How Will Comedy Clubs Survive?

Seattle Comedy UndergroundJon Fox, owner of the Seattle Comedy Underground (one of my absolute favorite clubs in the country to perform at), presented an interesting question on his Facebook page recently looking at ideas for how comedy clubs will survive in the face of Netflix, YouTube, On Demand, and the myriad other ways people have of getting their dose of comedy these days.

You can check out the full thread and comments here.

As with anything that involves comedians, the comments involve a good amount of both ridiculous answers and self-interested complaining.  But there are some solid ideas in there too.  I decided to sleep on the idea and this morning, a lot more ideas were in my head.  Too many for a facebook comment.  Not that I have any concrete answers.  If I did, I’d be opening a club.  But I do have some ideas.

I think it’s obvious that the habits of people have changed with the advent of the digital media.  But at the same time, these cries of demise happened with film, radio, TV, telephone, and every other device that made it easier for people to communicate without actually being the presence of others.  Adaption is the key.

Or not… Vaudeville didn’t make it.  Even though I think there’s more of a possible market for that kind of “short attention span” entertainment now.  I don’t think the comedy club model is entirely in danger of extinction, but I do think things will need to change to keep it relevant.

Every business needs to begin and end with the customer experience.  And the biggest change is that comedy customers go to the club for different reasons than before.  Let’s take a look at what a comedy club offers its patrons.

Are they going for laughs?  Only partially.  Good comedy can be had at the drop of hat right on your cell phone these days.  There is no shortage of really killer comedy work being done on the internet.

Are they going for the drinks? Definitely no.  They’re usually overpriced.  Then there’s the whole two drink minimum idea that irks people, even if they want to drink.  If people just want to drink, there’s probably a bar nearby that’s more reasonably priced.

Are they going for the food? Oh my god.. Have you had typical comedy club food? It’s atrocious.  And overpriced.  Oftentimes, as a comedian working the club, we’ll be comped food.  And I love deep fried junk food.  And I will still often turn down free comedy club food.

Are they going because it’s easy entertainment?  Let’s see… Parking, ticket prices, drink minimums, having to put clothes on, actually leaving the house, hiring a babysitter… Starting to get the idea?  People have to work extra to see an event like this.

Are they going to socialize? Hmm… Now we’re getting somewhere.  Kind of.  People do get stir crazy staying home every night.  There’s still that need to get out of the house and experience something.  Anything sometimes.  Think about the married with two kids couple whose idea of a wild night out is dinner and grocery shopping. BUT, it depends on what kind of socializing.  If you want to actually talk to other people, meet new people, really socialize… The comedy club ain’t it.

As Todd Glass says in the intro video at the San Jose Improv, the audience’s job is to “shut up, laugh, shut up, laugh.”  That’s not exactly a swinging social scene, is it?  So there’s a particular kind of socializing going on at comedy clubs.

The first is people who want to be around others, but not actually talk to or meet anyone.  The shy folks. (My hand is in the air here…)  The next are small groups.  Going out with a few friends.  Because comedy really is better when you have other people of a similar temperament around you.  And, in this case, comedy works best if they’d had dinner or something beforehand.  Something that’s given the friends time to talk and catch up.  Comedy comes in just as their discussion starts to die down.  Then there are the daters. Not first daters.  Standup on a first date can get awkward depending on the material of the comic. Comedy gets at a lot of deep dark human secrets and it can be a little disturbing on a first date to see what the other is laughing at.  But for a couple that’s been dating for awhile, comedy is a great date.  It’s not a romantic date, but it is fun.

The last group is the corporate function.  A group of employees who see each other every day, probably don’t need or want to do any talking to each other, but have some need for an event.

Are they going for social currency? Now here’s an interesting one….  From Wikipedia: “Social currency is a common term that can be understood as the entirety of actual and potential resources which arise from the presence in social networks and communities, may they be digital or offline. It derives from Pierre Bourdieu’s social capital theory and is about increasing one’s sense of community, granting access to information and knowledge, helping to form one’s identity, and providing status and recognition.”

