in advance are fuel for you to bound on stage and work cold from. Remember five years ago when anyone wearing a checked shirt was referred to as "Brokeback Mountain"... well you can come up with something as prepared, crowd pleasing and hopefully less homophobic as that every night before you even wander onstage just by spending some time scoping out your gig. If you can think of 7 things to say to about what you’ve eye spied before you walk on you've got half your opening "banter" mapped out. And for the punters it will feel like you are an Instant Oscar Wilde; the just add water wit talking about things they can recognise and relate to. The good thing about having an idea of who you are going to talk to and what you are going to say in advance means you can even self edit by pre-scripting who you chat with to make sure you aren't accidentally going to say something that will offend an audience member or the room entire which can easily happen if you are on stage in the heat of moment desperately trying to improvise something funny. I'm not saying have a monologue written out longform, just a few already booked safe houses of mirth as you work around the room. If you do spend the pre-show in the room you can always be friendly with any audience members who catches your eye which is half the MC's work done. If they already like you and think you are a lovely human before the show starts it'll be smooth sailing from there on out. So don’t be afraid to say “Hello” even when you aren’t onstage. If you look around the room and can't see anything of note there's always the town itself (Wikipedia or an early evening recce or just asking the venue manager who the rival town is) can sift out some "in the moment" gold.

Getting their attention.
Some gigs will have ushers to seat the audience in, a layout that means the audience entire will be looking straight at you from the start, a series of announcements over a tannoy as we build to show time, lights that go down, thumping intro music, a regular crowd who'll be clapping Pavlovian-ly as you walk onstage as they are so used to having a great night at this long standing club. For the rest of your career most venues you'll play will have a cold start. You might need to shout yourself on (do - and say "Put your hands together for..." otherwise don't expect any clapping). If you are lucky enough to have a sound tech and walk on music then make sure they have the microphone on before you walk onstage and are ready to turn the music off right when you reach it and signal them... and then be prepared when they don't. If the audience is still chatty or moving - don't start screaming at them. It will be a long night if that's your opening gambit. Have a bit of grace and engage those who are looking at you expecting a show. Feel free to do something a bit unusual to get all their attention. I carry a harmonica in my suit pocket and blast out a few notes (I can't play it) but this at the very least get everyone looking the right way and aware. Sometime it is the MC's job to eat the shit that is the cold start, if you are doing your job right you'll finish off the plate with a smile on your face so no other act has to taste it. If you are a bad MC you'll leave more shit on the plate which your opener will not appreciate a double serving of.

A comedy night needs people sitting at the front yet most audiences are scared of sitting at the front. Some audiences members want to be rinsed, be part of the show. Most audience members however just want to laugh and are scared of being bullied by the MC or act. Hence the empty front row. The reason audiences are stand off-ish with MCs is because of bad comedians they have experienced or heard horror stories about rather than they are prudish or shy in real life. 9 times out of 10 bantering with the crowd does not need to be insult comedy. You should be warm, engaging and know when to back off. Feel free to chat with the audience but have an idea where you are going to go with it. If you've prepared some jokes about people in the audience as suggested earlier use them as an in to further chat. I try to tease people about their positives; height, beauty, muscles or clothes rather than things they might feel are negatives about themselves which they cannot change. I look to chat with people who are smiling and open in their body language as they have a higher chance of being happy with being joked around with and about. Don’t be afraid about being a little hacky as MC. Do not rip off others acts’ jokes off but let them know you can be funny even if it is a line or concept you’d be loathe to utter in front of the Fosters Awards judges. Most audiences just want to be reassured you are funny and know what you are doing. Sometimes pointing out that the man has to think about when he met his partner (Oh men, what are we like, hey?) lets them know you are actually a comedian and they’ve made the right choice for their evening out.

“What do you do for a living?”

Try to avoid asking people what they do too often. It is their night off for fuck’s sake. These days most people work in boring desk based jobs like IT or Admin with obscure titles for companies you've never heard of and there's little comedy gold in that. Write some jokes about IT, Admin, office life just in case though and bring the conversation round to them if thrown. If you do need to ask the audience some direct questions why not realise you can ask them anything? Ask them what their strangest Christmas present was? Ask them what their best chat up line is? Or if you must ask their job at least attempt a comedy guess first...

Get EVERYONE on board.

