Before you book the gig/ How to not screw yourself in the bung!

Hi!  I'm Jake!

My mistakes, compounded with the mistakes of others cost me a lot of time, money, and work this past week.  Highlights:
  • I drove more than 1350 miles and spent over 20 hours in the car.  
  • I spent over 50% of my earnings this weekend on gas and food.  My 4-day profits after 6 shows ended up being less than $100. 
  • I lost a gig headlining a theater because of some sloppy work by a different booker*.  
  • I had to reschedule yet another show because I mistakenly didn't realize that the out of state booking I had went through Sunday.
  • Because the better paying theater gig I was supposed to work at accidentally paid me 5 months in advance, (and because I didn't get to do the gig) I now have to send them their money back.  So, not only did I not make any money, I drove hundreds of miles, did 6 shows - and I'm still in the red for the week!
In short, though I had some good shows, my business suffered and I did a lot lot of work for nothing.  Here are a few tips to help you avoid my fate:

If you have any issue with the fairness of the deal you're about to make, you need to address it before you commit to it.  Here are some basic questions that will help you find out if you should even do the gig.
  • How much money am I making?
This may seem like an obvious question, but quite often, comedians fail to ask it.  They want the gig so bad they just say "Yep I'm available.  Book it!"  Then, later on, they find out they are making dogpoo money and they complain about it.  Tough turds!  You took the gig, fool!  Note: I have been that fool more than once.
  • When and how are you paying me?
Again, this should be the 1st or 2nd thing on your mind. Most gigs give you a tax form and a check. Then, depending on the amount, you can usually cash the check there. However, I have been surprised a couple times because I found out later the booker was mailing me a check- and that that check wouldn't get there for a month.  Or worse yet, that check wouldn't clear.
  • Where is the gig?
This is usually one of the 1st things a booker will tell you, but if they don't, make sure you find out- right way.
  • Where am I staying?
You really need to know this answer.  Occasionally bookers reserve only hotel 1 room for both comedians.  Awkward. "Hi stranger. Please don't steal my stuff.  What's that? you're bringing home some loud, nasty chick from the gig? Great. That will help me sleep. All right."

Most clubs and bar gigs have a condo or a hotel or something.  However... in super-rare, super-cheap situations, sometimes you have to stay at somebody's house. This is super weird.  Comedians need time to chill before a show.  The last thing I want to do is get all gabby with the bar owner before I do my work for them.  I spend time before a show coming down from the drive. Sometimes after a long drive, my hands are still shaking. Before a show, I'm relaxing, building up my mental walls, going over any new material, taking a shower.  I don't want to share any of that with the Bernie I'm supposed to clown for later that night.  I don't want to talk to them.  This business is about perception. I don't want them to see the tea-stained, potato chip- crumbled, car-sweat-stanky Jake. Except for any brief exchange of condo keys, I don't want to see them at all- until I absolutely have to!

My hotel or condo or whatever is my lair, my escape, my fortress of solitude.  When my lair ends up being at Bernie Bartender's house and I have to answer questions like "So how long have you been doing this and what are your influences" I don't get the peace I need. 

So, I want to know where I am staying ahead of time- so I have the options of negotiating reasonable lodging- or turning the gig down.

FYI: Some gigs don't even offer lodging.  Ever slept in the car?  I have.  I don't plan on doing that again.
  • Who am I working with?
This is not as obvious of a question to ask, but you should ask it anyway.  Maybe you are working with Jokethief McGee that weekend.  Should have found that out.  Now Jokethief has 15 new minutes- from your act. 

Or, maybe you are working with an act that is really similar to yours.  That's going to be awkward.  Chicks get bent when they show up to a party with the same dress as another chick.  Imagine showing up with the same act.  Not cool.  

Or, maybe it's the same party guy who brings all the chicks over and ruins your sleep.  

Or, maybe it's a slob.  I worked with 1 guy who left trash and food-gooped dirty dishes all over the place.  Guess who had to clean it up?  Me. I was the last guy in the condo.  If I din't clean the mess, the club would have blamed me.  That's an easy way not to get booked again.

These issues are typically not a problem.  Most working comedians are actually super cool. It's just good to know who you are working with.  Maybe it's actually a really positive thing, some guy you have always wanted to work with.  Maybe it's a buddy and you just found out you can carpool.  Maybe the booker hasn't picked another comedian and you can help a friend get a gig.

If a booker calls you with a gig, ask them the questions I outlined above, and then BEFORE COMMITTING TO THE GIG, ask if you can call them back in 15 minutes.  Typically, this will give you time to assess the situation.  Here are some things that will help you figure out whether this is a smart booking.
  • Look at a map.
What a concept.  Find out where the gig is. I have screwed this up too many times to count.  It is a rookie mistake.  A booker offers a gig. Before looking at a map, I take the gig- then find out later it is too far away to be profitable.  This is stupid.  When I took this South Dakota gig, I assumed it was 6 hours away.  This was stupid. It was almost 11 hours away.  That's a big difference- different to the point of stupidity.  Did I say this was stupid?  Because I meant to say it was stupid.

