How to book your own stand-up comedy tour: A long but, by no means, definitive guide

By | April 15, 2015 at 11:13 am | 7 comments | Features, News, Opinion | Tags: , , , , , ,

Comedian Ron Babcock's guide to stand-up comedy toursHello. My name is Ron Babcock and I’m a comic in Los Angeles. Last year I went on a coast-to-coast tour for three months. I hit 34 cities, did 82 shows and drove 12,023 miles in a 1975 Mercedes Benz named Harvey. (If you want to see photos, search #benzit on instagram. Or you can buy the 70 page color photobook here for $15.) I also made money. Well, I broke even. But when you’re doing a DIY tour, breaking even is considered success.

A lot of comics have approached me asking for advice on how to do their own tour, hence this almost 4200-word post. I’d say this is one of those full cup of coffee posts. It’s gonna be a lot of sips guys, but if you want to figure out how to book shows, how to make money (or at least not lose it) and why you need to buy an airbed, then take a sip and read on.

Just remember to take all this with a grain of salt, salt being easily discardable and never in short supply. This is just stuff that I found helpful.

SO WHAT MADE YOU DO A TOUR?

Oh the normal reasons really. I was in a creative rut. I was constantly doing shows, going on auditions and NETWORKING BRO, but I still felt like I was spinning my wheels. I wanted to get outside my creative comfort zone and see the country and do comedy for people who don’t say NETWORKING BRO.

I also wanted to submit for a Comedy Central half hour. I tried to submit the previous year. I set up a special show in my hometown at my friend’s bar. The place was packed. Twenty kids from my high school came, my mom was even there. Thankfully, the show went great. Not so thankfully, the camera died in the first three minutes. I figured going on tour for three months would increase my chances of getting a good tape and make me a better comedian in the process. Plus I love how in the moment traveling makes you.

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SO HOW DID YOU BOOK ALL THOSE SHOWS?

The short answer is “about 10,000 Facebook messages.” This was very much an indie tour. I didn’t have a booking agency or anything like that. This tour was a mixed bag of indie rooms, bar shows, small theaters, living rooms, festivals, colleges and one club. I like doing clubs, but I also like doing a new venue every night. Plus indie rooms are easier to book.

I started by taping a map of the US to my wall and slowly but surely mapping out an itinerary with a red sharpie. First I booked shows in cities I worked before (Phoenix, Minneapolis, NYC, etc…) Then I started to fill out the dates in between.

The most valuable resource in doing this was other comedians.** Almost every comic in LA comes from someplace else. I’d message my comedy buddies plus comics I had met at festivals and ask about shows in their hometowns. If you want to book a show in Denver, then your best bet is to talk to a comic in Denver. The comedy world is a small scene. If you don’t know someone in Denver, chances are a friend of yours does.

Despite Facebook’s reign as The Thing I Spend Too Much Time On That I Don’t Enjoy, it was an excellent resource. Let’s say you want to book a show in Chattanooga on a Wednesday, but you don’t know anyone there. I would go to the Facebook search bar and type “Comedy Shows in Chattanooga.” Usually some past show would pop up. With a bit of sleuthing, you could sort out who ran it. I would then Facebook them a quick message introducing myself and asking about shows.

SOME PRACTICAL BOOKING TIPS:

  • If you’re messaging someone who doesn’t know you, keep it professional. Don’t be the comic who just writes “Yo I wanna do your show. U should book me man.” Be polite, list your credits. Even if they’re not big Hollywood credits, just list the things you’ve done that you are proud of. Do you have a podcast? Do you run a successful show? Also include a link to a standup set that you’re proud of. If you don’t have a standup set online (not one joke, a set), then bookers won’t take you seriously.
  • Keep a Google Sheets doc listing all your booked shows. Fellow comedian Brandie Posey told me to do this and it was the only way I was able to stay on top of everything. I just had column after column — date, venue, show name, address, time, ticket price, drive time to next show, etc… THIS IS PROBABLY THE BEST ADVICE I CAN GIVE YOU. Putting together a tour is an administrative nightmare. Brandie nailed it when she mentioned, “Planning a tour is like planning a war. If you’re going to do it, you should approach it professionally so you have room to have fun.”
  • DON’T OVERBOOK YOURSELF. You need to give yourself a day off every once and awhile or you will feel like a big bag of garbage. You’re not helping your comedy when you feel like hot trash. I tried to schedule a day off every 8 or 9 days.

