Lessons from producing and marketing my first comedy show

Comedian Jide Okonkwo and audience

Jide Okonkwo and the audience at “Kaiser and Friends,” my first show

Open mic comedy can be a lot of fun, especially if you find a really good open mic. But it’s also a different experience from the real “live comedy” that people pay money to see: the barrier to entry for performers is just attendance, the audience consists of people who’ve already seen a lot of comedy over the past few days, and a big part of the process is telling jokes that just plain aren’t gonna work. The real reason to perform at open mics is to improve our material and delivery to the point where we can perform for an audience of non-comics, who we hope will enjoy the experience enough that they will tell all their friends and improve attendance at future shows, contributing to a snowball of fame that ends up paying the bills.

What worked

We did this upstairs at Edinburgh Castle Pub, which meets all the requirements for a good comedy venue: it’s small enough to encourage infectious laughter and strong engagement, it’s got a low ceiling, and it’s got a stage. Doing it at my home base open mic meant that we had cooperative bar staff and familiarity with the equipment, and the regular host at Edinburgh, comedian TK Moyer, to headline the show, run the door, and operate the camera, which really helps. If I tried to do all of that, it would be a disaster.

The four other comics on the show, Jon Gab, Loren Kraut, Max Moacanin, and Jide Okonkwo,  are reliably funny, have at least ten minutes of good material, and have shown up consistently for previous engagements. They were also friendly with the crowd after the event, which should contribute to good word-of-mouth.

Despite my desire to bring a large audience of complete strangers, we also enjoyed attendance by my coworkers, their friends, and a number of comics from the local scene. The other comics on the show brought friends of theirs as well: all told, we filled the room to capacity, but didn’t overflow it.

The $10 ticket price allowed me to pay all the performers, offset the cost of advertising, and guaranteed audience engagement. We could play with the pricing, but I think it’s important to charge¬†something, even if it’s just a nominal amount to encourage attentiveness.

Finally, I think that six comics doing about ten minutes each is a good use of the audience’s attention span. My mind starts to wander if a comedy show lasts much longer than an hour, so that was the target, and I didn’t notice any audience members losing interest the way they often do at the end of a long showcase or an open mic.

The single biggest factor was the quality of the performances: the kind words audience members say after the show can be driven by social obligation, but geniune laughter doesn’t lie, and we have recorded evidence that the show went well.

What did not work

My advertising efforts probably brought zero audience members. I made a flyer on Canva, and distributed copies to hostels, hotels, my apartment building, and a few restaurants in the neighborhood:

The show flyer

Unfortunately, I probably put these out too early: all but one restaurant had taken them down more than a week before the show, and it would be difficult for hotel and hostel staff to remember that someone had come to them a month ago and tried to invite guests to an event. It makes more sense to print cheaper copies of the flyer, then distribute them more widely and regularly, rather than printing in color on heavy paper.

My Facebook and Instagram marketing also had no noticeable effect on attendance. I seriously overspent, because each ‘like’ or ‘interaction’ provides the same dopamine rush for an ad as for a traditional social media post; however, these likes and interactions did not translate to human beings actually coming to watch the show. They may have reinforced attendance among my friends, many of whom mentioned the ads in conversation; I’d also like to think that they were an encouragement to the comics, but it would probably be more effective simply to pay the comics more rather than buying Facebook interactions at $0.10 a pop.

The ad for Jide Okonkwo

The ad for Loren Kraut

The first ad, featuring Jon Gab

The ad for TK Moyer

The ad for Max Moacanin

Another ad featuring Jon Gab

An ad for the show instead of a single performer

Another ad for TK Moyer

The last ad, used as the image for the Facebook event

I submitted the event to fullcalendar.com, which bills itself as a labor-saving mechanism to advertise via traditional media outlets in the free classified sections of local newspapers.

I also set up ticketing via Eventbrite, hoping both for some marketing via their search functionality and to provide a convenient experience for people to buy tickets online. My hastily-constructed hero image might have hurt, but as of the start of the show, a total of three people I already knew had purchased tickets on Eventbrite; nine more audience members, having forgotten cash, purchased Eventbrite tickets at the door.

Most embarrassingly, I muddled around with a WordPress marketing site for a little while, then realized that my entire goal was to get people over to Eventbrite. So I just set Dreamhost to redirect to Eventbrite. Then I changed my mind, went back to hosting the site via Dreamhost… and didn’t finish setting up the marketing site. The domain name listed on the poster ended up providing no value.

I also printed up a number of business cards, which just say “Kaiser and Friends Comedy Show,” with the domain name and the Facebook and Instagram accounts, which we handed out at the event.

Things to try for future shows

Keyword advertising should be very effective for comedy shows – the intent reflected in a Google search for “comedy shows san francisco” is tough to mistake, and probably converts better than Facebook ads did.

There’s a trope of comedians standing around, passing out handbills in Times Square in an effort to bring enough tourists to make their performance at a local spot worthwhile. In-person marketing might work better for comedy shows than it does for the various green-vested charity activists who try to befriend me on Market street.

We did get some footage of the performances, and good audio. Editing this into a format suitable for use in video advertising might drive more engagement more cheaply than the image ads, and perhaps even lead to ticket sales.

I think it’s probably important to spread the hosting and production around, too. Each of us can reliably bring each of our friends to a show perhaps once every couple of weeks. We can’t constantly beg the same dozen coworkers to come out all the time. Agreeing to participate, promote and perform at shows that are produced by other comedians will probably drive our little corner of the Bay Area comedy scene to greater heights.