When someone says, “Man, I saw Ralphie May on TV last night and he was great!”  And the other person says, “Oh yeah… I saw Ralphie live last month. Killer show.”  Boom, social currency.  That second person has just raised their status a little bit.  Seeing live entertainment still has a higher perception that digital stuff.  In a roundabout way it signals prosperity because that person had enough money to spend on going to a comedy club.

This is why people will pay bigger prices and swarm out in droves for bigger names they’ve heard of.  And why it’s tougher to get people in for the people nobody’s heard of.  Just ask any music venue.  Saying to caught Brian Regan or Jim Gaffigan will carry more cachet that saying you saw me.

The flip side?  Tastemakers and other people that like to turn their friends onto new things.  Here’s where the comedy nerds come in.  Those people are happy to find that diamond nobody else has heard of yet.  Those folks thrive on discovering something great and under the radar.  But, by definition, these people are fewer in number than the celeb seekers.

Another angle on both social currency and socializing in general is the idea of community building.  People have a favorite bar or restaurant.  Why not a comedy club?  Comedians have a “home club” because they’ve become family there.  They know everyone there from the owner to the bus boys.  How many people go to a comedy club as a fan and feel like they have a home club?  I do know a couple, but not many.

The Changing Face of the Entertainment Consumer

It used to be that people went out for entertainment in order to see someone do something better than they over could.  However with the advent of technology that makes creation easier for the average person, the bar for creation and come down a lot.  People are far more “me oriented” than before.  The experience becomes more about the audience member than about the performer.  Much like the advent of EDM that has taken over the music concert industry.  Those events are far less about what’s happening on the stage than what’s happening in the audience.  The show is a soundtrack for the experience.  Nobody is watching the artist’s every move like you would a guitarist’s.

That means that a show producer needs to cater as much as possible to what the patron wants from the experience that they can’t get anywhere else.  You can’t take ecstasy and dance to extremely loud music with thousands of other people in your home.

That’s an easy to understand experience.  And I don’t think that people realize the difference between watching comedy at home vs. a room with a few hundred people.  There’s a huge difference. The individual laughter is much bigger in a room full of people than sitting on your couch at home.  And with that comes the health benefits of laughter, both from a long term standpoint and a temporary “narcotic” standpoint.  But most people don’t realize that they laugh a lot less on the couch than at the club.

Sort of a side note here. The theater tour.  If individual comics or packages can do theaters instead of clubs, it makes absolute sense to.  If I have the choice of putting 2000 people in a theater for one night, making just as much money (or more) and only do one show, why would I want to spread those same people out over 5 shows where I have to work 5 times as much?  The one and only advantage to multiple smaller shows is the intimacy factor.  Steve Martin quit comedy because the shows got too big and the communication started getting lost.  If you’re not used to large venues they can really mess with your timing and it’s a really different experience for the comedian.  So some comics prefer smaller rooms.

The business metrics of a comedy club are built on bringing a guy in 3-5 days, paying a certain amount for it and trying to fill as many shows as possible.  Always with the possibility that Thursday and Sunday are going to have really light crowds.

This is often great for the comics because it lessens our travel costs and fills out calendar.  If we had to do one-nighters all the time (like bands), it’s a tougher thing to do.  I tour waaay more as a comic than I did as a straight musician because of that.

So now what?

Ok, so what can a club really do to stay afloat.  Like I said, I don’t really have answers.  But I think we’ve at least got some ideas to think about and get creative with.

I think it’s important to look at what other businesses are doing that’s creating success. Look at clubs like Laughing Skull in Atlanta that uses exclusivity as their hook. Or look at Parlor in Boise that uses comedy as a loss leader and makes their money on other stuff.  Look at Sunday nights at the Punch Line in San Francisco that consistently has a packed audience for a show with only local names on it.

