"The artful execution of all the qualities of leadership can be seen in small, everyday acts. If done with a light touch, all the better."
The mechanics of producing a comedy show are relatively simple. You’ll need a stage, a sound system, and a lighting system. A stage can be built in under four hours by anyone with carpenter skills. Your stage can be as small as six feet wide and five feet deep (the smaller your stage, the easier it will be to move it in for the comedy and put away afterward so you don’t lose that space on non-comedy nights.)
It should be high enough so everyone can see the performer at least from the waist up. The sound system consists of a microphone, microphone stand, mixer, and two speakers. You can rent a system for under $225 per night including delivery, installation, and pickup fees.
To buy a sound system, you could pay from $500 to $1500. The important element is your amplifier. The stronger the amp, the louder the sound. In shopping for a sound system, keep two things in mind: you’ll save a bundle if you purchase used equipment, (but have a musician friend check the equipment first), and don’t buy a lot of extras that are useful only to singers or musicians.
Two spot-lights will provide adequate lighting if the stage is lit.
Now, we come to the most important. The talent. Some managers decide to save money by having an open mike - having comedians perform for free.
You can save money but you have no quality control. I remember one open mike I ran at the Boarding House Dining Room. An immense woman got on stage, turned her back to the audience, bent over, and dropped her pants.
Another time a comic got on stage and his act consisted of simply repeating the ‘F word at the top of his lungs. I still promote open mics, but now I bill them as ‘Twenty of the best, and worst, comics in the City.’
A solid workable format is the three-comic show: MC/opener, middle, headliner. The terms describe the functions of the performers. The MC/opener opens the show with 10-20 minutes of comedy, then introduces the middle act who does 20-30 minutes. The MC comes hack and does 5-15 minutes and then introduces the headliner who does 30-45 minutes, not including an encore.
Most comedy shows run 90-120 minutes although, if you’re only presenting one show, it might run 180 minutes if people are having a good time. What do these masters of wit cost?
MC/opener: low $25, medium $50, high $75.
Middle act: low $35, medium $50-75, high $100.
Headliner: low $125, medium $150-$175, high $300
Plus you should be able to get any comic on the local comedy club circuit (television credits or not) for a maximum of $300. Thus a show cost for talent will run from a low of $185 to a high of $450. Usually, the performer’s fees are offset by a door charge separate item the price of meals or drinks.
Most comics at the comedy club level can be negotiated with directly. Check the comedy club listings in the nearest metropolitan city paper. Then call the club about 30 minutes before the show starts and ask for the performer. If he/she’s not in, leave a message or call back.
If you’re calling long distance, ask when to call again. When you have the comedian on the phone say “I’d like to hire you on (insert date) to do (x amount of minutes) for (x amount of money), are you available?” Offer about 25 percent less than you’re actually willing to pay so you can be ‘talked’ into paying more. Don’t act surprised if the comedian accepts your initial offer right, it happens sometimes. If you’re referred to an agent, use the same strategy.
You’re better off having your show on a Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday night if possible. You can often book a higher quality comic at a reasonable price ($150, $200, even one with Leno or Letterman credits) because those are off nights. Since most all comedy clubs or restaurants book Wednesday through Saturday, a comic who takes a Friday or Saturday night at your place stands the chance of having to turn down a full week run at a comedy club. This doesn’t mean you can’t get a top quality act for Friday or Saturday, it just means it’s much easier on an off-night.
You have two options in booking your event: You can either produce the event yourself or you can use a comedy producer/promoter. An outside producer may take 100 percent of the cover charge or ask for a flat fee, but the talent’s expense should be included. It may or may not include promotional expenses.
Using an independent producer/promoter can save you time, energy, and money. The promoter can hire talent cheaper because the performers get booked into a number of gigs. He can provide a replacement of equal or better quality if a comic has to cancel. He’ll have a better idea of what level a comic should be booked (MC, -middle, headliner), and if a performer’s request for special considerations is reasonable or simple egotism. A promoter can also save you an in inordinate amount of time tracking down comedian’s phone numbers.
So the next time you have a problem with customer awareness, not enough promotion, or not enough income, instead of fretting about your problem think comedy and see if you can laugh it away. You just might laugh all the way to the bank.
Read Cantu's BackStage Pass - True Confessions of a San Francisco Comedy Club Producer for more information on producing comedy or any live show.