Getting out of NYC to perform

I did Dave Walk's final Comic vs. Audience show in Philly on Monday night and had a great time. Packed house, long set, great reaction, got to meet/hang with other comics, etc. (Thanks Dave!)

In fact, nearly every time I get out of NYC and do shows in other places (Boston, D.C., Chicago), it goes great. It makes a lot of the shows I do here pale in comparison. Stage time is currency in NYC and it's tough to get. And when ya do get it, it's often for a relatively small or unenthusiastic crowd compared to other cities. (Note: That may be because I do good shows when I go to other places instead of taking whatever I can get which is what I do here.)

It'd be a no-brainer to do more of these out of town shows if I was making real cash at 'em. But it's usually just a few bucks, if anything. And there's the time and money you spend getting there too. Spending money to do a show is something I really hate out of principle.

But then again, if I'm not booked on a real show, I'll sometimes pay $5 to do a shitty mic in NYC. If I'm willing to pay $5 to do a lame mic in front of unenthusiastic comics and a few civilians, how much is it worth to me to do a great show in front of 60+ real audience members who are totally on board?

For the Philly show it was a $20 bus ride and two hours each way (I came back the same night). I wouldn't do it all the time, but once in a while seems worth it.

Boston is a longer trip (around 4 hours) which means either finding a place to stay or sucking it up with an early AM return trip. I did it once last year and had a great time. Going back end of August to do a few shows and to perform at The Boston Comedy Festival. But I'm still iffy on making the trip often because of the time/$ thing.

I travel pretty frequently to Chicago and D.C. anyway so I try to get up whenever I'm in those places. Adding shows on to a trip I'm already taking is great. It's the whole idea of paying to perform in another town that bugs me. But maybe it's something ya gotta do for a bit just to get out there and have other people see ya.


Abbi Crutchfield said...

Isn't the real problem with working the road being able to take the time off from a day job to do it? One nighter gigs help build your act, but it seems that once you have a solid 30 minutes you should start shopping yourself around to clubs for week-long spots (Thurs thru Sun). That would even out the cost of travel.

The more weeks you book, the harder it is to take the time off. Since you break even, the weeks in clubs don't necessarily pay enough to encourage you to make the financial leap of abandoning an annual salary. But you have to get your foot in the door of clubs SOMEhow...

It seems like the solution is to win the lottery, save like a meiser, or eat dirt for a few years.

Any insight on how people like Doug Stanhope and Eugene Mirman (who are notorious for avoiding comedy clubs) swing their gigs?

Abbi Crutchfield said...

For the record, when I say 30 minutes I am referring to offering up your services to clubs as a feature act, not an emcee or headliner. Emceeing is good work for nearby clubs that you don't plan on climbing (because it's hard to shake the stigma of being "only good enough for that level"), and I say "nearby clubs" because there is no way you'll spend the money to fly to another state, earn back a fraction of what you spent, limit your chances of featuring, and also compete with local comics who work hard to earn emcee spots there.

Headlining is for when you have a solid 45-60 minutes and some sort of draw. By headliner stage, you probably are making enough to comfortably leave the full-time job.

myq said...

My question for Abbi and Matt (and anyone else for whom the topic and question are relevant):
what is your ultimate goal?

To do standup comedy as a living? (Being a headliner in clubs? At colleges? On cruise ships? At corporate gigs?)
To have fun doing standup comedy while making a living doing something else?

As for Mirman and Stanhope, they are currently both a considerable enough draw that they can get good money performing wherever they go, I would imagine (which also does include some comedy clubs, for both of them at times).
As for what they did to get to the point they're at now? (Besides be awesome?) I'm not sure, but I imagine they've talked about their paths in interviews.

Plus something more interesting soon.

Matt Ruby said...

Myq, my main goal right now is to keep getting funnier. I'm not much of a long-term planner. I like to keep my options open.

That said, let's say someone's goal is to do college gigs and clubs and get paid to do material they care about (not corporate gigs or cruise ships). Then what do you recommend? And how would that differ from what you'd tell someone who wants to just do standup for fun while making a living some other way?

d said...

As far as I know, Stanhope came up doing shit gigs at comedy clubs. He's talked in interviews (and on stage) that the sometimes sterile atmosphere of typical clubs isn't best for his kind of material. But from touring constantly in clubs (Christmas in Alaska) and other opportunities (The Man Show, etc.), he became a known guy that can now command his own crowd wherever he goes.

Good to meet ya, Matt. Let me know if you're ever down here again.

soce said...

It seems to me like many nyc comedians do shitty nyc gigs forever, and then they leave nyc to do shitty gigs in the midwest and elsewhere, and then all of a sudden when they come back, they're hot shit.

I'm not sure how doing small shows outside of nyc builds a person up to be a superstar, but for some reason, it just does.

I agree with Abbi though that the hardest part of touring outside nyc is having enough vacation days to do it. I hoard all my vacation like a madman, hoping against hope that I'll get invited to that festival / college show / book release party of my dreams and shlep out to Canada / Germany / Iowa to blow up and become huge.

myq said...

Matt, I'd say if you're only in it to have fun, then you should stop and get out of the business. This is no place for people who want to have fun.

Look, a joke!
Sincerely though, I think if you're just in it to have fun, then the answers are easier for you. Do the shows that you have fun doing, don't do the shows that you don't have fun doing. Leave town, don't leave town, have a great time. Fun is fun, and it's easy to spot.

If you're in it for more than fun, then I'd say it's more complicated. Going out when you're not feeling like it, staying on top of communications with people that are difficult to get in touch with, lugging a camera around more than you want to to make sure you get everything on tape, I think the answers are always more complicated when it's not just about fun. So, if it's just for fun, use your judgment of what's fun.

