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Comedy club imposes laughable rules for performers

by David Spark on February 23, 2009

David Spark doing stand up comedyIt’s been years, but I used to work as a stand up comic (scroll to the bottom to see a video of me on stage). On my way up the comedy food chain, I performed at a lot of open mike nights. Performing at an open mike night is the only way you can get better at your craft to become a working comic, and simultaneously it’s the only way clubs find, book, and promote new local talent.

A comedian friend of mine just forwarded me this email that is sent out regularly to performers of the open mike night at the Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville, TN. It’s a collection of rules for open mike performers. Zanies is a successful comedy club chain that’s been in business for more than 30 years. The club still books good A-list headliners such as Dave Attell, Margaret Cho, and Jeffrey Ross. Before I jump into the email of rules, a little about…

The rise and fall of stand up comedy

In the 80s, there were thousands of comedy clubs across the country. The comedy club industry was flying high. They could do no wrong. Audiences would pack in clubs night after night. Crappy acts you never heard of, with no TV exposure, could be making six figures working the road. But by the early 90s the comedy boom fell apart and there were only a few hundred left, as explained by my friend and comedian, Barry Weintraub, former publisher of Comedy USA, which used to be the industry’s directory of clubs, bookers, and comedians.

Since the post comedy club boom downturn, we’ve seen a series of desperation moves by comedy club owners to get people to come to their club, sit, watch, and pay for a show. The first and most common move has been “papering the house” which is the practice of giving away free tickets, yet making money on the back end through food and a two drink minimum.

“Papering the house” only looked at solving the immediate needs of comedy club owners. The decision to “paper” didn’t take into account the potential damage it was going to do to the comedy club industry as a whole. No other art form treats its customers this way. Comedy clubs have formed a relationship with customers that’s based on trickery. Come to our establishment for free and then we force you to pay to get out.

Be the king of your own world, manage a comedy club

I started comedy around 1989 and got to participate in maybe three years of the boom of stand up comedy before I watched it fall apart. And I thought comedy had fallen far enough, until I saw these rules for performing, written by the manager of the Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville, TN. Below, in blue, is a copy of the rules he sends out to all open mike performers. I’ve added my indented comments throughout.

New Open Mic Rules are below. Please read carefully! Yes these rules do apply to all Open Mic performers. No Exceptions!

Standard Open Mic Rules are as follows:

1. Each performer is required to bring at least 4 guests. The more guests the better for you and all other performers.

a. Zanies will provide you with Complimentary “Open Mic Night” tickets.

b. The Tickets may be picked up from Zanies during the evening when shows are scheduled (check the Calendar on our website). Or from our office located at the House at 809 South Douglas Avenue (directly behind the Dollar General Store) from 10am to 4pm Monday thru Friday.

c. If your guests are No Shows then you must wait two months before you can sign up again. Therefore every performer must have guests attend the show.

When you’re just starting out in comedy, and you get to perform on a real stage like Zanies, it’s incredibly stressful. If your ability to perform is dependent on your friends showing up, the club manager has just adding another level of stress and that’s not going to give you a better performance. Isn’t the goal to have your performers do their best job possible?

2. Out of respect to every performer; you and your quests are required to stay through the entire show and just not your set.

I guess the previous technique of locking the doors and chaining people to their seats wasn’t working.

I like how he begins the sentence with “Out of respect to every performer” and then makes a completely inappropriate demand of his customers that shows he has absolutely no respect for their time or their patronage.

For the first performance at Zanies, getting four friends to come to a show is not difficult. But given that many of his performers are only allowed a few minutes on stage (a few had only 90 second slots! Some 3 minutes and others got 5 minutes), it’s really asking a lot of your friends to make them sit through a two hour show just to see you perform for a few minutes.

I’m sure the next day open mikers hear the same conversation from their friends: “Yeah, you were pretty good, but geez the rest of the comedians were horrible. We’ll see you again. Just call me when you’re not performing at another open mike night.”

3. Each guest is required to purchase two items inside the club that can be met in any food or beverage or food/beverage combination. This requirement keeps Zanies in business.

This is a sad reality as mentioned above. Comedy clubs have formed an indirect pay for performance commerce mechanism, that’s not based on trust.

4. Minimum age requirement is 18 years of age or older with a valid photo ID for both performers and guests.

Yeah, that’s because there are going to be dirty words. Or that’s what I thought…

5. Excessive Vulgar Language is frowned upon. Please do not make us have to ban you from performing. TIP: If you are really serious about pursuing a comedy career then you will have to perform clean as an MC on a consistent basis.

“Excessive vulgar language is frowned upon. Please do not make us have to ban you from performing.” That’s a great opening line. You know he would never say that out loud. Comedy club owners by their nature use excessive vulgar language. And there isn’t a single club owner that’s ever uttered the phrase, “is frowned upon.”

So let’s go through all the reasons that you will be banned from the comedy club: Your four friends don’t show up. Your four friends don’t stay for the entire show. You say the word “fuck” an arbitrary number of times that the club owner deems “excessive.” Also, see #7.

Here’s another suggestion for banning someone: IF THEY’RE NOT FUNNY!

Where’s that in the rules? Isn’t that kind of the whole purpose of a comedy club? Do the job of a comedian, generate laughs, and then you can perform again.

Imagine if a nightclub did that with their musicians: “It doesn’t matter if you can’t play a chord, just make sure your four friends show up and stay for an evening of people tuning up their guitars.”

6. Zanies is not a platform to voice your political views and opinions.

Future George Carlins, Mort Sahls, Bill Mahers, Chris Rocks, and Bill Hicks have no place in this club. Do we have any aspiring Carrot Tops?

Why did this guy choose to attack political comedy? Why didn’t he pick something else? “Zanies is not a platform to voice your opinions on airplane food or the differences between dogs and cats?” I think I could get behind that rule.

7. IMPORTANT: If you cannot make your confirmed date you must call Zanies (not email) at least 24 hours in advance so your time can be given to another performer. If you are a NO SHOW you will NEVER BE ALLOWED TO PERFORM AGAIN. NO EXCEPTIONS, don’t even try asking!

I don’t care if you just got in an accident or your mother just passed away. We have rules here at Zanies. You come to the club with your bloody stump or your mother’s death certificate, and you bring the funny!

What happened with Zanies?

In defense of the manager of this club, who I’ve never met, this list of rules was definitely not plan A. It was a move of desperation. I applaud the fact that he wanted to keep the open mike going. Many clubs have shut down their open mikes all together. And I think that move is bad for the comedy community as it doesn’t support the growth of talent.

While it is good that he’s keeping the open mike rolling, such dogmatic rules do not foster a relationship with your talent or your audience. I’m wondering, what happened at Zanies’ to cause the owner to create these rules. He must have been burned, but the question is did he weigh all the consequences of such a document?

For example, did he consider that a former comedian from San Francisco who had never met him or been to his club would write and publish such a snarky commentary?

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