If you do chat with the audience there are some dynamics to figure out. Start with the biggest group first and go for the most confident person. Why? You’ll engage the largest percentage of the room by funning with their mate who can take it. Then when you get a few laughs move on. Why? There’s a whole room out there who might be a little relieved they aren’t being “picked on” but there’s also a whole room who might feel at little separated if the fun stays in just one small section for 10 minutes. Work around the room as a good MC should tie all the separate information that comes up from each group together. In fact try to force this to happen no matter how surreal your links are as it is an impressive trick to be able to pull of adeptly. Even if linking what you’ve learnt into an improvised callback is a bit advanced imagine the audience as three to five sections. You should be spinning a plate from each if you are a good MC, that way every section of the room feels part of the show and engaged yet no single group will feel like they own the room and have licence to disrupt the acts. If you focus on only one loud and giving group or person then you can also feed that tiger into thinking it needs to roar and swipe at every act too. The audience will hate you for this encouraged interruption and any act who knows the dynamic of MCing will too. Work all the room not the most obvious minority.

Crowd Control.
Once in a blue moon, you may face one persistent heckler (monthly?), a group of hecklers (yearly?) or a whole room of mega twats(weekly... just kidding). For the last two scenarios all I can offer you is the very best of luck and if it continues through the first section ask the venue to remove them in the break. If it is a one off and not too interruptive assess whether it is even worth responding to, and if you do respond try to repeat what they say so the whole room knows what they might not have heard. Normally the room is on your side and any confident comeback will get them laughing at the gob. But if it is a constant lone wolf, try to figure out what motivates the heckling before you respond...

1) Are they just over eager? Be polite but let them know to be quiet and then move on.

2) Do they want attention and to be part of the show? Try a mid level put down, call them a “character”, explain the rules of the show and then move on. If they pipe up again, do up the ante of the put down but with an eye on moving on again.

3) Are they drunk and keep going? Try to work the rest of the room against them but you MUST keep the rest of the room on your side.

4) Are they not aware how interruptive they are being? This will normally be middle aged women, older men or special needs “fans” who either are chatting, see every punchline as a trigger word to say something or brainfarters. Basically folk who just plain aren’t used to being self aware, caring about other people’s night or being told to shut the fuck up. You can try to tell them exactly those words but you’ll risk losing everyone else. Why? Imagine if you told such a person to “shut the fuck up” on a train carriage or in a business meeting, no matter how warranted - no-one else in the room is likely to applaud you. Gently, gently is the best way with the non malicious burbler in the room.

5) Maybe you’ve been a bit shit and they are piping up with some deserved feedback? Take your lumps, accept your fate, stop trying to be funny and do whatever you can do to get the opening act on to a less hostile environment.

6) Did you just ask a question and they responded with a quip that made the room laugh? This is not heckling, this is a dialogue you just invited. If you put them down like a heckler to maintain status you are the cock of all cocks. Why not doff your cap to the wit and ask the room to give the fastest gunslinger a round of applause? Why? It is gracious.

7) And finally there’s your absolute bell end who knows he’s better than any twat who thinks he’s a comedian... give him one chance and unleash the fury. But... Remember whatever you do there’s a room of folk watching who’ll blame you if the night goes tits up if you lose your temper or there’s an altercation. So make sure whatever dark insult or aggressive threat you use to defeat the persistent gobshite there has to be a punchline for everyone else to enjoy at the end.

Introducing acts.
Learn the running order off by heart. Write it on your hand, not a piece of paper, if needs be but if you can't remember 4 names of people you've met how are you ever going to remember a comedy routine? Make sure the act you are about to bring on next is in the room and knows how long you are about to do before them. Ask them if they have anything they need you to say. If it is more than a simple sentence - fuck 'em. You are not there to do their overlong set up so they can reap the benefit of just saying a punchline as they walk on but do try and be true to your word if it something that you can say naturally as part of their into. Equally unless they ask you to refer to it specifically in your introduction you should not give anything away about where they are from, what they look like or who they are as you might fuck up their first joke. Ask the room to applaud and move your hands to encourage volume. Your hands will conduct them into clapping more. Feel free to praise the act if you know them, say you are excited to see them if not. Try and also take a rough note of their height if it is wildly different from yours so you can leave the mic stand at a reasonable level for them to get down to business straight away. (Though that's more a bonus and a courtesy). No one needs to know how new an act is before they walk on so do not announce a damage limitation by warning the audience and cripple their set. If they do a big shit onstage, just explain what an open spot is afterwards (unpaid, giving it a try) and no doubt the goodwill you generated will mean they get a posthumous smattering of appreciation no matter how dreadful.

