In turbulent times, people are more desperate to laugh than ever. This bodes well for the comedy industry, which is currently experiencing a boom. Popular comics like Amy Schumer and Louis C.K. are selling out huge venues like the Madison Square Garden. Netflix has been cranking out scores of comedy specials and recently signed massive deals with comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. Even Pandora has gotten in on the action, with their comedy streaming channels attracting more than 4 million unique listeners a month. Still, comedy clubs will always reign supreme as the most authentic, cathartic and entertaining places for audiences to experience live comedy.
To learn more about the live comedy business, we turned to Andrew Dorfman, owner of Zanies Comedy Night Club, in Nashville, Tennessee. Dorfman got his start in the business as a comic in San Francisco’s tight-knit comedy community of the 1990s. But his interests extended beyond the stage and he felt a calling to work on the business side of the industry. In 1992, along with his brother Brian, Andrew went to work for the legendary Rick Uchwat at Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago. The brothers couldn’t have hoped for a better mentor. Rick Uchwat was an icon in the live comedy business, having nurtured the careers of legends like Jay Leno and Roseanne Barr.
The Dorfmans learned well under the tutelage of Rick Uchwat, and together they now own eight comedy clubs all over America. Among them, Nashville’s Zanies Comedy Club, The Comedy Zone in Charlotte, Stand Up Live in Phoenix, and the Improv in Ft. Lauderdale. In January 2017, the Dorfman brothers opened their newest club, Stand Up Live in Huntsville, AL. As a 25-year veteran in the business, Andrew Dorfman knows the ins and outs of the live comedy industry.
Photo courtesy of AL.com
Zanies Nashville attracts a who’s who of comedy. Famous comics including David Spade, Kathleen Madigan and Bob Saget have all performed recent sets at the club. Chris Rock even used the club to test out new material for his 2017 tour.
“What separates us from other clubs is the way we treat the comics. Having been in the live comedy business for over 25 years, we’ve built relationships with comics and talent agents. They know we have high standards for the way we treat people. Building and maintaining that reputation has helped us book the best acts for all of our clubs.”
In addition to booking marquee talent, Zanies Nashville also books up-and-coming comics and has open mic nights. Breaking new comedy acts and building community goes back to Andrew Dorfman’s roots as a stand-up comedian. “When I was starting out in live stand-up comedy, we all worked together and helped each other—we had a real community. The other comics would help you develop your bits and grow your act. I try to do that for working comics now who are serious about getting better and turning comedy into a career.”
What does it take for a new comic to “make it?” For Dorfman, personality is key: ”A good comic can take personal stories and make them funny to a crowd of people with different reference points, bringing the crowd into the joke.” It’s also crucial to remain professional, despite the nature of the role. “The job is not only on stage. The job is also off-stage. When you go into a new club, you have to treat the customers with respect, the staff with respect and the stage with respect. You can’t go around banging a bunch of waitresses and come in asking ‘Hey, how much is an eight ball in this town?’”
The Comedy Club Business
“Comedy has changed a lot in 20 years. It used to be the wild west. It’s more of a big business now.” That applies to how both comedians and crowds are treated. “We want our patrons to have a great experience from the time that they first pick up the phone or come to the box office, to the time they’re greeted at the club, to when they cash out and leave at the end of the night.” This attention to detail has earned Zanies Nashville such a well-respected name in the live comedy industry. “The expectations when people come to our club are important. They know the name Zanies Nashville and they trust that we do a good job. If you treat the comics right, treat the customers right and make sure they all have a good experience, at the end of the day you’ll be financially successful.”
The bulk of the Dorfmans’ business, however, isn’t attributable to the ticket revenue generated by comedians. It’s from booze. ”As much as I’d like to say that it’s a glamorous business, at the end of the day, we’re slinging drinks. We’re really a bar and a restaurant with an attraction because we don’t make much money at the door anymore. Most of it goes to the comics—which have become very expensive. We love the comedy, but we make money by selling a lot of food and drinks.”
Promotion, Promotion, Promotion
Promotion is the name of the game in comedy. “The cool thing about a comedy club is that every week we get to remake ourselves. Which is fun, but it’s also hard work,” says Dorfman. “Because we’re promoting a different comic every week, we need to promote to a different audience every week. Social media is a big help for us to reach different types of audiences.”
Luckily, household names come with a built-in audience. “If it’s a well-known comic, they’ll promote their shows to their large followings on Twitter and Facebook.” For a lesser known comedian, the promotion strategy is more thoughtful and targeted. “We had Eric Griffin from the show “Workaholics” coming to Huntsville. To promote, we went to social media to find “Workaholics” fans and then advertised to that demographic. We gave them a special offer to draw them in if they hadn’t been to the club before.” After nailing the customer experience at the club with first timers, they draw them back through advertising, social media and email marketing campaigns.
Nailing the customer experience includes setting expectations with the audience about the comics performing. Dorfman implemented a rating system after Bob Saget was featured one night. “The first time I ever booked Bob Saget was 20 years ago in Florida. He was just coming off “Full House.” The audience was expecting to see the father from “Full House,” not to hear Bob talking about having a threesome with the Olsen Twins. He gets an R-rating.” That also means educating the box office staff on the comedians, so they can recommend the appropriate show to customers according to their tastes.
New Comedy Club on the Block
Thinking of getting into the live stand-up comedy club business? There’s a lot to consider. Testing the waters and listening to customer feedback is paramount. “A lot of figuring out a geographic region’s comedic tastes is about trial and error. In the first six months after opening Stand Up Live in Huntsville, we threw a lot of different comics on stage to see how the audience reacted. We keep an eye on who sells and who doesn’t and learn from it. A comic that works well in Phoenix might not translate well to a Nashville audience.” Dorfman makes sure to throw in a mix of “staple” comics he’s confident will play well regardless of the market, in addition to local talent with a good regional draw.
Photo courtesy of AL.com
To gauge how a particular comic fared and capture feedback on the customer experience, Dorfman deploys old-school qualitative research methods to survey his audience. “We have comment cards on all the tables at the club. We also listen on social media and review comments on Facebook and Twitter. We respond to everybody and everything that comes our way.” These efforts help steer their talent buying strategy and allow them to keep a pulse on the what audiences are looking for.
Another rule to abide by when opening a new live comedy club: do your homework before deciding on a location. ”Make sure you’re not going up against another club in a highly competitive market. We chose Huntsville because it was a growing market and a virgin market where we wouldn’t be fighting for business with other clubs in the area.” According to Dorfman, it’s important to play nice with others because the comedy community is tight-knit. “More clubs have failed than those that haven’t. The ones that are out there exist because the owners know each other, develop great relationships and work together.”
“Comedy is one of the last bastions of free speech in the United States. Right now our country is more divided than ever. No matter what side you’re on, half the club is for you and half is against you. As a club, we’re neutral. We want to present all sides of the argument and put comics on stage who can make people laugh because, boy, we do need to laugh.”