First of all—thanks to everyone for all the comments and emails this week! I'll address many of them over the next couple of weeks, but today I wanted to take a particularly fun question from Dan, a stand-up comic in the Midwest.
I started doing stand-up comedy last February. I've been on stage a dozen times (open mics and opening for local comedians), but I would like to perform on a bigger stage (i.e., around the country). The problem is trying to get noticed here in Iowa. Last Thursday, I was in Des Moines at The House of Bricks... it went well [and] was taped (amateur video), but I would like to send it to an agent or manager. How can I get a booking agent or talent agent to look at my DVD? Everyone I call tells me they don't accept unsolicited material.
While this may not seem immediately TV-related, TV and stand-up are closely linked worlds. Aside from the many programs starring stand-ups (Louis, The Soup, Conan, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, etc.), walk into any sitcom or talk show writers room, and you'll undoubtedly find an army of veteran stand-ups. In fact, comedy execs, agents, managers, and producers often frequent comedy clubs in search of not just talented hosts and actors, but writers as well.
So to help answer this, I turned to my good friend Matt Schuler—a manager/producer at Levity Entertainment, one of the industry's oldest and most well-respected comedy management firms. Levity not only represents high-level comics like Pablo Francisco, Bert Kreischer, Loni Love, Jeff Dunham, and Jim Breuer, they're the majority owner of the Improv, the world's largest chain of comedy clubs. So naturally, Matt had some great insight for comics trying to land an agent or manager.
"I recommend going through a different process than blind submitting [to agents and managers]," says Matt.
"I recommend trying to get yourself into the major comedy festivals. These festivals are heavily attended by industry people, especially agents and managers from all over the country. Plus, all the people who book Comedy Central specials and late night shows attend those festivals."
While there are numerous festivals, big and small, around the country, the highest-profile are the San Francisco Comedy Competition, the Boston Comedy Festival, the Seattle Comedy Competiton, the Vancouver ComedyFest, and the holy grail itself… Montreal's Just For Laughs. (FYI—those links will take you directly to each festival's website, where you can find application and submission info.) A quick Google search will give you many others worth trying, but these are the industry's go-to hunting grounds.
Of course, getting into a festival is no easy feat.
"Most people get into Montreal after doing stand-up for 2-5 years," says Matt.
"Part of the growth curve depends how often you're getting on stage. If you get on stage 4-5 times a week, 1-2 times per night, you'll develop quickly. If you get up only once a week, it takes much longer. [In fact,] part of becoming a comic is logging stage time and having good and bad sets. You learn at least as much from a bad set as you do from a good set. Every good comedian needs to bomb at least 100 times to build up the confidence to handle a festival situation."
If you're not ready for festivals—or in addition to applying to festivals—go ahead and submit material to agents and managers. While some don't accept unsolicited material, many do, and these are the companies to target.
But Matt doesn't recommend sending a DVD…
"Email is the best say," he says. Put your demo reel online and send a link. "People are more likely to watch links than DVD's… [and] you can send materials directly to agents and managers by going to their websites and finding their email addresses."
Fortunately, anyone can make an online reel. "The quality of the video is not important… it can be shot on a friend's camcorder," says Matt. "That's one of the beauties of comedy; you're judged on how funny you are, not the production quality."
In fact, Matt suggests posting as many videos online as possible: stand-up clips, shorts, sketches, anything you can that illuminates your comic sensibility. Be creating things constantly; much of it will fail, but the more you produce, the stronger you'll grow and the funnier you'll get. Try things, experiment with jokes and bits, see what works. If something flops on the Internet, no one has to know… you can even revise it and repost! (Also, you'll learn more from your bombs and failures than your successes.)
"Twenty years ago," says Matt, "agents and managers used to only scour clubs as a source of new talent, [but] now it's more popular to comb the Internet. [So] I recommend putting a lot of quality videos online and trying to promote them. I realize it can be frustrating for comics who put good material online and don't get managers or agents knocking on the door right away, but trust me… the cream really does rise to the top on the Internet. Eventually, if you put out enough quality stuff, they will come."
Also, don't be afraid to contact comedy clubs and bookers yourself.
"Email and ask them to watch your material," Matt recommends. "Send them your link and say, 'If I could just get a five-minute guest spot, I'd love to prove I'm worthy of your stage.' You'll get a lot of rejection, but it's like asking out a girl: you have to ask out ten for one to say yes."
An upside of contacting clubs is you can form relationships with the bookers. This not only helps you get invited back, but many bookers know each other. So "if you get in with one club and do a good job, the [club] manager will recommend you… or you can ask him to put in a good word with another [club] who hasn't gotten back to you."
Getting into other clubs will also allow you to meet and form relationships with comics, especially headliners. As you befriend bigger comics, and as your network grows, they can offer you work as their opening act. If you do a good job, they'll invite you be their opener at other clubs, clubs where you don't yet have a relationship, allowing you to connect with and befriend those bookers and managers.
"That's how people become headliners," Matt says. "They go in as someone else's opening act, and do a good enough job that the club invites them back as a headliner."
You can also log performance time, and get on new stages, by "running your own room," or having your own comedy show. This doesn't necessarily mean you're the only act; it means you have a block of time—say, an hour or two—at a local club, bar, or restaurant—and you're responsible for filling that time.
"A lot of times, restaurants and bars will let you start your own comedy show on less-busy nights if you promote it and help get more business," says Matt. "You can do as much of your own stage time as you want… [but] you can also book other comics in the area. Hopefully, those comics are 'running rooms' or shows at other clubs, and you can swap time. You give them a spot on your show, they give you a spot on theirs."
Anyway, Dan—I hope that's helpful. Break a leg… and lemme know how it goes! (And next time I'm in Des Moines, maybe I can catch your act!) Thanks again for writing… and reading.
And for other people with questions or comments, please feel free to post them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the mean time, in the spirit of this post, here's a great video from one of my favorite stand-ups, Mike O'Connell. (This is a few years old, but still hilarious...)