How to Run a Successful Comedy Show
I produce more than a hundred comedy shows a year here in Los Angeles. Last year, one of them was 10 hours long, featuring 30-some acts, mostly improv. The last performance of the night started at the exact minute advertised on the poster.
If I taught a class on how to run a comedy show, that’s the kind of information I would throw around to explain why I’m qualified to tell you how to run a show.
One of the classes would be called The Secret to Making Your Theater, Your Acts, and Your Fellow Showrunners Love You.
And the secret would be this:
Improv can be any length.
An improv set can end at any time. If it happens on a big laugh, you all look like masters of show business. If the ending itself gets the laugh through clever or ham-fisted timing, you’re got it made. If you pull the lights on an act that’s bombing, you’ve still managed to save the show.
You’ve got other acts? No problem, stand-ups are a hale and hearty bunch, and if they’re any good at all they can edit themselves on-the-fly into whatever weird amount of time you tell them they're getting. Granted, sketch and character acts are their own weird thing. But you can cut stuff out of their shows too! Lorne Michaels does it all the time! He doesn’t just get to do an extra half hour because everybody wants to get a turn. If you’ve booked “Modern Clowning” on your show, just cut that right now and you don’t even need the rest of this class.*
All shows should have ‘hard out’ end times. In the idealized comedy performing society, that’s how things work. Sure, people make mistakes, but ‘someone else made a mistake and so I will too’ is no way to live. If you have a theater rented for two hours, you don’t book 120 minutes of show. If you are a theater that’s open to the general public and your shows don’t start on time, you’re embarrassing yourself and discouraging real audience from coming back.
What happens when you do have an hour of acts for a 45 minute show? It’s time to produce your show. Make a decision! You need to cut something. Bump an entire act. Take a little time from everyone. Give up some or all of that 35 minute slot where the other acts have to watch you, even if that’s the only reason you’re doing this show. And if you don’t like having to tell people that you specifically asked to be on your show, who went out of their way to appear on your show, that they no longer get to perform? Great! Let your shame and awkwardness make you better at producing so you don’t have to do this again.
You can only borrow time from producers who have the option of giving it to you, and you always want to be the person who gifts a couple of minutes to the next show. If you’re going to be the rules lawyer who insists that you paid for the room from 7pm to 9pm and you’re not leaving until you’ve used up every drop of 8:59, then you need to be absolutely sure that’s the moment you’re walking out the door. That can not be the moment you’re saying goodnights, or starting to clean up your kiddie pool of glitter, or (saints preserve us!) introducing your last act, or else you also need to be comfortable with the next showrunner putting on the house lights, saying goodnight to your crowd for you, and starting to load in at 9:01.
Okay, that’s it. Next week we’re going to cover remembering to book your show before the day of your show. Class dismissed!
*Tell them it’s time to stop performing on the theatrically-normative stage and send them out to the parking lot for an immersive theatrical experience.