** I’m always happy to help out fellow comics, but please don’t message me asking for one big list of contacts. Unless we’ve shared meals together and are close buddies, I would feel uncomfortable giving out that info and inundating bookers with tons of requests.

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DID YOU GET SPONSORED BY MERCEDES? WHAY? HOW THE HELL…

For my tour, I got sponsored by the good people atMercedesMotoring.com (that’s MercedesMotoring.com. Tell ‘em Ron sent ya!) The crazy thing is I didn’t even come up with the idea. I mentioned that I was putting a tour together to my friend JG Francis, who owns Mercedes Motoring, and he said, “Hey you should take one of my cars.” I kept hesitating on saying yes, because I wasn’t sure how a 40-year-old car would do on a coast-to-coast tour (on a side note, classic Mercedes Benz will last up to 350-500K miles, so my little 12K road trip was nothing).

They let me borrow a 1975 Mercedes Benz 300D named Harvey. Even though a vintage car has absolutely nothing to do with standup, people and local press really responded to it. It was a great hook for me and because of social media, a lot of people were introduced to Mercedes Motoring. It was a great win-win. I realize that this is very unconventional and that you’re probably thinking, “Yeah Ron, but I wasn’t born in Lucky-Son-of-a-Bitchburg.” My point is that I think sponsorships like this can serve as a successful model for comedians going on tour in the future. There’s so many companies out there trying to reach above the noise. Traditional forms of marketing are expensive and saturated. The best advertising in the world is word-of-mouth and words are what we comics do. I realize that it’s a long shot, but it’s worth kicking back in your chair and brainstorming for five minutes.

The car ran perfectly btw, no problems at all. Well the fan belt started to squeak in Chicago, so I had to have that adjusted. They tightened it for free when I got an oil change. It took about ten minutes.

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SO DID YOU MAKE MONEY OR WHAT?

Yes, but I also spent the same amount of money to pull this thing off. Honestly it was almost to the penny. It was weird. First things first, there’s no way I would’ve broke even if I didn’t sublet my place. Thankfully Allen Strickland Williams needed a new bed to bone chicks in. If it wasn’t for him, I would’ve had to move out of my apt and put all my stuff into storage (which would have been terrible).

You will get paid to do standup on the road, but every place is different. In most big cities like Chicago and NYC, I would do more showcase shows (8-10 min sets). Those would pay you in drink tickets or like $20-40. I did these not to make money, but because I wanted to visit those cities. In smaller cities like Cincinnati or DC, I would headline shows (45-60 min) and those would pay much more. Some would do a 50/50 door split or pass the bucket (which really worked in my favor a few times). Most times a booker would ask how much I wanted. This was always tricky. Basically, the more you credits you have, the more you can get paid because credits help fill a room. I would get paid anywhere from $50 to $250 for a show. A few times I was paid more, but generally that’s what I got. Touring with friends will dramatically decrease your biggest expense (gas), but you’ll have to share your sweet sweet standup monies.

The secret to success (aka breaking even) on the road is selling merch.

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AHHH MERCH?!! BUT I HATE BEING THE COMIC WHO SELLS STUFF AFTER A SHOW!

I know how awkward it can be to set up shop after a show and stand there hawking your CD while a disinterested crowd exits before you. And if you don’t want to do that, that’s fine. But this is a guide for how to make money (break even) and if you want to break even, then you have murder that part of you that cares and sell some merch.

To be honest, I’ve never understood that smug pride some comics have when it comes to not selling merch. Like lacking a tshirt somehow makes their standup more pure? I grew up going to punks shows and everyone always had a little table in the back with homemade cd’s, buttons, stickers, zines, etc… To me, selling merch was always cool and punk. It exuded that “Fuck it, I’ll do this shit on my own” mentality that I love.

Here’s the weird thing:  you will meet people who admire what you’re doing and want to support you. People like watching other people buck the trend and go for it. They want to help you and they will do this by buying your merch.

I think most comics look down on merch because so much of it is just dumb and terrible. But you’re a creative person. Huzzah! So come up with something that is not dumb and terrible. You need to find what works for you. I spent a lot of time thinking about all this. I ended up modding a vintage suitcase into a mobile store (which makes me the Willy Loman of standup comedy). I filled it with 2 kinds of shirts, buttons, magnets, stickers, koozies, cd’s and posters. I know I know, I went overboard, but I honestly enjoy this kind of stuff. Although next time I go on tour, I definitely won’t do as much.

