5 mistakes that will tank your indie comedy show

Emily Winter is a stand-up comedian, writer, and producer based out of New York City. She runs three Time Out NY Critics’ Pick comedy shows in Brooklyn: BackFat Variety, Comedy at Rose Gold, and Side Ponytail. Last year, she co-created WHAT A JOKE, a nationwide anti-Trump comedy festival with shows in over 20 cities that raised more than $50K for the ACLU.

In early 2018, I began recording a miniseries podcast called How To Produce Live Comedy. I’ve been co-producing and hosting critics’ pick live comedy shows in Brooklyn since 2012 and wanted to share my producing spreadsheets with the world…or at least one incredibly niche market. I also wanted to interview people who are better and more experienced than myself and was lucky enough to snag some of the best live comedy show producers in New York City for the pod.  Each episode tackles producing from a different angle (monetizing, opening a venue, etc.). The final episode comes out Monday, October 20 and features producer-comedians Shelby Taylor and Chris Calogero responding to questions and producing pet peeves from my listener mailbag.

To mark the finale of this podcast, I culled my notes from the series and pulled the five most common mistakes new and underperforming producers make.

1. “If You Built It…”

Not to be confused with the popular live comedy shows in Los Angeles and New York, this refers to the fact that so many producer/comedians believe that the act of securing a venue and a lineup will be enough to draw in a crowd. But the truth is: If you build it, no one will come. Especially in a market already saturated with comedy. Booking and promoting properly are the only ways to get a good audience in the door.

2. Shows That Are Too Long

Most audiences start to close their mental tabs at the 75-minute mark. 90 minutes should be your max show length, no matter how good the lineup. If your show is two hours, ask yourself why. Because you were trying to cram on as many comics as you could? Your show should serve the audience, not your friends in the comedy scene. If you’ve overbooked and you need to move a comic to a future show, that’s not the end of the world.

3. Not Acknowledging Failures

Everyone throws a bad show now and again. It’s unavoidable. But if you were forced to cancel a show because there was no audience, or you had stellar comedians perform for just seven people, acknowledge it. Tell the performers you’re sorry and you’d love the rebook them on a future show that you’re confident will draw a big crowd. Also, acknowledge this failure to yourself. Why was this show so sad? What can you do to improve? A bad show is a kick in the pants to work harder next time, not make the same mistakes over and over. Be smart, kind, prepared, empathetic, and organized. The rest will fall into place!

4. Underselling the Draw

There’s no point in booking headliners if you don’t promote them. I often see lineups with names that I recognize from appearing once or twice on Conan, but your average casual comedy fan won’t know at all. It’s important to book credits on your show, but it’s also important to sell them: as the biggest name on your poster with their credits next to their name, in promotional emails, and at the show. In fact, all performers should be promoted and introduced with their best credits. It makes the audience trust in the booking, and then they’re more prepared to laugh.  

5. It’s Not You, It’s Your Space

When you walked in your venue for the first time, did you say to yourself, “I can’t wait to perform here!” or did you think, “Maybe I could make this work?” If it’s the latter, find a better spot. If your venue is too big, too small, too depressing, too far from the beaten path, doesn’t have a microphone, is run by a monster, or is just in the wrong neighborhood for the type of comedy you do, you might be shooting yourself in the foot before you even get started. Creating a perfect atmosphere for comedy is a tough thing to do even in the right venue, so there’s no sense making it extra hard on yourself by trying to throw a show in a freezing cold, mirrored hallway, or in the main area of a bar with TVs during Monday night football.   

Of course, there will always be the exception that proves the rule—a too-long show with no accredited performers in a terrible space that wasn’t promoted with a producer who acts like he’s God’s gift. But typically, the best shows are the ones that you’d want to go to if you weren’t a comedian!

For more producing tips from experts, listen to the entire How To Produce Live Comedy podcast on Apple or most major podcast apps. Follow Emily Winter on Twitter @EmilyMcWinter.

Emily Winter

Emily Winter has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR's "Ask Me Another," TV Land, Fusion TV, Glamour, and The Barnes & Noble Review. Her standup comedy plays on SiriusXM, and she runs two Time Out Critics' Pick comedy shows in Brooklyn, BackFat Variety at Union Hall, and Side Ponytail at Friends and Lovers. She also hosts the podcast How To Produce Live Comedy, and her work has been profiled on The TODAY Show, The AV Club, Buzzfeed, Lifehacker, and more.

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