Even more so, look at other segments of entertainment.  What about movie theaters?  There’s a big difference between the megaplexes showing big budget films, the new brand of theaters doing couch seating and serving restaurant quality food, the art houses that cater to art films fans, and the retro places that specialize in making events out of old movies.

What are music venues doing?  How are they educating their audiences about new artists?  Which theater companies are doing well?  Which classical music organizations are thriving?  What is the hot local bar doing to bring people in?  Learn from everyone even if specific techniques aren’t right for your particular club.  Experiment with everything you can.

Time to Reframe Your Business… Ask any comedy club owner and they’ll tell you they’re in the food and beverage business.  Not the comedy business.  Food and drink.  That won’t fly anymore.  A comedy club needs to be in the community building business.  Create regular patrons that will come time and again.  Feel free to charge them money (fairly), but make sure they get what they need from the transaction.

Market to the audience that’s appropriate for the show.  If you’re bringing in a proven ticket seller, promote that show to the people who are in it for that kind of social currency.  The guy who came to see Amy Schumer because he saw her on Last Comic Standing is the guy you want to promote your next big ticket comic too.  If you’re bringing in an underground sensation who doesn’t have the mainstream’s ear yet, market to the comedy nerds who know.

Two things go on top of this.  The comedy nerds are the ones to offer 2-for-1 tickets and such to.  These are people that are proud of being in the know and will drag some friends along with them.  For the mainstreamers, the job is to become the tastemaker yourself and educate them about the performers they don’t know.

I so rarely see clubs do this.  Even something as simple as posting a video for each upcoming comedian on the club’s website can help hook someone onto a new comic.  That’s a bare minimum.  Those videos should also be posted to all social media and sent out to the club’s email list.

Speaking of email lists… They’re still the holy grail.  Get as much contact information as you can and stay in contact with these people. Don’t just email them the name and ticket price for the weekend.  Send video links and your impressions on the comic’s style (rather than the stock bio).  Segment your list based on who they came to see before.  Then you can say, “Hey, we know you enjoyed Henry Phillips when he came through.  Phil Johnson will probably be to your taste too.”

A simple comment card isn’t enough.  You need to know what they like and what they don’t on a regular basis.  Maybe they did come to the Henry Phillips show but didn’t enjoy it (Blasphemy!).  You want to know that too so you don’t put that same audience member in front of Chris Valenti.

You’re never going to get 100% communication, but it’s better than what’s happening now.

What about a membership of some sort?  Take a look at how grocery stores capture information.  “We’ll give you 10% off this can of beans if we can know that you bought this can of beans.”  It could be something as easy as a punch card like the local sandwich shop.  Buy 10, get one free.  Or something more credit card style that just needs to be swiped on the way into the club.

And if the punch card guy racks up 10 punches on his card on freebie open mic nights and then wants his free one to see Louis CK on an exclusive one nighter?  Let him.  That dude’s worked for it.  Yes, there will be people that will take advantage of the system.  But they’re much fewer than you’d expect.  (And anyone that sits through that many open mics deserves a medal.)

One of my merch items at shows is a “name your own price” CD of some of my most sought after material.  Every so often someone will hand me a quarter for it.  And I’ll happily take that guy’s quarter and give him a CD.  Because behind him is another guy with a $20 bill in his hand.  And there are way more of those than the cheapos.  People will play fair if they are facing a real person.  Online is a different story completely and outside the scope of this post.

Now that you’ve got their info?  Follow up surveys, customized emails based on what they really like.  Actually exclusive offers.  I get the same email from one club every single week saying I’ve won a party pack of tickets.  Don’t…. Do not… DO NOT short circuit an offer with overkill.  When it happens it should be special and customized.

Don’t underestimate the hand stamp… Before I became a performer, I went to a lot of shows.  Darn near every weekend.  At the same club.  One Step Beyond in Santa Clara, CA.  I was one of the last people out the door the night they closed.  And every Sunday morning, I’d look at the remnants of the stamp on my hand instantly recall what a great time I had the night before.