Leave your ego at the door.

Accept these things as MC. You are not the star of the show. You do not overrun. You will not get the biggest laughs of the night. You probably will struggle to get laughs in the first 10, for if the audience was ready to laugh at every utterance straight off the bat the MC job would not exist. Sometimes MCing is dying without letting on for the first 10. You may find even if you open strong, when you go back on in the next section they’ll see you as just a test card for the next act rather than getting to reap the glory. Good MCs can spin new ideas into the flow of their MCing making it a fertile but relaxed testing ground for new bits, bad MCs mistake this for walking on with a notepad to try ill formed jokes or untested stories on an audience who are waiting for someone who will let them know they are in for a great show. If you are a character act, deadpan or an experimental alternative comic this is not a job that needs you to stick to your persona or art. You are warming the crowd up, gaining their confidence and if you can’t marry that with what you want to do onstsage DO NOT TAKE THE JOB OF MC. Stay in the safe slot of paid middle until you build up the fanbase to headline. MCing is a rollercoaster of audience response; slow builds, falls, rushes, waiting for seats to be taken and vacated, safety announcement, the feeling that your wallet might fall out. A good MC can ride the Colossus with a smile on their face, a bad one makes everyone feel like they are still queuing for it.

You should do some material.

Alun Cochrane puts this better than I can on Stu Goldsmith’s excellent Comedian’s Comedian podcast. Listen to all of it but with this blog in mind check out from 17:00

The jist, which I wholeheartedly subscribe too, is in the first couple of minutes you should do a solid bit just to get the audience used to being quiet and listening to material. Best case scenario they laugh readily and you know the night should be fine. Worst case scenario is they don’t but at least you know you’ve given them a chance before stoking the fire and getting them warm through chat and tricks. But you should feel them out with a good routine and give them a dry run of what the next act is about to do 20 minutes of.

You should not care about your material.

Chances are when you do try and do your killer Jaffa Cake bit the audience who you’ve already been chatty with might chip in. Don’t be precious if they interrupt, just go with it. Only go back to the bit if it does not need heroic measures to get back on point. If you are precious about your material you have not left your ego at the door. And I just told you to do that. Being happy to abandon an interrupted bit in general is one of the best bits of advice Bill Hick’s Principles of Comedy has gifted me

Watch other good comperes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Comedians who actively watch other comedians become better comedians. For this learning curve the three to check out are

1) Dara O’Briain – teaches you enthusiasm, curiosity and to keep asking questions until you get to gold.

2) Roger Monkhouse – teaches you confidence and a relaxed “another day at the coal face” attitude can be winning if genuine.

3) Jason Cook – teaches you the MC can be the star if they dominate the room with their talent.

Clapping and cheering techniques.

Splitting the room in half and playing them off each other. Setting a clap level from 1-11. Designating one poor fuck as the clap cheerleader. Do ‘em if the audience is about mid level enthusiastic to bring them to palm slapping orgasm. But... If they are stone cold then treating them like children will not be the tipping point that makes them any more giving a unit. If they are well up for it, why are you wasting stagetime when they are already lovely?

The middle bit

That five before you bring the middle section on. Do some gold. Do a newer bit and make it chatty. Reignite the chat as you’ve had a chance to think for half an hour where to take it. Just don’t die.

It genuinely is a night long job.

You really need to watch the whole gig. An act might die. An interaction might happen which has changed the whole interactive dynamic you’ve previously created. You are the only act who has to keep going back on. Why would you handicap yourself by not knowing who has done what? Equally your headliner will appreciate it if you can talk them through who has done what and who is who in the audience when they turn up late from a double.

You might not be the comedian in their eyes but you are the gig.

