Applying Business Practices to Stand-Up Comedy

business of comedy

When approaching projects in my employment, I put forth a variety of business practices that ensure I manage them on time and to budget within cost agreed to with clients and get them the product they require. But when it comes to stand-up comedy, I’m as guilty as anybody of treating it like any other hobby; whenever I get to it.

As it turns out, professional stand-ups have to treat their work like any other work: just like a business.

So, without further ado, here’s the top ten practices I’ve learnt in business that I, as an aspiring stand-up comic, would apply:

  1. It’s all in the Planning
  2. What are you doing today?
  3. Research & Development
  4. Dress for Success
  5. Show up on Time
  6. Create a Contact List
  7. Networking, Networking, Networking
  8. Marketing is Your Friend
  9. Content is King
  10. Learn to Fail

1. It’s all in the Planning

So you’ve decided to be a stand-up comedian, and once you’ve done your first show, you’re ready to take on the world, right? But you become lazy, just popping up at shows and performing randomly with material you’ve built up for a year that’s become strong and tight, but there’s no evolution.
Take that attitude and turn it around; set yourself some goals to achieve what you want. Yearning to make it big is redeemable but ultimately too broad, but setting a deadline towards becoming a feature in your city’s biggest comedy club is slightly more reachable.
A 5 year plan works for top executives, so why not for you? Lay out goals for each month and stick to them, but even if you fail in one you can achieve in others, and people will notice.

2. What are you doing today?

You’re a week away from a booking at an open-mic, and you’ve promised yourself you’ll be showcasing new material. Leaving it to the last minute? That’s bad juju, son.
Each day, just like in exercising, set 10 minutes or an hour aside to perform a task that works towards your comedy, even something as small as listing out ideas, scribbling on a pad or talking to yourself as you walk to the shops getting lunch. Ultimately, you’ve then gathered up enough material to outline something for that open-mic show to present.
Your habits reflect upon your intentions; if you want to be a successful businessman, your tasks for each day affect and contribute towards the company you run. And in comedy, a note jotted down out of many could easily become the ultimate joke, or at least the closer in your future DVD.

3. Research & Development

It’s all great and well starting a business or working for one, but what business? Where do your talents lie, what are you good at, what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
The hard-working comic immerses in the subject matter they care for. So if your jokes are about sex that you’re having, it goes to show that you’re having lots of it. On the other hand, having no sex means you’re constantly thinking about what sex might be like or why you’re not “getting some”, but at the end of the day you’re thinking about it and that’s where the material comes from.
Taking the mind out of the gutter, there’s no point trying to make people giggle about funny-looking dinosaurs unless you’ve read up and researched paleontology. Get to know your facts, geek out at the trivia, and not only will you build up material focused on the subject matter, but you’ll find through your unique personality that you can riff quite easily with people who put you in a spot.
Don’t forget, researching should be a task laid out in point 2.

4. Dress for Success

The business world revolves around image; if you approach a potential investor for a lucrative venture, or if you’re a prospective employee arriving for a nerve-wracking interview, first impressions count a heck of a lot, and the same applies to stand-up.
Don’t fret, you don’t have to consistently wear a suit or a tuxedo to a show, but be mindful of how you’d like people to perceive you. Louis CK may not appear charming or sophisticated when he’s on stage, but he realises his everyman act wouldn’t work without showing up in sneakers and jeans.
However, he is mindful of the Steve Jobs look, and has applied consistency to his look by appearing the exact same in every special he’s done, a black turtle-neck and jeans. It helps people to immediately relate.
In contrast, Russell Brand has the crazy hear and leather pants that “actual men” would be loathed to squeeze in, but he also makes a point of keeping the image consistent and within his brand of work. Chris Rock looks swish in a suit, yet Russell Howard is t-shirt and jeans (purely because he feels too handsome in work threads).
The one point I’ll suggest you should never waiver from is, never show looking like you’re ready to park off on the couch, eating chips and watching porn.

5. Show up on Time

Woody Allen said it best, “Just turn up.” and rightfully so. But in business, people not only need you to turn up, they expect you to waiting at the door, tapping your feet while holding their company brochure in your hand.

So don’t be the tardy slouch that shows up when he wants to. The commendable excuses of “traffic was bad”, “my mom died” or “my car broke down” may sway the odd understanding promoter, but “I just had to watch one more episode” schtick slides off a show-runner like butter on a knife, and his attitude towards booking you again based on your reliability will be just as cohesive.

That goes for when you’re involved in projects with other comedians; everyone wants to create the next best Youtube video that gains lots of new hits, but if you’re not showing up on time to help hold up the mike-boom because you think it’s “a waste of time”, why would those comedians think you’re good to work with on stage too?

In comedy, like in business, punctuality is a wonderful trait.

