Dylan Houston has always been a funny kid. No matter the situation, he has a knack for getting people to crack a smile.
When he moved from Kansas City, Mo., to San Francisco at age 18, he saw it as an opportunity to turn his gift into a career and decided to try his hand at stand-up comedy. He spent a few weeks writing his material and practicing his delivery with a friend who shared his dream of working the Los Angeles comedy club scene.
But at their first open mic performance, reality set in.
“I had five minutes of material, and I got exactly zero laughs,” Houston said. “I kind of realized then that maybe comedy wasn’t the career I thought it would be for me.”
The first hurdle in stand-up comedy is the one Houston couldn’t overcome: Actually getting into the business. But the difficulties of stand-up don’t stop there, a variety of obstacles exist in the industry for both performers and comedy clubs alike.
After finally breaking into the business, comedians are immediately confronted with a new challenge: Making money.
A study by Connected Comedy, a business that provides marketing and career advice for comedians, surveyed 137 comics to see how much money the average comedian makes. Of those surveyed, 66 percent said they make less than $100 a month.
“The money problems are definitely tough starting out,” said Brandon Murphy, a 23-year-old comic from Kansas City. “I mean, one time I drove six hours to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for a gig. I did five minutes and didn’t even end up getting paid.”
Murphy started doing stand-up at the age of 19. After honing his act at open-mic nights for more than a year, he is now a featuring act at multiple clubs in the Kansas City area, but those only pay $20-$40 a night, he says.
Money aside, Murphy says the most challenging aspect of the industry for him was his age.
“Being 19 and trying to get work was hard,” he said. “Many clubs want you to bring your own friends for an audience, and since all my friends weren’t 21, of course they weren’t going to pay money for me to bring in people that couldn’t even buy drinks.”
The difficulties of the comedy business aren’t limited to the performers like Murphy, though. Managers of comedy clubs struggle to deal with audience’s expectations as well.
Jeff Glazer, the co-founder of Stanford and Son’s Comedy Club in Kansas City, Kan., said people’s lack of knowledge about how the stand-up industry works can be frustrating.
“A lot of people just want to see comics who they’ve seen on television, but what they don’t understand is a lot of those comedians command $25,000 to $250,000 a night,” he said. “It would be like people out at a small concert shouting that they wanted Elvis or Michael Jackson on stage.”
To combat this way of thinking, Glazer tries to bring in up-and-coming comics who have something to attach their name too, like a movie or a special.
“We’ll bring in guys like T.J. Miller so we can say ‘Look, he was in She’s Out of My League’ and that gets people in the seats.”
Houston’s disappointment in his first and only stand-up experience was made worse by the performance of his friend, who won the event and gained the upper-hand in the industry. But even with the bitter start and end, he says his attempt at comedy was still worth it.
“I know I failed and it wasn’t for me,” he said. “But if I would have paid attention to all the reasons not to try it, I definitely wouldn’t have gone on stage. I couldn’t live my life knowing I didn’t at least give it a try.”
Video: Stanford and Son’s Comedy Club Director of Operations, Jeff Glazer.