“You were alright. You should try being a comedian.” A lot of audiences will just see you as the MC rather than a comedian. Who cares? Even if you storm it. You’ll do a great set tomorrow night if you are worth your salt. On the night the MC is the punctuation to the gig. At times this can be embarrassing. For example the act walks off to applause but you won’t unless you force it. Here’s a trick on how to avoid the embarrassing silence that comes with announcing the break and having to get off stage. Ask the room right before they go to give the act they’ve seen another round of applause and this should give you a dignified chance to exit each time. At the end of the show before you close off by getting another round of applause for all the acts tell the crowd when the next show is, and if it is a night rather than a club get a round of applause for whoever is paying the bills. Why? You want this gig to exist a couple of years down the line so you can come back and some positive reinforcement to the landlord or entertainment booker that comedy is worth doing and you are a good egg is only going to help that happen. Another little end of night rule is not to do anything but admin after the headliner. You might be tempted to ride the wave of laughter the closer has surfed but think about everyone’s drive home, last pint, the babysitters and the fact there’s a reason you aren’t headlining. Doing a bit as an epilogue to the headliner is a hiding to a last minute death, an unnecessary death. Close the gig off clean, get paid, pick your ego back up when you get outside.

What to do if it has gone wrong...

That cold start. That plate of shit. That interaction that can go anywhere. There’s a lot working against you as MC to have a good gig. Get used to suffering. But whatever you do as MC who is getting nothing but tuts and crossed arms do not throw your toys out of your pram, do not kill the room for other acts. If you’ve tried your best for the opening 10 give the first act the cleanest, most distancing introduction possible and then keep things brief in your next sections. The acts might not understand you had the shittiest end of the stick, the booker might not too, but as I said before if the audience was ready to laugh at every utterance straight off the bat the MC job would not exist. Do not ruin the night just because you took the danger money that is MCing, it sadly is a role fraught with risk. Go on knowing and be pleasantly surprised when this is not the case, but also be readied to lose the battle, not the war if it is.

What The Wire can teach you about being a professional comedian

AdvicePosted by Bobby Carroll Wed, May 15, 2013 18:56:13

Do you love The Wire? Of course you do. Even though I’m a Deadwood man, I agree with the widely accepted view that The Wire is one of, if not the, greatest television shows ever made and by greatest, I mean; the most mature, insightful, intelligent, socially aware, humanistic, entertaining, well crafted, complicated, superbly acted, narratively ambitious pieces of television ever made. Funny too... with an ear for authentic dialogue and the absurdness of the day to day life from Baltimore’s dangerous streets for a gritty, harrowing and hard hitting crime drama The Wire has plenty of laugh out loud moments. Not least of which the infamous where Bunk and McNulty canvas an old crime scene using only the word “Fuck” to communicate their progress to each other If you haven’t seen it and that clip whets your appetite go out and treat yourself to the entire £50 boxset. There’s nothing I like to do more after a late home gig than pop a couple of episodes and wind down before bed. Apart from being a good adrenaline comedown from performing, The Wire has quite a few unlikely parallels to professionalism in stand up comedy.

You might find the leap from what you do on and off stage day to day and the fictional travails of heroin dealers, frustrated cops and the politicians trying to stay in power too far a chasm but look closely and it’s all there. The young hoppers, slingers and soldiers whether working the corners or in charge have very short lived reigns and life expectancies what with a steady flow of people constantly ready to take their place – how many acts do you know who quit after a month, a year or three? And to take things further how many pro comics do you know who continue to make a living beyond a decade or more? The police have to tread a constant tightrope between doing meaningful case work and appeasing their bosses’ desire to meet stats and keeping costs down – do you struggle over art versus commerce, hack versus poverty? The politicians find themselves in a world where they are all so interconnected that it very hard to make individual change without compromising integrity – in the stand up world, where you need to network, get rebooked and move up the bill, understanding what everyone in the comedy food chain needs might help you become part of the circuit easier and higher up than where talent alone might take you.

With all this in mind here are ten snatches of dialogue from the entire series of The Wire which I think illuminate my thinking about the business attitude of a professional stand up comedian.

D'Angelo Barksdale: If anybody asks you if in you in this game, you tell 'em you in it for life, a'ight?. You play it hard, you play it tight, and you make sure niggas know you gonn' stand by your people.

