There is nothing more important to a young comic than getting more stage time. Getting on stage often enough to dull the fear of trying new things is the only way to get better. Open mics often charge money for stage time, usually $5 for five minutes. “Bringer shows,” insist that comics bring a certain number of people in order to get stage time. “Barker” comics earn their stage time by putting in a few hours standing outside the venue calling out to people “hey do you like comedy?” or “free comedy show!” Right now I don’t have the luxury to whine about being exploited, robbed, or whatever. My objective is to get as much quality stage time as possible, and if that means standing on street corners waving at people, or harassing my friends to spend money to see me perform, I have done more for less.
There is a qualitative difference between quality stage time (in front of an audience) and work out rooms. Work out rooms are explicitly open mic’s and are populated exclusively by other comics, and possibly their soon to be disenchanted girlfriend. No civilians. These are rooms meant to relieve some “performance” pressure to give comics an opportunity to talk around their new material, try different things. Or just to show off for each other. My favorite room so far is a free open mic hosted at the PIT, People’s Improve Theatre. Every Monday and Tuesday at 11pm forty comedians are drawn out of a bucket they each get two minutes on stage. It’s intense and I love it. I’ve paid for stage time at NY Comedy Club, Broadway Comedy Club, Charley O’s, more than a few bars, and one random church.
Bringer shows and barker shows offer the good stuff- warm bodies that have been made aware that there is a comedy showing happing. Bringer shows outsource most of the publicity work onto young comics who still have friends. My first Saturday in the city I went out to support two friends of mine Kumail and JM (from Raleigh) and help fill their bringer quota at New York Comedy Club. I paid $10 for admission and then $12 for (mandatory 2) luke warm Diet Cokes. Rent is expensive, I get it.
Barker shows are possibly the most humiliating, but also a pretty fair, way to get new comics to earn their stage time. Having logged a lot of hours standing on street corners trying to get strangers to talk to me, I consider myself an expert. I’ve fallen in with a rag tag crew at Charley O’s and I’ve committed to barking for them every Friday in exchange for stage time for the next six months, and a couple of introductions around town to other bookers who run barker shows. Standing on street corners, smiling and waving at strangers, trying to get them to donate two hours of their time (and at least $10 on food or alcohol!) is a challenge. Not quite as challenging as getting those same strangers to give you their credit card information so they can donate to “hope for a better future.” But still a challenge.
Spending money is annoying, and harassing my friends is also annoying. But not as annoying as performing to an empty room or not performing at all. I know more seasoned comics who claim “bringer shows are scams” and they’re right. But I don’t have the privilege of that attitude yet. And from the clubs perspective, I get it. I am a young, unproven talent, and frankly there are a lot of self proclaimed comics out there that suck and make audiences feel awkward. I myself am not a consistent performer-yet. So I’m buying the privilege of performing. I think it’s better than the alternative. Like never getting on stage, having to suck up to the right people and beg, or lying about your experience level.
This is just another step. I’ll be past it soon enough. When I am, I’m sure I will be able to confidently declare “bringer shows are scams!” But for right now, I’ll do anything to get on stage, and bringing four people is the least I can do for a club who’s willing to take a chance on a brand new comedian. Hell, if I’m willing to drive seven hours for five minutes on stage…come on now. Plus it’s an exercise in self promotion. Everything is about perspective. I could rationally choose to resent clubs that force me to bring them money, not unlike a pimp…but then can I work any job? Working for anybody creates surplus capital…bringing customers is not more exploitative than waitressing, working in sales, or doing anything for money. So let us be nicer to comedy clubs…yes of course they are raping and pillaging the newbies. That’s the system, it’s not unique to comedy. The dedicated either figure out an alternative, or deal with it…and eventually earn the privilege to complain. The weak drop out, and complain anyway.