Soul Crushing or Trying to Run a Comedy Show

I had a dream a long time ago to get into standup comedy. It took me many years to see this to fruition, but I finally dived in and started doing it, and I quickly found that it was something I loved to do. However, being the perfectionist that I am, I was quickly drowned in the frustration of trying to put together a perfect set, as if there is such a thing. I became obsessed with finding “my style”, and writing the joke that could end world hunger, or at least make people spit milk out of their nose.  It’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, but that wasn’t enough, I needed more pain to go along with it. So, with my normal masochistic tendencies, I started my own show, and not just any show, but an improvised stand up show where preparation goes out the window, and you’re put on the spot to be funny without a pre-rehearsed set.

As if that wasn’t enough, the slot that I booked for the show was at 10:30pm on Wednesday nights. Ok, the show is a non-traditional standup show, and the slot is not the most appealing to most people who actually have jobs they have to get up for, and there lies the problem. For anyone who has ever run a comedy show of their own, you know that getting people into the seats is by far the hardest job of all. One of my nightmares is to tell jokes to a room with 6 people, but that’s basically what happened last night. You’d think that the nerves would be less, since there are fewer people to talk to, but the exact opposite is true in standup. The larger the audience, the more likely you are to find a segment of the audience that likes any given bit, and laughter is contagious, so what could be a chuckle, turns into full-on laughter if the rest of the audience is laughing hysterically. Nobody wants to be singled out, so even if they didn’t completely get it, they feel like their missing something, so they laugh, to the benefit of the comic.

The problem is getting people into seats, specifically people who you don’t know personally, because after asking them to come to 20 of your shows, they’re not likely to show infinite support. My obsession does not equate to their own. So, when the show starts, and there are 10 people in the audience, a little piece of my soul is crushed. I believe in the concept, and I’ve been lucky enough to book some really funny comics and improvisers, but continuing with a little audience is far harder than actually getting on stage.

I’m reminded of the old Colonel Sanders story. Harland David “Colonel” Sanders had an idea, and legendary persistence. As the story goes, the Colonel was selling chicken from his service station, and at 65, he decided to shop around his recipe to franchises all over the south. After 100’s of rejections, an ordinary man would have thrown in the towel, but not the Colonel. He kept going and eventually Kentucky Fried Chicken was established, and continues to be one of the most successful fast food restaurant chains after 60 years in business. I’m not sure I have that kind of persistence in me, and I don’t have a chicken recipe.

So far, I’ve only run 2 shows, but it feels like it’s taken a lot out of me. I still love getting on stage, and making people laugh, even if some of my jokes aren’t great hits, but running a show removes some of the fun that attracted me to doing standup in the first place. I applaud anybody who has taken this risk, and has stuck with it through the bad times, and I’m sure everyone has had them. With all that being said, I’ll most likely still run the show, and only cry on the inside when I look out into the dark, empty audience.

Seriously though, if you’re a comic who has attempted to, or are still running your own show, I’d be interested in finding out how you have dealt with it, and what keeps you going.


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4 thoughts on “Soul Crushing or Trying to Run a Comedy Show”

  1. I’ve run and co-run various recurring comedy shows by the names of Comic Book Comics, The World, Stand-Up and Fight, Transcendentalist Television, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, Going Steady, Party On Billiamsburg, Out Sold, All Ages Comedy and Venzday Alex as well as several one-off shows as well. I’ve run them in comedy clubs, black box theaters, bars, rock clubs, art houses and activist cafes. Even with all this experience I believe the most important factors to running a popular show are weather, time and promotion. Holidays are death. 7 pm is too early. And no one can pronounce “Transcendentalist.”

  2. A friend of mine who also happens to be a stand up comic once told me, “A comedian is someone who quit their day job and never looked back, well only once in a while to see if bill collectors where chasing me.” Great read Kevin!

  3. As a singer, I have, on occasion, sung to audiences of as few as four people. Yes, it’s discouraging. But keeping at it is the key. Then when you get to do the shows that are well attended you will REALLY appreciate it and enjoy it all the more, even thorough the nerves.

    I admire you. As much as I crave writing humor, I would NEVER have the nerve to do stand-up comedy. It’s a real art, and it takes a lot of guts.

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