Updated: Feb 14
The first month of 2022 is creeping to a close already and if you’re a comedian like me you’re thinking about the new season of comedy festivals and which of them to apply. However, many comedians put more thought and planning into the festivals they’d like to submit to than the videos they plan to submit. Two weekends ago we wrapped up the sixth annual Sno Jam Comedy Festival which was the thirteenth comedy festival that I’ve co-produced and we had a record number of submissions, which meant we had to watch a lot of videos to screen to dwindle our line-up to thirty comedians. Submitting to festivals can get expensive, so it’s important to do some planning before you submit, or else you’ll be wasting your hard-earned money.
Over the years I’ve had a hand in producing three different comedy festivals (San Diego Comedy Festival, Paul Bunyan Comedy Festival, Sno Jam Comedy Festival) and I’ve seen thousands of submission videos, some good and some bad. One thing I can tell you about the bad submissions, more times than not what made them bad wasn’t always the material but some other error that made them bad such as the quality of the audio and video or the applicant simply didn’t follow instructions. Here’s an insider tip, if you don’t follow instructions most festivals will disqualify your video and move on. They don’t have time to chase you down to correct the error and now you’re just out of that submission fee.
Comedians are hungry for stage time and will submit anything they have in hopes to get selected and then get angry when they don’t get selected even though it was probably their fault. I’ve been rejected by plenty of festivals and by no means am I an expert or do I have all the answers about putting a submission video together. However, I’ve watched plenty of submission videos and I’ve seen all the mistakes that could have been easily avoided so I offer tips to improve festival submissions that seem obvious but are often overlooked.
1) READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES
Almost every comedy festival will have submission guidelines posted on their website (at least the good ones). In these guidelines, you will find all the information about what that festival is looking for in a submission video and where you should host it (we’ll expand on this later in this article), so it’s important to read them. You will find out how long the video should be. If they ask for a three to five-minute video, don’t submit an hour-long video and tell them to watch a certain chunk of it. Screening videos is time-consuming and the more time the festival wastes, the less likely you’ll be selected.
In the guidelines, you’ll also be able to find out if the festival has any material restrictions. If it’s a clean comedy festival submitting a blue set will do you no good. Most festivals want a continuous video and not a “best of” submission which will most likely be stated in the guidelines. In the guidelines for Sno Jam Comedy Festival, we also answer questions about, set lengths if accepted, our lodging accommodations, and a whole bunch of other questions to help comedians decide if they should submit to our festival.
2) BE SELF-AWARE
Being self-aware is probably the most challenging part of stand-up comedy. It’s easy to be delusional and not accept the reality that we’re not quite ready yet. However, having this skill in your toolbox will not only help you become a better comedian but will also save you some of your cold, hard cash. In addition to saving that cash, being self-aware can save you the humility of a bad first impression. If your submission is bad because you weren’t ready, it may take a lot longer to prove yourself down the road. It’s okay to admit to yourself that you’re not ready and keep practicing.
I’ve seen comedians that have only done one open mic submit to festivals with the video from that only mic. Any comedian that has been at it for a couple of years knows that our first mic is never as good as we thought it was. When we first start, our material isn’t that great, and our stage presence lacks. We need more time on stage to improve both of those skills. So, keep writing and performing as much as you can until you have a solid, festival-worthy set.
3) WATCH YOUR VIDEO BEFORE YOU SUBMIT (OR HAVE SOMEONE ELSE WATCH IT)
When I watch certain videos, I often wonder if the comedian watched the video before they decided that it was the “one” to submit. I have these thoughts because of the quality of the video, and I don’t mean the quality in technical terms. I’m referring to interruptions such as people standing in front of the camera or talking over the audio. I saw one submission where the camera got bumped, fell, and wasn’t even focused on the comedian. At that point, it became an audio submission. That told me that either the comic didn’t watch the video, or they did but didn’t care enough to make a better submission. In either case, it shows that they lack professionalism and wouldn’t make a good selection for a festival.
If you can’t objectively watch your video to determine if it’s good enough to submit, get another opinion. Whether it’s another comedian, a friend, or a family member, have the most brutally honest person you know watch that video and give notes before you submit it. Sometimes another perspective helps us see things that we couldn’t see because of our tunnel vision AKA our delusion. Sure, you may have to scrap that video, but that second or third opinion will help you get an even better submission tape increasing your chances of being selected for that festival.
4) DON’T WASTE TIME
Time is important, not only to you but to the committee that is screening the videos so it’s best not to waste it. This is something that often gets overlooked when submitting videos. Your video shouldn’t have a fancy intro and it shouldn’t have an emcee introducing you. Don’t be clever and have a talking head portion introducing yourself. You’re not submitting to a reality show, you’re submitting to a festival, so you need to use every second proving how funny you are, so you’ll get selected. Your video should cut right to you telling your opening joke and you should have laughs within the first 15-20 seconds.
Make sure that the video you’re submitting isn’t monetized. One of the biggest annoyances to a screening committee is having to sit through an advertisement before they watch a video. These screening committees have hundreds of submissions to watch which equates to hours of videos to screen. They want to get right to your submission so they can quickly move on to the next. The longer you make them wait to watch the video, the more annoyed they’ll be and less likely to enjoy your submission. It’s hard to objectively judge a submission if you’re already annoyed by the submission for a reason that has nothing to do with the quality of the submission. Do yourself a favor and get in good right from the start!
