Posts Tagged ‘comedy club’

Butts In Seats

July 4, 2014

Monday June 30th, 2014 – Island Lake, IL

It’s Half Year’s Eve, and if I owned a bar or comedy club I’d make a big deal out of it and milk it for all I could. Too bad I don’t want to own a bar or a comedy club, but if I did this would be a big night – at least on paper. The trick is always getting butts in seats. It’s damn near impossible.

I’ve said it before, but only because it’s true. I challenge absolutely anybody to create any kind of event whatsoever from scratch, and get at least 100 people to show up. I’m not even worrying about paying customers, I’m just talking about attracting 100 pairs of butt cheeks into one room.

The butt cheeks don’t even have to be attached to a head. 100 seats filled with 200 butt cheeks. That’s the challenge, and a monumental one it is at that. I’ve been trying to do it for decades, and I haven’t succeeded on my own more than a fist full of times. I have total respect for promoters.

There are too many variables to count as far as what can go wrong to spoil any live event. Bad weather can keep customers away, but so can good weather. If there’s a storm, people don’t want to leave the house. If it’s a beautiful night they might feel like doing something outside instead.

Time of the month can be a factor as well, in more ways than one. People get paid at different times of the month, but usually it’s around the first and the middle. If there’s an event later in the month, customers may have full intentions of attending but there’s just no more money to spend.

Sometimes with couples, “time of the month” can absolutely be a factor. That may seem gross, but it’s a fact. P.M.S. can mean S.O.L. as far as getting someone to come out and attend any live event. Nobody ever thinks about any of this unless they have tried to promote events themselves.

I’ve lost my ass so many times trying to promote my own various live events I have to sleep on my stomach. It’s uncanny how many times I have happened to be competing the same night with a major sporting event – or worse yet a minor sporting event that was only important in the town where my event was. I’ve been bankrupted by high school football games, bake sales and bingo.

Promoting one’s own events is an unforgiving mother – giving with one hand and taking with the other. Just because something works one way one time is no guarantee it’s going to work all the time. I’ve had weekends where one event goes well and I make a halfway decent profit, but lose it all and then some on the very next night when some fluke power outage closes the doors.

Bigger businesses have problems like this too, but they have much more of a cushion to be able to absorb the punishment of one night gone badly. If I take it in the shorts, those shorts may well be soiled by the following morning. It’s a risk to be a promoter of any kind, but there are rewards as well. If one is willing to roll the dice and roll up his or her sleeves, good things can be in store.

I’m going to start promoting my own shows in the very near future. I am willing to take a risk and lose if it’s for me, but driving hundreds of miles for someone else without a guarantee that’s worth my while is not what I need to be doing ever again. I did it far too long, and it never paid off. If I’m going to work for any clueless imbeciles, that imbecile is going to be ME. Nobody is going to watch over my career like me, so it’s plain old smart business. I’m ready to get started.

No matter the size of either, butts in seats is what the entertainment business is about.

No matter the size of either, butts in seats is what the entertainment business is about.

My Magnificent Mentor

April 22, 2014

Monday April 21st, 2014 – Island Lake, IL

I can’t let this time of year pass without paying true heartfelt tribute to my number one comedy mentor C. Cardell Willis. I’ve had influences and partial mentors along the way, but Cardell was “the man” right from day one. He was a father figure on stage and off, and I’ll love him forever.

For whatever reason, he used to celebrate his birthday on August 3rd. For years, I thought that’s when it was. I’m usually pretty good at remembering people’s birthdays – at least getting it close enough to be respectable. If I don’t hit it the exact day, I’ll usually get it at least within a couple.

This has been a lifetime thing, WAY before Facebook made it so easy for us all. It has always been important to me to acknowledge someone’s birthday whenever I can and at least give them the respect of letting them know I remembered. Birthdays are one’s personal holiday, and I find nothing at all wrong with celebrating one’s existence despite what the Jehovah’s Witnesses say.