(Not that you should lose that judgment when you're in it for more than fun, because fun is important also, even if you have greater aspirations.)

One very direct answer, if you want your living at comedy to include performing at colleges, I recommend submitting tapes to college agencies, because that's the best way to get work. (First, I would also recommend having an hour of material that you'd be happy doing at a college, and possibly be able to demonstrate that to the college agencies you're submitting to.) Colleges can certainly be a lucrative way to shed one's dependence on a day job. It's what did it for me, for sure.

Clubs are a different story, because obviously, as has been pointed out, sometimes the money you'd make featuring at a club won't net you such a great profit (especially if you're factoring in missing day job work... but if the goal includes getting rid of the day job, I'd stop thinking like that, and start thinking about getting rid of the day job, and adding up all the road work money you can, if you can start making it feasible). Probably saving up a lot of money would do that. Work the day job, save, and then eventually take the plunge, so that you won't HAVE to always be asking for time off. You'll always be looking for time ON.

As always, I'll throw in here the fact that I think starting somewhere that's nystarting-in-NY factors, and eventually come to NY (or LA, or wherever you want) at your own rate. But if you're reading this and you've already started here, then never mind. But certainly, the question of whether you should do shows outside of NY is an easier one to answer if that's where you are already.

I'd say if you're mostly doing shitty shows that don't make you feel good in NY, and you have the opportunity to do some shows other places that make you feel better, creatively, productively, artistically, if not financially, then definitely make sure you get some of those in. Because while grinding through the shit shows can be good for your growth, having positive experiences on stage can be better.
(And when you're out of town taking those nice spots, I'll take the shitty ones you're leaving here.)

There's no easy answer. You need money to make money. You need money before you can not make enough money until you CAN make enough money. The economy today is different than it was in the past, especially for comedy, so even looking how other people were able to do it in the past won't really inform how one can do it now, so everyone has to make their own choices about their own priorities, etc.

Boring and not saying anything new anymore? You're welcome!


Abbi Crutchfield said...

@ Matt: "It'd be a no-brainer to do more of these out of town shows if I was making real cash at 'em. But it's usually just a few bucks, if anything." My point is, perhaps it is more of a no-brainer to avoid one-nighters and go for club bookings.

@ Myq: Dr. Phil says most questions are really statements in disguise. Perhaps you are saying, "if your goal is to be a comedian, you'll find a way. If your goal is to be an accountant who does comedy sometimes, you'll always be an accountant."

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Matt, I just wrote you about The Management Issue (not to be confused with Too Much Information, or Two Moobs Incorporated). In addition to that topic, feel free to submit an open inquiry to comics of how they make money in order to become stand-ups full time.

That was interesting to hear Myq say that college gigs gave him financial freedom. I've heard Reese Waters say he did commercial work to supplement his comedy income. I'm still making applesauce and planning for a Baby Boom this winter (but unlike Diane Keaton, I will TAKE the offer from the larger firm).

Matteson said...

I don't think there should be a stigma about losing a little money or breaking even traveling to a show early in a career. I have a friend that graduated from law school somewhere north of $150,000 in debt. That's a lot of money, but the investment netted him a high paying job and the knowledge needed to do that job. I think paying for travel to good gigs early in a comedy career is an equivalent expenditure. Don't think of it as a sunk cost, but rather an investment in your future career, which, if it goes well, will pay back the $30 you spent getting to Boston several times over. In the beginning of the summer I did a mini-tour in California. We got paid a little bit for every show, but overall I probably broke even or lost a little money. However going up in front of good audiences 8 times in 6 nights felt like the equivalent of 6 months of open mics and shitty NYC shows in terms of confidence, material assessment, and fun. Definitely worth it.

myq said...

Oh, certainly, you should be getting as much good stagetime as possible in your first few years, whatever the cost, almost. (I might suggest avoiding 20-person bringers that cost your friends 30 bucks each. Just have them over to your house and gouge them personally.)

Starting out in Boston was great, because in addition to open mikes and clubs and shows you could get on in the city (and see, when you weren't performing), in any direction you could drive an hour or two and find more places to perform, in RI or NH or CT or ME or elsewhere in MA, etc.

Certainly, putting in money for gas or buses or trains or whatever you need to get to those places is worthwhile, and you can actually write them off on your taxes--even if you're not making money as an entertainer, you can put down that you're a performer and you're legally allowed to operate at a loss for at least two years, I believe. I definitely started making enough money by two years in that I more than broke even from that point on, even though not fully supporting myself from comedy for several more years.

So that's more advice I'd give everyone, if you don't already--keep receipts, for food you buy at shows, for digital recorders and cameras and batteries and stamps and envelopes and anything you use for your comedy, for your cable TV bill and comedy CDs, keep track of your mileage or your bus ticket payments, you can write all this shit off for at least a couple years and save some money that way.

Definitely, getting on stage is worth the money you have to put in initially, and Matteson's point about incurring debt to go to med school is a great one (and I just made a similar point before reading this, while on Keith and the Girl's podcast, so listen if you want to hear something similar).

You definitely have to spend money to make money.

And Abbi, I didn't say anything about accountants, is it because I'm Jewy-ish?
(Or is it because I say things like "you have to spend money to make money"?)

Unknown said...

Sometimes just going to another place and doing a fun show gives you a breath of fresh air that is really good for your comedy. You meet new, cool comics you may not have known, and you do a set in a fresh venue.

When I travel to do shows similar to the one you mentioned (but in my case I'm going from Boston to New York), I justify the break from the routine and a chance to spend time in a different city (even if it's just for dinner and the show) as being worth the cost and time of a bus trip.

Probably I didn't bring much to the table with this post. But I think my message is: Do what it takes to allow comedy to make your life more fun/interesting.


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