I know a lot of people on the open mic circuit just do comedy as a hobby or a social thing, comedy courses and pay to play nights capitalise as much on these curious daydreaming many as the ambitious, determined few. I do think however if you are serious about being a professional stand-up you have to commit to it. You need lots of meaningful stagetime to build a payable 20 that can open rooms and to be gig hardened enough that you can utilise that 20 in whatever situation you are thrown into. Sorry, but you don’t get that experience or quality from doing comedy once a week, month or in the school holidays all you get is an interesting hobby to share with your friends. You cannot say “I’m a comedian” down the pub when what the truth is “I pop out and do a bit of stand up when it suits me.” You have to be out every night performing, travelling to where audiences are and progression be. If you have more than four evenings empty in your diary any calendar week you need to leave the house, taking the risk of turning up on spec and if you don’t get on then stay sitting, watching, learning and meeting. I’m not preaching financial martyrdom. Keep your day job for as long as you can, build up savings for those first few years of going pro and for Edinburgh but if that job is either A) too flexible that you cannot commit to bookings or B) has a schedule so rigid that you cannot humanly fit into the comedy industry’s late afternoon set offs and early morning bedtimes then you probably are not going to make it. You need to decide what is more important to you comedy or a normal career. Most of you will decide on career as you have lives, bills and a standard of living but once you make that (sensible, correct) decision you have to accept you are never going to be as good as the kid grinding it out every night, listening to their just recorded set on the National Express Night Coach home and who gets up and spends their days writing, editing, rehearsing, contacting promoters and is available for that last minute gig with the venue no one else can crack. Sound unfair? Sorry, it is just logic and reason. If your life is not comedy, there is only so far you’ll go in terms of career and in terms of funny. I know I’m more willing to give ACT A paid work than ACT B despite them being equally as funny. Why? ACT A needs the money as comedy is their only source of income while ACT B might pull out on me if their boss decides they need to work late.

Lester Freamon: Remember when I was a cadet, I was up here on a cadaver search. Instructor gets on the radio to say "We're looking for one body in particular. If you go grabbing every one you see, we'll be here all day."

OK, this one is a little more obscure. It is about turning over material. When you start out you are going to try grabbing at a lot of different style of jokes, comedy and delivery. And there is nothing wrong with that but at some point you need to settle into a standard set so you can have a barometer of what is working and what is not. If you try to find every corpse you are never going to solve the case of what works for you. Once you have 5 minutes you are comfortable performing – confident that if you are on form and the crowd want you to be funny you’ll make them laugh – only change about 20 % of it any one time and work on finding new new nuances on those jokes rather new subjects. You need to develop new material but cushion it between a majority of stuff that is working. That way you’ll know if Mr New gets a better response than your most assured bits he is probably a keeper. If Mr New does not at least you gave him as good a chance to work rather than just blurting him out up front cold. This is a lesson even acts who are professional seem to forget when approaching Edinburgh. Suddenly for the sake of working towards that new hour in the gamble of finding new bookers, promoters, opportunities and audiences in August they’ll risk their standing with established venues in their desire to try out Mr New. Previews and unpaid new material slots are there and abundant for testing Mr New. I know the clock ticks from the start of September until next August but if you are being paid then at most you should be still only changing up 20% of your set. 20% at most, if any. Mr New ain’t being restricted by that 20% neither. That couple of minutes between club ready stuff each night still gives you a fair few hours of onstage experimentation....if you are gigging every night... over the 11 months of the year... that are also part of your career. The act who takes paid and try out spots to always exclusively do new and, most likely, unsuccessful ideas is an act who becomes a liability to book again. We pay you hoping to get your best 20, not your least thought out ideas.

Spiros: Now you wanna know what's in the cans? Before you wanted to know nothing. Now you ask. Guns, OK? Drugs, whore, vodka, BMWs. Beluga caviar, or bombs, maybe? Bad terrorists with big nuclear bombs. I'm kidding you, Frank, it's a joke. But you don't ask ... because you don't wanna know.

There’s nothing wrong with asking some questions and saying no to a gig. A promoter with no track record or a bad reputation unwilling to pay cash on the night or cancellation fees? Say no. A gig where the promoter cannot tell you specifically where the venue is or who the audience are until the last minute? Feel free to say no. Vague about the set up when asked? Just say no. It surprises me the amount of comedians who tell horror stories about bad gigs but did not ask basic questions before they took the booking. Don’t assume there is a secret agreement that all gigs will have made before the dawn of man over what you consider basic requirements of a comedy night are. Most comedy nights are negotiations between the varying needs and inconsistent effort of a promoter, venue and audience. To get all three of these ever changing groups to fulfill every part of the unwritten contract the performer expects are unlikely at best. But at least if you ask upfront about what you would expect to be there you have voiced any concerns before you take the booking rather than find yourself in a situation that is unplayable.

