How to produce a comedy variety show at your school
Most of the comedians I know happen to also be excellent producers. They weren’t born that way — babies are notoriously terrible producers (of everything but poop and drool). Comedians learn to get good at producing by necessity. They want stage time — a lot of stage time — and the best way to get it is to make it.
But though most comics are producers, not all comedy producers are comics. Some are comedy lovers who want to get comedians onstage so they can sit back and laugh at them and think, “I made this!” And maybe wear a top hat and have a cane like an old-timey producer. Because why be a modern producer when you can be an old-timey one?
Whichever type of producer you aspire to be, you might get a little overwhelmed at the idea of creating your first live event. Let’s start with some terms that sound fancy, but are actually just … English words.
Yeah. Like what even is a producer? Producer is just a catch-all term for a person who makes something happen. Have you ever planned a surprise party? You “produced” that party. Have you ever been the most hard-working person on a social studies project where you were teamed up with two other students? You were the “producer” on that social studies project. You already produce. You just weren’t using the name yet.
The place where a show or event happens. You will need to pick an appropriate venue in which to do your show or event. The auditorium or your school’s black-box theatre, if it has one, come to mind. The cafeteria is another option, or maybe there’s a local coffee shop in your neighborhood that would welcome performers from your school. Once you choose the physical location, you will need to find …
Your point person
Also known as the “contact”, this is the person to whom you are going to send a million polite emails asking questions about the space and sorting out details. Your point person for the venue should be someone who is professional and timely in their correspondence and who is in a position of power at the venue such that they know what they’re talking about. In other words, your point person should not be the part-time employee who started working there yesterday and will be quitting in a week. An owner or manager is ideal. Which brings us to …
Producers send more text messages and emails than anyone else living (or dead, certainly). I hate phone calls. I find them stressful. But sometimes a producer has got to put on the headphones for a good, old-fashioned telephone talk. Or she has to physically go to a venue to speak in real life to a human being in person. This is to avoid the miscommunications that can spin out of control with endless texting and emailing. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. And by “don’t be afraid,” I mean “be afraid and do it anyway.”
Once you’ve got your venue squared away, you will need to book the acts, otherwise known as the people who will be performing. The process gets more creative here, because you are now asking yourself, “What do I love about the best shows I’ve seen?” You can curate to your tastes.
Do you have a super-talented storyteller friend who must be seen? Ask her to perform! Do you know a weird, but friendly, ventriloquist you saw one time at your friend’s little brother’s birthday party? Ask her! Do you have a songwriter friend who can accompany herself on guitar? Ask her to join. Ten to twelve acts at 5 minutes apiece is a rough guide, and no one is ever mad about a quick intermission where they can eat some (free) snacks. Much less after seeing a ventriloquist.
Wait. I wanna see this “snacks and a ventriloquist” show I just made up. Please produce it and invite me?
Sound and lighting
Comedians must be lit. Not lit as in enlightened and turnt and fun and in touch with current trends (though that is ideal), but specifically with light on them. So that you can see them. When you speak to the venue’s point person, whether that’s the theatre teacher at your school or the owner of the local coffee shop, make sure that if lights go down on the audience, they can be up on the performers.
When it comes to sound, make sure that the space is intimate enough that your performers can be heard without mics or, preferably, you will have a standing mic for your performers to use.
WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!
Sound issues are the most likely ones to tank your show. If you do opt to use a mic, arrive at the venue a full hour ahead of curtain time to make sure the mic has been tested. Ask your point person multiple times to confirm that someone will be present the night of the event who can help you with the mic.
When you are an older and more seasoned producer, you will remember the above paragraph and chuckle and think, “Whoa. Was Emma giving good advice or what in that one paragraph about sound!” Future-me thanks future-you for taking this to heart.
If you start to feel uncomfortable with people involved in the show — either acts you’re booking or the folks you meet in arranging a venue — involve a trusted adult right away and know that it’s okay to back out of a venue or a commitment. Follow your gut, and if something feels wrong, it is! Producing comes with huge responsibilities and you meet a lot of people. Some are the best and some are the worst. Keep an eye out and ask for help if you’re not sure.
Reasons to produce things
I know. I made it all sound kind of hard. But the rewards are tremendous. Here’s a short list of reasons why I think you should try at least once to produce comedy:
- You will meet people who share your interests. These could become lifelong collaborators!
- You will put yourself in a leadership position that will teach you more in one month than you’d learn doing some other thing for years.
- You will have something really impressive on your résumé that you can talk up in admission and job interviews.
- You will have FUN. (I always forget to mention this ‘cause I’m such a type A curmudgeon, but really, FUN should have been the first thing I said.)
- You will find out what really makes you laugh and sharpen your skills and your voice in choosing the acts.
- You will perhaps get yourself on stage, and that’s awesome!
- Your friends will remember that you booked them and will book you when they produce. Producing, like the flu, is wildly contagious and takes all your energy! FUN!
Please reach out to me on Twitter @emmatattenbaum if you have specific producing questions. The future of comedy has a lot to do with who produces it, and I really want it to be you!