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"Sage Advice From Kid Dave"
This month marks the 20th anniversary of my ditching the day job in order to pursue the the glamerous lifestyle of the traveling standup comic. Damn, time does fly. The first three years on the road, I lived out of my car. No apartment, no storage building, no girlfriend's crib-- nuthin'. Every thing I owned was crammed into the trunk of my car, and I loved every minute of it.
That was more than 6,000 shows ago, in venues ranging from a laundromat/bar in B.F.E., Kansas, to the famed Melrose Improv in L.A., to a medium-security prison in Oregon, to Kentucky's Rupp Arena in front of a crowd of 5,500 rabid Ron White fans.
I've ridden to gigs on a Greyhound bus, and I've ridden to gigs on a chartered jet. Standup comedy has taken me from Alaska to the equator, and back. I hope this doesn't sound like bragging. It isn't, really. Twenty-two years ago, I was working on a ranch in a very rural part of the Texas panhandle, wondering If I was going to spend the rest of my life repairing windmills and dehorning cattle. Then I moved to Ft. Worth, stumbled into standup comedy, and, well, here we are. The following is a brief reflection on the my 20 years in standup comedy.
If I'd known then what I know now... Some people like to do every thing the hard way and make every possible mistake them selves. They will stop reading right here. Some people-- the ones with some sense-- will try to save themselves years of frustration and learn from the stupidity of those who came before them. The following is for them.
1. In hindsight, if I had one piece of advice to give to someone starting out, it would be this: Marketing, marketing, marketing. Is that three pieces of advice, or one piece, three times?
Anyway, you have jokes-- someone else has money and a stage. In order for the former to meet the latter, a sale must be made. Sounds easy enough, but the hardest part of this whole damn comedy dream is to convince someone to pay you to do the joke thing. Yeah, you're funny, so what? If you can't convince someone to pay you, then what good is it? Then, you're just that annoying guy on the airplane that won't shut up. Every once in a while, someone comes along whose act is so damn good, they can skip the marketing phase, they just have to sort through all the work thrown their way. The late Mitch Hedberg comes to mind. But you're not him, so you're going to have to get out and sell yourself.
We've all seen someone working a great gig with what we deem to be a substandard act and we wonder, "How the hell did he/she get that?" Go check out their website and promo. Then put yourself in the comedy buyer's shoes for a moment. If you received a grainy video from a wobbly, handheld camera along with a bio scrawled with a husky pencil from Comic A, and you got a flashy, professional-looking promo pack from Comic B, all other things being semi-equal, which would you hire? With all the publishing software available, its not that hard to put together some decent looking promo. Go buy a book or take a class if you have to, but you have got to learn to sell yourself.
2. Comedy clubs aren't the only place to do standup. Yes, they are the most fun. You can pretty much say whatever ya want to, get hammered and chase the waitstaff (or audience skanks) after the show. But the comedy club is the lowest-paying of the venues and the getting to them follows the path of least resistance. You are competing with thousands of comics looking for work. That puts clubs in a buyers' market.
The average club headliner probably makes around $XXXX a week for seven or eight shows, while staying in a dumpy condo, far from home. A comic doing a private gig can make that much money for one show, stay in a nice hotel, then spend the rest of the week at home with his beautiful ex-waitress wife, his purebred dog and his above-average kids.
So think outside the comedy club box. If you are young enough and clean enough, think college gigs, cruise ships. If you are older and clean, think corporate and country clubs. If you're not clean at all, well, produce a show at your favorite bar and keep the door for yourself. You might also want to think strip joints, frat parties, biker rallies, tattoo artist conventions, blue-collar company events, etc. These people are looking for entertainment, too. It's your product, figure out where to sell it.
3. Merchandise. I hate "hawking merch" after the show, but I love having a few extra bucks in my pocket at the end of the week. A t-shirt, a CD, a bumper sticker, a book, novelty underpants-- whatever ya got! But I wouldn't try to sell more than two things at once-- some guys manage to run a whole damn yard sale after the show, but to cut down on the confusion and save yourself the trouble of lugging all that crap around, go with one or two items. )If you insist on having more stuff, put it on your website.)
