• Jon Matthews

How to Run a Comedy Night

There are lots of things to consider when starting or taking over a comedy night. I have run comedy nights in eight different venues in three different cities, ranging from one off charity gigs and open mic nights to showcases with top name headliners. I have made plenty of mistakes and learnt many lessons. I’ve also attended and performed at hundreds of different nights, both good and bad, and benefited from countless conversations with other acts about nights they have been involved in. I present to you some of the sum of my experience in the form of some top tips for running a comedy night:

1. Why do you want to run a night?

There are many reasons for running a comedy night, both lofty and nefarious. Motivations will, inevitably, have a huge impact on the night’s format, success and reputation. Ultimately, the best reason to run a night is because one is needed. The best nights are nights that benefit comedians (more on that later), the audience and the promoter as well as having a positive impact on the wider comedy scene. Different nights should appeal to different acts/audiences, in different parts of town and on different nights of the week. When nights clash, in any of these areas, problems will arise. The first thing any prospective promoter should do is speak to the acts and existing promoters in an area and find out as much as possible about the different nights in order to find out what is needed in what part of town on what night of the week. Know your scene.

2. Is this at the expense of getting good?

Running a comedy night can be a lot of fun but it can also be a lot of work and requires a level of commitment from the team/individual putting it on. Many newer acts see starting a night as an easy way to ensure regular stage time or to give themselves a negotiating position to get on other nights. If you are only performing at your own night you will quickly become one dimensional and may struggle when faced with a different crowd. Performing at a wide variety of gigs is crucial when you are new, as is learning about how the inner workings of a night operate. Set up a night too soon and you will run into problems that you will have avoided had you been patient and performed at a wider variety of nights first. Sometimes there is a pressing need to start a night, due to the needs of the scene and if that is the case don’t let your individual artform suffer because of starting a night.

3. What format will you choose?

There are as many different types of comedy night as there are types of comedian and all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. I’ve tried to summarise the most common below but have probably missed plenty:

Traditional open-mic – Sign up on the night or earlier in the day via social media and get a short spot. Different nights have different spot lengths (I’ve done from 4 to 15 (!?!) at open mics) and everyone gets the same. Great for new acts or trying out new stuff BUT are often a bit of a sausage fest and some struggle to pull a crowd other than the acts. If you travel a long way and don’t get a spot it can be deeply frustrating.

Curated open-mic – Sometimes called ‘new act/new material’. Same as above but you sign up to a list and get messaged about a spot further down the line when one is available. Audiences vary considerably and it can take months to get a spot. Promoters tend to mix experienced acts doing longer spots with newer acts doing short ones and seek to achieve their own secret diversity quota.

Open-mic followed by headliner – As above but has a professional headliner and charges entry to pay for them. In this case open-mic spots are used as free, local support for a decent act but are allowed to try new material in front of an actual real-life crowd, which is hugely valuable.

The non-open open-mic – Dresses up as an open mic in any of the above formats but requires acts to ‘apply’ and are selected at promoters’ discretion, therefore not open. Some will demand ‘best material’ but offer nothing in return. Somewhat exploitative.

Competitions – Includes ‘audition shows’ where audience votes on the act/acts to come back and do a paid spot; Gong shows where audiences can gong an act off if they don’t like them (winner often receives cash prize) or nights where the audience votes on acts to go through to the next round, often for a title of some kind. Victory looks good on the comedy CV but they can be harsh nights and if taken too seriously can bring out the worst in some people.

Bringer – Any of the above but the act is required to bring one (or more) audience members. Top trade secret: everyone hates bringers and everyone who runs them. You will die alone and miserable.

Pay to play – Any of the above but the acts is required to pay an entry fee to perform. The people who run these nights are doomed to repeat their most painful moments for all eternity.

Showcases – A paying audience watches acts who have been selected by the promoter. Generally pays (more on this later) and the audience is often keen to enjoy themselves as they have invested in laughing.

Professional shows – A paying audience watches professional acts, sometimes supported by local talent.

If a scene has too many of any one type of night it can be detrimental. The best bet is to find out what is going on and try to make your night different to the other nights. It is also important to be clear and transparent about what kind of night you are putting on. Some nights mix formulas up too much with some acts getting paid and some not, with little or no distinction between them, which can cause resentment and frustration.

4. Choose your venue wisely

This is massively important and doesn’t require much explanation. Just because a venue says they want comedy doesn’t mean that it is suitable for a comedy night. There are many questions that need to be asked. Is there a separate room or section? Or will the whole bar be turned over to a comedy night? Is there a PA system? Where will the stage area be? What will they offer in terms of money/drinks for acts? Will they help bring an audience in? Are they prepared to kick people out who cause trouble? etc.

With the exception of the promoter, the venue is probably the most important factor in making a night good or bad and a bad venue equals a bad night every time.

5. What are you offering the acts?

As an act I have a maxim: I’ll perform for free but I won’t perform for nothing. I will perform for the opportunity to try new material, the chance to prove myself or learn something (from watching others for example), to help with a cause I believe in (a new night or a charity) and sometimes just for a laugh. If I’m not getting paid, I tend to need one of those things otherwise I’ll just stay home and watch retro science fiction or play board games like the nerd I am.