My mother apparently joined them shortly after she abandoned our family when I was a baby, and that was the excuse she used the few times I’ve seen her for not sending any birthday cards to any of her three children or even acknowledging our existence. I can’t begin to put into words how painful it is to be ignored by one’s own mother in life, so birthdays are a soft spot with me.

Cardell is far ahead of both my natural parents on my memory list. He did much more good for me than both of them ever did, so I felt a need to honor him out of respect. It wasn’t until the end of his life I found out his real birthday was April 20th. That’s also Hitler’s birthday, so maybe he was embarrassed or something. It doesn’t matter to me what the day is, as long as I pay respect.

In the entertainment business, it’s a common mistake to assume that if someone is famous they are the best at what they do and a good person, but nothing could be further from the truth. Some famous people are all that, but others are flat out scoundrels. Fame and measure of character are not and never have been intermingled. Some total pukes make it through for reasons unknown.

Cardell was never famous – and unbelievably few ever are – but he was absolutely loaded with character. Not only did he make time to mentor a city full of wayward comedians, he also helped inner city kids as a scoutmaster for Boy Scouts for years. I’m sure there are adults now that recall him with the same deep fondness and respect for the kindness he showed them years ago as I do.

What is often the saddest turn of events is that we never get to pay back those that did the most good for us. He always told us to “pay it forward” – and that’s what I have tried to do for as long as I’ve been a full time comedian. There have been literally hundreds of meals bought for young comedians through the years that were a direct result of Cardell’s mentoring. He lives on in me.

Mentorship is a skill by itself, and too often those that are best at it don’t get recognized for the effort it takes. It’s not just a one day thing and that’s it. It’s a constant process over a time period that can range from years to decades to a lifetime. Cardell was with me for decades at a time that I really needed his help. Not only is he still with me, through me his wisdom has been passed on.

It rarely takes much at the time, and there frequently isn’t much fanfare. It’s often just a matter of knowing what to say and when to say it. My grandfather was a terrific mentor also, and he and Cardell shared similar traits. Both knew precisely when and how to say what needed to be said.

The first big deal I can remember as a comedian – which sounds so laughable now – was when I was going to host a show for the first time. I had only been around a short time and was greener than a bag of $20 bills. Why any idiot would trust me to host a comedy show then is beyond me.

Some idiot did, and I was both thrilled and scared to death at the same time. I had no idea what to do, but Cardell sat me down and give me several much needed pointers. He told me what I had to know, and walked me through it in a few minutes. He said he knew I could handle it, and even if that was a fib it was exactly what I needed to hear at that time. His kind words were medicine.

Time and time again he’d cheer me as I climbed steps up the comedy ladder. They seem so tiny now, but back then it felt like I was climbing Mt. Everest each time. Having a friendly face in my corner through those intimidating steps was SO inspiring, and the face I saw continually was his.

What felt even better was hearing second and third hand from others how he thought out of the local comics in Milwaukee at the time I was the one he thought would go the farthest. “That boy is GOING someplace, you watch!” he’d say. “I hope he takes me with him. I might need a job.”

I heard this back from numerous sources through the years – and he eventually told me himself. He said I had the natural gift and the drive it took to get out and take my swings on a bigger field than Milwaukee. Comedy clubs were just starting to explode then, and he was adamant about me getting out and taking my shot. “You’ll never get anywhere staying here. Move on.” And I did.

Milwaukee was my home town and I wanted to prove to some people – mainly my father – that I wasn’t the loser he always told me I would be. Cardell could see that was the raw source of my pain, and tried to get me to focus on building a career. I was an angry kid, and needed guidance.

It’s the classic tale of the old bull and young bull, and looking back he said all the right stuff at all the right times and I love him dearly for it. It didn’t always hit me at the time, but I needed to hear exactly what he said. Youth always thinks it knows better, but wisdom only comes with age.

