How to Promote Your Damn Comedy Show
The word is out. The questions been asked. The knowledge has been requested. It’s on everyone’s lips. The people want to know. And this is knowledge they deserve to know. So they have asked – How the damn do I get people to show up at my damn shows?
And damn straight. It’s a good question, because getting people to your shows, whether they be fringe Festival shows, weekly pub slots, or whatever else you awesome folk are trying to do is, frankly, really bloody hard.
Well they have asked the right damn person. This is something I definitely know all about. When I took my first solo improv show to the Adelaide Fringe I managed to get two whole people to two of the shows I did. That’s two more than zero. Hooray. I also did one show to an audience of literally zero people, not even a tech, that’s two hundred MORE more than minus two hundred people. Wow. (And yes I DID still do the show, and I was grand).
How did I pull this off? Well in truth these awesome numbers actually flocked my way quite easily. I merely spent thousands of dollars on posters, publicists, Facebook ads, Google ads, street press ads, and other miscellaneous marketing.
It’s was a great experience I would recommend to anyone. (That’s sarcasm you can’t hear in my voice because you’re reading this).
If that’s not the way you want to go. Say if you DON’T want to spend lots of money, and DO want more than minus two hundred people at your shows, I can also tell you that over my near ten years of performing in, producing, hosting and helping running improv, sketch, stand-up, clown, and theatre shows, I have sometimes managed to have quite excellent numbers at shows, in Los Angeles, Sydney and in Melbourne. And sometimes with hardly any money spent on marketing at all. I’ve even sold the odd show out.
I’ve also sat through several ‘how to market your show’ workshops, and had an estimated twenty nine thousand hours of conversation with fellow performers on how to get people to come to shows, and over the years I’ve learned some good solid do’s and don’ts in how to get people to show up at your shows. Here are some of them:
Don’t – I’m putting this one at the top, even though it isn’t really advice in this department at all, but still, never ever blame the audience that are at your show, for the ones who aren’t. If anyone shows up, treat them like they are a full crowd at Carnegie Hall. People have lots of options for their entertainment, you’re always lucky if they chose you.
Do – Get out of your head the idea that you need a big audience, and especially that you ‘deserve’ one. You learn lots in front of few.
We’d all be pretty happy with this career right?
Well Mo still regularly does shows in the iO West loft space. This is the smallest of three theatres in the iO building, with a capacity of about 20. There are literally a hundred better slots to improvise at in LA, every single night. And she does tons of those too. But like I said, you learn lots from preforming in front of a few.
In the early days of The Second City they had to cancel lots of shows due to no audience coming. These were casts made up many of the greatest comic performers of all time. And this is the ‘romantic’ time of being part of Second City that almost all comic performers dream of. You’re in that time NOW. Enjoy it.
Do – Support your friend’s and your peer’s shows. A lot. All the time. Skip seeing your favorite international visiting superstar to see them yet again. Then go again the next time they perform too.
Don’t – Get bitter if they’re doing better than you for now. Even if they suck, and you’re a genius, which is probably true. Bitterness gets you nowhere. Where as being a supportive and generous member of your community opens doors you didn’t even know existed.
Do – Support your friend’s and your peer’s shows. A lot. All the time. Skip seeing your favorite international visiting superstar to see them yet again. Then go again the next time they perform too. Yes I know I’m repeating this one. That’s because it’s as important as shit. Almost every good thing that will ever come to you in your comedic life starts here.
Do – Put on shows that provide opportunities for new acts. New people bring support, friends, family, and especially secret enemies who want to see them fail so they can laugh about it later, while also not having the guts to try in themselves. Let’s get those sons of bitches in your audience!
Also people who are ‘sort of kind of maybe kind of like you know maybe a little bit thinking about trying out performing one day sort of not really but maybe you know’ go to these shows to check out the toilets they know they’ll be puking in if they ever actually do try it. They make awesome audience members because they want to believe every audience member is awesome in case they do try it.
At stand-up open mics the audience is almost entirely other comics, friends of the person trying it for the first time, and people checking out the toilets. We need to have more ‘open mic’ type slots for improv, sketch, clown and any other weirdo awesomeness people want to try. Be someone who offers this. Also find venues with good toilets to puke in.
Do – Split the bill. Got a six person improv team? Split an hour with another six person team. Make sure you watch each other. Now you’ve got at least a six person audience. Maybe between the twelve of you, you have four friends (probably not, but why not be optimistic), now you have a ten person audience. This is plenty.
Now build over time.
These little shows are how EVERY great improviser cut their teeth. The empire that now is the UCB started out as one of these shows. We all have to pay our dues.
Do – Hand out flyers. This is especially true at festivals, but it works even just before regular back of pub type shows. Does it suck? Yep. Can it be painful? Absolutely. Will it destroy your soul? Almost definitely. Will it make you want to quit performing for life? No doubt about it. Does it put bums on seats? Meh. Only maybe. Yet it’s still the thing you can do with the single best success rate.
Did we mention it sucks trying to get people to your shows yet? Also I just wrote ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, that’s how desperately lonely even thinking about this is making me feel that I’ve actually created an imaginary co-writer. Wow. I’m going to invite he/she to my next gig! Yay, audience.