6. Create a Contact List

What you know is great if you’re writing something down, but who you know is even better. Once you meet someone new, even if you’re unsure whether they’re useful to you or not, get their digits on your phone immediately.
It won’t take long before everyone gets to know who you are, but having everyone’s number means you’ll get to know people, get a lift if you’re stuck without a car, ask them when the next gig is.
In business, knowing the number of the boss’s wife is just as important; if he’s stuck in a gutter after being eaten by a crocodile, he’d appreciate it if his wife knew. Or not, I’m not sure how kinky he is.

7. Networking, Networking, Networking

Going hand in hand with points 5 and 6, networking is key for business men and women to form relationships, be made aware of advantageous opportunities and creating a web of communication that will have you at the forefront of knowing what and where.
Assuming, of course, you’re an approachable person. Sadly, the comedy industry may still be peppered with the doldrums of society’s weirdest people, and most of them in turn are introverted nerds that use comedy as therapy. In that mindset, you may find it hard to make friends, and that I understand.
But keep this one point in mind: even the most successful people in whatever industry don’t form relationships with everybody, but they do form relationships with somebody (obviously), and so can you. You just need to “turn up”, share contact details and find the common theme as your framework for talking to people, and take it from there.

8. Marketing is Your Friend

Would you believe that putting an advert in a newspaper was considered the same as posting on your Facebook wall?
Every business knows the importance of marketing and so should every comedian. It’s fairly obvious though that with every emerging performer, putting down wads of cash to place an ad for their is not really going to happen, but tweeting your gig dates and putting up pictures on Facebook lets everyone know you’re doing something, and the audiences will begin to grow.
Marketers will vouch, once they hit the formula for a product’s theme that catches on, even paid for advertising won’t matter as word-of-mouth spreading like a virus adds more revenue than any TV advert; so once you’ve found your voice and people catch on, social media will spread your image and your content faster than any Facebook advert would. Eventually, promoters will use your image to market their shows, and everything will go hand in hand.
You’ll need help of course, since the wide variety of social media, as a starting point for marketing, will leave you fairly befuddled. Thankfully, Hootsuite and Tweetdeck consolidate many of the popular portals into one so you can assign posts automatically or spread out the same message in one go without having to handle each one individually.

9. Content is King

Social media, of course, won’t be helpful to you unless you actually have content to share, and the reality is you can’t just rely on punchy one-liners alone (Yaaseen might disagree with me on this).
And I’m not just talking about tweets here; the fact is, everything you do adds to the product as much as the product itself. Samsung makes televisions, just like a comedian makes jokes, but the company also makes adverts on television for televisions, promotes their product through social media, has a website portal with information, support, contact details. Companies even share profits with charities that help the community but ultimately add brand awareness.
Don’t be afraid of venturing into new projects that isn’t even stand-up comedy; visit improv groups, join in discussions with other performers to create funny videos on Youtube, write scripts and email them to unsuspecting producers.

And while many disagree, tape your stand-up shows and put them online for people to view; not only will audiences, from the comfort of their office lunch hours, watch you perform, but this will also drive you to create new content for the next live show they’ll be willing to attend, thereby applauding you for your creativity and sharing your brand around to everyone, therefore spreading the message.

Even Paul Arden said, written in his self-help for advertisers book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, “Do not covet your ideas.”

There’s no limit to what you can do here, but the point is to keep creating. And if it’s just standup, fine. Russell Peters just taped his stand-up shows and put them online. And look where he is now. He plays to huge arenas. I mean, hello.

10. Learn to Fail

┬áThe precious lesson every leader in business knows, and each comedian should bear in mind, is that you may not get it right the first time. Companies start and companies may fail, and each venture is a risk despite the amazing selling points they define. Regardless of how fantastic your product is, without taking the time to follow the points above, you’re bound to disappear into obscurity and no one will care, and you’ll have to live with that fact.
Take Steve Jobs into consideration; he spent years facing rejection after rejection, especially since he was a smelly hipster that walked around barefoot and never used deodorant. And he failed, so many times, getting thrown out of the Apple, creating new opportunities and constantly banging away at that piece of steel until he forged the ultimate product.
What you get out is what you put in, but at some point you’ll be faced with failure, jealousy, envy and rejection upon rejection upon rejection. It’s about how much strength of character you care about within yourself that will shine through, and once you realise that to succeed, you have to fail, the 1% of those that succeed consist of the 100% of those that failed.

Final note

I know this isn’t for everyone, and it wasn’t really peppered with funny quips people will love, but surrounding myself with people passionate about their business and their product draws parallel to comedy where the jokes are the products and the laughter is the currency (not forgetting, currency is still currency), helps me to realise that I need to approach comedy as a business.
I hope it helps me, and I hope it helps you too

About the author

Nelson De Gouveia

Nelson has been writing since he can remember, and even won a diploma for public speaking, albeit 20 years ago.
He works full time, loves his girlfriend and plays Batman on his Xbox a lot, even when it's finished.

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