A stand-up comedian and freelance writer, Regi Brittain loves life and wants to help you enjoy it!
I have produced more free comedy shows than I could possibly accurately count. I’ve done it for full rooms and audiences of two people. Every experience is an opportunity to learn and grow. And I have learned what does not work and what does.
Let’s go down this list and help you put fannies in seats!
Start With a Good Concept
Oh my goodness! This point is paramount! If your concept stinks, why would people come to your show?
Begin with the type of person you want to attend your show. If you are unsure, think about connections you have in your community.
Are you a college student? You can put on a show that would draw your friends.
Are you a real estate agent? Think about putting on a show that would appeal to other local agents. Perhaps, you could arrange to produce it as part of a special event put on by a professional networking organization.
Are you a parent? Do a special “parents’ night out” show.
The potential opportunities are many. Just take a little time and envision the market for your free show and put a title on it.
Thinking in these terms will help you create a show for a niche, or niches, in your community, rather than just doing a show at a pretentious cafe and calling it “The Snooty, Artsy, Insiders-Only Comedy Show”.
Partner With a Venue That Is Truly Interested in Your Success
It’s crucial to produce any comedy show at a venue that gives two shakes about stand-up comedy and filling the room so they can sell drinks, food, vintage etchings, or whatever they purvey. There are many of these. You just have to build the relationship.
Here are the ideal qualities of a venue for a free comedy show:
- A stage
- Sound equipment
- Some level of stage lighting
- Seating equal to the number of audience members you realistically think you can draw
- A dedicated clientele that management is willing to help you reach through its email list, Facebook page, in-house advertising, and other avenues
If you cannot find a venue with sound, I recommend a reliable portable PA, which has solved my audio problems more than once. Be sure to also select a durable mic stand.
Regarding the seating capacity, stick to about the number you think you can draw. Do not book a 200-person room when you can only realistically get 20 people to come to your show. Why? Close quarters help induce laughter, which is, as you may have heard, contagious. I would much rather over-pack a small room than quarter-pack a large one. Packing a space gives your show a greater chance of feeling fun and being remembered as a rich success, which will help you more easily fill the room next time.
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Pick a Lineup of Comedians Who Will Actively Help You Pack the House
I know a lot of comedians at various levels of the industry. (That's not a brag. It's just part of being a comedian for several years. The list of comics I’ve never met will always be the longer one.) I regularly encounter comedians who are uncomfortable with promotion. They leave it to others. The comedians I like to book help me spread the word about the show.
Don’t just book someone because they’re funny and they’re your friend if they won’t help you fill the room. I would much rather book an enthusiastic, so-so performer than one who does not understand that without an audience there can be no show.
Find a Sponsor
In my opinion, the best kind of free comedy show features a sponsor. Then, you can promote the show as “No Cover Charge Thanks to Our Generous Sponsor ________ .” Sponsorships can take a lot of time and work to develop.
If you need a shortcut to a sponsor, book your show at a bar that has alcohol brands’ logos on its posters. Those logos likely mean that the venue has sponsorship opportunities available through its beverage distributor. I have produced a show that took advantage of just such an arrangement.
With a sponsorship deal, you can pay everyone in your lineup. Make a commitment to pay them all even if you do not acquire a sponsor. Doing so will show that you take the comedic arts seriously and you appreciate your contemporaries.
Don't Call Your Free Show a Free Show
Did you notice that I did not say “free” in the above section about sponsors? I used “No Cover”.
It’s fine if you do not want to, or can’t, charge a cover. As I mentioned above, I have produced many shows that were “free”, but I never advertise them with that word. Actually, my “free” shows have a subliminal cover charge.
What do I mean? I promote these shows as “Pay What You Like”. Thus, folks who choose to, or need to, can come to a comedy show for free, while other audience members can monetarily support the arts as they see fit.
At venues for any of my “Pay What You Like” shows, on the night of the show, I place envelopes on every table. If you can set up your space without tables, which is ideal for laughter, use envelopes and buckets that say, “Pay What You Like” and “Thank You!”
Right before the show’s end, after the last act, have the host mention the nature of the show, that audience members can pay whatever they like. I like to say, “Please put any piece of paper in the envelope that you would like, to pay for the show you saw tonight. We appreciate you coming and laughing tonight, and you are welcome to put nothing in there. We will also accept anything from a few bucks to the deed to your vacation home. We’re flexible people!” Then, I end the show by encouraging applause for everyone in the lineup and for the venue and staff, and I bid the audience, “Thank you, and good night!”
