How much should you pay comics?

Reader question:

I've started a show here in Westchester, and i'm trying to gauge whats too much or too little to pay someone to come up here (its only a 35 minute train ride from grand central). I consider it a road gig so i'm happy to pay for gas/train tickets. But whats the right amount to pay each comic? One way to look at it is "well they don't get paid much or anything at all in the city, so they should be happy to receive anything here". but another way is "should i give a percentage or just a flat fee? should it be based on tv credits? how long their sets are? how much money is made at the show?" etc.

I for one have a small budget for my show, so i've been stressing over how much to pay each comic. Is it best to say - i'll distribute $500 amongst them, with the most going to the headliner and the rest being paid evenly? or does everyone get paid differently depending on their credits?

I know my show is considered a "road gig" even though I make the trip into the city pretty much every night and don't get paid for shows, so I want to pay the comics for "leaving the city" (even though it could very well be the same distance from some parts of brooklyn to manhattan) Obviously there are so many factors. I personally just did a road gig in NJ as a host (a friend who was featuring brought me along) and I wasn't paid anything. I wasn't really expecting anything, but I thought there was a chance. Do you think comics do road gigs expecting to be paid every time? I personally am going to pay every comic that does my show, but that's just because I hate that most comics never get paid and I think it's nice to be able to offer that to my fellow comics.

Also, I know some headliners demand certain amounts of money, but what justifies that money if they aren't bringing in any people with their name? My audience is consisted of 95% people who are there to see me. One question I've been wondering is, do headliners feel like they should get paid more for a 45 minute set than for a 20 minute set? or are they just happy to get the extra 25 minutes? Certainly my goal is to run a great show with top-notch comics, so I guess if you have any thoughts on a good pay scale for a venue like this, it would be greatly appreciated.

But whats the right amount to pay each comic?

There's no right amount. Depends on the gig. Colin Quinn gets paid thousands to do a corporate gig. And he shows up at Whiplash to do a set for free. It all depends.

That said, I asked my buddy who is a music booking agent: "What % of the door (or profits) should a promoter give to a band and what % should he keep for himself?" His answer:

Well I dunno about should, but a rule of thumb is the bands get 1/2, the
house gets half (for expenses and profit). So a lazy guess is take the capacity, X ticket price/2 = what a band makes.

So if we assume the same rule applies to comedy, let's say you're getting 60 people to pay $8 each. Do the math and it comes out that you'd split $240 among the comedians. (Note: Rock clubs usually provide sound equipment, soundman, and door guy so the formula could be different depending on if the venue is providing those things.)

should it be based on tv credits? how long their sets are? how much money is made at the show?

Whoever does the longest set should get paid the most. And you should have the funniest person do the longest set. Usually that's the person with the best credits. But not always. And as mentioned above, how much you make at the show should def affect how much you pay the performers.

Do you think comics do road gigs expecting to be paid every time?

Depends on the comic. Established guys will def want to get paid to do a road gig but up and comers will often be happy to get the stage time. (Esp in NYC where it's tough to get paid ever.) If someone's traveling a long way, I'd at least try to get them food/drinks and cover their travel expenses.

Distance matters too: I'll go to Staten Island for a cool show with free food/drinks. I won't travel 4 hours upstate for the same thing though. Not worth it to me. Your show sounds in between those two.

What justifies that money if they aren't bringing in any people with their name?

The quality of performance they deliver. Sure, people may come out to your show because they know you. But they probably won't come back if the show sucks ass. Part of why you pay people is because they deliver a product that's worth paying for. That makes people want to come back and tell their friends.

Do headliners feel like they should get paid more for a 45 minute set than for a 20 minute set? or are they just happy to get the extra 25 minutes?

Yes, I think you should pay a guy more for doing 45 mins than for doing 25. It's more time and more work. And it should be the funniest person doing the longest set.

Overall, it's cool that you're thinking about this stuff and wanting to be fair to the comics. Lots of folks in this biz are worried about a quick buck but setting up long-term relationships with the comics you book and the audience members who pay to come to the show will help you out in the long run.

So that's my (skewed NYC-centric) take. If you've got thoughts on this, chime in at the comments.


soce said...

I would say the key is to not book too many comics on your show, so then each comedian is able to do longer sets, and you're able to pay each person more.

For instance, if you have $500 in comedian profits to split, then maybe 1 headliner and 3 others? $200 for the headliner, $100 for the 3 others.

Even if it's not a long trip, when it comes down to it, that person is most likely spending minimum of 4 hours in order to perform on your show, so if you divide it out by the amount of hours they spend (as opposed to the number of minutes they're actually on stage), it won't seem like you are paying them as much.

You could also give a specific comedian bonus payment if they draw their own fans to your show (ie people who would not have come otherwise), in addition to the base rate.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

You also have to consider paying the venue and paying yourself as a producer. That's the only part of the door equation Matt left out.

There are also standard rates that clubs and colleges pay. It's good to inquire about those to get a guage of what more experienced comics are expecting.

Soce brings up an interesting point of viewing it as "payment per hour". As a comic I typically consider it a flat fee and subtract the travel expense it costs me, not the time. If I'm breaking even financially, then I consider how many unpaid spots I'd be forsaking in the time it takes to do the distant gig (since my main benefit at that point would be stage time).

myq said...

