All About Comedy Festivals

By the end of this year, I’ll have run over two dozen comedy festivals and performed in several others. And, while lumping them all in one “festival” category is difficult, hopefully this post will take you through everything you need to know about them. (And if you’ve done any festivals that you loved, please post why in the comments!)

1) Not every festival is created equal, so you should first figure out why you’d like to be a part of one. Is it for the stage time? To meet fellow comedians? To network with industry? To add it to your resume? To learn cut your teeth on a small one so you’re ready for a big one? Ask yourself why before you submit, so you understand what you’re submitting to.

Stage time at a festival only matters if its quality stage time. You can perform for empty dive bars in your own city, there’s no reason to travel around the world to do so. If a festival is in its first year, it will probably be empty, unless it’s put on by someone who has already thrown successful festivals, or has a built-in crowd. These things take time to build – being an early adopter is often rewarded, but there’s a balance between early adoption and wasting your time.

Meeting fellow comedians is great, and is the core of almost any festival. However, figure out why you want to meet them. Are you moving to a new scene? Hitting the road more? Hoping for contacts that can introduce you to other bookers? Just trying to make new friends? That will help you evaluate if a particular festival is the right group for you.

“Industry” is a term that is often misused. A local meteorologist works in television, but they are not industry. In order for industry to create a career opportunity, they need to be a DECISION MAKER in a part of the entertainment world that affects YOU. Festivals that crow about their industry attendance and offer you a low-level assistant and someone who occasionally books a one-nighter are lying to you. That is not industry, that is a cash grab.

Some festivals help your resume – but most do not. Championing the fact that you were a semi-finalist in a festival that’s never been won by anyone impressive just tells bookers that you haven’t done anything better than lose to someone unimpressive. Bookers know the difference between a festival with a rep and one without, and you should, too. How do you know? Google it. See who their alumni are. If you’re not impressed by any of them, do you think a booker would be?

Learning to cut your teeth on a smaller festival so you’re ready for a bigger one is almost always a good idea. I did that with small-town radio and local TV as well – it is beneficial to learn how to handle a pressure situation when there are no stakes.

2) Now that you have figured out which festivals are worth your time, are they worth your money? Why doesn’t the festival pay for your expenses? Why does the festival charge for submitting? Aren’t they making a fortune on registrations and tickets?

While I don’t have the time for a detailed economics lesson, I will address each of these.

Occasionally, festivals pay for your expenses. Those are typically fests with big corporate sponsors (often including the city government) who are underwriting the cost. That is rare, because, well, cities and corporations don’t often throw around money at things like comedy festivals.

Festivals charge to submit for the same reasons colleges do. The selection process has to be paid for somehow – and the cost is also a natural deterrent for people who are not yet ready to be selected. If every festival was free to submit, every comedian would submit to every festival, and it would be impossible to run any of them. That said, a submission fee should be commensurate with the potential value of the festival. Is there a huge cash prize? Will there be decision makers there? Is a qualified selection committee looking through each and every application? Paying money for the possibility of maybe being selected for something kind of crappy is never worth it. Do your homework.

Most importantly, can’t the festival just make money off ticket sales? Maybe. But unless a festival has been around for at least a decade, selling full price tickets is extremely difficult, and a LOT of festivals comp or discount most of the admission. Also, it’s extremely expensive to run a good festival. Everything from events to staff to flying in the industry costs a lot of money. Only looking at the gross of what a festival makes without considering the net means you’re not ready for a festival. Or a job. Or life.

3) Now you’re armed with knowledge about festivals. But what about you? Are you ready? Ask yourself these questions. Do your submission materials accurately reflect you as a comic? If it’s a contest, can you win? If this is your first impression on these people, will it be a good one?

Your submission materials need to be quality – no excuses. I’ve seen great comics rejected from festivals because their video sucked. If you’re spending money submitting, why wouldn’t you ensure that your submission puts your best foot forward? Would you leave the essay blank on a college application? Would you attach half a resume when applying for a job? Then why send a half-assed video you need to make excuses for? I’ve written an entire pro-tip about what makes a good showcase clip – and with technology the way it is, there’s no reason that you don’t have a good clip yet.

Some general rules: -Start the clip from the first words out of your mouth. Don’t make anyone wait through your introduction, or your “theme music”. -Put it on YouTube as an unlisted link so it’s universal and doesn’t take much time to load. -No edits. Edits mean there’s something you didn’t want to show. It should look like that set was a showcase set. And no private jokes. If you tagged what the last comic said, or if you opened by referencing something local, that’s not a very good tape.

-The AV must be decent. Your face should not be whitewashed and your sound should be crisp. The more professional the tape is, the better chance you have of being selected. I’ve had people tell me “well, I just don’t have a good tape yet.” Okay – but that means you’re not a working comic. Working comics work anywhere from 3-10 shows EVERY week. Which means 2-5 times every month, they should have a great chance to get a tape. And you can also produce a night with a few friends where you all invite your buddies so you can all get tapes. And between our phones, your friend’s camera, club cameras, and being able to buy and return a camera, you’ve got the ability to get a great clip whenever you have a great show. Be honest with yourself – if you do not have a clip that reflects you as a comic, it is no one’s fault but your own.

If it is a contest, you need to be good enough to have a strong showing, or you shouldn’t enter. Think about sports – sometimes teams abandon this season to work on their next season’s lineup. No one is assured of winning anything in a comedy contest – I have seen heavyweights get knocked out in the first round. But if you don’t stand a chance, the contest shouldn’t be what is drawing you there.

And you never want to be the worst one at a festival. Mathematically, someone has to have the worst set. But I’d recommend applying to festivals where you’ll at least be average, if not impressive. As they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

4) Let’s talk about contests for a bit. I started producing festivals because I was tired of seeing them run wrong. Three months into my career, I was disqualified from an amateur contest for “being too professional” – i.e. I wasn’t reading off notes. And it was a nice compliment, I would have rather been complimented with the prize money.

A few quick principles every contest should adhere to: -The rules need to be made clear ahead of time. And the festival needs to stick to them. -The judges need to be qualified to judge stand-up comedy. It’s such a subjective art as is, but judges need to be experienced at either performing or scouting stand-up. -Every judge has some conflict of interest, as we all make friends in this business. But judges with serious conflicts of interest (like managers with clients in the contest) should recuse themselves. -The prizes must be awarded at or greater than the amount promised, and in a timely fashion.

And a quick tip if you’re in a contest as a comic – don’t ever save a set for the finals. You’re surrounded by talent. Try to make the finals first. Baseball teams don’t rest their best players during the playoffs so they’re fresh for the World Series. They play every game like it is their last, and you should, too.

5) So now you know when to apply and which festivals to apply to. The most important thing is what to do once you’re there.

Going to a festival half-assed is a waste of time and money. You should plan to go to as many shows, events, parties, and meals as you can. Make those few days 100% about the festival. Don’t work during the day and go to a show here and there at night. Don’t arrive in town last minute before your first show, and leave as soon as your last one ends. Don’t spend the whole week in your hotel room. Go to the festival – all of it.

I could bore you with the countless stories of comedians who I gave work to because I got to know them over lunch or a baseball game or during a seminar. Or the stories of the comics I stopped working with because they spent the festival wearing an “I’m better than this” attitude on their sleeve. But instead, I will just tell you this – do the festival right.

Comedy festivals are like going to comedian camp. If you’re not having fun, all the industry and prize money and fans in the world aren’t going to make that trip worth it. And that is the root of any good comedy festival – fun. So have some, and I will see you at a festival soon.