Stupid Jake: "I've been to South Dakota before and it was only 6 hours away.  Aren't all places within that state the same distance from my house?"  
Smart Jake: "No, Jake.  No they are not all the same distance away from your. Look at the damn map."
  • If your friends have worked this gig, ask them about it.  See what their experience was like.
Most of the time, if you are getting a call from a comedy booker, you already have a business relationship with them so you know how much you can trust them. Random bookers don't typically just call you out of the blue. 

However, the gig itself might be crap.  Or it might be awesome.  A friend can tell you if they had a bounced check or a scary hotel, or the gig is in a casino and you're right next to the slot machines. You might find out the audience's median age is typically 65. Not fun.  Maybe you find out that the last show got cancelled for whatever reason. Or, you might even learn simple things like whether the booker said you had to be clean and the venue just doesn't care.  You might find out the opposite. You might find out your friend just got her purse stolen from that bar.  That happened to a friend of mine. 

These little details can make a big difference in everybody's experience.  One time, I did a gig in Idaho that turned out to be Idaho's only super-gay bar.  The show went great. However, a little notice would have been cool.  Ask a friend.
  • You can always turn down a gig. 
Sometimes, the deal just isn't worth it- financially or otherwise. Ever had a chick turn you down?  You want them more, right?  Sometimes it works that way in comedy. Of course, sometimes it doesn't.

So, at this point, most likely you have researched the gig and it sounds like a good idea.  Whatever you do, don't cancel it- especially not for some stupid reason. If you take a gig, and realize it isn't worth it, you still have to do it.  Otherwise, the booker* sees you as flaky or high maintenance. They did the initial work of booking you, now they are taking a phone call where you are un-booking yourself, and then they need to make a 3rd call to book somebody else.  That's a major pain!

There is a right way and a wrong way to give bad news. Here are some tips to make canceling your gig easier:

  • Hold on. Evaluate the situation and make sure you ABSOLUTELY have to cancel.
Back when I was in my 20s, a producer for the Tyra Banks Show called me up and asked if I could make an appearance.  I said yes. I was super excited. Then I called back and canceled via a voicemail message. "I forgot I have to pick my brother up from the airport." That was sooooo stupid.   My brother said "I could have gotten a cab."  Oh yeah. Duh.  All I had to do was think it over.
  • Tell the booker ASAP!  
Give the booker as much time as possible to fill the slot.  One of my comedy buddies (who will also remain nameless) called an out of state comedy club HOURS BEFORE HIS FIRST SHOW and said he wasn't coming.  He said he couldn't afford the bus ticket.  Come on.  That's something you should know way in advance.  Regardless, he should have given at least 2 weeks' notice.  You give a job 2 weeks' notice, right? This is your job. Give notice.  The same comedian did the same thing to another club a month later.  He canceled the day of the show. Not cool.

Here's an quote from a booker from 1 time when I had to cancel: "BTW this is the 4th cancellation I have had in the last week. And you guys wonder why bookers are cranky a lot of the time." Fortunately, I canceled that gig a couple months in advance so the booker was able to easily find a replacement. In fact, it turns out it was 1 of my comedy friends. Glad she got the gig! Also, that booker ended up re-booking me on the gig several months later, so it ended up okay. I gave over a month's notice.  She filled the gig.  I still work for her.
  • Make sure you get a hold of the booker/ make sure the booker knows you are canceling.
If you call them, don't just leave a message and hope all is well.  If you e-mail them, don't assume they read your e-mail.  Bookers ignore a vast amount of the communications sent their way.  They are inundated so, most of the time, they do not want to hear from you (unless they want something from you). 

Anyhow, make sure that if you don't hear back from them in a timely fashion, you try again until you do.   I'm not saying send them 50 e-mails or 50 stressed out voicemails.  I'm just saying be more persistent than when you contacted them to get the booking.  Finding out that they don't have a comedian is more important to them than making sure you have work.
  • Indicate a sense of urgency. 
Bookers are often impossible to get a hold of so you have to let them know this is urgent.  If you e-mail them, the subject should include a word like URGENT or EMERGENCY or CANCELLATION or all of the above URGENT EMERGENCY CANCELLATION!  Bookers get hundreds or thousands of e-mails per day so they often delete comedian e-mails en masse. You have to get their attention.   If you are calling them- especially if you are leaving them a voicemail message or a message with their secretary, start off with "Hi.  This is so and so- and I have some bad news."
  • Don't waste the conversation making excuses.  
This is show business, a sleazy business. They have heard every BS line before. Excuses make you look flaky and dishonest. They don't want to hear your pitch.  Don't waste their time with excuses. 
  • Keep the conversation short.
In fact, don't say anything that isn't absolutely necessary.  This is a 911 call. Just tell them the facts.  "This is so and so. I have bad news. I can't do the gig (on whatever date and at whatever location). Here's why. I'm sorry for the inconvenience." 

Maybe they are frustrated because you are reneging on a verbal contract- and now you're wasting their time too!  Two strikes!  

