They Don’t Want Your Comedy Show As Much As They Say They Do
I realized the first show I ever ran was at my college. When I asked about it, they said I’d have to make a club. That would let me set up a mic in the campus café (which is all I wanted). It also came with $500. I convinced ten of my friends to sign up for my ‘club’ so I could make the shows happen, and reserved the café on days they had free cake. I called the show “comedy and cake.”
The activity office was often too busy to help promote the shows, so I had to learn to take care of everything myself. An experience I only would have expected if the show took place outside the school, at a bar or something. I should have seen it coming, considering the school’s job placement program was a man in a tiny office who would go on craigslist and tell you ‘nope, nothing today.’ After conquering that steep learning curve, I figured out I could use the club money to pay local comedians to headline. ‘It’s my tuition money after all,’ I thought.
The first few shows were a challenge. The mic batteries went out on the first show, and the headliner had to yell the rest of his set (even though I told him he didn’t have to). The others were a difficult because of a café employee. He would sneer at the mention of a comedy show, but he sneered at most people. He wore eyeliner and a gelled fauxhawk with black nail polish. He’d graduated months before, and was clearly “above this job.” He was 24ish, and looked like he still shopped exclusively at Hot Topic except for the polo’s the café made him wear.
The following semester I went to the club fair for newly arriving students. I managed to get about twenty emails. I don’t think any of them ever came to a show.
The second show I ran was a live podcast recording. I tried my hand at writing a few ten-minute radio plays, and others were willing to write for it as well. I literally had a headache every time. The show itself was fun once it got going, but everything leading up to it, organizing, promoting, figuring out how to transport the equipment to & from without a car and dealing with the folks who owned the venue hurt. The show was held at a friend’s art collective, and I booked a date through him. I was checking, and double-checking that the show was a go as the date neared.
Days away, and more than a month after I’d sent out all the promotional material, another person from the collective told me no one had any idea the show was going on. Everything was booked and promoted I told him, and they let it happen. I confirmed with several members after the first show that it could continue the same time next month.
Unfortunately, things were not as smooth as I would have liked. First I didn’t book the space right, then they’d want to move the show a day back to combine it with another event after I’d promoted with posters, fliers, press release etc. As I attended their other events, I found I wasn’t the only one. I met many who’d tried to collaborate with them, only to have their event canceled on them two weeks before go time, sometimes after they’d moved all their art pieces into the gallery! The show only lasted four months, but I learned that running a four mic live podcast was hell to book, promote, record & set up for all by yourself, especially when the owners don’t want you doing a show in their space. The overwhelming scent of patchouli oil & weed should have been the tip off to either bad art or poor organization. They didn’t want to work with me, and I don’t really want to work with people that don’t want to work with me.
I held a few shows at my apartment (10 housemates), and got about 15 people to turn out.
I went about the next eight months without a show. Meanwhile, I started working, and graduated college. At work, a customer discovered I was a comedian, and said he and his business partner wanted a show at their bar/art gallery. I was… unconvinced. I reluctantly accepted when I saw the beautiful space with low, 7ft ceilings. That, and the owner made bold promises of bolstering the crowd with their social media and email list. Even still, I stressed that it would take about six months to build the show that would meet his current expectations. “Laughing Stock” lasted exactly seven months, ending on the biggest potential show we had. I was lucky enough to book Mary Mack and Tim Harmston on their west coast tour that year. That was the 3rd or 4th show, and the most successful one we had.
As the shows went on, the owner’s confidence waned from, “we’re going to blow this show up with my list of 1,000+ emails,” to “Why isn’t there anyone here?”
Being an art gallery first, it wasn’t a bar with regular hours, so it was only open afternoons and for special events like erotic art shows etc. As a result, there were no regular bar customers. It was a real event space holding parties, corporate events & gallery openings that would bring in over a thousand people on an opening night. We were lucky to bring in 20 or 30. Aside from the Mary Mack show, the only other time we made money, we got ten bucks ($5 was mine for change). The doorman left the cash-box, and the owner ended up chasing a crackhead out who stole all of it. I hope he got some decent crack.
The big show was the Valentines day show. I had a killer lineup, and a great door deal that got the show on all the top picks of the major blogs. This was going to be the biggest show ever.
The day of, I sidewalk chalked hearts and arrows pointing people to the venue. Late in the day, the gallery was still locked. I called, and texted, and called again. I finally gave up, and contacted a mutual friend. Only after they told the owner to get in touch with me did he text me back. No call, just a text.
He said he couldn’t open the gallery because he gave his only key to the business he owns to a bartender the night before who happened to be out of town. He also said his partner was across the bay (not even an hour trip by public transit), and that since it was Valentines Day, and he was with his wife, he “would not be coming into San Francisco.” In other words, I found out I had no show two hours before go time, after we were on all the blogs top picks, and only after their usual business hours. Regardless, I messaged them all thanking them, and apologizing profusely. I even called around to see if anyone had a venue that’d be willing to take us in last minute, but to no avail. Equally bad was having to contact the comics and explain why there wasn’t going to be a show.
Later that evening, my friend called to ask if there was going to be a show.
“No. Why?” I asked.
“Because I’m out here waiting in line,” He said.
“There’s a line?”
“Uh… yeah. There’s like… twenty people out here wondering when it starts,” he said.
That was so exciting and disheartening at the same time. Laughing Stock lasted six shows. Seven if you include Valentines Day. Two months later, the place closed it’s doors, and it has recently been leased to a new business.
Months later, two of my roommates were booked on a show at a gay leather bar for $150. The booker and host never showed up, and the owners ended up asking my roommates if they knew anyone who would be willing to host the show. They slipped my name, and a few weeks later I was hosting. After three or four months, I finally figured out a name and a date for the show. Every 2nd thru 5th Wednesday would be an open mic, and every 1st Wednesday would be a showcase called “Safe Words – A comedy show at a leather bar.”
I’ve been running it for a while, and I didn’t keep track of when it began because I’ve grown cynical in my dealings with venues (as you might imagine). There was even a non-incident-incident. One comedian was yelling his set into the microphone at the open mic. Just yelling. Nothing negative either. He’d done the set many times before, and pretended to be a conspiracy theorist, convincing folks that fast food practices are made to pacify the masses. People chuckled (myself included), but one of the employees was upset, and thought he was yelling out of spite that ‘no one was laughing,’ and to say ‘fuck you’ to the bar. The manager came out, said to pull the plug, and the show was over. He told me, “We’ll have a meeting and see if this will happen again next week.”
After an informal chat with the owners (not the angered manager), none of us really understood why anyone was upset, and everyone who was upset couldn’t explain why. I told them the situation as I understood it above, and they said, “Yeah… it’s an open mic. Not everybody is going to like everything.” That was what I hoped to hear, and far more than I was expecting. The caveat was that the comedian in question was banned. Not from the mic, but from the bar (something I’m trying to change). A few Wednesdays ago saw the return of the show, and a week later, the open mic (two weeks after the kerfuffle). I saw the manager again, asked how he was. “We’ll see,” he said. It was probably the best mic we’ve had so far, and it doesn’t look like we’ll stop anytime soon.