Dennis 'Cutty' Wise: The game done changed...

Slim Charles: Game's the same, just got more fierce.

Comedy has never been more competitive. There are a lot more ways into stand up now creating a surplus of new acts AND there is a whole other level in terms of theatre & arena tours and television and international work that was not quite so defined 5 years ago for the most successful few. In between there are still the same amount of pro gigs and slots out there but the leap to and from the mid-level has just gotten a bit harder is all. If you are a new act your slog to regular paid work is a lot more difficult than it was even 5 years ago. The more you perform at free entry nights where no one gets paid, pay to pay or bringer nights the more you are separating yourself off from the professional circuit. No contact with pro acts, no progression. Simple as that. Equally, well established pro acts without profile often rightly complain that fees have not gone up in line with real life costs like rent and petrol over the years. It is up to you to negotiate your payrise or move on to a more comfortable form of earning than live stand up as there is more than enough eager talent battle hardened and more than happy to take what you were earning for 20 minutes work in 1998. If you feel your talent is being underpaid go independent from bookers and promoters and do your own thing. Maybe cutting out the middle man will increase your fee, maybe it might give you a better insight into exactly how much risk, workload and money most promoters and bookers take home to guarantee you a fee. Whether you are new, pro or Peter Kay if you are not forcing yourself forward and growing then you’ll eventually find comedy is just too fast moving a landscape to rest on your laurels.

Avon Barksdale: I ain't no suit-wearin' businessman like you... you know I'm just a gangsta I suppose...

And coming back to that again. Your number one priority is being funny but that does not mean you should be naive about the business side of things. Live agents are a clear sign that a comedian has “made it”, will increase your income in all manners of way, handle a lot of the dull day to day admin but a bad one can have negative ramifications on your career. For every door an agent opens you might find they have a bad relationship with another booker that effects you behind the scenes. For every agent who is proactive, well liked by bookers and has a good eye for talent there are some who do fuck and all and yet still take 15% of whatever you would have brought in any way. Think about who you are being associated with, some agencies have a very poor stable of acts that might put a promoter off opening dialogue with them even if they’d be happy to take just you. No matter how good your current agent is you might not always be signed with them forever and ever and then you may find yourself without the right contacts to be rebooked by a chain of clubs that used to be your bread and butter. If you can get one of the best agents to take you on go for it. Even if you have an agent keep some control of your live diary and stay cc’d into any dialogue from promoters who approach you first rather than them.

Stringer Bell: That's good. That's like a forty degree day. Ain't nobody got nuttin to say about a forty degree day. Fifty? Bring a smile to your face. Sixty? Shit, niggas are damn near barbecuing that mothafucka. Go down to twenty? Niggas get they bitch on. Get they blood complainin... but forty? Nobody give a FUCK about forty. Nobody remember forty, and ya'll niggas is giving me way too many forty degree days. What the fuck?!

Consistent is good. Promoters and bookers like consistent. I know I do. But if you want to make that leap to stardom we talked about (TV, tours, awards) take risk at Edinburgh to be spectacular. Note that word “risk” though. It is there for a reason. Comedians who earn a salary are consistent. Comedian who make net millions (or starve) are doing something no one else can.

Bunk: Better to be lucky than to be good.

Being spectacular or consistent are the only ways to do this full time but there still are no guarantees. There are very few unfunny comedians who find a home on the pro circuit, there are thousands of funny ones who don’t. Don’t think for a second of the comedy circuit as a queue. Whether you have created something unique or bulletproof comedy is not a queue. Being good enough and waiting your turn is the slowest route to the bar for “good enough” to be raised again out of your reach. All that being a funny comedian buys you is a lottery ticket to full time success, a lottery ticket that chance are won’t win. Even with a great set, a strong work ethic and funnybones more people quit comedy than make a long term career out of it. Comedy is only a meritocracy in that having talent opens doors, working hard opens more doors but luck is still needed to open enough doors to survive and flourish.