Probably the sweetest of so many sweet memories was Cardell and his manager Shirley Schaak taking me out for dinner before I went on my first road trip. They were proud of me, and both of them beamed through our meal. Cardell gave me time tested tips on road survival, and at the end of the night they gave me a card with $25 in it “for a flat tire”. I’m weeping in thanks even now.

Kindness like that endures forever – especially for a dented can like me that wasn’t used to that from anybody. Cardell and Shirley were my comedy parents, and I love and appreciate them now more than ever. I never took them for granted, but in hindsight all those good things they did not only for me but for all the comedians in Milwaukee shine even brighter. I try to pass on the love they passed to me, but I always fall so far short. Thank you Cardell! Shirley too! I love you both.

My magnificent mentor in comedy C. Cardell Willis. A kinder soul and more competent mentor has never lived.

My magnificent mentor in comedy C. Cardell Willis. A kinder soul and more competent mentor has never lived. I owe the man SO much.

Just because someone isn't famous doesn't mean they aren't talented. Cardell's reach went WAY past entertainment. He was a life changer for many. What a fantastic human being. It's up to me to help keep his memory alive.

Just because someone isn’t famous doesn’t mean they aren’t talented. Cardell’s reach went WAY past entertainment. He was a life changer for many. What a fantastic human being. I want to keep his memory alive.

Disappointment Double Check

November 7, 2013

Wednesday November 6th, 2013 – Fox Lake, IL

I’m still dusting myself off after last night’s wrecking ball of disappointment, but there are lots of lessons to be learned here – both by me and by new comedians coming up the ranks. This was a frightening example of what happens when a product isn’t marketed properly. It’s sure death.

The problem last night was anything but the product. That was one of THE strongest lineups of Chicago standup comedy I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been around the block more than a few times. It was a magnificent lineup of talent, but unfortunately it wasn’t in front of the proper audience.

Comedians from “the golden era” of the ‘80s – and I’m just as guilty as anybody else – tend to be stuck in those days when it comes to marketing savvy. We didn’t have to do any marketing at all then, as comedy clubs were hip, trendy and it didn’t matter who was on the bill. People came out to laugh, and they usually did. Even if they didn’t remember the acts’ names, they had fun.

That was our first mistake. We wrongly assumed it would go on forever like that, and it would be a gravy train into perpetuity. The clubs were marketing themselves as a destination where the customer would have a good time. Rarely if ever did they market specific comedians. Red flag.

The ads always went something like “Come out to the Wacky Shack Comedy Corral and have a few laughs.” They would advertise drink specials before they’d advertise who’s there, and only then it would be the headlining act. Any of the openers’ names would never see the light of day.

Times were good then, so comedians could make a decent living without much effort and they rode that horse into the ground. They didn’t look at it like a business as a rule, and thought there was some kind of magic dust that would keep the money coming in forever. What idiots we were as a collective, and looking back I was in there myself. I thought I had a clue, but I totally didn’t.

VERY few comedians did, but those are the ones that did well. Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld are the two shining examples from that era who were outstanding business people from day one. The third member of the business holy trilogy I always acknowledge is James Gregory. He’s up there too, and has always had my utmost respect. James marketed himself before he was a headliner.

He sold cassette tapes and t-shirts and baseball caps, and catered to his fans like few others I’ve ever seen. He was a tremendous salesman, and I mean it as a huge compliment. He’s a really funny comic, but as I saw last night that alone won’t cut it. James knew from the start to sell his wares.

Part of the process of selling those wares is doing the unsexy things like having a website with a mailing list and current schedule of dates, and constantly working to keep one’s name out there and get more work. That was unheard of when I started but too bad for me. That’s the game now.

I’m thrilled to be able to call James a friend all these years later, and he calmly – and correctly – pointed out that he checked out the websites of all of us on the show last night and none had the show promoted on our sites. GUILTY. I’ve been working with my web guy Mark Filwett to have a total site redesign, but it’s still not there yet. It’s my fault because I’ve been up to my ass with a lot of other things, but nobody cares about that. I need to do better, and there are ZERO excuses.