4. Find out what it is you do best, and stick to it. When I first started, I took any gig I could get. I figured a professional comedian needs to know how to work any crowd. I figured wrong.
Many years ago, I took a gig opening a show in a theater for Weird Al Yankovic. I knew it wasn't really my crowd, but I thought I needed the money. Not many people know the sound of 2,000 drunken high school kids chanting "FUCK YOU!" for the first five minutes of their act, but I am one of the lucky few. The longest twenty minutes of my life.
James Taylor doesn't open shows for Fifty Cent for a reason. If that little voice in the back of your head is screaming "Trainwreck," believe it! If some private gig insists you do some dog-and-pony crap instead of your act, run away. (Nancy Reagan was right. Just say no.)
Always try to stack the deck in your favor. You are going to get enough stinker gigs as it is, so try and weed out as many as you can.
5. Dont beat your head up against walls. Some bookers just won't book you. Won't even talk to you. Period. For no good reason. Let it go. Some bookers are great guys, they love standup comedy, and they love working with comics of all types. God bless them. They are few and far between.
Some are little prima donna assholes who actually think the booking of comedy talent in saloons somehow makes them a player in show business. If one of these pompous rodents won't give you the time of day, move on to the next one. Show a little self discipline, and refrain from firing off that nasty email to him. No sense in burning bridges. Who knows, some day he may realize that everything he's done up to this point in his life has been a horrible, self-centered, misguided mistake, and he'll begin the process of setting the world back on its axis by hiring you. In the meantime, don't waste a lot of time and emotional capital over it. Send your avails from time to time, but don't hold your breath. Unless you just like holding your breath. If that's the case, knock yourself out.
6. If you're still in the open mic stage of your career, get a job at a comedy club. Wait tables, work the door, tend the bar-- whatever. This is probably the single best learning experience you can get in this business. You'll learn the club ropes, meet working comics, see tons of shows, get more stage time, and just learn the biz in general. This knowledge will put you light years ahead of those dorks that show up at open mic, do their set and leave. They learn nothing, and will still be bitching about how they can't find work when you are long gone, working the road.
There, that's enough of that.
MY PET PEEVES
I LOVE standup comedy. Since I was a child, I've loved to watch all kinds of comics. Still do. Red Skelton, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Dennis Miller, Steven Wright-- the list goes on and on. I even like to watch diamonds in the rough at the occasional open mic show. I do have some comedy pet peeves, though. Again, these are MY pet peeves. You dont have to like or agree with them, but here they are, and why they are.
DEFENDERS OF THE FIRST AMENDMENT I love good standup, regardless of the content. Dirty is fine with me, as long as it's funny. My peeve lies here: There seems to be a growing faction of comics who are firmly convinced there is some rightwing conspiracy out there, hell bent on censoring what some dork with a microphone is saying in the lounge at the local Ramada on Comedy Night. They've also convinced themselves that the act of spewing triple-X-rated bile on unsuspecting club patrons is somehow defending our First Amendment rights.
You know, the guys that think saying "fuck" every other word makes them the divine conduit thru which the truth and all "real" comedy flows. Those guys. You'll know you have one of these gems on your hands when you see some promo with "(Blah, blah, blah)... little or no respect for all things considered sacred by the powers whom think they be...(Blah, blah, blah)" Yawn. Apparently, these comedy rebels never heard Dad's old George Carlin or Richard Pryor albums when they were growing up, and probably weren't even born the last time a standup comic went to jail for anything they said on stage. Yet night after night, these brave young Rambos of comedy defiantly jut their chins out and dare the local morals police to try to pry the microphone out of their chubby fingers. I guess no one ever told these clowns that "Footloose" was just a movie. Newsflash, boys: A 70-year-old woman recently said "cunt" at 9:30 in the morning on a show watched mostly by stay-at-home moms and retired people. And ya know what? No one gave a shit. I hate to burst your bubble, my brash young comedy crusaders, but none of these phantom "powers whom think they be" are going to mount an effort to rescind the right to free speech because they think your prized "buttfucking a midget retard under the stands at the special Olympics" bit poses any kind of a viable threat to the republic. They're at home with their kids watching the South Park gang throw around the kind of language and content that would have gotten Lenny Bruce thrown under the jail. (Cue the "Battle Hymn of the Republic) Freedom of speech is safe and secure in the U.S. of A! Sorry.