Norman Wilson: A wise man does not burn his bridges until he first knows he can part the waters.

Comedy involves a lot of egos on and off stage. There are bound to be some people you don’t get along with but know once you are rude, disrespectful or unprofessional with them you have no right to another gig. Pull out on a promoter for any reason at any time and they do not have to book you... again... ever. So before cancelling a gig (whether it be for family reasons / illness / financial / laziness / even a better offer) consider whether you are happy to close off all potential future work from that source too. You have called your word and reliability into question, changed a bill a venue and an audience has invested in and created extra work for that person. Sure, their job might be booking acts but they did their job when they agreed a date and fee with you. Now they have to do that again with the clock ticking louder. If you die that might burn a bridge too but there is not anything anyone can do about that. Showing up and being easy to work with is in everyone’s wheelhouse so work on being perfect at those.

Michael: “Y’all taught me to get there early”

A lot of people in comedy moan about acts overrunning as if this is the cardinal sin of unprofessionalism, whereas I’m always of the line of it is going well and no-one needs a specific stagetime to double up then I don’t see the harm in the audience and me getting an extra 5 or 10 minutes of good value out of a comedian who is funny and willing. What does however get my back up is comedians who leave it to the very last minute to get to a gig. Suddenly the line up is inflexible, if an emergency happens on the way you have given yourself no wriggle room and you also have no idea of what has happened or been said in the room. The best headliners are not the ones who moan that a middle spot has overrun but the ones who have been there for the gig and paid attention to all that has happened. Or to put it back into the vernacular of The Wire “Staked it out before and gets the drop on anyone.”

Lester Freamon: A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come.

None of the above is a marvelous medicine recipe to success but it sure ain’t gonna hurt. But if any of the above reads like too much hard work then once again I‘d suggest being funny for a living is not for you. I do not know anyone who does “being a comedian” well who does not find it an all encompassing part of their life. Fully committing to comedy, as I suggest you have to near the top, is not just a career decision it is almost definitely a lifestyle choice. You can still keep a social life, relationship and other interests but be in no doubt the time constraints and mindset of being a full time comic really do not lend you to integrating with civilians. You work at the wrong time, on the wrong days, interacting with the wrong people. Some comedians like living the myth of the lone wolf closed off from society with no real ties. I’d argue against that. Find time to meet your partner for lunch, cherish nights off with old friends, make space in your diary for birthdays, weddings and christenings of those you care for. Save money for Christmas and holidays with the same determination as you do for the Fringe. At worst these people will be there when comedy spits you out with no transferable skills and pension plan or you walk away victorious, at best they give you a link to reality as to what real people care about. Too many young acts seem only able to talk on and off stage about gigs; the circuit, nightclubs, self service stations, public transport, who overran. Keep it real don’t become an old circuit warhorse by your mid 20s. Comedians are great company but real people will care about more than who books what room and who stole what joke. They’ll probably care about you.

Omar Little: “It's all in the game though, right?”

What do I need for a comedy night in my venue?

AdvicePosted by Bobby Carroll Tue, April 23, 2013 13:53:46

"Comedy in my pub? What are the logistics? Is it like music?"

People often ask us for comedy in their venues and what the best way to run a gig is.

The essentials you need are:

Funny professional acts who know what they are doing and have learnt their trade.

An audience who have chosen to watch comedy and want to be entertained.

An environment where both acts and audience can weave their magic without interruptions or easily avoided obstacles.

Let's assume you've booked through Comedy Knights so the comedians will be top notch for your budget and you have a crowd who are well up for it. Here is how you make that environment perfect for comedy.

Equipment wise, the basics you'll need are a PA with microphone and mic stand, enough seating so all your audience can face the show comfortably sitting down, lighting so the comics can be seen and a separate room from your main bar so there is no bleed through noise from people who do not want to enjoy the comedy. If you have had live music before you may think it is the same set up but there is a major difference between good live comedy and live music. Music can be enjoyed in the background - people can have a chat, play on their phones, wander about, ignore it completely if it is not to their taste. Unlike live music, comedy really needs the audiences' constant full attention to work so you need to set things up so that your customers can always be heard, seen and engaged by the comedian without effort.

