Putting on a Show: What stand-up comedy has taught me about business

I don’t know as much about stand-up comedy as I do about business, but I do know a handful of people who make a living primarily by standing on stage on their own entertaining people.

There’s very little that’s less funny than analysing why someone is funny – so I’m not going to do that. Instead, I will talk about what they have carefully explained to me over a beer/coffee about putting an act and audience together, and how I’ve applied their wisdom to my own work.

Here are a handful of their observations:

  • You can’t please everyone. You have to accept that your appeal will never be universal, so there’s always a significant portion of the population that will never engage with you – some might even be downright hostile. Okay, it’s always nice to grow your audience, but there’s a whole bunch of people that will never turn up to a gig or buy one of your books and any effort expended on them is time you could be spending doing something more fun.
  • You need to know the audience you do have. Everyone who makes a living presenting stuff for money on the stage interacts with paying customers. The interactions range from heckler putdowns to taking questions, and the only way this will work is if you know something about the people who are watching you.
  • You need to know your material. You need to know it so well that it sounds like you’ve just made it up and are working spontaneously. Yes, you need to have your wits about you and be happy to go off script, but it takes months to write and rehearse a 90-minute show.
  • You are doing this for money. Yes, it’s great if you enjoy what you’re doing, but even the most seasoned performer can find themselves on a stage with a half-empty theatre of tourists block-booked into an unsuitable show at the same time as you’re coming down with the flu. You can’t pick and choose the nights where you’re going to be good. If someone has bought a ticket, they expect entertainment no matter your feelings on your recent divorce.
  • You have to take risks. Bringing out the same old material might make you a steady living from the easily pleased, but the big rewards come from giving your audience variety and things to think about. 

That’s my contribution to this week’s entertainment. Next week I’m doing ‘Pericles, Where He Went Wrong’.”

Posted on: 27th January 2022 by Ivor Campbell

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