5) SELECTING YOUR MATERIAL
Doing your best and funniest material for your submission is your best route for making an impression that stands out to the screening committee, it seems obvious, however, I’ve seen submissions from comedians that I knew personally doing material that wasn’t their best. I knew their acts well enough to know that. Guess what? They didn’t get selected. It’s unfortunate because I’m pretty sure if they did their best material they would have been selected. If you only have ten minutes of material and the submission length is five minutes, it’s better served that your submission is the best five of those ten minutes.
Another thing to consider is the rating and the content of the material. Most comedy festivals won’t have specific material requirements, nor will they censor a comedian. However, they will consider the safety of the material of the comedians they select because they will be considering their audiences when making their decisions and they’ll want to make sure that those audiences will not leave the festival offended. It’s will also work in your favor to research the festival and the region it’s located in. For the last six years, Sno Jam Comedy Festival has served as a fundraiser for Special Olympics. We don’t ever censor comedians, but we do discourage material that punches down on people with special needs or the use of the “r-word.” If you know what the festival is about you can cater your material to the needs of the festival.
6) THE QUALITY OF YOUR VIDEO
Getting a good-quality video to submit can be challenging. In a perfect world, you can afford to pay a professional videographer to record your video and if you can, I highly recommend that you do. Sadly, most of us are poor comedians and can’t afford that but the good news is that technology has made getting a good video attainable at an inexpensive cost. Most cell phones can record good tape and decent quality video cameras and audio recorders can be purchased at reasonable prices. Every serious comedian should invest in a camera/audio setup and then record every set, you may have a great set when you least expect it and you’ll be very pleased that you have it on video. Plus owning a camera and a way to capture audio separately will give you a huge advantage that could lead to some extra cash recording for other comedians.
Before you set up your camera to record, always get permission from the venue/producer of the show. They may be able to recommend the best spot for setting up your camera which will work to your advantage. Once you have permission and a spot to set up your camera make sure it’s on a tripod (if it’s a tabletop tripod make sure the table is stable) so the camera is stable. Don’t have a friend hold it because two things will happen, first, the video will come out shaky because of their laughter, and second, their laughter will suppress your audio which makes your jokes harder to understand and that’s no good for you. When placing your camera, I recommend placing it, so it faces straight onto the stage and then framing it horizontally (vertical videos are better for posting to TikTok and IG Reels, but not good for submission videos) from your waist to just over your head. It will be a tight shot, but viewers of the videos will be able to see your body movements and your facial expressions which often help sell your jokes. It also puts all focus on you. Any extra space becomes dead space that can be distracting.
Zoom audio recorders come in handy for capturing audio. It’s always best if you can plug directly into the soundboard and mic the audience but that isn’t always an option. Zoom recorders can be set up in the room and capture both your audio and the audience. They cost about $200. Another option is to get a lapel mic for your phone. If you use your phone for recording video, you can get a Bluetooth lapel mic for a wireless connection. These are relatively cheap to purchase as well, under $50. Having separate audio will also require a bit more editing, however, every comedian should learn basic video editing because it will come in handy more times than not. If you don’t want to learn a new skill you can also buy a shotgun mic for your camera which will help improve your audio. These will range in price, but the more you spend the higher the quality it should be. A couple of things to consider with this option is that your camera needs to have a mic input and you run the risk of picking up camera noise (internal camera sounds).
7) OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE YOU SUBMIT
You’ve picked out your best material, you got a good quality video that cuts right to you that isn’t monetized, and you’ve objectively watched the video or had someone else watch it. Now you’re ready to submit to the festival/s of your choice but before you do here are a few other things to keep in mind so your submission doesn’t get disqualified for something that can be avoided.
Make sure that your video is hosted on a site like YouTube or Vimeo and that it’s set to public or unlisted. Make sure that your video is not set to private or password protected. If the people watching the videos can’t access the video, they’ll move on without contacting you for another video and you’ll be out your submission fee. I highly recommend staying away from hosting your videos on Google Drive or Dropbox unless you make sure that the sharing settings are set to “share with anyone that has this link,” when you share your drive hosted video with the festival it only shares with that email if the settings aren’t correct which will limit the access of the whole screening committee. Very few committees get together and screen as a group.
At this point, we’ve already talked about the quality of your submission video, and it should go without saying that your submission video shouldn’t be from an open mic. Unless it’s a rare open mic that has a real audience and the video meets all the standards we’ve already talked about. Most of the time the open mic is bare and/or filled with other comedians that don’t care about your set because they’re thinking about theirs. You most likely won't get good laughs and it will appear as though you’re bombing when you just don’t have an audience. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “what if this is my only video?” Then my answer to that is that you’re not ready to submit to a festival and you need to wait until you have your best submission video possible.
Please keep in mind that you may do everything right in your submission and still not get selected for that festival. The beautiful and ugly thing about standup comedy is that it will always be subjective. Everyone has their specific tastes in humor, and you might not always be that. On top of that, there are many other variables that festivals consider in their selection process and at the end of the day, we won’t meet every checkmark every time. When/if you get rejected from a festival, don’t get upset and angrily bash them in a public forum. Accept the rejection and move on to the next thing.
Getting a good submission will take time and effort, so put in the work now, so you can reap the rewards later. With these tips and that stellar submission, I wish you the best of luck for the 2022 festival season. I hope to see you make it to Just for Laughs, the San Francisco International Comedy Competition, or whichever festival has made your comedy bucket list.