Comedians and clubs find woes, not laughs, in the business of comedy.

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.

https://vimeo.com/63373534

 

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Open-mic nights provide benefits for amateur and seasoned comedians.

A young man — probably around 20 years old — nervously stepped on stage at Stanford & Son’s Comedy Club in front of a half-filled audience. It’s open-mic night at the Kansas City club, meaning anyone can come on stage and try their hand at stand-up comedy for three minutes.

He told his first joke with a big smile on his face, nodding his head to cue the audience laughter, but it didn’t come.

He moved on to his second joke, this time with a more nervous grin and shaky voice. Still no laughs.

He quickly wrapped up his third and final joke, fumbled the microphone into the stand and walked off stage to a less-than-generous applaus.

This kind of occurrence is common at an open-mic, but even if the laughs aren’t coming, the events can be beneficial to amateur and seasoned comics alike.

Whether they’re trying to make a tough crowd laugh, getting advice from fellow comics, or simply gauging their talent, comedians know how to use open-mics to their advantage.

“Open-mics are good because you get a direct response,” said Andrew Frank, an amateur comedian from St. Louis. “The people in the crowd tell you exactly how good you are and exactly what works, and you just have to do a million shows and your jokes take form and become something that is consistent.”

Open-mics aren’t just a training ground for jokes though. Frank says surrounding yourself with other comedians is an essential aspect of the shows as well.

“Comedy is a huge community. The city that you start in, those are your friends, that’s your social circle and you have to trust each other,” he said. “If you’re hanging out with funny people all the time, you’re going to get funnier.”

While it is common to see most of the open-mic performers socializing after an event, some comics prefer to get their advice from other sources.

Chris Blaski, a radio host-turned-comedian from Kansas City, found that getting advice from his fellow comics after an open-mic wasn’t very beneficial.

“I don’t bounce a lot of ideas off of other comics afterwards because every comic is in love with their own material,” said Blaski. “Now in comedy, there’s not a lot of things that haven’t been done yet, so you try and find something that’s new and different.”

Instead of using open-mics as a networking opportunity, Blaski found the show could be more beneficial as a learning tool, especially when the laughs were in short supply.

“You get that moment of temporary discouragement, but you learn from it,” Blaski said. “To me, whether I do well or I bomb, it’s an opportunity to learn and hopefully come back and do better.”

Even though the comics may be the main attraction at an open-mic, the audience is arguably the most crucial aspect of the show.

Open-mic crowds are notoriously difficult to make laugh, but three-year stand-up veteran Wes Van Horn says that makes the chuckles even more valuable.

“At an open-mic, they don’t want you to succeed, they want you to fail,” he said. “If you can get an open-mic crowd to laugh, that’s ten-times harder then making a room of 300 people laugh who paid their money for the sole purpose of laughing.”

Open-mic nights serve as tools not just for the new-comers, but for more experienced comedians as well, something Van Horn says the audience doesn’t usually understand.

“If you’re at an open-mic, they just think you’re some jackass who got up on the mic,” he said. “A lot of us are trying to get it good so when those big shows come up, we’re not bumbling over our material.”

The laughs at an open-mic may not be as abundant as they are for a sold-out headliner, but comics like Blaski make it clear that the shows offer plenty of passion.

“I’m not trying to sell out the Sprint Center,” he said. “If I can just do comedy clubs like this the rest of my life, I’m perfectly cool with that.”