Editor’s Note: This was a post made many years ago in the Vancouver Comedy Couch Forum. It’s re-posted here with the permission of its original author, comedian Dylan Rhymer, who is terrific, and you should watch his comedy sometime.
1. I am the Lord Thy God… oh wait wrong list. Ahem. Thou shalt be choosy.
Consider the neighborhood. Very very important. I tend to prefer neighborhoods with lots of residences around that are still kinda close to the city. People love to go out to comedy shows especially if it means it saves them a trip downtown. It also helps if there are no other rooms in the neighborhood although if your room is not on the same night it usually isn’t a problem. Etiquette dictates that you should approach the booker of the other room and see what they think about it before starting up your room. The internal layout of a room is hugely important to its success. Ideally a stage on one side of the room and hang-out area for the comics to chat in somewhere away from the stage. A sound system is important. Graham (Clark, another great comedian from Vancouver) has a thing about mic stands with weighted round bottoms and I agree with him. I have been to gigs where they didn’t even have a fucking mic. (Oh wait I booked that one – but it was a long time ago) That’s fine for improv/seances and communist meetings, but it won’t work for stand-up.
2. Thou shalt stagger the show.
You DO NOT have to run the standard “bunch of comics who have little or no experience followed by the ones who knows what they are doing” format. Why this is considered the standard is beyond me. All you achieve when you put together a line up like this is force the audience to sit through a parade of nervous newbs before they get to the good stuff, and by then they have probably lost all interest in the show. You may even drive some of the audience out. There is nothing wrong with booking the show in a staggered fashion; 1. established act 2. newb 3. established act…etc. Starting off the show with a strong act is not an insult to that comic. In fact, many established acts prefer to get out of there early. This also makes the newbies rise to the challenge of following a better comic. And believe me, you’d better get used to that.
3. Thou shalt not overbook. (Thou shalt learn the meaning of the term “Sorry, full up this week”)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; PLEASE NO MORE 13-ACT CLUSTERFUCK SHOWS! You don’t have to put everyone you know on every show. You primary concern is developing a regular repeat audience and they will not return if they have to sit through a 3 and a half hour monstrosity. If you have a zillion acts on the show, all that happens is that the good acts only get drowned out by the crummy ones (that’s IF they stick to their time). There are a number of ways to book a room, but the format I like is a show running from 90 minutes to 2 hours and no longer.
1. MC x 15 minutes
2. Established act x 10-15 minutes
3. 3 (amateurs/novices of varying experience levels) x 7 minutes each
4. Headliner x 15-20 minutes
This is a pretty good format for a standard stand-up night.
It is customary to under-book and keep a free spot available in case Dane Cook or Yakov Smirnoff or Gallagher Three (I lost count) drops by. This way, if he doesn’t then you can afford to give the experienced acts a little more leeway.
4. Thou shalt not be afraid to ask pros
Pros and more experienced acts benefit from stage time and you will benefit from having them on your show. It’s a win-win situation. We want to do your show if it’s a good one. And 9 times out of 10 we’ll do it for free if we get a good spot on the list and a little more stage time than a weekend guest spot will offer (more than 7 minutes) and whatever other little perk you may have to offer. Which brings me to my next ‘Thou Shalt’:
5. Thou shalt arrange for at least one free drink per performer.
Standard, really. If the bar is too cheap (and you still want to work with them althougb I wouldn’t recommend it) take the beer money out of the cover charge or your own pocket. I can’t stress this enough. It’s a small token, but it means a lot. It is always better to negotiate a budget from the bar to pay your emcee and your headliner and yes, yourself. But often times a lot of places simply can’t manage that. If it’s still a room worth doing, then at the very least get some drinks for your acts. Comics come from across town to do your show, a drink or two shows them that you value their time.
5.5 Thou Shalt not keep booking performers who stand you up all the time!
It’s disrespectful to you, the audience and every comic who wanted time and couldn’t get on. Have a clearly established time to arrive by. If this time can;t be met, at least request a phone call. If act keeps begging for time and then not showing up, don’t book them until they can assure you that they will actually show up. Give away the spot to someone who just came by to support the room as an audience member. You’re not being a jerk or a bad person, you’re running a show and that is impossible if your comedians are dicking you around week after week.
6. Thou shalt advertise and stay on top of the listings
DON’T BE LAZY! Posters in the actual venue! Handbills! Pick up the phone and call the newspapers and send out press releases to their Time Out Listings! Hand out handbills at the end of the show and set up a website or at least a Myspace page/ facebook group. These are crucial to a show’s success. I cannot tell you how many times I have been to a show that didn’t even have posters up in the venue and then the acted all surprised when no one showed up. Ask the manager if they can plug the show to customers. Stress the importance of handbills and good advertising and get the venue to pay for the advertising, or at least contribute. If not, then take it on the chin and pay yourself and after the room becomes a success then renegotiate. If an owner can see his beloved drink ales walking out the door because he won’t cough up money for posters, they’ll probably change their mind.
7. Thou shalt charge at least a small cover
Not necessarily about making money but more about letting people know two things 1.) There is a show going to start so if they want to get drunk and yak they may want to do it elsewhere or quietly at the back of the room and 2.) It’s a show worth paying for. It used to be that shows didn’t charge at all. Even 2 bucks is not too much to ask. 5 bucks is perfectly reasonable. Passing the hat may be required in some places due to bullshit licensing laws. If that is the case, make damn sure the audience knows that there is a show before it starts.
8. If Thou shalt insist on emceeing, thou shalt write new material every week.
Nothing wrong with emceeing your own show, but if yours is the kind of show that has repeat audience members (and it’s great when it is!) you have to actually put your nose to the grindstone and come up with new material. That’s the single biggest benefit to booking a show. Writing. Take your new material and polish it in other people’s rooms and before you know it, you have a strong 20 minutes. And that’s worth something.
9. Thou shalt purchase a flashlight and a stopwatch.
AND USE THEM. Stand at the back of the room and flash people when they are going over. Two types of comics go over: brand new amateurs who don’t know their time on stage and egomaniacs who don’t give a shit. If you flash them, then they can’t act like they had no idea. And waving from the back of the room is very distracting. 1 flashlight: 4.95. 1 pack of batteries: 4.00 having a show that actually comes in under time and an audience that wants to return the following week: priceless… (using a TV commercial premise that everyone else has done to death: cheesy.) If comics insist on going way over all the time, stop booking them. Simple as that.
Grasp the concept of time…
10. Thou Shalt not put the same god damned acts on week after week.
God that’s tedious. For fuck sake. If there’s one thing these Comedy Couch arguments have established, it’s that there is a wealth of aspiring amateurs, talented novices and pros who really know their shit. Why put the same acts on week after week. All you do when you book like that is drive your repeat customers away.
Dylan Rhymer is a comedian based in Vancouver, BC.