A constant plague upon my existence as a comedian is getting that elusive tape to send to bookers. For a comic, having a great video of your stand-up set is vital. You need it to get booked on just about everything from comedy clubs to Conan. However, many comedians of every experience level don’t understand what a good tape looks like.
I had the pleasure of chatting with a few industry insiders about what makes or breaks a good tape. Whether you’ve been doing stand-up for 10 months or 10 years, it’s important to have a good and recent tape at the ready to send to bookers. Here’s a list of tips to help you when submitting for big comedy festivals or that cool indie bar show everyone’s talking about!
1. Get into your material right away!
By the time a festival or show booker looks at your tape, they have watched countless sets. So you need to hook them right away. The best way to do that is by going straight into your jokes at the beginning of the set. Cole Stratton, co-founder of SF Sketchfest warns, “Sometimes sets are submitted where [comics] don’t get to their material until nearly three minutes in. Don’t make us fast forward through your intro.”
Remember that you have a limited amount of time to wow bookers. Jeff Singer, TV Producer and Executive Talent Scout for Just For Laughs, suggests that you make the most of your time. “Doesn’t matter if you’re a one-liner comic or a storyteller,” Singer advises. “Don’t meander with long set-ups and wait for laughs to come every 90 seconds. You have six minutes to make a strong impression.”
2. Avoid crowd work and local references.
Your tape should not include much crowd work “unless you are a crowd work comic submitting for a crowd work show,” says Luisa Diez, an independent comedy booker/consultant. “The tape should feature your jokes, on-stage persona, and your intentional comedy, not accidental comedy that is dependent on the specific room or audience in the tape.” She goes on, “Crowd work, especially at the start of your set, can tend to be unoriginal (there are only so many jokes to be made about couples in the front row), and you risk having the booker shut off the tape in the first minute just because you started in a way that didn’t make you stand apart.”
When submitting for a show or festival that is not in your hometown, Singer suggests that comics avoid making too many local references. “Jokes about a specific neighborhood in Denver may get big laughs at a venue there,” Singer says. “But they will fall flat in front of a national audience or in another city or country.”
3. It’s okay to film your set with your smartphone.
“Nobody expects a fledgling comic to hire a professional videographer every time they make a tape,” Singer says. “There are smartphones now with high quality cameras that can do a really good job. Ensure audio is crisp and bold. Make sure the stage is well-lit.”
4. Buy a tripod to stabilize the shot.
Stand-up comedian Tom Thakkar (seen on Conan and Comedy Central) recommends that comics buy a tripod for their phones. “I bought a phone tripod on Amazon for like $15 that is sturdy and easy enough to transport. Find a decent place in the venue to set up your tripod where you’re close enough to the audience so it doesn’t sound like you’re bombing, but ideally in a spot where people aren’t walking into the frame every 10 seconds.” It’s way more professional than balancing your phone atop a notebook on two empty glasses on a wobbly comedy club table.
5. Film every set.
“Make taping yourself a habit,” Diez advises. “If you bring your camera and tripod and set it up at every show you can, you will produce a lot of tapes for process (to check your performance, adjust punchline and set order, etc) but will also end up sometimes hitting on a tape that is good enough to share with bookers.” The curse of taping a specific set is real, she acknowledges. “I’ve seen comics stress out for a week straight trying to get a particular set on tape and they end up not getting it, partially because you never know how a particular set or show will go, but partially because they are so in their heads about having to perform perfectly to capture it on tape, that they end up stiff in their performance or veering off the set they intended to do.”
Thakkar filmed every set when he was preparing for late night. “I wanted to get comfortable with [being on camera],” he said. “All comics think we’re cursed the second we turn on a camera before our set, and just like anything else, that goes away a little if you record them all. Your odds of getting a tape go way up, rather than backing yourself into a corner of, ‘Oh shit, I need to get this tape on this show or I’m fucked!'”
6. For festival submissions, your tape should be of your full performance.
“Don’t send excerpts from a longer tape,” Diez suggests. “When you do that, the booker can’t see how you start and finish a set, and it gives the impression that you are not good at starting and ending your set strongly, so instead you cut out what you considered to be the best chunk from the middle. “
Singer agrees. “I personally prefer sets that are unedited,” he says. “I want to see on that tape what I would see at a live audition: the full set top to bottom. I don’t want to see a ‘best of’ highlights reel. Anyone can piece that together and make themselves appear as if they’re killing the whole time. We want to see a real representation of your set. Editing hides consistency, audience reaction, room energy, and other factors that allow us to assess your performance.”
As for the host introduction, Singer says to leave it in. “I actually like seeing the intro and walk-on because the entrance is part of the package. However, if the host launches into a one minute diatribe before bringing up the comic, edit that down. We want to see the comic’s performance, not the host’s.”
7. Follow the directions if there are submission guidelines.
“You should be aware of what the requirements are for what you’re submitting to,” Diez implores. “Do you need to do clean material? Did they specify the length of the tape they want? Is the show about a particular topic? Follow instructions! You’d be surprised to know how often not following instructions loses you an opportunity.”
8. Make sure your tape is online and accessible with a viewable link.
“We still use the word ‘tapes,’ as in the days when physical tapes or DVDs were sent, but today we’re really talking about video links,” Singer clarifies. “When sending a link, make sure the link isn’t broken. I’ve seen that ‘Ooops we can’t find your link’ message too many times.” You want to make the booker’s job as easy as possible. Don’t let technical difficulties be the reason you’re not selected for a gig. “Please don’t send a Zip file or downloadable file that takes time to open and view. Platforms like YouTube, Google Drive, and Vimeo allow you to stream videos immediately with one click. Use them to your advantage.”
9. Choose material that represents who you are best.
Singer recommends that “material should represent what [the comic] does best in terms of [their] writing, voice, and point of view.” He says, “The guiding force around material is really all about how original, clever, and funny you are. If 10 of your comic friends have bits about using dating apps, for example, you may want to go in another direction.”
Diez advises that you only use material that you love. “Don’t send tapes that have jokes you’re not proud of,” she says. “Not even one joke you do not love! If you don’t love it, what makes you think a booker will?”
10. Keep at it.
The biggest offense Singer has noticed during his time as Executive Talent Scout at Just For Laughs is that some comics don’t know when to scrap an inferior tape. “I understand how much time and effort it takes to line up a spot at a good venue on a good night and make sure everything goes right,” he says. Singer recommends that if you find yourself with a tape that doesn’t have clear audio, great energy, and quality video of your live performance, “it is better to let go and start over rather than push forward a flawed representation of your work.”
“Festival bookers are pulling for you and want you to be good!” Stratton encourages. “We have the really hard job of watching an incredibly large number of submissions for a limited number of spots. Just because you don’t get accepted, doesn’t mean that we didn’t like your set.” Don’t take rejection one year as a rejection forever. “Continue to work at it and submit again,” Stratton shares. “Many people have made it in [to SF Sketchfest] after submitting a second or third or even fourth time. No one likes to hear, ‘No,’ and we get that, but take it as a challenge to continue to improve. Your hard work will most likely be rewarded at some point.”