I moved to Knoxville from Nashville in August 2010. At the time, I had been performing relentlessly for the last two years multiple times a week, but now that I was moving to a new city, I was unsure of what I would find in terms of opportunities in comedy (mainly because the move was prompted by educational reasons—finishing college—and not reasons specifically related to comedy). I had already developed a relationship with the local comedy club in Knoxville, so I had my foot in the door there, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted more.
At the end of my first paid booking as an emcee at this comedy club in the fall of 2010, I approached the owner following the last show of the weekend for feedback on my performance. At the time, I was a young 21-year-old comic with barely two full years of experience under my belt, and I was eager to get some helpful tips and advice in order to improve myself as a comedian, especially as a recent transplant to a new city. The owner said, point-blank, “You need to dumb it down.” Instead of a critique, I received a criticism. I knew it was inevitable in this business that I’d get knocked down a few—several—MANY times, but this was the first one of substantial weight. This was an actual club owner telling me the same thing other comics would jokingly call out during my sets at open mics (“TOO SMART!”) for months prior. It obviously wasn’t the answer I was looking for at the end of my first paid weekend as a comedian, and I struggled with it afterwards for a few weeks.
At this time, the only open mic available in this area was the one at this comedy club, which ran every two weeks. However, I still struggled with the feedback I received from the owner, so I then had a dilemma on my hands: do I continue performing at the comedy club open mic, where I needed to “dumb it down,” and continue that uphill battle of trying to win over essentially dumb audiences? Or do I just give up comedy altogether because of the lose-lose situation I saw in front of me (either killing in front of dumb audiences with dumb material, or bombing in front of dumb audiences with my “TOO SMART!” material)?
Another factor in this dilemma was that the open mic at this club was a pay-to-play format, which meant that everyone had to pay for a ticket to the show—including performers. I had conflicting feelings about this rule (I’ll go into this more a little later). I ultimately decided to keep doing the open mic because I didn’t want to stop performing completely, so I spent the next month or two paying this comedy club to bomb every two weeks. I had gone from performing 3-4 times a week, to twice a month. My rate of development barely had a pulse, I was stuck in a rut, and fucking miserable. The bottoming out occurred when a comic-friend of mine from Nashville called me one night, and I broke down. He patiently listened to me go off the rails for hours, offered his own response, and he and I spent the entire night talking back-and-forth until he fell asleep on the phone at sunrise. (Adorable.)
The following week, I met a local comic who was starting a new weekly open mic at a theater on the other side of the city. I was only going onstage once every two weeks, so OF COURSE I wanted to check this place out and get more stagetime. The first night I went, I had a blast—the audiences were smart, the comics (some of whom I knew from the club open mic and some I hadn’t seen before) were funny, and I really enjoyed myself. And, best of all, it was free to attend AND to perform! Rejoice! I was excited to have a new place to workshop my material with no pressure or consequence regardless of whether I destroyed or tanked. It was liberating, and I went back every week until the show was ended due to financial disagreements between the venue owner and the comic who organized the show. However, despite losing that open mic, the comic who organized the show and I became friends and colleagues, and it’s a relationship that I still maintain today and likely would not have if I had not gone to this open mic.
When I began to align myself with this comic, he and I worked together for months trying to get other shows going locally in town. We weren’t looking to compete with the comedy club, obviously—we just wanted to create more stagetime for local comics to improve themselves, with the idea that they could use the DIY open mics to workshop new material, and then go do the club open mic to showcase that material after it had been polished and perfected. It wasn’t intended to make enemies, but rather to make a community. This process of setting up shows began at the beginning of 2011, started to furiously pick up steam in summer 2011 and has progressed thru the present-day. Even as I write this, there are currently FOUR weekly independent open mic comedy shows, along with one bi-weekly comedy club open mic. The amount of stagetime has quadrupled itself in a year. The audiences are growing and showing themselves to be much more savvy (I haven't had "TOO SMART!" yelled at me in over a year). Comics are getting really good really quick. Creatively, I am constantly inspired and motivated by the rapid development of many of my peers. Most importantly, a real comedy community has been established.