Human nature can be one’s own biggest enemy, and it’s easy to fall into old habits – especially the bad ones. We as old timers were used to just showing up and getting paid. We did it for years and years, and stupidly assumed that circumstances would never change. That’s business suicide.

What business can last in today’s shark tank world with a business plan from twenty years ago or worse – no plan at all? What if McDonald’s had not evolved like they did over time and added menu items like salads, latte or a breakfast menu? They’d be with Howard Johnson’s – obsolete.

That’s exactly what’s going to happen to some really talented standup comedians, and I’m on a personal crusade that it won’t be me. There is a fire lit under my ass after last night that is red hot and I’m not going to sit around and feel sorry for myself. I need to get it in gear and move ahead.

This should be a loud clear air raid siren warning blast for all newbies getting or thinking about getting into standup comedy. Yes it’s important to work on your funny, but work on the business side just as much if not more than the comedy side. Without both, you’ll end up in a club nobody wants to be in like the guys at Zanies last night. We all have great acts, but we don’t have a draw.

It takes work to build that draw, and it’s getting more difficult by the day. There are more and more wannabes coming out of the wood work, and it’s harder not only to be seen but to obtain a sufficient amount of quality stage time to develop a sellable act. If nothing else, I did have that.

And part of therein lies the problem. Stage time was easy when I came up, and we all assumed it would be plentiful forever. Other than those few like Jay, Jerry and James, we all farted around when we should have been building our brand. Kudos to those who figured it out early. I didn’t.

Now my biggest fear is that I didn’t figure it out too late. I’ve spent long hard years building an act that can rock a room from coast to coast, but if I don’t have anyone who wants to pay to see it I’m out of business. Zanies has been great to me for many years, but if they cut me loose I would really be in a world of hurt. I need to build MY brand, and team up with venues that can sell it.

I’m on the right track with my “Schlitz Happened!” show about growing up in Milwaukee. It’s a very specialized and regional brand, but those who will like it will really become fans. It would be difficult to sell it anywhere outside of Wisconsin, but there are enough people there where I’ll be able to carve out a very nice chunk of business for myself and claim a territory. I’m ok with it.

This is not the ‘80s anymore. As much as those of us who lived through those times as comics hate to admit that, we all need to wake up and realize we’re in a whole new world. We do have a nice advantage in that we have an actual product to sell whereas the newbies are trying to market the hell out of nothing. We’ve actually got something to sell, but most of us don’t execute it well.

I’m going to model myself after people like James, and even Jay and Jerry. They played their game on the big stage in Hollywood, and that ship may have already sailed for me. James played his hand out of his home town of Atlanta. It’s a great town, and he’s a king there. Is there anything wrong with that? Not in my book. Atlanta money spends just as nicely as Hollywood or Chicago money. He’s built a great business, and continues to work it masterfully. http://www.funniestman.com is where we can all learn from a master. I am grateful for his support, guidance and inspiration.

James Gregory has been ahead of the game for decades. A great comedian, but a world class marketer. He gets it. I need to model his methods. www.funniestman.com

James Gregory has been ahead of the game for decades. A great comedian, but a world class marketer. He gets it. I need to model his methods. http://www.funniestman.com

Cruel Irony

May 30, 2013

Tuesday May 28th, 2013 – Fox Lake, IL

   One of the most difficult positions I can think of to attain in all of the entertainment business is becoming a legitimate show closer in comedy clubs. The professional term that usually gets used is a “headliner”, but to me that implies that the act has some kind of marquee appeal or is a draw.

   There are scant few acts that can draw on name alone, and those that can usually opt for bigger venues than a comedy club. That leaves an entire subculture of acts most of the public could not pick out of a police lineup that travel from club to club each week making a living getting laughs from audiences who have no idea who they are before they step on a stage. That’s a tough order.

   I’m one of those acts. It’s taken a lifetime of paying serious dues to get there, but I have pulled it off. Even my worst detractors have to admit that I am a strong act, and when everything else is going wrong there’s a high degree of satisfaction that comes with knowing I’ve earned my status.