The trick to selling merch is to make it something people would actually want to wear, hang up or use. So don’t order crappy merch. It’s not worth saving a few bucks by getting the cheap Hanes tshirts. People may buy it but they’ll barely wear it. Get American Apparel or Anvil. I prefer Anvil bc they’re slightly cheaper, just as soft, and their CEO doesn’t rub his penis on anyone.

Enlist the help of an artistic friend for the design. For one my shirts,Chris Fairbanks drew Adam & Eve on the back of a dinosaur with a gun to its head. It’s based on this bit I do where I read out of a creationist children’s book called What Really Happened to the Dinosaurs? It didn’t say my name or even have my website. It was just a cool image. I ended up selling out halfway through the tour and had to order more.

Merch can get expensive real quick. 200 shirts cost me $1674. I made that money back, but that’s still a lot of money to come up with. Keep your merch costs low by doing it yourself. I borrowed a friend’s buttonmaker to do the buttons and magnets. Burning a DIY CD is easy. Printing up tour posters is pretty cheap. As long as what you make feels authentic and it’s something you think is cool, then I guarantee you’ll meet other people who will too.

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Here’s what my merch looked like:

TOUR SHIRT

DINO SHIRT

KOOZIES

STICKERS

BUTTONS & MAGNETS

BUSINESS CARDS

MERCH CASE
(It’s only halfway done here. I also added more compartments, xmas lights and pricing.)

PRACTICAL MERCH TIPS:

  • Get Square or Paypal or some other little card reader so you can process credit card orders with your phone. Yes they take a cut but they are taking a cut of money you otherwise would not be getting. Over half my sales came through credit cards. Those sales got deposited directly into my bank account, which I would use to pay off the credit card I used to buy all this stuff. I then used the cash sales and the money I made from performing to pay for expenses on the road – gas, food, booze, etc… My goal was to use my credit card as little as possible, so I wouldn’t come back to a mountain of debt. This system worked pretty well for me.
  • Square also allows you to record cash sales (which they don’t take a cut of). I love this, because it allowed me to keep track of how much I was making.
  • After awhile, I would give buttons and magnets and stickers away for free. No one was really buying them, but they were a nice bonus gift when someone bought a shirt. Plus I always give stuff away for free when I get drunk. I know that’s not wise financially but meh, screw it.
  • I don’t care which mobile store you go with, but signing up for Square via this link will get you free processing on up to $1000 in credit cards orders for the first 180 days. Tell ’em Ron sent ya!
  • Before you hit “Place Order” on anything online, always google “Coupon Code” and check the company’s twitter page. Half the time you’ll find a free shipping code or a 10% off coupon.
  • At first I felt weird about charging $20 for a shirt. But people will pay $20 for a good quality shirt. And you never need to make change for a $20.
  • Whatever merch you get, have something for people who don’t have enough money for a $20 tshirt. I had so many people come up and buy a $3 koozie and say, “I don’t have enough money for a t-shirt but I love what you are doing and want to help.”
  • Roll up the shirts and use colored rubber bands to signify size. Blue for small, red for large, green for XL, etc…  THIS IS PROBABLY THE SECOND MOST USEFUL BIT OF ADVICE I CAN GIVE YOU.
  • For STICKERS, I recommend Sticker Mule. They are way faster than Sticker Guy and their website is a joy to use. If you sign up here, you’ll get a $10 credit. Tell ’em Ron sent ya!
  • For SHIRTS, I recommend Michael at Anchorfish Printing. He’s fast and does really top notch work. Tell ’em Ron sent ya!
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HEY MR MERCEDES, DID YOU STAY IN HOTELS BECAUSE YOU’RE ALL FANCYPANTS NOW?

I mostly stayed with family, friends or comics. I would spring for a hotel room once a month maybe, but hotels are like a piece of fudge. It’s a once and awhile treat. Occasionally the show would provide a hotel, but for the most part I stayed with local comics. I was actually really nervous about this because I can be a bit particular. Some of you reading this have been to my place and know what I am talking about. I use coasters. I put spices back with the labels facing forward. I own multiple tablecloths for christ sakes. I’m definitely an every-place-has-it’s-thing and an every-thing-has-it’s-place kinda guy. I wasn’t sure how long I could last crashing on couches. Plus I once threw my back out carrying too many vegetables home from the farmer’s market. Jacking up my back again was a big fear for me. Then it hit me, just buy an airbed.

