As a comedian, I thought the lockdown would deprive me of my one purpose in life: attention.
Instead, being forced into online comedy shows connected me to the whole world, created new revenue streams, and made me aware of my power as an entertainer with global resonance.
Zoom shows are a lot of fun, in their own special way. And you can do them too.
How do I know this?
Because I’ve produced and performed in almost 100 paid Zoom comedy shows since March 2020. And this number does not even factor in the unpaid shows, open mics, “swing-bys for comedy friends” and other special events.
Here is what I have learned.
How to get started
- Start with friends and family. Offer to do a 10 minute birthday show for free. Let those closest to you understand what the experience feels like and looks like.
- Offer free shows to non-profits. Schools, hospitals, any organization that doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on frivolous things like your career, will usually be up for a 15-minute show.
- Ask for reviews and referrals. Once you’ve done your free shows, ask the participants if they wouldn’t mind writing a one or two sentence review for you. Ask if they would consider hiring you for a paid show, or suggesting you to other people.
- Reach out for paid work. Tap into your network for groups that would benefit from getting together and laughing, whether they are businesses, clubs, or family events.
- Raise your price point with each experience. People speculate about zoom comedy show pricing all the time and I’ll tell you, you can charge in direct proportion to the value you bring. If you take it seriously, are meticulous in your planning, production, and communication with the client and generally hold yourself to a high standard of performance, you can charge in line with the expectation you create. Then maybe one day you can aspire booking a 20-minute Zoom show at a hedge fund for $50,000, like one top comedian I know of.
- All shows must be fully paid upfront. Give your client the confidence that you are there to resolve any issues if they should arise. But my time and show is not booked until it is fully paid for. I know the inquiry is real when I tell them that it’s a 100% paid up front and we still continue the conversation.
PRO TIP: It’s easier to sell an event than to sell individual tickets.
In the before times, you might pay to go see a comedian in a club, surrounded by strangers.
Is that what you want to do on Zoom? Go into a Zoom room looking at a bunch of tiny faces you’ve never met before?
Trying to sell your Zoom show to individuals is much tougher than trying to sell an entertainment event to a group of people who know each other for their baby shower / birthday / funeral.
It’s the same amount of marketing effort to sell one individual ticket as it is to sell a whole event. Your energy is better spent there.
- Confirm and re-confirm time zones. I’ve had near disasters with people booking me on EST time, sending a Google invite with PST time on it, confirming in email with no specified time and then a round of panicked whatsapps/messages/emails at the last minute to resolve it all. And don’t hesitate to upcharge if you’re doing a show at 2 AM to accommodate an international venue.
- Keep your computer and phone charged, restarted, plugged in, and ready. Every once in a while something happens and the client needs to talk to you just moments before showtime or even during if there are multiple comics.
- Put your camera on something stable and at eye-level.
- Light your face. We need to see your facial expressions or else you’re just a shadowy blur with a voice. Ring lights are inexpensive and perfect. Wearers of makeup might want to check out some tutorials on YouTube for light-reflecting makeup. Try to avoid light sources above your head or you’ll end up looking like Seinfeld’s “Two Face” girlfriend.
5. Use a headphone or a great desk mic. Otherwise you’ll be screaming into your laptop while it echoes chillingly across your dark, cluttered, starving artist apartment/parents’ basement. I use a wired iPhone headphone all the time, and I’ve seen well-known comedians use it too. Airpods have a split-second bluetooth delay but many people seem to like the air of suspense that creates. Either way, clear audio is a must.
6. Nail your entrance. Ideally, enter the Zoom room with your camera and mic turned off at a pre-set time so your client knows you are there and can relax and enjoy their event. Do not turn on the camera/mic until you are called up on “stage”. Remember you are a performer/vendor at the event, not a guest, and the excitement of watching you come live will be lost if you’re puttering around in the room before it’s your time to perform.
7. Record the show if you can. Ask the clients if you can record the show. Sometimes clients request a copy of the tape because they would like to relive their event — often they don’t think about this beforehand. You can always review the tapes for your own education and feedback to see what you could have done better or differently. And if you really killed it, ask your clients if you can use a clip or two for your promotional purposes.
PRO TIP: On video, your brand is not just your writing and timing anymore.
It’s your makeup, the clothes you wear, the room behind you.
What’s my brand? I’m an Indian immigrant stay-at-home mom turned standup comedian. I joke about my kids, immigrating to America, my extended family. My audience is middle-aged parents and professionals. And I want them to feel they are getting their money’s worth.
So I dress up in traditional Indian clothes with a modern twist, hair and makeup, jewelry, etc., like I’m hosting a fancy party, and I have a clean, homey background behind me.
Maybe your brand is that you are a slob and that’s supposed to be funny. Maybe your audience are also slobs and they want to pay to see you unwashed, unshaven, with takeout containers behind you. Sounds like comedy gold to me, until your mother buys one of your tickets.
I did a Zoom show with a comedian who had an Amazon box perched on a shelf above his head for the entire set. What do you think the audience was watching, him or the cardboard box?
Let’s put on a show!
- Format? The ideal zoom show is under 50 minutes. A 5 minute open/hang/settle down, a 5 minute close/goodbye hang and a 40-ish minute show with up to 4 comedians MAX. Host + 3, ideally, Host + 2. A show that moves fast and ends at 40 minutes is far better than a show that drags and ends at 60 minutes.