   Comedy club headliners are the Navy Seals of show business. The only way to get that status is to EARN it, and those that earn it rarely are paid what they’re worth. I don’t know how much the Navy Seals get paid, but I have to believe for what they do with the risk involved it isn’t enough.

   I think the same is true for comedy club headliners. We’re the ones who bring home the bacon week after week for the comedy club owners who seldom appreciate it. We have to be consistent enough to not only follow an array of questionable opening acts, but maintain a high proficiency level for an extra long period of time. It’s a job not for the squeamish, and not all can handle it.

   The average length of a headlining comedy club set is 45 minutes. Sometimes it can be longer – up to an hour, or even more – but rarely is it shorter. I challenge anyone who thinks they’re the least bit funny to get on a stage and entertain a room full of strangers who have been consuming alcoholic beverages en masse for even five minutes and see how tough that is. It’s no cakewalk.

   Then add on to that quite often the level of opening acts to fill the time before is often bogged down with less than competent wannabes who all think they should have been booked to be the headliner. They’re gunning for the position (and ever so slight extra pay that goes with it) but are rarely respectful of how difficult it is to have to be a level higher and be able to follow everyone.

   Closing one show under those circumstances is a feat in itself. Closing them night after night is downright miraculous – but that’s the job description. A strong headliner should be able to follow most anything, and still bring solid laughs for the entire time they’re on stage. That’s what we do night after night – at least the good ones. It’s hard as hell, but after a while we get into a groove.

   I have been a solid show closer for many years now, and sometimes I forget just how much of a sacrifice it was to get there. It’s an unbelievably rough process, but since I started that’s all I’ve ever wanted to become. Now I’m here, and I realize that nobody cares but me and the others that have paid the enormous price to obtain this elite status. We know how much it cost, but that’s it.

   The public really doesn’t know or care how tough it was. They want to come to a comedy club to laugh – or at least they did. Now the trend seems to be they’re wanting to see someone famous on any level. If someone has a two minute video on You Tube that goes viral, comedy clubs will book them to “headline” hoping they’ll put butts in seats. They might, but they can’t pull off the difficult task of closing a show. I can, but nobody knows who I am. Life can have a cruel irony.

I QUIT!

May 23, 2013

Tuesday May 21st, 2013 – Fox Lake, IL

   There’s a major upheaval going on inside my head, and I couldn’t be more excited. I know that I need to completely rewire my beliefs down to the core, and as scary as that may be I’m ready to dive in with both feet and make a full commitment. Upgrading my car was a very positive start.

   The next thing that needs to be tweaked heavily is my model for career success. The world I’m in now both professionally and as a whole is completely different than the world I started in, but that can be said of anyone. We’re all learning to adapt and adjust, but the older we are the harder it is to do. Comedians of my generation were spoiled. We got to experience those fabulous ‘80s.

   That was an amazing time to be a comedian – probably the best ever. I’m delighted I got to see and experience it firsthand, but those days are gone forever. I can’t go on conducting business as if times haven’t changed. They absolutely have, and comics from my generation are hit hardest.

   We all clearly remember when there were more clubs than acts, and anyone with a phone and a functioning car could get booked enough to at least squeak out a living. It only lasted for a short time, but boy was it fun. It’s nothing like that now, and that means I have to come up with a new plan – or have a plan period. Back then nobody thought about anything other than their next gig.

   We were able to easily bring in a livable wage almost immediately – even as an opening act – so that virtually NOBODY even thought about merchandising except my friend James Gregory from Atlanta. Kudos and then some to James for being the nationwide leader years before I saw anyone else do it. People used to snicker at him for selling his wares, but who’s laughing now?

   James was smart enough to treat comedy like a BUSINESS. That’s exactly what it is, but most of the rest of us weren’t that smart. We stupidly assumed everything would ‘just work out’ for all us and even stupider than that we assumed it would last forever. I’m embarrassed that I did too.

