How to start your own stand-up comedy night

How to start your own stand up comedy night

This will be a living guide on how you can start up your own stand-up comedy night. This guide is targeted mostly at people who want to start from nothing. Maybe you’ve been a comedian for a bit and you want to start producing/hosting your own nights. You could also be a venue that wants to know how to start producing nights, and you need to know what should be available. This should be a solid framework for shows with an audience size of 20 to 100 people. Maybe even more depending on the venue resources. So let’s dive in!

Know the standup comedy laws in your country

In countries like the USA it’s fairly simple to put on an event. The liability is generally on the venue to have proper insurance and licensing to have performances. But in other countries, a promoter’s license may be necessary for you to put on a production. You’ll need to do some exploration for your region on what is required to host a live comedy event. There also may be restrictions around promotions of events, and you should try to understand all this prior to scheduling your own night. Some countries have task forces that go out and make sure shows are compliant, and it would be embarrassing for you to develop a night, promote it, and then have it delayed or stopped because of compliance issues. I will add links here on a per-country basis as we learn more about what is required in each country.

Find a venue for your standup comedy show

Here’s a fun secret: You can do standup comedy anywhere. Dave Chappelle is well known for doing shows at a comedy club, and then afterward going outside the club and continuing to perform out in the street for people. But it’s nicer to have a place to perform, so let’s throw out some things to consider for a venue:

Consider the comedy room vibe you want

Consider the “vibe” of the place. Some spaces will create a better feel for a comedy night than others. here are some things to consider when looking for a venue to help create a good experience for the audience and comedians.

  • People will feel more comfortable laughing and have a good time if they’re lost in the crowd. You can help this by immersing the audience in darkness. A venue with dark walls and the ability to turn down the room lights during a performance will work well to keep the audience focused on what’s happening under the lights instead of around them.

  • Reducing ambient noise around the show reduces distractions for the audience and performers. If there’s a bar or kitchen nearby the noise can be distracting to performance. Sometimes silence helps build the suspense for a punchline or sets the mood for a buildup to a story. The sounds of cups hitting a counter, bottles falling over, cabinets opening and closing increase the noise disruptions for a room. If you can find a space where the stage and audience are away from these disruptions it will help with the ambiance of the show.

  • All eyes on the comedian. If you’re doing a show in a place that doesn’t have a stage that’s okay. Bars often won’t have a stage, but can still be a great venue for standup comedy. A standup comedy performance can be as much about seeing a comedian as it is about hearing them. Doing your best to make sure the comedian is visible to as many people in the audience is key. Especially for comedians who use a lot of facial expressions to sell their jokes. This can be challenging in some spaces, but do your best to find the best position for a comedian to perform. Lighting is a big part of this as well, so try and make sure the comedian is well lit up. If you have to get some additional lighting it will be worth it to help make sure everyone can see the comedian well.

  • Comedians Benefits. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it might be a nice thing to talk about at some venues. Some places really appreciate the work involved in setting up an event, and it’s not always possible to pay the comedians. But you may be able to discuss with the venue about giving people who perform a free drink, or some food. Often times if you’re doing an open-mic you wouldn’t pay people for performing, but some venues may be interested in offering a free drink. Which is often very appreciated by those receiving and isn’t really a huge cost to the venue. Especially if you’re drawing a large crowd for them.

Again, it’s important to remember that you can host a comedy show basically anywhere at any time as long as you’re following the laws of your region. Don’t worry too much about the things you don’t have, and focus on what you do have. Do you have comedians? Because you will surely need those.

Choose a format for your comedy night

You can run a comedy night any way you want. That’s the great thing about starting your own comedy night! But here are some things to consider, and formats to ponder, to help you decide how you would like to run your comedy nights. Personally, I think it’s important to advertise the format in your show marketing so that people will know what to expect. If it’s an event with a skilled headliner then you should make that apparent. If it’s an open-mic with lots of amateur comedians then it’s okay to let that show in the market. It helps set reasonable expectations for the audience and the comedians to know what is going to go down.

How long should a comedy show be

I’ve found 90 minutes to be a sweet spot for comedy nights. An hour can feel like everything flew by too fast, and two hours can feel like it’s dragging on. It really depends on how well the show is going, but scheduling out the time to hit 90 minutes gives you a lot of wiggle room.

Sometimes a night isn’t going great. A few comedians might cut their sets short cause they aren’t doing so well. If you’re hosting you may need to fill in a bit more time to get the vibe of the room back in order. Sometimes the show is going really well, and you want to give some comedians a few extra minutes. Especially if they’re killing it.