Disclaimer: Please do not think I am implying the shock genre of comedy is wrong, bad or of a lower quality than any other style of standup. The problem I see when watching many of these angry young shock comics on a stage somewhere is pretty evident. Too much shock, not enough comedy. It may not be easy, but the "shock" and "comedy" can be combined. A few modern day examples would be Doug Stanhope, Bobby Slayton and Robert Schimmel. The Untamed Shrews. Larry Reeb. Offensive content? A lot of people think so. Funny? Hysterical.
The king of the shock style of comedy has got to be John Valby, who goes by the stage name of Dr. Dirty. Valby's act is about as sick as it gets, and the night I saw him, he rocked that crowd so hard, I felt the floor shake beneath my feet. He has an unrivaled talent for making even the most offensive of topics seem like goofy, harmless fun. His act is something to behold.
So, my angry young shock comics, if "sick" is your thing, go for it, but please, give the defiant chest thumping a rest. Telling dirty jokes in a bar does not constitute a defense of our First Amendment rights. Go watch the first twenty minutes of "Saving Private Ryan." That's what defending our rights looks like. You sell t-shirts after the show that say "Suck my dick" across the front. Huge difference. So take off the super hero costume and cape your mom made for you and just do your act. You're embarassing yourself.
BAR TABS Years ago, during the Golden Age of Comedy Clubs, comics ate and drank for free all the time. No, I'm not kidding. That's how God wanted it, but then club owners got involved. Yes, I know some jerkwads abused the privilege, but that's no reason to punish the rest of us. The classier gigs still feed and water the comics as long as they tip the bar staff, but a lot of club owners hand you a bar tab with your paycheck at the end of the week, and then act like even giving you half price is going to cause somebody to miss a mortgage payment. Seriously, If I drink a case of beer over the course of a week, that sets the club back what, 20 bucks? But at the end of the week I have to dig 50 bucks outta my pocket to pay a bar tab? That's just tacky and cheap, if ya ask me.
DRUNK WOMEN Allow me rephrase that. Drunk, LOUD women. Goddamn, would somebody shut those dumb whores up? Nothing "enhances" the comedy club experience like the high-pitched shriek of some drunken she-crackhead with the attention span of, well, a drunken she-crackhead. No wonder rock bands crank the tunes to that ear-splitting volume. They have to drown out the sound of these stupid bitches. I will never understand why a comedy club would let one person, usually some low-bred skank that got in on a free ticket-- after getting hammered on Jaeger methbombs in the parking lot-- ruin a show for a roomful of paying customers. It truly boggles my mind.
If this crap just went on during my set, I'd figure maybe I just suck. But it is not unusual for these post-rehab Britney Spears wannabe's to carry on from the time the emcee says, "Hello," until the headliner says, "Good night." I've even seen some pretty big-name headliners having to beg from the stage to get someone from the club to deal with this crap. There was a time when a couple of well-placed zingers from a comic would convince these empty-headed hosebags they were in way over their heads and to shut their hole, but that was before the methamphetamine craze hit the country. Any drug that can convince a chick that giving $10 blowjobs is a good career move is not going to back down after a couple of well-placed verbal bitchslaps from a standup comic.
