How to run a comedy night
With the comedy scene more popular than ever, there is an audience hungry to spend their time and money on high quality stand-up. Whether that’s sell out arena tours with household names, smaller venues showcasing the latest underground talent or even virtual stand up comedy events, there’s more opportunity than ever to shine in the comedy scene.
So, if you’re thinking of taking a slice of that comedy pie, but are new to promoting, or simply want some new ideas, we’ve produced this guide on how to put on a comedy night.
Finding a Comedy Venue
When it comes to finding the perfect venue, you are going to be limited to some extent by budget and availability but there are venues out there for all types and sizes of comedy show – you just have to find them! The first step is knowing what to look for.
Ensure that the venue is central and supported by good transport links. Even the most breath-taking building won’t sell tickets if it’s a mission to get there.
As long as the venue facilitates entertainment shows, then anything goes. Having said that, there are some specific things you should think about when booking a comedy show venue. The room itself should be set up so that sound reverberates around the room, in particular look for venues with low ceilings and brick walls. This means that the sound of laughter and applause is emphasised, making your audience feel less self-conscious and more likely to throw themselves into the show.
If you book comedians just starting out on the circuit or more established underground talent then your venue should reflect this. Try looking for something a little out of the ordinary to get your audience talking.
It’s important to match the venue’s capacity to the type of show you are putting on. Just remember, it’s better to have a packed audience, rather than empty seats so do take note of our budgeting section later on.
Most importantly, your venue should have a dedicated performance space, anything from a theatre to a function room in a pub. Try and find a venue with a Green Room so that the comedians have a space to prepare. Whatever the popularity of your acts, they probably won’t appreciate sitting out front with their audience.
When booking a venue, be sure to discuss whether the hiring fee is based on a straight booking fee or profit share. Some venues ask for a fee to hire the room and make up their money from food and drinks sales. Other venues prefer a profit split where they take a percentage of ticket sales. You should make sure that you understand this from the start so you avoid any surprising fees later down the line.
Equipment for a Comedy Night
Venues that regularly have live music will probably have their own lighting and sound equipment, but it’s always best to check what facilities they have. The following equipment is necessary for a quality comedy show:
– Spotlight and adjustable lighting
– Good quality microphones
– Microphone stands
– Raised stage or performance area
– PA system
– Music system
Once you’ve chosen your acts, you will need to revisit this list to ensure that you have all the equipment they need for their act. For example, a double act will need two microphones and two mic stands, a musical comedian will need an amp. Do the professional thing and ask the comedian what equipment they need well in advance of the show.
Budgeting for a Comedy Night
Budgeting is a crucial part of any event you put on. Without knowing your budget, you can easily make a loss before you’ve even begun. Knowing your breakeven point is essential and helps you with ticket pricing and understanding what you can afford for promotion and extras on the night. You have several costs to consider including:
– Venue hire
– Fee for your acts
– Equipment hire
How to work out ticket pricing?
Comedian James Cook suggests pitching your ticket price about the same as a cinema ticket in that area. That’s about £8.50 for Cardiff, £9.50 for Birmingham and £12.50 for London.
Another tip, always price your tickets as £XX.50 – if people will pay £10, they’ll be happy to pay £10.50. It may not seem like much but for every 100 tickets you sell, you’re making an extra £50.
How to choose your comedy acts
For a great comedy show, you need great comedians. Carefully selecting your line up is key to your show’s success. Work the circuit and watch as many acts as possible – open mic nights can be a great way to source emerging talent. If you’re keen on a certain comedian, speak to them after the show and introduce yourself – it’s always best to put a face to the name.
Keep it interesting and book a mixture of acts. There are a number of comedy styles which you can combine to keep things interesting like one-liners alongside observational comics, but always ensure the quality is high.
When pitching a fee for your acts, remember this is heavily influenced by the day of the week. Thursday to Saturday nights are peak times and therefore more expensive, whereas Sunday to Tuesday nights are cheaper and comedians are more likely to be available and looking for a gig.
Depending on how established your act is, prices can vary drastically. Comedians new to the circuit can expect to be paid very little. However more established comedians can earn up to £1000 for a night’s stand up, or much more than that for corporate work. Comedian listings website Purple Cactus Productions arrange comedians from £500 to £20,000 plus. It’s important to remember that if you approach a comedian or their agent directly, this fee may be much lower.
Choosing an MC or Compare
As the person who ties the whole comedy show together, it’s imperative to choose your MC wisely. However funny your acts are, a bad MC can ruin your show altogether.
When it comes to choosing an MC, comedian Jim Richardson advises: ‘Whether or not they are funny is one of the last things I consider.’
His list of considerations listed in his book The Fundamentals of Stand-Up Comedy will give you a good grounding for what to look for in your MC.
– Do they have enough experience so they will not panic at the inevitable silence or audience chatter?
