Starting your own standup show is a great way to get more stage time, network with other comedians, and better understand the perspective of bookers. One of the perks of standup is that you can do it whenever/wherever/however you want, but there are certain factors that greatly improve a show’s chances of being remembered fondly.
Where to have a show
Clubs are far from the only venue where standup comedy happens. I’ve done stand-up in bars, parks, galleries, comic book shops, a digital simulation (shout out to Nowhere), and one warehouse (I wasn’t entirely sure if I wasn’t being set up to be murdered). And I’d do it again too! (Now that I know I wasn’t murdered.)
A space can be good for standup without being an “official” standup spot if it has:
- An area that isn’t too big. The further the audience is from the “stage” (makeshift or otherwise) the less likely they are to be engaged in the show.
- Limited outside noise. If it’s a bar, is there a backroom that’s sufficiently closed off? If you’re doing an ambush* show, will the management turn the music down before you go on? If it’s outside, is it close to a train or highway?
- Low ceilings. Laughter sounds quieter when there are high ceilings (or when there’s no ceiling at all outdoors). Quiet laughter begets even quieter laughter, begets audience members feeling embarrassed to laugh at all.
- Management that’s onboard. Will they give you regularly scheduled dates? (A show is easier to promote if it’s always on the same day.) Are they willing to post on their business’s social media channels about the show?
- Easy to find. Is there clear signage outside? If you’re in NYC, is it close to the subway?
- A lit “stage” area, darker audience area. It’s less awkward for both the comics and the audience if the audience gets to be under the sweet, weighted blanket of darkness.
BONUS POINTS if a space has a built-in audience that goes there to hang out. Like the Central Perk, but a real place.
*Ambush Shows are shows, usually in bars, where some or all of the patrons are not expecting a show to take place. It is the comedy equivalent of a flashmob: an exciting turn of events for some, an annoyance for others.
Never let your comedy show run for more than 90-minutes. That includes the time the host does up top, the time allotted to each comic, a 30-sec transition between each comic, and 5-minutes of padding (just in case). A show that’s too long can make even the most supportive audience member wish they were home finishing all that laundry they have to do.
Don’t make a lineup with all white people or only men. Just don’t. That would blow. If most of the comedians you know are white and/or men, check out more open mics and shows for local talent or post a call for submissions on social media.
Book people you think are, first and foremost, funny. But you should also factor in getting a variety of comedic styles/energy levels, if they’re pleasant to be around (There are enough funny people in the world, if someone treats you like shit, you don’t need to book them!), comedy credits (which can be useful for marketing), if they run shows that they might consider you for, and social media following.
Come up with a “brand identity” for your show (imagery, colors, fonts, types of graphics) and make your social media posts consistent with that brand. Tag the comedians, the venue, and other producers; especially on Instagram Stories, where being tagged enables people to repost it.
There are a million social media platforms you can use for promotion, I’d recommend starting with at least two.
Facebook posts on your personal page do best when they’re an engaging picture with limited text on it, plus a caption. The algorithm is not kind to posts with links in them, most likely because its goal is to keep users in a perpetual state of being on Facebook. A common workaround is to write “link in the comments” and comment the ticketing link, instead of putting it in the caption. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but at least in my experience, it does.
If you have a Facebook business page, you can pay to “boost” the post and show it to more people. Unfortunately, posts on business pages are only shown to, like, 5 people if they aren’t boosted, even if the page has a lot more likes!
Besides your personal and business page, you can find relevant Facebook groups and post about your show there. Relevant being the keyword, there.
TikTok and Instagram Reels are not good for posting show flyers, but could still potentially help with promotion if you have funny clips from your show that you’re comfortable sharing (never share a video of another comedian on social media unless you have their permission) or a funny story about the show that you can make a video about. Then, you can put the next show date in the caption or comments.
Social media is great, but you’ll likely need other promotions to get butts in seats and keep them there. Anyone that you ask directly is more likely to say they’ll come and follow-through, so non-comedy friends and family are a good place to start.