However, this burgeoning do-it-yourself comedy scene in Knoxville has sparked periodic debates at times. Some comics have essentially shunned the local comedy club and instead focused on constantly getting onstage and improving themselves by performing multiple times a week for free. A handful have attempted to keep one foot in both worlds. Others have basically pledged loyalty to the comedy club, and absolutely refuse to set foot inside any show outside of the club, choosing instead to pay to perform every two weeks. (Coincidentally, some of these comics tell others that, if they take their comedy seriously, they should get onstage anywhere they can. Yet, they won’t do it themselves for whatever reason. So who’s taking their comedy more seriously, exactly? That’s just a personal aside.)
I stopped doing Knoxville’s comedy club’s pay-to-play open mic in the fall of 2011 primarily because I couldn’t afford it, and also because I didn’t enjoy the experience the last several times I had done it. I decided to take a temporary break from the club’s open mic with intentions to eventually return, until a situation fell into my lap in November 2011, when a comic-friend in Knoxville gave me info for a venue that was interested in putting on a weekly open mic. When I met with the owner to pin down a schedule, I tried to avoid putting it on the same day as the club’s open mic, because I didn’t want to step on their toes. However, the only free night they had WAS the same night as the club’s open mic.
I took a chance and decided to set up the show anyway, knowing full well it wouldn’t be well-received by the club and some of the more club-loyal comics. And I know from a number of sources that it wasn’t. However, I wanted to figure out a way to try to create the most benefit, so I made my open mic a CLEAN open mic. It’s common in most cases that if you want to get booked as an emcee at a comedy club, you usually have to work clean (this is the case at the club in Knoxville). So, with that in mind, I designed my open mic with the idea that comics can come to my show and work on a clean set for free, which they can then use at the pay-to-play open mic at the local comedy club to showcase for paid work.
My intention for my weekly open mic was and is not to compete with the club’s bi-weekly open mic (because half the time, IT DOESN’T), but to provide an alternative setting for comics to workshop their material with no pressure or consequence regardless of whether they destroy or tank—just like I had had shortly after moving to Knoxville. I am merely giving other comics another opportunity to get onstage and improve themselves, and foster goodwill among the growing Knoxville comedy community. The only reason I don’t do the pay-to-play open mic nowadays is because I am busy producing, promoting, and hosting my own weekly show which merely happens to fall on the same night as the club’s (for the record, these are skills I am learning that go beyond what I would have gotten doing the pay-to-play open mic).
In all honesty, my involvement in both worlds—pay-to-play and free—has yielded rewards on both sides, and often those rewards are one in the same. In both cases, I’ve gotten paid for doing comedy, I’ve gotten to work with some really great comics in the business, and I’ve been able to forge a modestly prominent position within the local comedy community. I have no complaints.
So, where do I stand on the pay-to-play versus free issue? Here’s where I stand: in December 2011, I performed my first-ever headlining gigs at the Out Front On Main theater in Murfreesboro, TN. I did a three-night stand, in which two of the three nights were sold-out and standing-room-only. At the end of the weekend, I got a return booking to headline again in December 2012. I did an hour all three nights. Half of that set was written, developed, and polished over 2010 and the first nine months of 2011 mainly performing every two weeks at Knoxville’s comedy club. However, the other half of that hour-long set was written, developed, and polished at DIY open mics in Knoxville between September and December 2011. Three months. Thirty minutes in a year and nine months versus thirty minutes in THREE MONTHS. The opening bit, a politically-charged rant running roughly eight minutes about war and the homeless, was put together in roughly TWO WEEKS. Oh, and I had the greatest sets of my life and plan to release a recording of these headlining shows as a live comedy album later this year. So, take that for whatever it’s worth.
But honestly, it doesn’t matter between pay-to-play or free. Neither is really better than the other. It’s a fucking stupid argument. In the end, I say if you want to get better, SHUT UP AND GET THE FUCK ONSTAGE.