– Have they been performing at other clubs long enough so they have a reputation for showing up at the gig after I hire them?
– Do they have enough visual or audible energy so the audience will focus on the stage while they are up there?
– Can they deal with hecklers? Inexperienced comics often get flustered instead of getting the outspoken person to quiet down.
– Can they be easily understood?
– Does their act sound natural, or does it sound memorised?
What is the job of an MC?
The job of the MC is much like a composer; they set the rhythm, tone and hold the whole show together. One of the first jobs is to spell out the evenings house rules.
Experienced MCs will already have a pre-prepared ground rules spiel packed with gags, as a minimum this should include:
– No phones
– No talking during the acts
– No heckling or constant interruptions (there’s more about this later)
Planning a Comedy Night
Format of a comedy night
Comedy shows are normally 90-120 minutes depending on the number of acts you choose to showcase. Here’s an example running order from comedy coach John Cantu.
– MC: 10mins
– First Act: 15-20mins
– MC: 5mins
– Middle Act: 20 – 25mins
– MC: 5-10mins
– Headliner: 30- 40mins
Make a playlist for before the show and between acts – silence makes people self-conscious and they’re less likely to let loose and enjoy the show.
Setting out the venue
The key to setting out your venue is to ensure that your acts are the main focus of the evening and to put your audience at ease. This can be achieved in a number of ways.
Firstly the comedian should be on a stage or raised platform, it’s important that the audience can see them from at least the waist up. Comedy is all in the delivery so you want to ensure that your audience can read the comic’s body language at all times.
Bad lighting can ruin a show. If your venue doesn’t have adjustable lighting, look into hiring some. Your comedian should be well lit, but not blinded. They should be able to see their audience and read their reactions.
Your audience should be in darkness. This makes them feel less self conscious and more likely to immerse themselves in the evening.
To create an intimate and relaxed atmosphere, seats should always be filled from the front first. Empty tables and seats do nothing for a comedian’s or an audience’s confidence.
Marketing & Promotion
A comedy show is nothing without a great audience. It’s your job as the show’s promoter to ensure that everyone who might be interested knows when and where your comedy night is taking place.
Whatever your budget, there’s a number of ways you can promote your show. At the very least announce your show on social media and create an event on Facebook. Encourage people to share and invite their friends, this all helps create a buzz around the show. The comedians themselves can be great at sharing with their networks.
Create an eye-catching poster and flyer. There are illustrators out there that may be willing to design a poster for exposure alone or a small fee. Visit relevant events and hand out the flyers once the show has ended.
Speak to your venue about putting up posters on their marketing boards, listing the event on their website’s calendar and even selling tickets directly through the venue. If the venue puts on other comedy shows there’s even more chance that your target audience will see your event.
List your show on free event listings websites and contact local press to let them know about the show. They may be able to include this within an events calendar.
Challenges and how to overcome them
How to keep your audience coming back
Use your previous ticket sales to build a mailing list and send them details about new shows when they are announced. Wherever possible, try to keep your events to the same night. If you host a show on the first Tuesday of the month, your audience will soon start to look for show announcements around this time.
What to do if a comedian pulls out?
If you’ve picked your acts well this scenario is very unlikely, but never say never! To reduce the risk of this happening, ensure you’ve contacted your acts the day before the show, also be sure to check your emails and phone regularly throughout the day of the show. In the event that your act pulls out hours before the show, don’t panic. Look at your remaining acts and running order. If you’ve picked an experienced MC, speak to them about including an opening sketch. Speak to your middle act about headlining the show. They’re very unlikely to turn the opportunity down.
In the words of the Scout motto: Be prepared. At the very least, always make sure that you have a spare microphone available. If your venue includes a sound and lighting system, it’s more than likely that they will provide a technical engineer for the evening. Ensure they have a list of the equipment each act needs in advance of the show.
No one shows up
It’s a promoter’s worst nightmare. Not only does it impact on the atmosphere of the evening, but also your profit line. Wherever possible ensure your tickets are sold in advance. If your event is taking place in a function room or back room, go out and let people know that there’s a comedy event happening that evening.
Comedian Erica Rhodes says: “You have two choices with a heckler. You can ignore it or you can use it. If you use it, make sure it’s funny. Don’t just be mean. And remember you’re entertaining an entire audience so don’t let the heckler take up all of your attention.’
Unfortunately heckling is now an expected part of a comedy show. If you’ve hired an experienced MC, chances are they’ve dealt with this 100 times over. If a punter is ignoring the house rules, remind them, but only let it slide for so long. If a heckler is ruining the show, have the venue remove them.
Learn from the best
Being a promoter is all about building on your last show, spend time working the comedy circuit and seeing what works best.