The good news is that it’s easier to flyer for your friends shows than your own, and people respond more positively when it’s a third party that’s talking up your show too, so flyer for your friends and peers and get them to do it for you.
I have a friend Victor, who is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in comedy, and when he did his first Sydney fringe he flyered his butt off for ALL of his peers shows. Never once asking anyone to return the favor. Then he ‘magically’ sold out one of the bigger rooms and raised $1500 for cancer research. He’s now quit to be a doctor. So his job is up for grabs. TAKE IT! (He also put on a hilarious show – that helps too).
Don’t – Do a festival show in a bad venue. If you’re not in a hub venue, or an established and popular alternative, and your not yet famous, you’re fucked. That is, unless you’re ok with performing potentially for no one. Which you probably should be. So what the hell are you waiting for?
Do – Go and see other stuff your venue puts on, especially in the same space you use. Now make friends with those performers, and their audience. Promise to shout out to each other’s shows.
Fun Fact: People are lazy, and often territorial. If they hear ‘another show in this exact space I’m standing in? At this exact time tomorrow? Where I know exactly where the toilet is?’ They can then think ‘even I’m not too dumb and lazy to mess up seeing that, and no more worrying about peeing my pants.’
People are dumb, figuring out stuff sucks, and toilets are more important than most people think. So find ways to make seeing your show easy and stress free for people.
Do – Buy drinks and food from your venue. Especially if they’ve given you a free space. That’s how they make money. If they make money they’ll support you even better. Turns out commerce still matters. Damn you capitalism.
Do – Sign people up to a mailing list. My friend Liz runs a great Cabaret night in Melbourne that sells out all the time. Her trick is that she has giveaways at every show (free tix to future shows, tix to guest act shows, free drinks, woopie cushions and other cheap gag gifts) and by signing up to win the prize you also go on the mailing list and get an email reminding you when shows are coming up. (She also puts on awesome shows – that helps too).
Do – Use your social media to be fun and funny. This used to be what everyone in the comedy community used it for. Why all the anger people (checks news – ‘oh yeah’). But still, be funny. People thinking of seeing your show often check your social media, if your funny, it may turn out you’re a funny person. Which can sometimes translate to a funny show. Wow.
I am personally going to check every single one of your social media accounts tomorrow, anyone not funny is OUT!!! Got it. No more complaining on social media. Ever!
Do – Complain on social media. Just make about how hard you work on your craft. And make it humorous. Humans are sadistic bastards. If you didn’t suffer for your show they don’t want to see it.
Also people like ‘behind the curtain’ stories of your hardship. Wasted a whole day gluing the wrong date to your poster? Tell people. Get a bruise in rehearsals? A photo of that is an invite for people to come see the show. And if you didn’t get bruised at rehearsals did you really rehearse hard enough?
Don’t – Waste money on facebook ads, google ads, ads in street press. And I specify ‘waste’. These forms have their use, and can work, just be smart about it. It’s all about targeting the right people. With Facebook ads the best idea is to start a bunch of them with a small amount of money. Pick a variety of different specification categories, and see which one is getting the most traction, then stop all the others and focus on the one that’s working.
Do: play the Netflix game. Different people have different tastes. If you like ‘these unnamed yet excellent shows’ you may also like my show.
Don’t: Just say ‘my show is like sorta like The Mighty Boosh’. For some reason almost every single person in Australia that is doing anything other that straight stand up comedy says this. And I don’t even think the Mighty Boosh themselves sell that well in Australia.
Do: Guest spots on other shows. Especially at festivals. People don’t like paying to see an hour of someone they’ve never heard of, unless they’ve seen you do a spot and want more.
Do: have a hook. Improvised Harry Potter is the biggest improv show in Melbourne. It turns out people like Harry. I have an excellently talented friend who did a very successful show at Melbourne Fringe this year about – Superannuation. It turns out we all have to deal with that at some point of our lives. Both these shows are also just good (that helps too), but the hooks sell tickets.
Hooks can get you media coverage too. No one writes the ‘its gonna be just funny’ preview for an unknown act. It needs to be ‘you know how everyone wants to be richer and hates climate change, well this show promises to fix both’. Or something. Point is that if it’s a gardening show, the gardening section of your favorite broad sheet periodical might cover it.
Do – Take some chances. I was listening to an interview with a pretty well known comic (who’s name escapes me) talking about being at a festival and him and a mate decided to point randomly at the guide, pick a name, and talk him up relentlessly in elevators and the like, making sure people overheard them. The name they chose was someone neither of them had ever heard of. By the end of the festival he had massive buzz about him, and the man they chose, Daniel Tosh, was hired to make a TV show called Tosh.0. You never know what is going to work.
Which brings me to, finally –
Do – Try new things. Be creative. Have fun with it. And if you figure out tricks that work share the knowledge. A healthy artistic community helps everyone.
So there’s some Do’s and Don’t’s people. Any tips anyone wants to add? Please put them in the comments section of wherever you’re seeing this. And go ahead and use these tips for your show tonight, and if you don’t have one, see one of your friends or peers shows, damn it.
– David Tieck