So... great acts, audience, PA, room - sorted. What do you need to do to mix these basics together into a great comedy cake on the night? Here is a versatile recipe to how to keep things slick and comedy friendly when organising the logistics of a comedy night:

Manpower: Try to have two people on working who are devoted to the gig to run the door, take money, get emails for future mailing list, make sure no random drunks wander in who haven’t paid until the end of the night.

Performance area: The acts need to be somewhere everyone in the audience can see and hear them without effort. No one should be seated behind the acts or able to walk behind them so preferably in a corner or by a wall where they have enough space to move around (think the size of a double bed at least) and no one has any reason to get up and walk between them and audience in the show (so not right by the toilets, kitchen, bar or entrance to pub or room!) If it has a raised stage, great but not essential, lack of disruption is better.

Seating: Whether you lay the room out theatre or cabaret style the audience must be as close to the comedian and each other as possible. EVERY SEAT FACING THE STAGE or performing area. Don't seat people around corners, behind pillars or in booths were they cannot see the show, they'll have a rubbish evening and if they feel safe enough to start loud conversations then they'lldisrupt those who can see the action. If it looks like you might not sell out, or even if you have, put reserved signs on the seats furthest from stage until the front is full. Comedy is like a bonfire, the closer the audience are to the spark the more likely they are to all catch a fire and all your fuel has to be in one area, bunched together rather than spread about in pockets around the venue.

Sound: Don’t use radio mics – they cut out or run out of battery every time – the guy at Maplins says they won’t, the sound engineer who has done a BTEC in Theatre Engineering say they won’t but they ALWAYS DO. Clarity of sound is more important than volume but both are preferable, no massive bass or background noise. The comedian should be able to walk anywhere on “stage” without running out of wire or getting feedback from speakers. The comedian should be the dominant noise in the room even at the back.

Lighting: Best situation is comedian brightly lit, audience in near darkness so they feel comfortable (not pitch black - acts need to see them). A constant bright light on all of the stage is best rather than a small spotlight that means the comedian can't move from one part of the stage. No colour changing disco lights please. No mirrors behind acts facing audience, people who can see themselves, feel self conscious and won't laugh.

Distractions: Staff on the bar or serving food while the show is on, should try to do so at a whisper, they should not collect glasses during show, turn on dishwashers or restock bottles. Remember there are long breaks in the show for people to buy drinks. Try and get as much of the food service over with as possible before show begins: people looking at plates with a mouthful of food don’t laugh, people complaining about a meal often will do so to an act publically when he’s onstage. The venue staff should never wander between the audience and stage. AND THEY MUST NOT HECKLE.

Which brings us to heckling. A bit of banter between audience and act is fine, especially when instigated by the comedian. But when it becomes clear an act can’t get to the end of a joke or routine because of constant interruptions staff should have a polite word with that table / punter. If after a warning it continues they should be asked to leave by the manager, no refund, in the next break. Heckling is part of comedy, but only a small part, I’ve seen sold out first nights ruined by groups of drunks who can’t shut up and by the next month they often are the only returning audience. If at any point a heckler becomes threatening or racist / homophobic / sexist they must be asked to leave immediately.

The MC will ask people to switch off their phones in the opening 10. If someone is distractingly answering their phone during the show, the staff should have a polite but firm word. Equally if you have an inhouse phone in the room or at the bar, switch the ringer off.

Music: During breaks and before show play music that is loud and upbeat. Don't let the energy dip. If you can have a distinct loud song to play when the room lights go down a minute before MC walks (ACDC Back in Black, Blue Orchid by The White Stripes, The Muppets theme) so the audience get used to the format

Have the acts money ready and counted in envelopes before the gig begins and to hand so act who have to get away quickly can.

That might seem like a load of information, and a lot of it common sense, but even a few negatives that could have easily been tweaked before the audience settle in can ruin a show if overlooked. Live comedy when done right can be an excellent regular revenue stream for a venue; boosting wetsales, food sales, function room bookings and a great add on sale to your regulars. So get the basics right the first time.

If you want further advice on how to run or book a comedy night check out our website or contact us at

Comedy Knights is a rapidly expanding series of one-off, weekly and monthly comedy events in gastropubs, private members clubs, live music venues and bars around London and the South.

We have 7 years experience booking and promoting successful alternative comedy shows.

We take pride in supplying fun, fresh and affordable comedy events.