Why do I advocate never advertising comedy shows as free? Collectively, we comedians should all want people to know that we approach our shows seriously, as professionals. Even if this is your first go-round producing a show, you should approach it from a professional mindset. Also, avoiding promotion of shows as “free” subsequently helps us avoid training the audience to think they shouldn’t have to pay for local, regional, or independent stand-up comedy.
If you need a rhyme to remember this point, try, “Free shows are no-nos.” Or go with something that sounds way less dumb.
Write a Killer Press Release
Within your new, pay-what-you-like (not “free”) comedy show, you have a news story. To legitimize your show, you can garner media coverage.
Sharing press releases with online newspapers is the easiest way to gain media attention. Write a positive, non-salesy piece that tells the reader the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your show. Send it to the paper of record for your show’s community, and share it with the area’s independent weekly online paper or any outlet that covers local news. If you do a smashing job, these companies will also put your show’s story in their print editions, if they produce those.
Every online publication has a method of accepting press releases and story submissions. You just may have to dig a little because these methods vary by the media outlet.
Create a High-Quality Poster Image
A lot of what I cover in this article concerns legitimizing one’s comedy show. You want to convey to potential audience members that your show is “for real”. By utilizing multiple promotion channels, you can accomplish that goal. A poster legitimizes a fledgling comedy show.
Importantly, I do not print a poster for every show I produce because the return on investment can be quite low. But I always create a poster file for my shows. Whether or not a show will be promoted with a physical poster, I use the digital image on social media to spread the word and create that important feeling of legitimacy.
If you feel uncertain about how to make a poster, take heart. I felt the same way. You can battle that uncertainty by understanding the you can learn to perform a passable job at just about anything. After all, remember when you had never tried comedy and you were terrified of it? You got past that, and you can get past being a poster-creation novice.
And you don’t need to learn Photoshop or Gimp to create quality posters. For shows where I have to create my own posters, I use Canva.com. The site is an online app full of free templates, graphics, and fonts. There are also premium features, but you can make great posters without those.
Boost a Facebook Post, the Right Way
As you may know, sponsoring social media posts is a trial-and-error affair. On Facebook, there is a learning curve. You may be a few shows deep into a monthly or weekly show series before you find the user targets that will take action and come out to your show.
A fellow comedian and producer who is based in New York City recently told me that they have learned to tweak their sponsored posts’ recipients in such a way that they can get 10-to-20 additional people out to a show on a budget capped at $20. Use that as a guide, and recognize that you may see a much better or much worse result, but it is all part of legitimizing your show in the public’s eye and gently, confidently drawing people into your evening’s audience.
To track a sponsored post’s success rate, you could attach a promotion to it. One of my comedy friends suggests telling people to print the post and show it at the venue’s bar for a free shot, appetizer, or whatever during the performance. The number of freebies given equals the number of people brought to the show by your sponsored post.
Personally Invite Friends, Family, and Fans
Unless and until you have other people’s money and promotion machines behind you, personal requests should be part of your show-promotion repertoire. I like to send friends, family, and fans individual emails or Facebook messages.
With this method, remember to ask nicely and appreciate those who come to your show, rather than showing an expectation that they must come. The latter is manipulative and icky. You can quote me on that!
Hand Out Flyers Near the Venue the Night Before the Show
For a long time, I have been against person-to-person flyering. I have not personally seen great results from it. Then, a member of the very-useful Facebook group Comedians Helping Comedians put me on to the right way to complete the task.
They said, as a person approaches, offer them a flyer, simultaneously saying, “Excuse me. Could you help me throw this away?”
Ha! I love it!
If you have ever encountered street teams passing out flyers in entertainment districts, you know that those flyers are basically a nuisance that winds up in trash or recycling bins a few feet down the street. Alternatively, a comedian who hands out a flyer with a joke makes a good, funny impression and shows in an ironic fashion that they get that flyers annoy members of the public. Thus, this method raises your chances of drawing people to your comedy show via handing out flyers.
Put on an Amazing, Polished Show to Help Spread Word-of-Mouth About the Next One
In this case, the header says it all!
Good luck with your new show! Make it special! Make it an event that people will want to enjoy regularly.