Your Showcase Set
I didn't write anything last month. You try living my life.
I've been writing in the first half of this year about
the surreal playground we call The Media, giving some
big picture on how it just might work for standups convinced
that TV lies directly in their futures. I now turn toward
actually saying what standups who want to be on TV need to
do (not what they need to know), which is probably where I
should have started four months ago, but hey, I like to be
For comics who want to be on TV, here's my advice.
There are six things a comic needs in order to get on TV,
in no particular order: a killer showcase set, a connected
manager, the ability to be schmoozey, the ability to audition,
the ability to act, and a cosmically lucky fit between what is
needed and what you are.
I'll get to managers, schmooze, auditioning, acting, and
cosmic puzzles in other columns. This month I want to talk
about the part that comics can most control -- the showcase set.
What exactly is a showcase? You hear about them all the
time out here. NBC is showcasing comics at The Improv.
Letterman's people are looking at some comics tonight at the
Laugh Factory. Messina-Baker is showcasing their comics for
Every comic who comes to LA must have a showcase set. They
do them to try to get stage time, to try to get a manager, to
try to get an agent, to try to get the attention of casting
directors, to try to impress producers. But what are they?
A showcase will be anywhere from 5 - 10 minutes. In it you
are expected to carry a room with your energy, your performative
style, your character, your personality, your comic timing, your
comic confidence, your visuality, your voice, your facial
expressions, your likability, your magnetism, your
uniqueness, your acting ability, the characters you do,
the voices you do, your own comic perspective on the world,
your biography, your quirky life experience. Oh, and your
It's absolutely essential that standups understand the
next point I am about to make, and they almost never do.
So here it is: Showcases are not standup.
They look like standup. They sound like standup. They
are not standup.
Standup is about getting laughs. That is all it is about.
Showcases are about "showing" what you can do.
The laughter of the audience is secondary. It's great
if it's there, but it isn't the determining factor in
whether you will be "the chosen one." You can
kill and get passed over. People kill all the time out
here and get passed over. It drives them crazy because
they crush a room and still get passed over. Didn't they
see how funny I was? Don't they know what's funny? What
is wrong with this town?
On the other hand, you can go on stage and get tiny
chuckles and be plucked immediately by the media gods.
People who are very mediocre standups get plucked all
the time. Because there is something about them that a
particular media casting agent or producer can use,
that can be developed, that fills a niche they need filled.
What is it that the casters and producers see that
they can use? Reread the paragraph on what a showcase
set is. They can use your energy, your style, your
visuality, your demographic, your acting, etc.
Media people figure they can hire writers to give you
material, and the studio can supply a great audience to
get you laughs. What they need from you is all the other
things - acting, energy, quirk, likability. That is why
they would agree to hire you, to pay you. Because you
would make a good pawn in their comedic chess set.
Standups horribly misunderstand showcases. We think
they are about material, and being clever, and killing
the audience. I have seen so many showcases where
standups who are usually funny eat it horribly. They
eat it because they expect the audience to do its share.
Standups expect the audience to bring energy to the moment
instead of expecting to have to supply all the energy
themselves. They expect the audience to laugh. But
most showcases are on slow nights of the week when there
isn't much audience present. And half of that audience
is industry, and industry doesn't laugh. When audiences
don't laugh, standups bail out of their showcase set and
start crowd work, which is the death throe of a showcase.
Once you bail, if you're lucky, you can show that you can
write instead of act. Or, if you're not lucky, you show
that you're mean and desperate and really not all that
clever without material. Or if you're even more unlucky
you show that you can't handle a low energy room just
with your performance.
Even if you are eating it in a showcase set, take that
with grace and continue your planned set. Turn up the
volume on the elements you are trying to show instead of
abandoning them. You may feel better in your standup soul
if you switch and go on the attack, but you are showing
panic, lack of patience, and lack of acting professionalism.
Stay with the set. Power the set with everything you've
got. Stay with the set.
Which begs the question: What should be in the set?
This is also a major mistake standups make about showcases.
Standups pick their funniest stuff, their best lines, or
the stuff that gets the best reaction. This is wrong.
You should pick stuff that shows you can act, shows your
unique perspective, tells your biography, and sets up the
exact role you would play on a sitcom or the exact
situation you would use in a sitcom about you. Picking
your best lines is disaster because you end up with a
hodgepodge of scattered material and unrelated jokes
that don't work when taken out of the context of your
longer show. Picking what gets the best reaction is
wrong because you are used to the reaction of an audience
of regular human beings, and industry are not regular
So I'll say it again: Your set should be about you,
should display all your acting abilities, all your
useability for the media. It should not be designed
as a standup set. It should be designed as a showcase.
Last thing about showcases, and this may be the
weirdest thing of all. Everybody wants to get
showcases, they are the keys to the kingdom we all
believe lies just behind the casting door. But if
you get showcases you will quickly come to hate them.
99 per cent of people end up hating showcases, hating
them with all their souls, with all their comedic spirit.
Why? Because showcases are all about failure.
It's rare that anyone does a showcase and gets something
out of it. You'll have a great set, but the industry exec
was at the bar. You'll have your banjo bit ready and see
the guy in front of you pull out his banjo case. You'll
be the funniest person for a thousand miles, but they need
a teenager. At the beginning of the night showcases are
full of energy and buzz and possibility. At the end of
the night they are mired swamps of failure, bad feelings,
resentment, anger, guilt, second-guessing, and rage that
someone else got picked or no one got picked or that you
didn't get picked. Standup feeds your ego; showcases pull
your ego into the dark abyss that underflows this pretty
world we call "comedy."
So here's my last piece of advice: Prepare for showcases
differently than you prepare for standup. Write a killer
set about yourself that is crafted down to the last detail
and rehearsed so you can do it full force even if someone
is killing your mother on the corner of the stage. Stay
with it whether the audience is happy, sad, screaming,
yawning, or melting like some weird science fiction being.
Try to get as many showcases as you humanly can, look
forward to those you get, look forward to being in that
weird environment. But do not look forward to the reward
of doing well. Look forward to being enough of a
professional artist that you can do this very difficult
format very well. Look forward to the magic moment when
you do the same showcase you've always done, and this
time a real exec producer-- not a junior agent or a
wannabe manager or a key grip who wants to be a casting
agent, but a real, honest to god person with actual power
in Hollywood-- comes up and says, "You're exactly
what I need."
I wish you luck with your showcasing, my friend. If
you pass you will be invited into the next chamber of
the journey into the hallowed bowels of stardom. You
will get to schmooze, you will gain a manager, you will
get to audition, you will have to act, you will eventually
fit in the cosmic media puzzle.
And that is where it really gets weird.