In any profession and on the path to any dream, there are levels and rites of passage that must be earned. In the standup comedy world, it all starts with open mic nights. They are tough. They can be fun on occasion, but they are challenging most of the time. There is not a lot of pressure from the audience. It is an amateur night. Many are there to support their friends. The rest of the audience is other wannabe and emerging comedians. The pressure to make it a fun show is really on the host. He or she has the pressure of bringing the audience back after a wannabe comedian bombs. The pressure for the wannabe is mostly internal. Most are freaking out on the inside while desperately trying to look cool on the outside. Vinnie would tell you that I used to literally be shaking before I went on stage. That is not an exaggeration.
When you start consistently getting some laughs and looking confident, people take notice. Some emerging comedians may have some skills in one area, yet lacking terribly in another. No one has it all together at first. Each person has their own career trajectory. So do you no matter what your goal.
Some comedy clubs have more than one show room. Some comedy clubs also have satellite show rooms. These are venues outside of the big cities. Some audiences can be wonderful as they are starved for good entrainment because there’s not much direct competition and less of a talent pool to pull from. Here is the thing about emerging comedians, they’ll drive as far as they need to. It truly is not about the money at the beginning. For most of us it is an obsession. It is an addiction to getting any laughs. We love getting the love and approval from the audience when we do well. We want to get better so we can do well, more often. Consistency is a big part of the goal. When you are consistent, especially in tough situations, people will notice. In my situation back then, the important people were the influential headliner comedians and of course the booking agents.
Some ambitious comedians start their own shows as well. These are called B rooms. They search out a function room not being used on a certain night and ask the owner if they want a comedy night. It’s business. If the function room is dormant, they are missing food and alcohol revenue. The ambitious comedian knows all of the other comedians in town and who is good and who is not. This makes that ambitious comedian also a booking agent now and gives them more leverage in the comedy world. It also gives them another set of headaches. Here is the challenge, though. They may or may not be great marketers. They may or may not be able to fill the room. The other challenge is the room they find may not be a great show room for comedy –meaning the lighting, sound and atmosphere. These B Room comedy shows are in places like bowling alleys, the back of Chinese restaurants and often in a bar. Many times you are competing with a TV on at the bar in the background and people that don’t really care there is a comedy show. It’s a B room. The track to the A room is doing well in the B room consistently.
When you are hungry and eager, you’ll drive anywhere. I remember doing a B Room in Bangor, Maine. That was about an eight-hour drive for me. I think the pay was seventy-five dollars. The money was mostly to cover gas. My optimistic side ignored that and inside my emotions jumped for joy that they were paying me. “Whoooo hoo!”
I knew doing well there could mean a chance to do an opening spot in the A room. The biggest and best A Room in Maine was The Comedy Connection in Portland. I still remember the question the owner and booker, Ollie, asked me when I got back from Bangor, “How was the audience?” Notice he did not ask me how I did, but that was part of what he really wanted to know.
Think this one through with me. There is no way an emerging comedian is going to say, “I bombed!” Here was the man of influence asking me a direct question. Yikes! Catholic guilt kicked in too. I can’t lie. Consider that Ollie was smart enough to know people are going to lie and exaggerate. How does he get to the truth? He doesn’t ask how I did. He asks how theywere. Fascinating. Smart.
So, what does this mean to you? Truth is important. People notice. People of experience in that world can see the truth, so it is telling when what they see and what you say are congruent. If they can’t trust you, you ruin your chances and your future. They can support you if you’re eager, honest, and focused on improving. Back in the 1990’s, I still remember hearing on one of Brian Tracy’s programs he quoted Abraham Lincoln:
“I will study and prepare myself and someday my chance will come.”
In the speaking world, Toastmaster clubs are like the open mic nights, service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis) and small conferences are like the B Rooms, and highly-paid keynotes are like the A rooms. As your paychecks go up, the audiences tend to be better and so does the setting you are speaking in. You get better stage, better lights, better sounds, many times, and an audience who wants to hear you.
No matter what your goal, the path to the A rooms start at amateur nights and go through B rooms. You need to consistently do well there and people will notice. When they do, you’ll start to get invites to the next level. That’s just the reality. It took me much longer than I would have liked. Staying truthful, honest and eager helped attract the right mentors and guidance. It is easy for me to see now how much being honest and eager helped. At the time, I did not realize the value that it carried.
Now, having my own events, people want to work with me. I get asked by other speakers to partner quite regularly. People who come to my events trust me and my coaches. I won’t put just anyone on our stage. They have to be someone who is truly helping people in their area of expertise before I’d even consider them. I need to be hearing amazing things about their training programs. I don’t want to hear it from them, I want to hear it from attendees who paid them. For example, I remember a brand new World Champion expecting to speak at Lady & the Champs because that person won the contest. Winning a speech contest is great, but does not mean you can teach a subject and help an audience learn a skill in a one-hour training session. You need to prove yourself in the B rooms. We all do.
My brother is an amazing skier. He always says, “You have to pay the mountain.” One way or another, either taking classes or through lots of experience or both, you have to pay a toll. There is no way around it. Are you willing to pay? Show people that you are.
I remember when my comedy mentor, Dave Fitzgerald, had cancer and they did a big fundraiser for him to help me pay his bills. Every headliner in the Boston area came out. There were literally too many comedians. No middle acts or openers could perform. There just wasn’t enough time. Shows like this with all headliners were rare, but this was a special night. It was to help one of our own. Even Steven Wright came out for the benefit –my hero! I had become close friends with Dave and he insisted I be in the show. It was not because of my humor, it was because of our relationship. It was because I had helped him into the speaking world. I got to go on stage right before my hero, Steven Wright. Consider it is often who we are off stage that also determines if we get on stage.
We all wish our path to the A rooms was shorter. To be transparent, had I known how long it would take me, I might not have even started. Honestly, I’m glad I did not know. There is a value to being naïve and enjoying each step and level along the way. When you learn to love the amateur nights and B rooms, the people who book the A rooms will find you. Be so good that you leave the audience raving about you at every level. When you get discouraged, and you will, remember Abe’s advice. Keep studying and preparing, there will be that opportunity when someone doesn’t show and they turn to you. Be ready. Don’t be wishing at that moment you prepared more. Instead, be glad you prepared like a champion for your moment. It will come. Your opportunity may come disguised as work or a tough situation that may become your rite of passage. Remember true professionals deliver under pressure.
Be the most professional person at the level you are at. People will notice. Yes, some unprofessional, less-than-honorable people make it to the top. Eventually, they will be discovered and their success will soon fade. Be the professional everyone wants to work with. Have a rock solid foundation and reputation. It starts with a decision right now, at the level you are at.
The Lesson I Learned from This Experience?
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Stage Time, Stage Time, Stage Time,
Darren LaCroix, AS, CSP
World Champion of Public Speaking
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