Most clubs don’t do a hand stamp because they don’t need to.  Take the tickets and they’re in.  But that hand stamp is a great reminder of the fantastic night they had at your club.  Even better? That hand stamp should be the URL of your website.

What if people could take a picture of their handstamp, post it on your Facebook page and in exchange get a discount on their next show?  Or a free drink?  Or a “bring a friend coupon”?  Or some sort of VIP service at their next show?

Help the performers build their audience… Some comics are great at promoting, some aren’t.  But your goal as a club owner should be educating your audience as to why the comic you booked is awesome.  Work with the performer on whatever promotions they have in place.  I have a free membership portion of my site where I build my mailing list.  If a club were to promote that to their patrons, I would be super grateful and more likely to put in my own work promoting their club.  Don’t ask the performers to remember to post those things on your Facebook or wherever.  We’ve got a thousand shows booked.  First we’re already doing lots of promoting.  Second, we don’t know which clubs are amenable to stuff like that and which aren’t.

And I’m not saying you shouldn’t expect the comics to help promote.  You should.  But a partnership with the club on promotions go much smoother.

Figure out how to help the performers build their list and fanbase at the show.  Make it easy for your patrons to join the artist’s email list.  I have email slips and such that I use at shows, but it’s often hard to use them if the club has their own slips on the tables.  Some clubs actually get angry when a comic wants to put stuff like that on the tables.  God forbid we try to build our audience in their town.

I’m not talking about just your headliners here either.  Those patrons need to be able to follow the MC and feature’s career just as easily as the headliner.  Especially if you’re trying to develop your local guys and girls into headliners.

Don’t be afraid of making your comics participate in the promotion and building of that fanbase either.  But don’t put it all on the performer.  Then you run into the same problems as music venues who can’t find anyone to fill their rooms because they put all the expectations on the performer (who may not be that great at it).  The more a venue does to help me build a fanbase, the more work I’ll do to reciprocate.  Particularly if they share some cool promotion ideas with me.

So you put the work in helping to build a comic and then they move on to bigger venues, right?  That’s the way it works.  A band doesn’t play Joe’s Bar if they can play Madison Square Garden.  But if you go the extra mile helping a comic build their base, you can be sure they’ll be way more likely to do that exclusive surprise one-nighter on a Tuesday and pack the place for you.  Remember, by exposing your patrons to every bit of fan building material a performer has you’re educating that patron about why they need to see the show at your club.  You’re building your community.

Quality Shows… I think it goes without saying that the shows need to be good. But for the most part, I don’t think the comedy club industry has a problem with this.  Yes, sometimes I wonder what the hell the booker was thinking.  But for the most part, the shows make sense even if it’s not my cup of tea.

I think a larger part of it is educating the patrons and letting them know what to expect.  If a patron knows what they’re in for, they’re much more likely to enjoy the show.

Make the environment conducive to good comedy… Can you get your patrons validated parking like Zanie’s in Rosemont, IL?  Can you offer a higher standard of food?  Can you offer more comfortable seating?

The typical tightly packed, cafe style seating is a proven concept in comedy clubs.  It helps keep the energy in the room tightly packed.  But maybe experiment with putting a bunch of couches in. Or more comfortable chairs.  Or tables with padded arm rests.  Maybe an “in the round” style setup.  Maybe rows that are more like theater seating.

Not enough people in the room?  Have a system for curtaining off the empty part of the room to make the place smaller and keep the energy up.

For god’s sake, seat people.  Don’t let them pick out their own tables.  Keep them packed together and close to the stage.  Otherwise they’ll all sit toward the back and we have to yell across the room to them.

