So you’re thinking of starting your own comedy night. Well, I’ve never run one myself because it all sounds very stressful, but I’ve done my research and here’s what you should be considering.
Firstly, don’t go stepping on anyone’s toes. Make sure you know where the existing nights are and what they’re offering, then make sure you’re doing something different or at the very least, on a different night if they’re ok with it.
If you’re thinking of starting a night in London, then Jesus Christ there are way too many already, but if you insist, then a good place to start your research is the London Stand Up Comedy Map compiled by Gaëlle Constant, which has the locations of not all, but a bloody lot, of comedy nights running in London. If you’re starting your night outside of London then a Google search and an ask around will probably do.
The venue is important – they have to want you to be there and willing to put the work in to make the night work as well as you. And by put the work in, I mean they should at least be allowing you to have posters and flyers, and be telling customers about the event when you’re not there. Some London venues tend to treat comedy as if it were a Weight Watchers meeting rather than entertainment being provided that could attract customers, and that’s how you end up with bringer gigs and a two drink minimum. Oh yes, people outside of London, these are genuine things you may be asked to do for your 5 minutes of stage time in the nation’s capital!
But enough of that.
The layout of the venue is also a very important consideration. “Comedy works best in basements with low ceilings and tight crowds. The first Soho [Comedy] Store felt that way, even though it was actually several stories high”, writes William Cook in his book ‘The Comedy Store’, and the reason a low ceiling is important is down to acoustics. “Low ceilings are crucial, because they allow the laughter to bounce back and reverberate throughout the room, boosting the energy.” says Oliver Double, lecturer of stand up comedy at the University of Kent in his book ‘Getting The Joke’. He also points out that the layout of chairs and furniture helps to improve atmosphere, saying that at a night he ran he found the energy level of the room improved greatly when they “realised that by putting as many of the tables and chairs as close to the front as possible, the standing punters would be brought forward, and the whole audience would be densely packed around the stage. This made it easier for a really efficient exchange of energy to occur.” Reserve seats at the back to make sure people sit at the front, or don’t put out all of your seats right away, adding them as more people arrive.
It’s important to have the stage well lit, and the audience in the dark so that they don’t feel self-conscious about laughing, and to have people densely packed together into a room. “Laughter is like electricity” says comedian Simon Evans, describing The Comedy Store in Piccadilly Circus “It needs to conduct, and if you start breaking people up it doesn’t conduct so well. There’s no other club in England that I know of where so many people are so tightly packed in, all facing the stage, no distractions. They’ve got a beer in their hand, maybe, but they’ve got no table in front of them, dinner and menus and all the rest of it, and you make a significant number of them laugh it’ll spread.”
And for the love of God, make sure that your night is in a separate room to the main part of the pub. A separate room with a door that you can close, or at least some kind of noise barrier. Anyone who has performed in an Edinburgh Festival venue where the only barrier between you and the [insert misc sports match here] is a thin sheet of fabric hanging from a string will know that it very rarely works.
What kind of night will you be running? Will it be open mic or pro? And why are you running the night? So you can have more stage time, or because you love comedy? If you’re doing it to give yourself stage time, then know your limits – don’t decide to run a pro night, charge a tenner a head, and then MC it yourself if you don’t have a tight 5 and have never MC’d before.
Should the event be ticketed or free? Well, this depends on whether you’re going to be running a new act new material night where you book 20 random newbies to do five spots (in which case, probably just do a bucket donation on the door as people leave to cover your running costs), if it’s a booked night, where you choose your favourite acts, a pro night, or a mixture.
While people often start free comedy nights in the hope that this will attract more audience, some promoters believe that this is not necessarily the case. In her Ask The Industry podcast interview, Helen Stead who runs NCF Comedy in Nottingham runs the £1 Comedy Night on Wednesdays at Canalhouse, and the reason for charging such a small amount is to make it accessible, but also because “if you pay to go in, you’ve paid an investment into the show. If you’ve paid £1 you’ve paid an investment, and you’re going to sit down and enjoy it. But if it’s free you get people standing at the back and they’ll just chat amongst themselves, very often.”
Having done a spot at the £1 Comedy Night, I would have to agree that this minimal investment did provide a good audience and thus a good show, and while there are always exceptions to the rule I would have to agree that charging something is a good idea, as it adds worth to the evening. As a rule, if you are taking money on the door, or have been given a budget, then the acts should be seeing some of that money too.
And another thing to consider is, of course, what time and day to have the show. “A seven o’clock start might mean a rather formal, reserved audience, whereas a midnight show can be either lethargic or rowdy. In a Friday night show, the audience may be bad-tempered or over-excited after a hard week at work; a Saturday show tends to be more relaxed.” writes Oliver Double in ‘Getting The Joke’. This would all come down to dates available at your venue, what you could commit to and the kind of show you want to run. A consistent day and time will help build footfall over time.
Good luck… and don’t fuck it up.