Canada Laughs’ Ben Miner on the business of comedy

The cast of Schitt's Creek.

The cast of Schitt's Creek.

So you’ve worked up the courage to do stand-up and developed the necessary calluses to continue doing it and now you’re wondering what that next step is and how you can take it.

A lot of comics start doing this because there’s something gnawing at them to get on stage; we all dream of big things but how many of us expect them to actually come true? Not enough. I say save your dreams for having super-powers which you use to fight crime in between love-making sessions with your wife Mila Kunis. Being a successful comic shouldn’t be a dream.

It should be a goal.

So what are some of the steps you can take towards making this happen? I’d say the first step is to start performing outside of the city you’re currently killing in, if only to get used to different stages. Some people will say you should have an act that works anywhere but I think that’s an individual choice. Tim McGraw doesn’t concern himself with booking a spot at Coachella and Jay Z never stressed about performing at Lillith Fair. As cheesy as this sounds, I think it’s most important to have an act you believe in. And then get really good at saying it flawlessly – tough rooms are great for that. I remember doing one of my first road gigs years ago in a little town just outside of Minden, Ontario. Man, did I ever eat it that night. But I walked away from that show kind of happy, because I filled my time while bombing. I know that sounds weird to non-comics, but filling your time is super important regardless of how well you’re doing. Go short and you’re making the next comic fill your time, go long and you’ll take time away from the other acts, and if you’re headlining and go long you risk annoying the venue. But yeah, bombing for 30 minutes was a victory to me. I knew filling time was no longer an issue and that was a huge relief. So what next? Festivals.

How do you go about submitting/showcasing for festivals? Good question. Here’s what my buddy and Toronto’s Top Comic, Pat Thornton, had to say:

“I would say that you have to ask for everything that you get and there’s no real justice to it, you will always feel like you’re getting things at least 2 years after you deserve them. But if you do ask for a showcase and get one, you better have your shit together. Know what a showcase set is, know that your jokes are clean and tight enough that they can be put on tv”

Good points by Pat, and he would know, given how many fests/tv spots he’s booked. And yes, you gotta be clean for network TV.

So, what is a showcase set? It’s you telling your most tried and true material; this isn’t the time to try new stuff. Go with the girl you brought to the dance, y’know? Curious about the perspective of a festival booker? Here’s what Dean Jenkinson of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival had to say:

“Have a good video link with audible audio.

Have a unique angle, be memorable.

Be as clean in your audition tape as you think you’ll have to be on the gala.

Don’t take it personally if you don’t get in, and don’t give up. Hundreds will submit, and a couple dozen will get a spot. Doesn’t mean you’re not funny.”

Again, the word clean comes up. TV needs you to be clean. That doesn’t mean you can’t have edge and that there’s no place for nasty/dirty stuff; you’re just less likely to book the TV spots is all. So where can you get your stuff broadcasted uncensored? You send it to us at SiriusXM. What does that involve? It’s pretty simple really. The audio has to be good, the audience needs to be laughing and you can’t be ripping anyone off. How can you improve your chances of being played? Make a cd that’s easy to play. And by that I mean, have it all cut into tracks, make sure there’s a track listing and that all the files are MP3. Not everyone does that and you want to make it’s as easy as possible to get your stuff played. The moment someone has to make a bunch of edits in order to get a track on the air decreases the chances of that track going in quikly or at all. We do all that extra work here at Canada Laughs but we’re the exception and not the rule.

You’re at a point now where you’ve done the clubs, you’ve performed at the fests and you’re getting regular airplay with us. Is it time to start pitching tv shows? Maybe. A lot of comics are happy getting to this point and have no ambition to do a TV show and that’s fair too, we’re all in this for different reasons. But let’s say you’re a comic who wants that tv show, what should you consider when creating a pitch? Colin Brunton produces Schitt’s Creek and Spun Out, here’s his advice:

“It should be simple, easy to grasp the concept right away. Execs don’t have time or attention span these days to want to spend more time than they have to reading. If you get into a meeting be fun and make them feel that not only are you going to be a breeze to work with but that they feel they are now part of the project. Everything should be funny as f**k.”

Colin is just about as big an authority on the subject as there is, he has two prime-time sitcoms on tv right now and knows what it takes. I would add, try to hook up with a production company rather than going straight to the network. You’ll strengthen your stance and be less likely to be messed with. I’m not implying any maliciousness, I’m just saying your idea is more likely to stay intact with a company backing you. Having said that, don’t be precious. If someone wants to pay you for an idea then take the money and make more ideas. If your goal is to write/produce/act in your own project, the best way to achieve that is to create a track-record for yourself. Very rarely do people get carte-blanche right out the gates.

Did any of this help? I hope so. At the end of the day, I guess the best bit of advice I can give is to care more than the next person. I got my gig at SiriusXM by writing in to the CRTC and requesting to speak before the committee during the original CRTC satellite radio hearings back in 2004. I got my first bit of press by leaving messages for the arts editor of the Ottawa Sun for an entire week. I’m not saying I’m the measuring stick for success, but I’ve done alright and I’ve been around a while. Trying to get ahead? Do what I did here and ask successful people for advice. I’ve never produced a tv show, that’s why I asked Colin. I’ve barely booked sets on TV so I asked Pat who’s booked a bunch. Work hard, ask questions, be nice and above all else be funny. Easy, right?

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