Thursday, January 24, 2013

Humor is good for the Economy

     A couple of years ago, Thursday nights at the Cinema Cafe (local movie theater in Virginia Beach) were somewhat quiet.
     The staff consisted of a guy or two in the kitchen, the manager, and a waitress or two, and they took home $30-$40 bucks in tips.
     Fast forward to today, and the wait staff takes home three to four times that amount every Thursday... What happened?
     This blog entry is attempting to discover the impact of a simple, but well executed, effective stand up comedy open mic.
     I have been performing stand up comedy for more than 20 years. However, while I take my comedy seriously, I chose a different path to make a living rather than take on the road and comedy full time. I stay local, performing at the occasional theater or comedy club, charity benefit, or comedy festival, and take care of my family and business. I enjoy the stage time and spend a good deal of time at local clubs and the occasional open mic. I am fortunate to be able to do that.
     I had heard that there was an open mic close by at a movie theater that had table service. I figured, it was close, provided a stage to tell jokes, and people would be eating and drinking like a comedy club, so why not give it a try?
     My first experience at the Cinema Cafe was good but not so good. There were about 7 people in the audience, and 9 guys telling jokes. I am hesitant to call them comics because, well...they weren't. The material was mostly blue, but not funny blue...just dirty for the sake of being dirty, and these guys would just go on and on forever with no light to signal them to end their set.
     When it was my turn to go up, the "emcee" said, "do as much time as you like, 10-15 minutes, whatever." 
     I told him I was doing 6-7 minutes and that would be all I need. I was shocked to find that the previously comatose crowd (of 7) was actually very receptive. I got great reaction and thanked them. On the way out, the manager stopped me and asked if we could talk about how to make it better in there. I reluctantly offered a few ideas, but wasn't sure he would be able or willing to do the things I mentioned. With the help of my buddy, comedian Hatton Jordan, we convinced him to make the tough choices.
     We made a few changes. We changed the structure of the show, found a local headliner (Dan Ellison) who happens to be the best comedy open mic/workshop host (and luckily was willing to run the show), limited the roster to people with mostly the best talent, and did a little bit of legwork to promote the show.
     These are not trade secrets in business, but they are rarely seen in comedy club open mics. You need talent, promotion, and professionalism to be effective. My buddy Dan Ellison added a good bit of that....and credit the Cinema Cafe for being open to change. 
     Dan, Hatton and I have been friends for a very long time, and we all credit former owner of the Thoroughgood Inn Comedy Club, Dean Speerhas, for the blueprint to be successful.
     We began promoting the show with myself and my good friend Hatton visiting the businesses within a 1-2 mile radius and sharing with them that we have a free comedy show with funny local talent and inviting them over to enjoy it. 
     Unlike most clubs and open mics, we chose not to keep bugging our friends to come to the shows, but instead to get a real audience, who wanted to see comedy, not just their office buddy who they think is hilarious around the copy machine.
Our first effort netted us 25-30 audience members. In a 150 seat theater, that still doesn't look like much, but it was 4 times the usual audience. It was our bet that if we brought them in, thanked them for coming, gave them a good show and asked them to tell friends, we might have more audience in coming weeks. It worked. Now there are an average of 80-100 people at the shows, 12 comedians and occasionally a drop in from a well known headliner who has "heard about" the room.
     The most intriguing part and frankly, gratifying part, for me is that a handful of guys with their notebooks full of ideas, jokes (some not funny) along with a willing partner (the Cinema Cafe) have created a space where people can get away from life and laugh every Thursday for free. That alone is a positive impact on society. Laughter heals the soul, they say. 
     But even more is that there is a small but profound economic impact of our joke telling efforts. 
     Out of thin air, the imaginations of aspiring comedians, and an enthusiastic crowd,  people are able to provide better for their families.
     The waitresses are able to more easily provide better Christmases for their families, pay phone bills, electric bills, rent, groceries, you name it. Out of thin air there is up to $600 a month more in some waitresses' households. That's up to $7200 a year!
     Also don't forget that there is more food and drink purchased, so somewhere in some building where this food is produced or some farm where it's grown, there is a need to produce more. It may not be a ton more, but it requires a man or woman to produce it, package it, deliver it to the theater, and cook it. There is a small economic impact.
     After the show, many of the comics, including myself, CB Wilkins, Brendan Kennedy and others head out to make fun of each other, talk about comedy, the show, and life at a local restaurant. And again, at 11:20pm on a Thursday night a waitress who's just likely finishing up a slow Thursday now has anywhere from 4 people to 12 people show up. Which means she's likely taking an extra $20-$50 bucks extra home in tip money. Once again, for many of you this may not sound like much, but it's gas for their car, a phone bill, groceries, it helps.
     So, if you don't mind sharing with your friends about the local open mic, do so. There is one in your town where they play music, tell jokes, tell short stories, read poetry, etc. Give them a shot, you might find your local talent is pretty amazing. You might find that you have a great time. And you might be able to be part of making a difference by simply enjoying yourself.
     Ours is at the Cinema Cafe in Pembroke Meadows Shopping Center in Virginia Beach at 9pm on Thursdays. Come see us, but arrive early, sometimes we run out of seats.

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