Hey club owners! Warn those toothless, scabby-faced hags once, then have a doorman drag their no-money-spending, show-wrecking, disease-incubating asses out. Who gives a shit if the dumb sluts never come back? Who cares if they tell all their customers in the alleys and coworkers at the trailer/labs not to come to your club? That would be a good thing, OK?
BACHELORETTE PARTIES I don't hate bachelorette parties as much as some comics do, I just don't understand why you would take a group of women who, with 100 per cent certainty, are going to scream "WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" every thirty seconds for the 90 minutes (while waving sex toys around above there heads), and put them in the front row of a comedy show. Yes, I know they bought a bunch of tickets and drinks, but wouldn't it be better to seat them in the back of the room-- so if someone from the club actually did get up off their ass, come out of the office, and tell them to shut the fuck up .or they were going to have to take their penis cake and leave-- it wouldn't totally disrupt the whole show?
I WENT DOWN SOUTH AND MET ME A RACIST KLANSMAN I've lived in the Southern half of the U.S. my entire life and have never met a klansman. But apparently a good portion of comics from up north have (or claim to have done so in their acts), and they love to recount how they made a fool of the ignorant, inbred spokesperson (who represents all residents of the Southern states).
How is it that every skinhead I see on the freakazoid talk shows hails from a white supremacy compound in Northern Michigan or Idaho, but for some reason, it's The Southern White Male who gets the blame for all racism in this country? Sure, Barack Obama won in South Carolina and lost in Massachusetts, but don't let that fool ya-- racism and bigotry rule supreme down South! After twenty years of traveling and talking to people all across this country, I think I've collected enough data to safely conclude that racism knows no regional boundaries. I get just as many idiots trying to tell me some asinine racial joke up north as I do down south. I don't care what zip code you get your mail in, you probably wouldn't have to go far from your own front door to find yourself a racist. So if you're one of those""I can fix the world with my comedy" types, why not make "racism is everywhere" the premise, instead of the tired, hack stereotype of Dixie being the capital of racism in America? Thanks.
CLUB PAY When I first started working regularly in clubs as a feature in the early nineties, feature pay was for a week was decent and reasonable. Headliners, of course, made more and, in many cases, their airfare was included in the deal. Hell, in those days, even emcees found it cost-effective to hit the road. Their pay might have been only half of what the feature made, but they were working-- and living the dream.
Then, the bust came, and feature pay dropped. And headline money fell flat, too. That was around 16 years ago. In the meantime, inflation has progressed steadily (even if only in small increments, and the price of gasoline has gone from just under a buck a gallon to just over three... Yet club pay has remain unchanged.
The travelling emcee is pretty much extinct. And the travelling feature act may not be far behind.
Even the once lucrative 5- or 6-day long one-nighter runs have, in many cases, dwindled to two or three nights, tops. I realize the club business brings in nowhere near what it did in the late eighties and early nineties, but out there on the road, it's getting to the point where trying to make a living at standup is damn near impossible. Something is going to have to give soon, or the comedy club scene as we know it is going to be a thing of the past.
There. That's enough of that.
These last twenty years have been more like a vacation than a job. Maybe I should refer to the "last 20 years" as the "first twenty years." I don't plan on quitting any time soon. The future looks exciting, with lots of fresh new comics entering the field. And the emerging market known as the internet is beginning to flex its muscles. Direct access to every American household, without having to convince the nepotistic gatekeepers of network television that you are somehow worthy, is truly a gift from God (or Al Gore, take your pick.) If I can keep all the comedy balls up in the air for another 20, that would be a dream come true. After 20 years, I still love standup comedy and standup comics. Ninety-nine per cent of the comics I've met or worked with have been awesome. The other one per cent? Well, I found if you get on their mailing lists, you can keep track of them, and work someplace they aren't that week.
If you ever laughed at any of my jokes, I thank you. If you hated my act, well, maybe I'll be funnier next time. And if you were one of the 2,000 "Fuck you" chanters at that Weird Al concert in Atlanta all those years ago, where the hell were you last Friday night late show? I killed!!!
See ya on the road,
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