Money is a thorny issue but as a rule of thumb I tend to believe that if the audience are paying to get in then all acts should get paid (with the possible exception of the open mic with

headliner or competition formats). I don’t think there are many nights that can’t at least set up a donation bucket and split it between the acts and as an act nothing is more frustrating that seeing a bucket and not getting anything from it, which happens more often that you think. The reason why I believe this is because comedy can be an expensive hobby, travelling from place to place, and even a few quid from a bucket can take the hit out and makes it something that is more accessible to people on a lower income, though I know this approach isn’t always possible (and there are plenty of nights where the material is so raw no one should get paid). If I’m getting paid I will perform material that I know is strong, if I’m not getting paid then I reserve the right to try new stuff – which I think is fair enough.

I also want to point out that I take great pleasure in paying acts and have had the delight of giving acts their first paid gig on numerous occasions. I also think it is important that a promoter gets paid, whether they are running an open mic or a professional show it is important to factor a little something for yourself into your budget negotiations. Share the wealth (but don’t be greedy).

6. Booking acts

This will massively depend on your format, obviously, and there is no shortage of acts out there. I tend to believe that if you are having acts apply and selecting who performs then you need to pay them or at least offer something in return. Diversity is a thorny issue and a ‘sign up

on the night/day’ event does run the risk of having 30 blokes in their 20s wearing chequered shirts and chinos all rock up to do 5 minutes about Tinder (sorry guys!). You could also easily end up with a dozen guys in Hawaiian shirts telling Holocaust jokes (not sorry guys!). Both these eventualities can put audiences off. I’ve seen all sorts of solutions to this from women signing up in advance and men on the night; local BAME acts being contacted by a promoter and asked to come along; LGBT+ specific nights (fail to be supportive of acts who aren’t out); women only nights (Bristol’s is lovely but some aren’t supportive of trans women) and, of course, line ups being set in advance.

When it comes to shows where the acts are booked, it is up to the promoter how they manage diversity at their events. It is important to bare in mind that some audience members will feel alienated if their demographic is not represented and will feel inspired if it is. Some promoters barely pay it any heed whilst some are intentionally looking to feel certain quotas each night. It is difficult.

Ensuring quality is another common issue, acts will generally send in a video of them doing well – though it does surprise me how many send in a video of them struggling (including acts I’ve seen do really well). I probably have a bias towards acts I’ve seen live over ones I’ve only seen a recording of, just because I get a better idea of how they will go down. It is important to take risks sometimes and remember that you are booking acts for your audience’s enjoyment even if they might not always be your thing. These days I generally run themed nights so it is crucial for me to make sure that acts fit in with the theme I am advertising, as well as being good enough for a spot in front of a paid audience. Audiences tend to understand that not every act will be their thing but I have had direct complaints about audiences not sticking to the advertised theme. Book a variety and be open minded.

7. Promotion

We try to establish how members of the audience find out about our night and despite all the various forms of social media and technology, word of mouth is definitely still number one. If people have a good time they will tell people and they will come again.

Facebook is useful when used well, but it can be difficult to build up the momentum that is required to have any kind of reach and I’ve never found paying for ads to be particularly beneficial. Comedy directories such as The Kettle in Bristol are very useful as are other event listing websites and ticketing services.

Posters and fliers have a cost element and again, we’ve found that not many people find out about us this way. That said, on the occasions where we have had someone flyering near the venue on the night we have brought a few extra people in from it.

I’m a big believer that the area of promotion is where a good venue comes into its own. When I perform at other people’s nights, I always look around the venue to see if I can see any posters/fliers about the gig and I’m always disappointed when I don’t see any. Venues should be posting about the night on social media, sending details out to their mailing list and promoting it on site. It is definitely not their responsibility alone, the promoter has lots of work to do too but they should definitely be helping out, especially as people who already attend other events at the venue are far more likely to come.

8. On the night

When it comes to the night itself some promoters like to sit back and enjoy the show with work delegated to other people whilst others, like myself, need to be involved in the action. Sometimes I’m doing techie stuff, sometimes I’m on the door, sometimes I MC and sometimes I do a little bit of all three. My co-organiser and my wife will also be working hard too. Acts who rock up early and our doorman also run the risk of being put to work. We set up the stage and PA, set up the chairs, sort out a float for the door, print off a guest list, put together any signs, welcome acts, welcome audience, check tickets, sell tickets, sell merchandise and a million other little tasks.

It’s easy to get flustered which is why many promoters choose not to MC as well. MCing is a hugely important job and being a good MC goes beyond just crowd-work and admin, they are responsible for keeping the energy right and preparing the audience for the next act. Sometimes that means raising the roof for a high energy act and sometimes it means regrouping ahead of a deadpan performer. They have to mix material with enthusiasm and instruction. Not every comedian is a good MC and not every comedian wants to be one. Personally, I love it and I enjoy MCing the nights I enjoy running. However, I try not to MC every time, it’s fun to give other people a chance and watch the night from a different perspective but also it allows me the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labour. I love putting on a good show and I love watching a room full of people enjoying themselves, whether I’m on stage, hiding behind a sound desk or watching from the shadows.

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