How to Run a Bar Gig

[note: you can replace the word “comedy” here with “burlesque” or “improv” or whatever your performing art happens to be.]

Why run a bar gig?

  • Because you and your friends need a space to work on your craft.
  • Because you like watching comedy and hanging out with comedians.
  • Because you like making people laugh.

You’re not running a bar show to pay your rent or become world famous. You run a bar show to learn to be funny enough to land the TV deal. For three years, I ran a free Monday show at a gay dive bar in the West Village, where comics you’ve seen on Letterman and Conan, such as Marc Normand, Myq Kaplan, and Aparna Nancherla, performed a free drink and the honor of doing ten minutes for the drag queen passed out in the corner. The comics thanked me for the spot and then asked me to do ten minutes at their own bar shows. Most of my strength as a comedian, not to mention thick skin, comes from performing for free in back rooms of bars to tiny apathetic audiences (i.e. the other comedians).

Ideal Venue: A small, dark room with low ceilings. For comedy purposes, it’s better to have nine people in a room that holds ten than fifty people in a room that holds a hundred. Look for off nights in basement bars and small music venues. Look for small back rooms and upstairs function rooms in bigger bars, cafes, and restaurants. Be creative! I’ve seen amazing gigs in bookstores, laundromats, movie theatres, living rooms, rooftops, courtyards, and netball clubs.

Try not to force yourself into already popular spaces and ambush them with comedy. (I once performed a spot during Friday happy hour at a bar across from the United Nations. During a hockey game. Yes. Thick skin.) If you plan to take over a whole space, especially for “ambush” comedy, make sure there’s nothing else going on, such as games on the TV, pool tables, loud video games, or private functions. If you’re taking over a huge room and charging at the door, you need a huge show with a big draw—so plan to spend some serious money on a big-name act and lots of publicity.

Remember, bar owners need to make rent. Their primary interest is to sell drinks and food to as many people as possible. Therefore, unless they’re familiar with comedy, they’re going to actively ruin your show by double-booking sometimes. I’ve seen bar owners book private parties, quiz nights, and death metal bands on the other side of a thin wall or at the other end of the bar. They will also run blenders and cappuccino machines, chat loudly with patrons, and leave the TV on so their regular patrons can watch the game. They will be annoyed if you berate paying customers for not paying attention during your precious show, and furious if those paying customers walk.

What can you do? First, don’t agree to gigs in bad spaces. And then, set clear and firm expectations from the beginning:

  • Good clear mic
  • Pool tables closed
  • Room dark except for a bright light on the stage
  • All TVs and music off
  • No blender drinks
  • No loud voices during the show
  • No other parties or events in the same room

If the bar can’t abide by those expectations (“But it’s just a small party on the other side of the bar!”) then lower YOUR expectations or move elsewhere.  Expect to get fucked by a few venues until you find the space you need (“There’s comedy tonight? No one told me,” said more than one bartender.) Even in ideal venues, most gigs will suffer noise-bleed from neighboring rooms, not to mention drunk, disruptive, and—even worse—indifferent punters who didn’t come for the comedy. That’s ok! Tough rooms are an awesome time to work on your craft and, if you win people over despite difficult circumstances, maybe even expand your audience. That’s what bar shows are for.

Be a net-positive for the bar. Try to bring a good audience who will spend money. The MC should make a big show of encouraging everyone to buy lots of drinks and food, especially when the boss is in the room. If you happen to make good money at the door, tip the over-worked staff a little something. Never ever insult the venue, even if it gets a good laugh.

Money? Door charge? Pay the comics? Publicity Budget? Not my strong suit. Just try not to lose too much money. Use your common sense and your sense of ethics, or talk to the guild. With the bar, the easiest deal is “We bring people who drink. You take the booze money. We take the door money.” If the venue expects a cut of the door, then maybe the venue should pony up some money or effort for publicity.

Speaking of publicity: Do it! You need more than just a Facebook invite. Use everything: Newspapers, radio, event sites, email blasts, social media, whatever. However, the best publicity I’ve ever done is pounding pavement: pasting up posters, chalking sidewalks, and handing out flyers. Good old-fashioned “barking” is extremely effective (and no one in New Zealand does it enough). Stand outside the venue (your venue) and accost passers-by: “Hey, do you like comedy?” I hate barking, but I’m always amazed at how many audience members I can pull in with a big smile, a loud voice, and nerves of steel.

Setting up the space: On the night of the show, get to the venue early and drag all the chairs and tables as close to the stage as you can. Encourage (or force) everyone to sit up front. Nothing kills comedy like an empty front row. The lights should be bright and clean on the stage and as dark as possible in the audience. A flood lamp from a hardware store can work wonders.

Test the sound. Whisper and yell into the mic. Most house mics are set up for punk bands or karaoke, so you may need to change the levels dramatically. The mic stand should be a simple pole with a round base. Angled boom mic stands will make everyone’s lives miserable (except for the guitar comic). However, most of the time you have to live with what you’re given.

Your checklist for the show:

  • Are sound and lights working?
  • Who is running the door? Who is the tech? Who is seating people? Who is running the clock? This might be all you, so ask for help.
  • What’s on the pre-show/intermission/post-show music playlist?
  • Who are the acts? What order? How much time for each? Type it out before the show and make several copies (for you, the MC, the door, and the tech).
  • Do you want music between each act? (Intro music for each act can be a big pain in the ass and may not be worth it.)

The show itself? It’s your show, so give yourself some stage time, either as the MC or in a spot. Worried the audience will get tired of you? Good! Write more, practice your crowd-work, and publicize to make a bigger, better audience at every show.

Otherwise, make it yours. Book the acts you want to book. Run it the way you want to run it. My only advice is this: DON’T create a hostage crisis. I’ve sat through way too many bar shows with 12 comics each doing 15 minutes, with an ego-driven MC (maybe me) doing 5 minutes between each act—all for a handful of exhausted audience members. It’s up to you and the MC to keep the show tight and energetic. Give every act a clear light when they have one minute left…etc. etc. … You know the rest.

Ultimately, relax. It’s a bar show. During my Monday show in the gay bar, the owner’s dog heckled us, a drunk angry transgender prostitute stormed the stage, and graphic gay porn appeared randomly on the screens flanking the stage. We were regularly interrupted by a monthly gathering for a gay dodgeball league who liked to show up two hours early for their party. Our audiences ranged from fifty people to one person. We ran the show for three years and never cancelled. We had glorious triumphs and humiliating bombs. Guess when I learned the most?

A bar show is supposed to be a little terrible and punk rock. Roll with it, have fun with it, and learn from it. You will face late and no-show comics, disruptive patrons, hostile staff, tech disasters, and tiny or non-existent audiences. Do your best to give the people a good show one way or the other.

Oh, and book me. I need the stage time.