Here are Time Out’s top three London comedy clubs and what they do best. (2015)
One of the keys to Soho Theatres’ success is quality not quantity. Instead of putting on multi-bill nights, the venue showcases one-hour solo shows from some of the finest acts in the world. A ticket here will cost between £10 and £20.
A purpose-built comedy venue, The Comedy Club is one of the finest comedy venues in the country. With seating that hugs the stage, each of their shows is an intimate success. Tickets will set you back between £14 and £24.
Laugh Out London promoters Jack De’ath and Thomas Meek have managed to combine the finest comedy line-ups for dirt-cheap ticket pricing. It serves as a friendly environment for comedians big and small to practice new material in front of a comedy-savvy crowd. Tickets here will cost you £7, maximum.
Running a virtual comedy night online
Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual events have become a crucial format for event planners who want to continue to reach their audiences. In 2020, most event types that would have typically taken place in person have now adjusted to the virtual landscape – and comedy nights are no exception.
Taking your comedy night online will allow you to continue reaching the masses during the pandemic and beyond. Investing in a way to offer virtual events may also serve as a long term extension to your comedy events, especially as people become more accustomed to attending virtual events in general. Ongoing virtual comedy events will allow you to reach more people without geographic limitations, helping your comedy night gain even more popularity.
Virtual stand up comedy event
When planning your virtual comedy night, you should follow the same planning process as highlighted when planning a physical comedy event. However, there are some key elements you’ll need to consider when planning the virtual version of your comedy event.
Choose the right virtual event platform
Comedy events should be intimate and interactive – attributes that can prove difficult to replicate in an online environment. Comedians thrive on the audience’s energy and responses to their material, even the occasional heckle. Choosing the right virtual event platform can help you to create this feeling as best as possible.
There are lots of options to choose from: Zoom, Google Meet / Hangouts, Teams, Twitch and Bluejeans – there are even virtual conferencing platforms specific to events. Each offer different benefits and drawbacks, whether that’s price or functionality, so choose the platform depending on your event’s needs and budgets.
For comedy nights, virtual platforms that allow all guests and comedians to be seen at the same time work well to create a more authentic experience. Comedians feed off the reactions of the audience, so making sure the live stand up performer can engage with the audience on some level is extremely important.
Encouraging audience interaction
There are lots of ways to give your audience an opportunity to interact with the comedian virtually. However, it’s important that you set expectations ahead of the event, so that the audience knows that it will be more of an interactive event (rather than many other types of virtual events that are more passive.)
As part of the event information, you should also advise the attendees in advance about the dynamics of the virtual comedy event. Explain that attendees are encouraged to:
- show their faces so the comedian can react based on their reactions. (You can suggest that the audience sit in dimmed light so they feel less exposed – much as they would in a physical stand up show)
- unmute their microphones when the comedian speaks to them directly
- write in a shared chat that the comedian has access to and can respond
This will allow the audience to get more involved in the show, create a softer environment and make the virtual event more enjoyable for everyone.
Create the virtual stage
Just because your event doesn’t take place on a real stage in a real venue, doesn’t mean your acts should do their stand up act from the sofa.
Sound and presentation is key to making your virtual comedy event successful – so encourage your acts to create a space similar to what an audience member would normally expect from a comedy event. For example:
- Make sure your comedy acts are set up with good sound
- Consider providing them with external mics to improve sound quality. It can also allow them to sit further away from the screen and give more of a performance
- Create a visually appealing set:
- Make sure there is good lighting
- Make sure the comedians are well presented
- Try to show the whole body while performing, not just the face
- Make sure internet connection is strong and doesn’t suffer from any drops
Set appropriate pricing
Like most virtual events, attendees expect there to be a price discount compared to physical events. However, there’s no need to sell yourself or your comedians short.
Due to the costs saved on traditional event overheads such as the venue and production equipment, you can still price your tickets in a way that helps you drive a profit, pay your talent fairly, while offering an affordable experience for your guests.
You can also scale pricing, offering tickets that allow some guests greater opportunity to interact with the comedians via instant messaging or by speech, while other guests pay less just to enjoy the show. This adds value to the tickets and allows you to stagger prices.
You should also add a limit to the amount of tickets. Just because the event is virtual doesn’t mean it should have endless attendees. Limited places create a sense of exclusivity, and allows everyone the opportunity to get more stuck into the show.
Central London Comedy Venue – 20 Bedford Way
Here at 20 Bedford Way, we specialise in putting on comedy, music and arts events in our 910-seat theatre Logan Hall. We have hosted some of the leading lights in international comedy including Milton Jones, Max Amini and Jim Jefferies. Our rates are very affordable, especially when compared to similar-sized venues in London. A green room, full PA sound rig and lighting rig is included in the hire of Logan Hall. Catering is also available by request. Call us on 020 7612 6143 for more information.
Header image of ventriloquist Alan Stainer from Australian National Maritime Museum on Flickr