Get them laughing before the MC comes on.  Play funny YouTube videos before the show starts like Loonees in Colorado Springs. Design some sort of active and interactive games that the MC can play with the audience before the show starts.  Could be as simple as trivia or as elaborate as scavenger hunt (as in, “The first person to pull a foreign coin out of their pocket gets a prize”).  Get their brain off their phones and in the room.  Get the energy up.  Give them 3-5 minutes of anticipation, then bring the lights down and start the show.  They’ll be energized and ready to go instead of hoping the MC’s mediocre 10 minutes will do it.

Technology, the Great Disruptor… Technology is going to keep changing and improving and allowing people to consume content in the way they want to.  If someone gets enough juice watching comedy on a YouTube video and they’re happy with that, you’ll never get them to your club.  That’s fine.  Don’t try and get that person.  Get the people that want to come instead and develop them into a family.

I do a lot of Twitter promotion and I realized that I should be targeting people that were already following the clubs where I’ll be playing.  Except for 90% of that club’s followers were other comics.  You need that comic family.  But you need a patron family even more.  You don’t make your money from comics.  Your social media work should be targeting people in your area who are fans of the comics you have coming in AND fans of similar comics.  If you have an insecure balding confessional comic coming in, then you need to go after Louis CK’s fans in your area and let them know.

Take pictures of your patrons and let them know where they can see themselves in it online.  Remember, these folks are much more about “me” than the show.  Take their picture on the way in.  Take a shot from the stage.  Get their contact info and tell them you’ll email it to them.  Post it on Instagram, Facebook, wherever the hell else.  Shoot them talking to the comics at the merch table after.  Tag the people in the photos on everything. Let them know where they can see it and share it.

If people are waiting in line to take pictures with the comics after, have someone with a camera doing them all.  Get their contact info and email it to them.  The line will go much faster than everyone using their phone.  Plus the pictures will be better quality.  The comics will appreciate it too because that line will move quicker.

What about inside the club?  There have been a lot of experiments in music clubs with different things involving phones.  Song requests, twitter comments posted on large screens, etc.  These would be really tough to pull of in a comedy show because it splits the patrons’ attention.  That doesn’t work well in comedy.  That doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with that stuff though.  Plenty of weeknight theme show ideas in there.

How about live streaming all or some of the show?  What if you had a password protected video site that live streamed the shows?  You could sell memberships to watch the show online (just like Netflix).  And make sure they know that it’s raw and uncut, unlike the stuff they’ll get on Comedy Central.  Promote that stream to people that can’t make it to shows as easily: Parents, older people, students during final exams time, invalids, anyone has a hard time getting to a show.  And make sure to include all the pre-show fun you’ve devised as well. Make sure it looks and sounds as good as can be.  Not some weird camera angle and crap sound that makes it look like a surveillance video.

Maybe you only stream part of the show?  Make it free and tell people they can watch the first 10 minutes of the headliner’s set.  Give them a taste to make them want to make the effort to come to the club.  Those people may not come as regularly, but when they do it’ll be a special occasion and they’ll spend money.

Yes, you’ll need to get permission from the comics to do this stuff.  Explain to them the advantages of it.  Give them a pay bonus based on how many people watch.  Hell, offer them a commission for anyone that signs up using their promo code.  They can blast it out to their fans everywhere and you can have people in different states signing up for a membership to watch shows at your club online.

Use the phones to build your mailing list.  Tell people they can sign up right on their phone.  I do it all the time for restaurants. Why?  I’m hoping to get a little discount.  But now they’ve got my info and can keep me coming back.  Hell, I’m making a special effort to go find a Red Robin here in Flint, MI while I’m on tour because they sent me an email coupon good for 50% off a burger today only.

Tourists… If you’re in a touristy area, be sure to nab those people.  They’re in the mood to do something local and they most likely don’t care who’s on stage.  They’re looking for some local flavor.  Get set up with every tourist publication, ticketing service, website, and review company you can.  Do a Google search for “things to do in ” and make sure you’re listed on everything that comes up.  Design a special offer for anyone with an out of state ID.