It would not be unreasonable to set up a standard fee payment schedule (e.g. $200 for headliner doing a 25-minute set and $100 for three other folks each doing 15, or $300 for headliner doing 45-minute set and $50 to four folks doing 10, or whatever), but then to have wiggle room to potentially deviate from that when necessary. Like, if there's a headliner you really want and they want $500 to do it, you could raise your ticket price (call it a "special event," a lot of clubs do it) because you think the show will be worth it, and if people are already packing the place to see you, imagine if it has this super headliner attached as well...

I think someone said this already and I'll reiterate, that yes, pay the headliner more and if other folks are doing similar lengths of time, pay them the same. They're doing the same job. Unless you have something like a standard three-person show (opener/middle/headliner) where you might pay the opener and middle act different because one is doing more time, doing different jobs.

And once you establish what fair rates are, you can tell people, and they can choose whether it's worth it for them or not. And if you want to give someone more time and pay them more, you can do that. It's your show, and you can call the spots what you want. You could have one headliner and a bunch of opening spots, or one headliner, one feature, and a few openers. Or what have you.

It's good to pay people to work, especially on the weekends, and especially when you're bringing in money to a venue. (It's fairly standard to do so throughout the country, pretty much everywhere BUT New York*.) The comedians are doing a job, providing a service. So, thanks for doing it. Keep it up.

* An interesting dynamic worth discussing as well, maybe not here. (And it does seem to impact obviously shows in the NYC vicinity... but keep in mind, the clubs generally pay comics to work in the city as well. Not what they would make elsewhere, and not everywhere that's not a club as well, so it's a weird economy for sure.)

Mark Phelps said...

One other option is to use a door system about "who you're here to see". You ask patrons who they came to see and each time someone says a comic's name, that person gets a larger portion. You're rewarding the people who bring out audiences, regardless of their name value (but enough name value will obviously generate audiences).

Patrons who came just to see the show without a knowledge of who was performing would fall into your normal payout division schematic.

I play music in Atlanta and this is a pretty common method used in clubs.

myq said...

Mark, I imagine that might work in a music scene, but rewarding comedians who can bring more people at this level is bound to reward less experienced comedians who are capable of mobilizing a large quantity of family/friends/"fans," which likely will decrease the quality of the show.

I'm sure there's been discussion of bringer shows somewhere on this site already, and they CAN have their place, let's say, but I don't think it's an ideal model for sustaining quality shows, especially in this particular situation where there already is a budget to pay the comedians not dependent on how much is brought in at the door.

Mark Phelps said...

I guess I was thinking that you could hedge your quality assessment simply by knowing the comics and choosing the ones who have worthwhile acts.

If you choose, say, 5 comedians who have quality acts and then use that "bringer" style of door cut, then it rewards the ones who bring out the audiences only of that group. I realize there is still some rewarding of the mobilizing you were speaking of, but in the end, getting people in is half the battle, right? The club assuredly wants butts in seats to buy food and drinks.

Just a thought. I certainly see the downsides to it (insofar as I usually prefer just to have a set rate when we play).

ECN said...

There are both ethical and practical issues with what you're proposing. I won't get into the ethical issues -- just acknowledge that they're there.

Practical issues, though. A lot of comics who could theoretically attract an audience will refuse to do a bringer show, even if you couch it in the terms you're describing. And the higher you go up the ladder, the less interest you're going to have.

(By the time you're talking about comedians who could draw a real crowd on real name recognition, nobody at that level's going to be willing to go along with your plan. And that goes even if you exempt them from it -- I wouldn't do a non-bringer spot on a bringer show, and I'm not even THAT high up the ladder.)

Furthermore, if you don't want to book a person and they come across with the audience members, what are you going to do? Do you really have the fortitude to tell them no and walk away from that money? Do you know how insulted they'll be? Hope you like having enemies!

And the booker asking people "who they're here to see" creates entirely the wrong atmosphere for the show. They may have been brought BY someone specific, but they're here to see the whole show. You start prying at them about who they're here to see, you're framing the show in their minds in terms of "support," not in terms of entertainment. That's going to hamstring your attempts to convince them to come back.

(Music's different -- there are only three or so bands playing, and a lot of people will only watch the one band. That's generally accepted behavior. Don't try it at a comedy show.)

Keep in mind that audience members who are only there to see one act tend not to be very good audience members anyway. Some of them are, but a lot of them won't pay attention to the show -- they're just going to wait for their guy to go up. You're lucky if some of them don't start talking or otherwise disrupting the show.

Anyway! In the long run, what's going to make your show thrive is booking lineups that are going to kill and ensure repeat audience members.

Of course, drawing power -- in the "this guy has lots of fans/name recognition/credits" sense or any other -- is a factor in booking. It never hurts.

But ultimately, you're going to build your show on a foundation of promotion by the booker/venue, and it will thrive on a foundation of audience trust, word-of-mouth and repeat customers. And if you're not willing/able to do the former, odds are you're in no position to start a show.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

"I wouldn't do a non-bringer spot on a bringer show" = HERO.

I do non-bringer spots on bringer shows even though I don't think bringers should exist. But I would also sell fried chicken to fat kids.

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