That was one of the best decisions I could have made. This babywas like the Mercedes Benz of airbeds. It was queen-sized because I’m a bad boy like that and it was worth every penny. I’ve done couch surfing month-long tours before and I always tap out around 3-weeks. If your tour is longer than that 3-weeks and you’re driving, I highly recommend an airbed. Remember:

Do not expect people you are staying with to provide you with bedding.

A lot of them will have blankets and pillows, but some won’t. I remember one time my buddy Ryan Mckee and I were doing shows in Boston. Our friend’s place was absolutely freezing because he was really stingy with the heat. When he made the move to go to bed, we asked where we were sleeping. He just shrugged and said, “Anywhere really.” He had one couch. It was this colonial wooden thing where the cushions were tied to wooden spokes (terrible). We asked if he had any pillows or blankets or anything at all and he just said no and walked upstairs. We ended up sleeping on the floor in our jackets and piling laundry over us. I don’t know if it was dirty. Ugh it probably us. Honestly I try not to think about this story because like I said, I’m the type of guy who puts spices back with the labels facing forward.

My point is don’t rely on anyone and come prepared, because the longer your tour the more important it is to get good sleep. You’re living out of a bag for weeks on end. Your clothes smell. You’re eating garbage. You’re drinking way too much. You just get to a point where you feel tired all the time. After a long day of driving and drinking way too much coffee and doing yet another show, falling into a soft bed with your own pillow and blankets and nice sheets has a way of keeping your head on straight.

PRACTICAL LODGING TIPS:

  • Downtown the Hotels.com app or an equivalent on your phone. If you walk into a hotel and get a room without finding a deal online first, then you really shouldn’t be allowed to have money.
  • If there is a rewards number to be had, sign up. Staying at just Best Westerns or wherever will rack up and score you a free room after awhile.
  • If you are staying with someone (especially if it’s more than one night), do something more than just saying “thanks.” Buy them a beer, do their dishes, give them a tshirt or cd. Just do something that shows you appreciate their generosity because it’s classy and shit.
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SO HOW WERE THE CROWDS?

Awesome and just terrible. No matter how much you plan, sometimes it will rain and people won’t come out. Or there will be a polar vortex that will wreck a week’s worth of shows in the South. Your best bet is to roll with the punches and realize that even the shows that have 15 people instead of 150 can still be a lot of fun.

PRACTICAL PROMO TIPS:

  • THIS IS THE THIRD MOST HELPFUL BIT OF ADVICE I CAN GIVE YOU. Put your hi-res headshot, bio, promo pics, tour flyer, basically any and all press kit stuff onto Google Docs. When a booker asks you for this (and they will), just send them this link. Whatever they possibly need to promote the show will be there, so you’ll never have to deal with constantly emailing someone from the road.
  • Make sure you have hi-res images. If a weekly paper wants to do a story on your tour, they’ll want plenty of photos to choose from that are 300 dpi (all your web images are 72 dpi and not suitable for printing).
  • Make a tour flyer that lists all the dates for your tour. Put a hi-res copy on Google Docs. Also include a version where you leave all the tour dates off, so bookers can print it up and write in their specific show info.
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SOME MORE RANDOM AND CLASSIC BABCOCK TIPS:

  • Sometimes Waze is like your drunk friend trying to give you directions. So heads up on that.
  • When you go on tour, almost everything you spend money on is a tax write off. Every meal, every tank of gas, those rubber bands you bought for your tshirts… I used an app calledOneReceipt to take pictures of my receipts. That way you don’t have to hold onto the paper one, plus your receipts back up to their site. It took awhile to get in the habit of always taking photos of receipts but it’s worth it come tax time.
  • I recorded all my merch sales in Square (both credit card and cash). If you’re going to write stuff off on your taxes, you better record your income. I recorded all my merch sales in Square (both credit card and cash). The IRS tends to frown on people just making write-offs without reporting income.
  • Buy a cooler. Fill it with fruit. You’re going to eat so much delicious food that’s going to make your body feel like it’s going to war. I always felt so much better when I balaced it out with fruit. Plus apples and bananas are way cheaper than fast food.
  • I packed way too much. Halfway thru I ended up sending a bunch of stuff back to LA so I could fit everything in mu trunk. I know everyone’s different but I bet you don’t need as much as you think you do.
  • Get one of those toiletry bags you can hang from a towel rack because 95% of the bathrooms in America don’t have extra counter space and I promise you that if you put your bag on the back of the toilet, your deodorant will fall in the bowl and then you have a decision to make.
  • Skip buying bottled water. It’s such a waste of your money. I took two reuseable bottles and filled up at minimarts. Besides sleep, drinking lots of water was the best way to not feel like crap mountain all the time.
  • Spotify was worth the $10/month.
  • Did you know you can change your insurance? Like whenever? I maxed my auto insurance out. I called up Triple AAA and told the agent, “You know that slider thing in front of you? I want you to slide it all the way to the right in every single category.” Thankfully vintage benz are incredibly cheap to insure. So if you want to feel covered, just beef up your insurance for your tour and then reduce it when you get back. I think my top-of-the-line insurance ended up being $20 extra per month. So in three months, I spent $60 extra to have top of the line peace of mind.
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FINAL THOUGHTS

