Figuring out whether or not you should move for comedy is a bit of a “choose-your-own adventure”. Each comedian is unique, and the same answer does not apply to everyone – so hopefully you can use this as a guide to figure out the right move (or not move) for you. (Note: I wrote this for American comedians, because that’s the market I know best)
1) How serious are you about comedy? You need to figure out if this is something you really want to do – at the expense of everything else in your life. If it is not, then this advice is not for you. If it is, move on to question #2.
2) Do you live more than 30 minutes from a full-time comedy club? If so, move. If you can’t because of family or your job, then your “yes” answer to #1 was dishonest. If the most important thing in your life was to be a doctor, would your family or job prevent you from going to medical school? It is a simple truth – you can not get the reps you need to become a comedian if you don’t live near a full-time comedy club. If you do live near a full-time comedy club, move on to question #3.
3) There are a few things comedians should look for as they develop.
First, a local club with a supportive new talent process. Are they actively trying to find local talent? Have there been examples of local talent that have risen through their ranks?
Second, are there enough nearby alternative venues that you can get on stage at least three times a week? Be it open mics or bar shows, an independent scene is crucial to the development of any comedian.
Third, can you afford to live there? Moving to a city where you will starve to death won’t help your comedy.
Fourth, do you enjoy the city? There has to be something other than comedy that keeps you happy, or you’ll go insane. A group of friends, living alone, great restaurants, cheap fast food, the beach, the mountains, the sun, the rain – whatever you enjoy, make sure it exists where you live.
Fifth, is it in driving distance of other work? Once you start getting good enough to get paid as a comedian, make sure you live close enough to those who write the checks. There are lots of places this is true about – though the midwest has the most varied paid work, followed by the mid-atlantic and the southeast. If there’s not a ton of paid opportunities within driving distance (like Denver) then the local scene better be amazing to compensate for that (like it is in Denver).
If you said yes to all of these, move on to question four.
4) So now you’re developing in a city that is comedy friendly. You’ve become comedy royalty in Indianapolis or Portland or Boston or Charlotte or wherever it is that you live. When do you make the leap to New York or Los Angeles, and do you even have to? If you’re looking to move “because the scene is just so toxic here!” shut up and quit comedy. Every scene has toxic elements everywhere in every profession for as long as time has existed. Because there are toxic people in the world. There are crazy, racist, homophobic, lecherous monsters in the world. But if you are SURROUNDED with toxicity, it is because you attract it. Your scene is no more toxic than anyone else’s, and your local comedy drama is no more dramatic than anyone else’s. Feel free to move anywhere, you’ll find it there, too.
If you want to move because you’ve hit a professional ceiling, that is completely different. Are you one of the best comics in your scene? When big headliners come through, are you the recommended opener? No? That is not because your genius is misunderstood – it’s because you’re not yet established. You need to get better or you need to get more well-known. If you’re not making a splash in Dallas, what makes you think you’ll make a ripple in New York City? But if you are bumping your head on the ceiling of your scene, move on to question five.
5) If you’re killing it in your city, do you have to move at all? Can’t you be comfortable being the king of Nashville or the queen of Sacramento? Sure. It just depends what you want. TV development executives don’t live in Nashville or Sacramento or pretty much anywhere other than New York and Los Angeles. There are exceptions to the rule – Chad Daniels lives in a small town in Minnesota and he’s blowing up. And what about . . . um . . . you know . . . that comedian who . . . there must be someone . . . okay, really just Chad Daniels.
Before you get all internet correcty on me, I know there are plenty of great comedians who make a fine living from the road. Hell, most of Bob & Tom’s roster lives in places where Denny’s is considered a brunch place. And they are very happy. Because that is what they want out of comedy. So, what do you want?
If your goal is to make a living being a working comic, you can really live anywhere and you do not need New York or Los Angeles. (Though I recommend you at least live near an airline hub). However, if your goal is television or film, you do have to eventually move to New York, LA, or both. If that’s you, move on to question 6.
6) So it’s time to go, and you need to figure out where. Nine times out of ten, I recommend moving to New York first. There is a TON of stage time in New York, and you’ve also got a lot of great comedians surrounding you grinding it out. Also, while there is industry in New York, it’s not as rampant as Los Angeles. So you can experiment and grow more in New York, learning how to be a real killer before you burst on the scene in LA. Anyone who has ever talked to me about this has heard me say “Move anywhere to get good, move to New York to get great, and move to LA to get famous.” But there are exceptions.
Are you using comedy as a stepping-stone to an acting career? Can you not stand the cold? Will you find it impossible to afford New York City rent? Do you have more comedy friends in Los Angeles than in NYC? If you answered yes to any of these, LA may be a better choice for you.
There are exceptions to every bit of this advice as none of these are steadfast rules. But the most important thing is to not move to New York or LA before you’re invited. How do you know if you’re invited? Either you have been offered steady comedy work there, or you have friends that you can rely on who already live there.
What you need in a city like New York or LA is a teammate or an advocate. Do you have someone who you’ll be hitting the mics with? Someone to recommend you to bookers? Someone who will go to dinner with you before a good show and a diner with you after a bad one? Opening for a headliner once who said “If you ever get to LA, look me up!” doesn’t mean anything.
If a comedian has never directly tried to procure you work, they’re not going to start when you arrive in a more competitive city. It is MUCH easier for a headliner to get you work on the road than it is to do so in NYC or LA. So if they haven’t done that, then their “look me up!” is not a promise you can rely on.
I hope that gives you something to chew on as you figure out what’s next. And if you’re still reading this, good luck with your adventure.