The comedy room on the top floor of Zissimos was filled with a small audience of 20 when Michael Moran took the stage. He grabbed the microphone off the stand, looked at the crowd, took a deep breath and began his set.
“I feel like St. Patrick’s Day is kind of a negative holiday. The one day of the year we celebrate Irish-Americans and the only thing we can celebrate is alcoholism.”
He began making jokes about how strange the holiday is with the way it is celebrated. The crowd’s reaction started as faint chuckles from certain sections of the room. But soon enough, as the act settled in, the laughter turned into small waves of cackles and applause.
Local working comedians like Moran rely on small shows like this to refine their material and make some money. At these beginning stages of their careers, they are constantly searching for venues to perform at, while keeping a commitment to their day jobs. Stand up comedy is about exposure, something that is difficult to maintain when there other priorities that have to be fulfilled.
Contrary to the belief that a smaller crowd is less intimidating, this wasn’t exactly an ideal atmosphere to walk into, especially as a feature act. Laughter is contagious, as Moran said, and the more people the better.
Comedians have joked about their trouble with money in one or more of their acts. However, behind the puns and laughs, there is a harsh reality of the profession. If a comedian is lucky, they will be able to start making a living after nearly a decade of bouncing between bars and comedy clubs.
“Even the most the most successful comedians have stories of struggles,” said John MacDonald of Macdonald Entertainment, a California-based management company that has produced comedy specials for comedians like Ron White and Jim Gaffigan.
Most comedians begin their careers at the open mic, which are short, unpaid sets. This is all about quick punch lines and keeping the crowd laughing. If the comedian can gain the attention of a club owner or promoter, they will get an opportunity to reach the next step, which is hosting comedy shows. These hosts, otherwise called MCs, introduce the feature acts, doing small sets in-between acts and can make between $100 and $200 a week.
At this point, these comedians are still working day jobs, which limits the number of shows they can do a week. They are also confined to only small comedy clubs and bars, making exposure a difficult task. Many comedians will be stuck in this stage for up to six years.
“It can be quick for some, if they just have a natural talent for it and pick it up well, but it’s a long, tough process no matter what,” said Eric Yoder, a booking agent for the Funny Business Agency in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Comedians who are able to move to the next step, which is headlining, will see a big increase in pay. These acts can pull in between $1,000 and $2,500 a week, depending on how many shows they perform. This is when most comedians quit their day jobs and focus primarily on comedy. They are now open to a larger variety of higher-paying venues like corporate comedy clubs and college campuses.
Unfortunately, this may require them to travel hundreds of miles for a show, with fees for gas and hotels coming from their pocket. Some comedians are able to pay this off by selling merchandise like DVDs, CDs and T-shirts after their shows. Others may not see a profit for the act. Some perhaps will end up even paying for their own performance.
Moran’s interest in comedy sparked five years ago when he began taking improv classes with the Baltimore Improv Group. Through the classes, he discovered an interest in stand up, and saw its potential as a career.
“It just seemed fulfilling and fun,” said Moran. “There’s also the ego aspect of it. I wasn’t used to having a room full of people clapping for me. It was a time when I was searching for meaning.”
Before his first open mic performance, Moran spent months researching humor. He read and took notes on the philosophy of comedy and the schematics of good comedy writing. Having done his homework, he felt more prepared therefore his first act went well.
Now, Moran is committed to the profession more than ever. He used to do open mic shows once or twice a month, now he tries to perform every night. He balances this with waiting tables and freelancing for Skeptic Magazine. While he’s open to any venue, he enjoys bars and clubs the most.
“It’s not so much the venue,” said Moran. “I do better with the hipster crowd; generally younger, college-educated but still kind of crusty, type of vibe.”
Despite his experience and passion for stand up, Moran admits that he still beats himself up for two qualities that he considers to be a challenge: lethargy and fear.
“The fear is still very much there,” said Moran. “I’m okay with that, I know that it takes a while to get over it and it’s getting better. But I think about what I would be able to do if I wasn’t afraid at all. And with laziness, you could always do more.”
According to Eric Yoder, the transition from host to headliner is one of the most difficult stages of a comedian’s career. Despite the large increase in pay, a career can still be made or broken. Building an act and fan base is now more important than ever.
Steve Sabo, a veteran comedian of 23 years and owner of Inside Joke Productions in Ohio, suggested that headliner comedians need to quickly learn to shape their material in a way that shows personality.
“This is impossible to understand when you are first starting out in comedy,” said Sabo. “The audience needs to find out about you, without you directly telling them about you.”
Sabo says that for a successful stand up act, the performer needs to have a confident, conversational tone, relate to the audience and be truthful. He also suggests that these acts need to have “ups and downs,” opposed to one punch line after the other. They need to be able to tell a story. This is perhaps the hardest change from the comic’s days as an open mic comedian.
Another challenge, Sabo said, is editing down material and deciding what works. This can range from making a joke shorter and more direct to completely cutting it from the set. Sabo says this is hard for any comedian regardless of their rank.
“You write jokes that you think are great, but if its not working with the audience you need to get rid of it,” said Sabo. “With a good joke, you start laughing without your intentions because it affects you internally.”
The world of comedy has seen both benefits and harms as a result of social media. For example, Facebook and Twitter can help comedians promote shows and continue to expand their fan base. Eric Yoder says that one his clients, comedian Kyle Kinane, has claimed that his crowd turnouts and success are partially owed to his presence on Twitter.
However, there is another argument that social media is making comedy more accessible online, with full-hour shows available on YouTube free of charge. Sabo believes this is drawing away from the live experience of comedy, which he says is “better without question.”
With all of this competition, another challenge that comedians face is a lack of guidance. To protect their own success, fellow comedians tend to be vague with their advice, said Sabo. The only place to look for help is from the agents and managers.
With his agency, Inside Joke Productions, Sabo’s main goal is help comedians through this tough transition.
“I want to give comedians some nice rooms to perform in and make some money and help them get from point A to point B.”
Sabo’s advice to comedians is to be professional and universal, in a business that has trends coming and going. He believes the best thing to do is to make the act specific to the comedian’s personality and avoid diving into trends.
But the most important virtue a comedian should have is patience, said John MacDonald. He suggests that they need to know where they are in their career and keep reminding themselves why they perform.
“Something that we all want to do in our careers, not just comedians, is that everybody is in a hurry to get some place that they’re not ready for,” said MacDonald.
Moran knows moving to other cities can help advance his career but prefers to stay here in Baltimore.
“New York could be cool, but it’s such a huge pond,” he said. “Part of me fantasizes about it sometimes, but a lot of my family is here, so I would like to stay if I can. Yeah, I would love to become rich and famous, but I don’t think that I am striving for that so much as to being able to make a living performing.”
To reach that goal, Moran is focusing on performing as much as he can. From what he has seen, stand up comedy is a numbers game and what it all comes down to is experience and patience.
“You have to be willing to bomb over and over. It’s not about confidence,” he said. “It’s about endurance.”