   Nobody pictures getting older or the times changing, and NONE of us saw the internet coming – not even James. That was the giant fire breathing cross between an elephant and a dragon that mysteriously appeared out of nowhere and completely changed the game. It took a while, but it’s here to stay. Anyone who enters the game today has a whole new set of paradigms to deal with.

   I can’t speak for the others of my generation, even though I know more than a few aren’t liking the way things have evolved. I’m not thrilled with it myself, but I have to enter into a mindset of today in order to continue or you can make my next check out to ‘Mr. Edsel’. It’s a new world.

   Unfortunately, funny has little or nothing to do with the game today. It’s all about being able to get noticed. Who has the most Facebook friends? Who can put asses in seats? It wouldn’t matter in the least if the ‘next big thing’ in comedy wouldn’t get ONE laugh. If he or she could fill seats in a comedy club, they’d be instant headliners. I didn’t create this world, but it’s where we live.

   If Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson were to be released from prison and decide to do a tour of comedy clubs, they’d sell out coast to coast in minutes. Again, I’m just reporting the truth. I wish it mattered who’s funny and ethical and nice, but none of that has anything to do with anything. I don’t have to like the way things are going, but I do have to deal with it. The ‘80s are over on the calendar, and they have to be over in my head too. It was a great time, but I can’t live there now. I am now an internet marketer specializing in humorous content. As far as a comedian – I QUIT!    

No Free Rides

December 5, 2012

Monday December 3rd, 2012 – Chicago, IL

   I’m starting to get a few comedy shows and classes lined up for the next couple of months, and that’s encouraging. I’ve never enjoyed that whole process, but at least I’m making a better effort to get it done even if it is out of necessity. I have to find a way to pay off my taxes and move on.

I’ve got shows lined up at least every weekend for the next six weeks, and that gives me a little breathing room to work even harder at filling the rest of 2013. I’m at my absolute peak right now as far as levels of performance and teaching go, but there’s no guarantee how long that will last.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to stay hungry forever. Eventually, one either starves to death or is full and no longer needs to hunt. I find myself in an odd position that’s right in between. I have experienced the fringes of success, but haven’t had enough to fill me up for a lifetime quite yet.

My goals when I started in comedy were to become a headliner in major comedy clubs all over North America and appear on national television as well. I’ve done that, but it hasn’t been nearly what I had imagined. I assumed that when it happened my life would just work out all by itself.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and now that I’m here I realize that every stage of life comes with its own individual set of difficult challenges and there are no free rides whatsoever at any time. I used to look at the headliners when I started in comedy and thought they lived golden lives completely free of turmoil. I would hear them complain, and could not comprehend why.

Now I’m in their position, and I totally see why they felt like they did. There are hidden things nobody sees until they venture down that path, but by then it’s too late. It’s like a kid wanting to be an adult more than anything, and not being able to understand why adults aren’t totally happy.

A kid sees the benefits they crave at the time but can’t have like being able to stay up as late as they want or the freedom to eat as much McDonald’s or candy as they can hold, but other things like the high pressure responsibility of making a living or dealing with in laws goes unnoticed.

Kids can’t fathom in the least why adults seem to be so boring most of the time and constantly complaining, but eventually they find out soon enough and then it’s too late. There’s no return to childhood, and the next generation of kids are coming up the ladder and the cycle begins again.

I noticed that at Zanies in Chicago tonight as I hosted the Rising Star Showcase as I’ve done on and off for several years now. I hadn’t done it in a while, so it was a nice change of pace. I enjoy seeing the new comics coming up the ladder, and I see that same hunger in their eyes that I had.

Those kids look at me exactly the way I used to look at the headliners as I was clawing my way up the ranks, but they fail to see the advantages of youth just like I did when I had it. I try to give sincere words of encouragement to as many of them as I can, as I know how much that meant to me when I was in their position. I still remember kind words I heard 20 years ago, and those who said them rank high in my book even now. But where did that time go? It seems like last week.