Let me say this, a three-month standup tour was far too long. By the end I was barely holding it together. Yes I had all the fun, but here’s the thing about fun. It’s exhausting. Night after night of fun times take their toll and will slowly but surely destroy you. That being said, I’m so glad I was out for three months, because it was in the final month where I felt like I grew creatively. That’s when I said, “Fuck the tape. I’m just going to start having fun.” And of course, that’s exactly when I got a tape I was happy with.

In closing, I’m extremely happy I got out of LA for a few months. Doing so much time night after night made me a much stronger and confident performer. By the end, I told friends that I felt unflappable. Plus it gave me a new perspective on how to approach standup, one that I never would’ve gotten by just doing 8-minute sets around town. To top if all off, I traveled the country meeting wonderful people and I broke even. Even if I don’t get a Comedy Central half hour, I still call that success.

In closing, no matter how much you plan, you’re never going to fully feel ready. It’s fine and that’s totally normal. The point is to get out of your comfort zone because that’s where life is.

Thanks for reading.
-Ron

Also, MercedesMotoring.com

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If you enjoy these photos, search #benzit on Instagram for more. Or you can buy the 70 page full-color photobook of the tour for $15. Includes shipping! Just paypal or venmo $15 to heyron@mac.com and include your shipping address. If you prefer to send a check, email me for my addy.

Here’s the photobook in action.

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About the Author

Ron Babcock

Not enough to be super famous, but enough to make kids from his high school impressed, Ron Babcock has performed on Adam Devine's House Party on Comedy Central, Last Comic Standing, HBO's The Life and Times of Tim, The Rotten Tomatoes Show and a bunch of commercials. He was a "New Face" at the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival and has also performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, SF Sketchfest, Bridgetown, RIOTLA and a ton of other comedy fests. He co-hosts Why Would You Eat There and the Why Would You Eat that Challenge on YouTube, which means he has eaten the world's hottest pepper, live octopus, rotten shark meat and oof, much much more. Catch him at RobBabcock.com.

  • Johnny Azari

    Nailed it, man. I’m a musician who’s been on the road for years. Music is my wife, comedy is a hot 16 year old whore I can’t keep my dick out of; it’s causing problems. That’s not relevant. I know how to tour from music and make my living doing so, and everything you said is cast iron true, especially about the professional emails and quality content when you solicit work. I often joke that I don’t write songs anymore, only emails. I doubt the 10,000 FB messages is much of an exaggeration. If you want to DIY tour, Ron laid it out of you. Only thing I would add if you wish to go longer (3 months is nothing, sorry Ron) is getting camping gear and booking yourself some serious downtime in the more beautiful parts of this country. National parks are often free, state parks pretty cheap (except in CA cause that state sucks giraffe tante) and nothing will make you embrace and enjoy the freedom of the road like sleeping out under the stars in the middle of nowhere, Nowhere, USA. My 2016 tour is booked and I’m trying to fill empty dates with comedy shows, which is why I found this article (incase you where wondering why I’m even reading this). One last thing I’d add: if you want to make money or a living touring, you have to return. I have done many shows for $50 or the bucket only to come back in 4 months and get $300 or more. Seeing is believing, people like people who aren’t assholes (socially, have fun on stage) so be nice to EVERYBODY, and stay true to your vision as an artist. I never comment on shit like this. Then again, it’s not often I’m stranded in Buttfuck Nowhere waiting for my van to get fixed so I can get to Frontfuck Somewhere.

    -Johnny Azari aka Capt. Big Willy

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  • http://blog.theadamthomas.com Adam Thomas

    This article is fantastic.

    I think the skills you build here will serve you well, and how much more fun is it to know how the machine works. Going forward, you will be able to understand the dynamics of tour building, knowing how much you are worth, what is a fair wage, and all types of other questions that a lot of people don’t care to know and accept random answers.

    Great work.

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