- Special requests? Keep notes on anything your clients have requested, things to highlight or absolute no-nos. Basic notes are part of any show, but if someone wants you to custom create a whole set for them, that should warrant a customization fee.
- To host or not to host? For shorter shows, 15–20 minutes, you don’t really need a host and can get away with doing the whole thing yourself, but pace your entry. Use your first minute to acknowledge that they’re still getting settled and that it may take them a moment to focus.
- Audience size? I’ve done shows as small as 4 people and as large as a few hundred people. The smaller set ups are intimate and allow for cameras and mics to be on and more lively interaction. For a larger set up, you may want to encourage a few people to turn off the mic and only request a chosen few in quiet spaces to keep their mics on. Some companies/institutions prefer a webinar format wherein you really only see a few people and everyone else is logging incognito and muted.
PRO-TIP: Bring the energy
In a club, the reactions from the audience build and bring energy to the room.
But in a Zoom show — especially the larger ones where so many people are on mute — everything hinges on the comedian’s own energy.
If you’re anxious and nervous, the audience will pick up on it. If you’re confident and on fire, the audience will go along on that ride with you.
Have faith in your material and in your ability to make people happy. Even if you are getting no feedback from the audience, your energy will be highly contagious.
There are pros and cons to this — a big pro is that you can control your own energy. With enough practice, you’ll know how to stay in the zone no matter what is happening.
But a big con is that the experience is lonely and feels less like an artistic performance and more like an endurance sport. There have been webinar-style shows when I have no clue when it finishes how I did. Until the first set of emails, notes, text messages, etc., start coming in.
The biggest compliment of course is when someone who saw you books you for another show or refers you for another event.
Have fun with the virtual bells and whistles
Just because we can barely hear and see each other over our internet devices doesn’t mean there’s nothing funny about our new online meeting features!
- Ask a poll question, the simpler the better. “Where are you logging in from?” always gets responses. “What are you drinking? Are you wearing pants?” But don’t ask a question that takes you out of your zone, like “Did you have a good day?” If someone’s friend or dog died, that’s the end of your show right there.
- Switching backgrounds is pretty basic but can still be funny. I tell a joke about how Hindu gods are so different from the other gods, and then unexpectedly, my background changes to a Hindu god standing behind me as if to chastise me.
- Playing certain music can be funny. During a show for one woman’s 50th birthday, I played an Indian song that is used as a fanfare when an important guest enters the room.
- When I have multiple comedians in a lineup, I will ask the audience to note in the chat which jokes they liked the best. At the end of the show, that gives the comedians and me some extra fodder to joke about, teasing each other about who scored laughs and who didn’t. “I guess you were sleeping through your set!” The joke’s on the comedians, not on the audience.
- Sometimes for a charity show I’ll put the comedians’ Venmo information in the chat in case anybody wants to tip them (and they do).
- Try to get a few photos with your Zoom room and/or boomerangs — if nothing else, you can gift them to your client. You can have your guests throw their hands in the air, do funny faces, make movements with their fingers, anything to show unity will make for a super fun photo.
But use these sparingly. The show should be about you, your performance, and your writing.
PRO-TIP: Go ahead and do a little bit of crowd work
Zoom shows are often organized by a certain group like a business, a school, a cultural center, a family. Let them know that you’re there for them specifically. Open with 1–2 short references to this event in particular and then let your set take over.
Be cautious of not embarrassing anyone. In a club, you make fun of someone and they fade back into the anonymous sea of strangers having a good time. But in a Zoom show, everyone knows who that person is that you picked on, and they all sit with it the rest of the night.
I will joke about one business’s product range (“Why so many knives? Knives and cologne? What are you getting ready for that we don’t know about?”) or tease a birthday girl about her friend who organized it (“Deepika told me you’re both among her very closest friends. Easily in her top 300!”)
But don’t overdo it — don’t make your audience feel like they have to do work in their own space.
Another PRO-TIP: Long jokes don’t work on Zoom
In a club, you pretty much have everyone’s undivided attention.
You can raise a question or tease the resolution of a story, and people will go silent to make sure they hear what you’re about to say next.
The connection issues, your tiny little faces on their screens, the myriad distractions all around your audience members from their phones to their kids to their dinners — all make it harder for them to follow every beat of what you say.
So keep it simple. No long setups. Jokes should be short and punchy.
Here are some clips to show you what I mean:
Go get that production fee.
On the one hand, we have you, a professional comedian who has set up dozens if not hundreds of zoom links, eventbrite tickets, and promotional flyers.
On the other hand, we have a business or school or hospital or charity who has never done this.
You should offer to produce the event, taking care of all these little bits and pieces, AND GET PAID A PRODUCTION FEE FOR IT.
This is an entirely separate service than showing up on their Zoom and performing without a care in the world.
Some final words…
Know that some shows won’t work no matter what. Be calm and do your job. Try not to start the post mortem analysis of the show until after it has ended. Often the comedian is way over-stating how badly it is going, even if it not gong as well as he expected. People are generally relaxed and in their own homes, the threshold is low. Don’t over think this. And if someone reaches out to you the next day, be courteous, hear them out and be generous in accommodating them in some way, either offer a discount on a future event or if something truly egregious happened, then offer some money back as a goodwill gesture. But for the most part, keep in mind, the check has already cleared!
Now get out there and start joking!