90 minutes gives you a strong buffer between the show being too short and too long while giving you room to adjust depending on how well the show is going.

Comedy show formats to consider

Here are some examples of comedy night formats that you might consider for your own events. You can of course mix them up, or change them around, but the idea is to give you a starting place.

  • Headliner event. Have the main comedian who can perform at least 30 to 60 minutes of comedy. Combined with 3 to 5 opening acts it can be a great show. Even if some people don’t know or love the headliner they may walk away with some smiles from the opening acts.

  • Showcase event. Have around 8 comedians with an equal distribution of time. 8 comedians with each given 8 minutes to perform totals 64 minutes of performance time. Which gives enough time for the host to work the room in between comedians, and a short interval for people to go to the bathroom and grab more drinks. This can be a great setup for comedians who are working on new material or people who are new and warming up as standup comedians.

  • Open Mic/Comedy Jam. The comedy free for all. The most potentially chaotic and fun format of them all. Probably good to have a few experienced comedians in the lineup, but the fun here is letting people completely new take the mic. Extra points if you can convince the talkative people in the crowd to step up and tell some jokes. It’s their time to stand in front of the heckling fire squad. Advertising an “open mic” can be part of a Headline or Showcase event, or you can simply make that the theme of the night. Even if you’re inviting some experienced comedians as well.

Find comedians for your comedy show

If you’re starting up a comedy night from scratch you’re going to need comedians to perform. You have the venue, you’ve decided the format. How do you find comedians? This will depend heavily on your location. Some places will have a thriving comedy scene, and it will be easy to find and invite comedians to your event. Otherwise, you may have to search in nearby cities to reach out to them and see if they’re willing to travel.

Prepare for comedians not showing up - they’re a very finicky group of people!

You’ll want to make sure that you have enough comedians confirmed to have a full show. If you’re targeting that 90-minute sweet spot you could potentially have two comedians drop out of a Showcase event and it can still be well over an hour. You may give more time to comedians doing well, or maybe the host will work the room a bit more between sets. If some comedians drop out of a headline event the headliner may enjoy having more time. If the headliner drops out - you’re kinda fucked.

Here are some ways to find comedians for your comedy night

  • You may be able to find comedians by googling "comedian + {city name}" and seeing if any personal websites pop up. many comedians have a web presence these days. Googling is a good place to start.

  • You can also look for standup comedy pages on specific social media sites. People will often create standup comedy pages for their city on Facebook. Try searching Facebook for stand-up comedy pages and looking through the profiles of people who joined these groups. This can be an easy way to find and reach out to people nearby about your event.

Marketing your comedy event

You’ll need to get the word out about your comedy night. If you’re hosting it as part of a venue that already has a great client base, or can handle all of the marketing for you - that’s great! But that may not be the case for everyone, and so you’re going to need to develop and flex your marketing muscles to get people to the show.

Building a brand

One thing to think about is building a brand that you can take with you anywhere. I’ve seen some promoters build their brand around a specific venue, and then the venue closes down. If you’re attracting people to your shows using the venue brand and something happens then you might have to start all over again.

So it might be a good idea to take the effort to learn how to build your own brand and develop a following through that. This way If the venue shuts down, or they simply don’t want to do comedy nights there anymore, you can take your brand to another location and all the people who enjoy coming to your shows can follow.

Social media provides a great way to build your comedy brands for free, and here are some of them to consider.

  • Instagram. Make an Instagram account and some simple show poster templates that you can adjust for each show. Every time you have a new show coming up this is a great place to share that info. People can also follow the profile to make sure they get updates on the next events. You can also post short clips of people having a good time at the shows, and other comedians can tag you in their posts to help build awareness of the event through their network.

  • Facebook Pages. On Facebook you can create a “page” for just about anything, such as your comedy brand. This is another great place to advertise your shows, share updates about shows that have happened, and use it to reach out to comedians for opportunities to perform.

Social media is where the people are. Go to the people.

Everyone is on social media these days, and even if someone isn’t they probably have a friend who is. If you have your own brand on Instagram or Facebook you can also use these platforms to advertise your events. The advertising tools on these social media platforms are some of the best for targeting the audience that you’re looking for. For instance, on Instagram and Facebook, you can target your advertisement to a specific age group, interested in “comedy” and “live events”, who are within a specific distance around the venue. Running these kinds of advertisements also isn’t really that expensive. And once you’ve built a following for your brand you may not even need to pay for advertising anymore.

This is a living document and will continue to be updated

there’s so much more to add here, and I’m sure some information may be specific to the region you’re in. This will be a living document that I hope will improve over time, so that anyone who wants to run a comedy show can be well prepared without fear!