Think about how people in your city/town/neighborhood find out about events. Is there a local newspaper with an events section? Magazines? Strategically placed flyers can always help. (Though the legality of hanging them varies from place to place, so be careful out there!)
Even if the show is free, it can be helpful to create tickets on Eventbrite, Goldstar, or other digital ticketing platforms. Sometimes people find out about events through these platforms and when people RSVP they feel a little more pressure to be accountable and show up.
Standing on the street near the venue a few hours before and shouting (nicely) at strangers that a comedy show is happening, known as “barking,” works if you’re in a high foot trafficked area and are a personable person.
I’ve been so awkward about it that a few strangers have expressed more pity than interest in the show, but one time I got two people (three audience members total, if you count their dog) to come in and that was a high I rode for at least 15 minutes.
For the first show, it’s good to get there at least 30-mins beforehand to make sure the space is set up and deal with anything unexpected.
It’s hard to know how many people will come to a show, but give it your best guesstimate and set up only that amount of chairs. You can always put out more chairs as the show goes on (quietly!), but empty chairs look sad and audience members will choose the ones furthest away from the stage.
Make sure the sound setup and mic work. If your venue is used to having performances this should be easy.
During the show
If you’re starting your own show, you probably plan on hosting. (Though that’s not a requirement.) Do your material up top and limit the time you take between comics–as in keep it to 30-seconds or less.
When the host comes back on stage, the audience sees that as a commercial break. It’s not personal! After all, actors in commercials are talented enough to beat out hundreds of other auditioners.
When introducing comedians, say one or two quick things about “your next performer” and end with their name (“Please welcome COMIC NAME,” “Give it up for COMIC NAME,” etc.). Reading someone’s entire bio before they get onstage will drain the energy from the room. Ending with someone’s name gives the audience a clear signal that you’re finished speaking and ready for them to clap.
For the last couple of comedians, the audience will be getting antsy, so don’t do any jokes in between them unless the previous comic bombed and you need to get the energy back up or you have a VERY quick riff.
Be engaged with the show when you’re not on stage. If the audience sees the Host/Producer in a miserable trance/having a side-conversation/playing Candy Crush, etc they’re going to question if they’re being suckered into something. Since you (theoretically) booked people who you think are funny, it shouldn’t be that hard to watch them with an enjoyable expression!
Of course, there will be times when you’ll need to leave the room, check in your co-host/venue owner/other comics, send a text, get distracted, etc. Just keep these errands to a minimum and any conversations to the back of the room, in the low, hushed tone of a Victorian woman telling her friend about a secret tryst.
Time each comedian on your phone. When they have one minute left in their set, wave your phone or another lit device so they know to get off stage soon.
After the Show
Congratulations! Throwing a show can be hard, anxiety-inducing, and not everyone actually does it.
Now it’s time to think about what went well (what you want to do again) and what could have been better (what you want to do differently next time). If the show didn’t go well, that doesn’t mean you can’t produce a great one in the future.
Historically, I’ve put on at least five shows where zero to three audience members showed up. Currently, I co-host a show at Friends & Lovers that regularly sells out.
I will probably throw at least a couple more terrible shows in my lifetime because standup is unpredictable and weird and you never fully figure it out!
Laura Merli is an NYC-based standup, actress, and writer. She’s amassed over a million likes on Tik Tok and continues to grow her following every day. She’s appeared in the Rogue Island Comedy Festival, the Women in Comedy Festival, was the first runner-up in The Ladies of Laughter standup competition, and hosts a monthly show (Good Girl) at one of the hottest alt-comedy spots in Brooklyn, Friends & Lovers.
As someone who didn’t start comedy until their late 20s, Laura has held a wide variety of odd jobs including cashier, eBay store photographer, project manager, zombie in an escape room, business analyst, and carnival worker (her grandparent’s family business). She has since written for and acted on sketch house teams at the PIT and Improv Boston. She’s also been a contributor to Reductress, The Hard Times, and McSweeney’s.
You can watch videos of her current sketch team, Soul Crush, at youtube.com/soulcrushcomedy.