Things I’m Not Mentioning…. You’ll notice there hasn’t been any talk of large scale papering, Groupon, Living Social, Goldstar, or things of that nature.  Those devices can fill a room.  But they’ll fill it with people who don’t know what they’re in for and want whatever it is for the cheapest price.  And then gleefully give you a bad review when they don’t enjoy it.

If you do use such things, make sure your followup is impeccable.  Every effort should be made to make those people part of your community.  I’ve used Groupons and such for places and never heard from them again.  Those ideas are loss leaders designed to bring in new people.  It’s up to you to bring them back again.

It should never be well known that people can get into your club for free.  If you’re handing out free tickets to another show to every person walking out of this one, you just sent the perceived value of all your shows right in the toilet.  Discounts should be handed out on a very targeted basis and for very good reasons.

Is there a restaurant attached to your club or one nearby?  Design a dinner/show package that will bring people in.  Liquor store nearby?  Anyone who shows their recent receipt from that liquor store gets a discount.  You want drinkers?  Those people are drinkers?

Be smart about your discounts and don’t carpet bomb with freebies.  Every comp ticket or discount coupon should have a value placed on it.  Not as in “A $20 value!”.  I mean whatever you hand them should have a price on it just like a ticket would.  If you hand someone a $20 ticket they’re going to value it more.

Sponsorships…  Not only do you need to build a patron community around your club, there’s a lot you can do with other businesses too.  Tired of paying for hotel rooms for your comics?  Get a good local hotel to comp them in exchange for promotion at your club.  Rooster T Feathers in Sunnyvale, CA puts their comic up at a great hotel in exchange for a mention from the MC and some printed material in the club.  Very little.  If not free, even a discount would save you money.

Get the best hotel you can manage for this.  You’ll feel more secure promoting it to your patrons, the comics will have a nicer place to stay (says I, currently sitting in an Econo Lodge), and you’ll be aligning yourself with a high quality business in your area.

Hotels are tricky since most of your patrons are local.  So make sure to design a promo that makes sense.  Tell your patrons that it’s a great place to put friends and relative when they’re in town.  You’d even do well giving away a “romantic night for 2” type package.  Do it a couple times a month on an otherwise slow night.  Make sure you promote that you’ll be doing that at the Thursday show only or whatever.  You might get the hotel to pop for it for free. But even if you have to pay something for it, you’re still getting your comics put up for free.

Take a look at Oprah.  People went apeshit in her audience every time she gave something away.  Do a cross promotion deal with a company that has a sample they want to give away.  Some local business that makes their own potato chips?  Tell them you’d like to give away sample bags to your patrons for free to expose their company.  You get a free gift to give away to your people and they get promotion.

At every point during this process your first thought should be “what advantage does this offer the sponsor?”  Once you have that in place, your second thought is “what do I need in return”.  Get those backward and it won’t work at all.

Ok, this post is coming out even longer than I thought it would.  And I have a half off Red Robin burger to get to.

The basic summary here is that a club needs to build a community. You can’t rely on always having a big name headliner so you have to educate your audience about what’s great about the people you do book and why then need to be there for the show.  Then make it as easy as possible for them to get to the show and give you money along the way.

I’d love to hear your ideas on this topic too.  Leave a comment below and let’s share.


How Will Comedy Clubs Survive? — 4 Comments

  1. This was awesome man, thank you. I’m the new marketing guy at a comedy club and I have no idea what I’m doing. I feel like management’s style is way too old school. They’re having a hard time filling seats and papering way too many shows. I’ll definitely reference this article in our next meeting. Sorry for the cheese but I’ve been so frustrated lately and this just gave me a boost. Thanks again!

    • Thank you, Zach. I’m really glad to hear that. And yeah, some companies can definitely get stuck in their ways if they’ve been in business for a long time like the guys you’re working for. If you try any of these ideas or others I’d love to hear about your results.

  2. Nice. Thank you for this info. My wife and I have recently purchased a building and are thinking about opening a comedy club. This was very helpful.

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