Or, if you say too much, you look like you are lying.  Ever tell a lie and put too many details in there?  Lies and excuses go hand in hand.  Don't be a liar and don't get mistaken for a liar.  Sure, bookers lie all the time.  But as far as they are concerned, you need them more than they need you.
  • Have the gig's details on hand- just in case.
Make sure you communicate the date and location of the gig you are canceling.  Don't assume they remember every little detail. They don't.  They are in a position of power, not knowledge. They might not even remember who you are. 
  • Briefly apologize for any inconvenience. 
You're going to have to eat a little crow.  Don't make it a production, though.  Be sincere and direct.
  • The best case scenario? Provide a solution.  
If you really have to cancel, tell the booker you will help them find an acceptable substitute.  Or better yet, find a potential substitute before you call them or e-mail them.  And don't just give them some crappy comedian- or someone who just worked the room last month.  Give them someone as good as or better than you. Better yet, give them someone who's already on their roster.  Check with that comedian to make sure it has been awhile since they last did the gig.
  • However, despite your best efforts, some bookers are extremely unreasonable.  
One of comedian friends (who will remain anonymous so I don't get him into any extra trouble) got really bad pneumonia. He had it for a couple months. His doctor told him not to travel for awhile. So, he ended up having to cancel a gig. The booker told him off and never booked him again. Come on! Everybody gets sick days- even strippers and janitors! Apparently comedians do not.

The reason why I bring all this up is as I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, I rescheduled a gig.  Basically, I got an offer to work a club I had never worked before for a booker who books a ton of other, better paying clubs.  I wanted to work for him.  However, I was already committed to another gig. I was already booked to headline a theater- in Colorado.

But, before telling the club booker no, I called the guy who booked me for the theater. I had to at least examine my options. He had rescheduled me once before- to suit his needs, not mine.  So, I felt I could ask him to reschedule me again- this time for my needs. He said yes. We share a Google calendar that we both have the admin rights to change.  He changed my calendar. I assumed all was well.  This was several months before I was supposed to work the theater, so head plenty of time to make a couple phone calls of his own.

Then, last week, I was talking a buddy of mine who had just worked the theater. He said he saw I was working there Friday.  I told him "no, I rescheduled that months ago. The booker took care of it."  We talked about how the theater also has another booker.  That booker booked my friend.  The lady who runs the theater is happy with that booker. However, apparently, she is not so happy the the booker who booked me. Uh oh!

I checked out the theater's online calendar.  I was still on there! They still thought I was coming! Crap. I realized all this TWO DAYS before the gig.  Crap.  I called up the contact at the theater.  Voicemail.  Crap! Phone tag ensued.  I had to be persistent, though. This needed to be handled immediately and correctly.

ONE DAY before the gig, as I was driving to my South Dakota gig, I got the theater lady on the phone. She had not heard the voicemails yet, so I broke the news.  Did I mention I was in South Dakota?  My cell service kept crapping out.  I had to pull over so I could handle this. She was super frustrated- for good reason! She told me she had been having some bad luck with this booker and that she was done with him.  the dropped cell phone calls weren't helping.

Fortunately, she didn't blame me. More importantly, though, she was left without a show- at the last minute. Not cool. She was screwed. People had bought tickets. They had to give refunds.  What a hassle!

Also, not to be self-centered, but I was screwed! Like I mentioned earlier, the theater had accidentally paid me in advance. Now, I had to send the money back. Dang it!  Plus, she is already booked for the year! She said she'd look at getting me back in the theater this year- or maybe next.  But things change.  Who knows what the future holds?  Who knows if I'll be able to reschedule? I went from headlining a theater in my home state to featuring 650 miles away- for less money!  With gas prices skyrocketing again, this is a bad time to be drive 2 states further to make less money.  Hell.  Anytime is a bad time for stupid economics like that.

I did the shows in South Dakota.  I made the best of it.  The staff and owner were really cool. I worked on some new material which I'll be doing at the Laughing Skull Festival next month. I met a very funny comedian, Mike Malone. Unfortunately, we both sold very few t-shirts.  So, all the gas money came out of the gig money.  Considering all the hours at the club, in the car, on the phone, I made less than $1 per hour.  Essentially, I turned myself into a comedy slave.

Booking gigs is already hard enough without cancellations. Rescheduling requires more work than getting the gig to begin with.  It's like traveling backwards in time.  Change 1 thing and you can ruin everything.

Bye!  I'm Jake!

*A comedy booker is someone who makes a couple phone calls and lines up a gig. Honest bookers realize that 10%- 20% is an honest agent's commission.  However, a lot of bookers are not honest. Dishonest bookers typically take any from 50% - 90% of the comedy budget.  Despite the fact that the comedians wrote all the comedy, drove to BFE, and then performed their crafted act on stage, comedians often do not make the majority of the money.  After the booker makes his, the comedians get the scraps.  Why does this keep happening?  Because there are a million comedians out there who have not unionized.  Also, as any booker will tell you, there is always some other comedian who will do the gig for less money.