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Comedy: The Business of Laughter

Microphone and stage lights

Bright lights burst through the darkness to reveal a lonely stage in a room filled with anticipation. Upon the stage stands the microphone and its codependent counterpart, the brown wooden stool. From the darkness appears a figure, and the room echoes with applause. As the room settles, the comedian steps to the microphone. They tell their first joke and laughter erupts. Stand-up comedy is the business of making people laugh that requires business sense, marketing, and professionalism to be successful.

Most working comedians don’t have teams of managers and agents; therefore, they need a strong sense of business to succeed. Every joke told in exchange for a laugh is a business transaction because it usually takes place between a paying audience and a paid comedian in a venue trying to profit from the performance. Like every good business, it is important to keep overhead costs down to maximize profits. Many people, even some comedians themselves, don’t realize there are overhead costs associated with comedy. Taxes, travel expenses, lodging, food, and performance clothes are all examples of overhead costs that a comedian can incur. It’s important to think about these expenses before accepting a gig. Perhaps a comedian is offered $150 for a 30-minute gig four-five hours from their home. At the very least they’ll have to pay for gas, food, and lodging. If they spend $50 on gas, $25 on food, and $75 for lodging, that $150 pay turns into $0. The comedians should pass on that gig. Luckily, lodging is often negotiated as part of the pay and most of the expenses incurred are tax-deductible.

To prevent going into the red, comedians need to be able to market themselves. Comedians need marketing to sell their products to fulfill consumer needs. In this case, the comedian is the product and the consumer needs laughter. When corporations like Google, Coca-Cola, or a college like Southeast Tech decide to hire a comedian for an event, they need to have full confidence that the comedian will not offend anyone at the event or from the company. Their safest bet is a clean “G” rated comedian. Comedy is subjective, not everyone enjoys performing or watching wholesome, family-friendly comedy. They prefer darker, edgier adult humor which can be found in comedy clubs and bars across the country. For a comedian to sell their product, they need to figure out how their product stands out in the market. This can be done by finding a “niche” in the market such as being a musical comedian, a comedic magician, working clean (rated “G” to “PG-13”), or working blue (rated “R” or above) and so on. Once the comedian has determined how their product stands out, they can find the market best suited for their product.

Marketing helps the comedian find the right gigs, but if they show up to the gig and are unprofessional, they’ll risk potential future business. Comedians need to be professional to retain business. Having business cards and a website is only a small piece of the professionalism puzzle. Professionalism is important in every step of the business transaction from email communication to the night of the gig. It’s important to be kind and courteous to every person that is encountered during the process. Potential clients should be treated in a polite, respectful manner. On the night of the gig, comedians should show up early, learn the names of all the staff, and abide by the rules of the contract. Recently, a comedian ventriloquist was performing at a college for new student orientation. He brought a student up on stage as a volunteer and then did an over-sexualized bit causing hundreds of students to walk out of the performance. The college demanded a refund and that comedian no longer works in the college sector. If the comedian is unprofessional, they not only risk not getting hired again by the client but lose potential clients from business referrals. No one is going to refer a comedian that shows up late, treats everyone poorly, and breaks their contracts.

“I never grew up; I just grew out. Now I’m looking for a seamstress to take me in.” Laughter erupts! The comedian’s well-tailored joke lands hard, breaking the tension, easing the anticipation. Comedy is the business of laughter, a comedian’s charm and well-crafted jokes will bring them the laughs, but to find success in the business laughter, a comedian needs business sense, marketing, and professionalism.


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