I saw a recent discussion on a Swedish comics’ forum a few days ago. It was started by a comic commenting on the fact that some club owners ask comics to do more than just sets. Help with chairs, check tickets, throw out unruly crowd members, etc. Is it okay for club owners to do this?

Well, I call it a “discussion” but that’s a pretty lofty word in this case. There were a few responses that ranged from, it’s okay for a club owner to ask, but not demand, work in exchange for stage time, to, it’s not okay at all. Color me shocked!

In reality, doing grunt work in exchange for stage time is a not-so-proud tradition in standup. I’ve heard it said that it’s for “comics who hate money but love opportunity.” Club owners have every right to ask comics for help. They can, in fact, demand it. As much as we’d like it to not be true, club owners don’t have to book us just because we ask. But here’s the good news: if a club owner offers a gig in exchange for grunt work, we don’t have to say yes!

Working the door – checking tickets, acting as bouncers – at LA’s The Comedy Store was and is a standard way for up-and-comers to get stage time and loose change in their pockets. Here’s a quick list of comics who did thankless work that was beneath them as artists:
David Letterman
Sam Kinison
Jim Carrey
Michael Keaton
Eddie Griffin
Marc Maron

It’s too bad those poor people didn’t have a Swedish comic to educate them that they were being taken advantage of!

It all comes down to choice. I do grunt work on a regular basis and while I’m all too aware of how that looks to other comics, I don’t mind it. Oddly enough, in some ways I enjoy it. I also see it as a way to help out a club owner that I like and show appreciation for the club. I’ve also seen a lot of comics grow out of helping. One in particular used to get stage time in exchange for helping, then decided to stop helping and not perform again until the club owner would book him without asking anything in return. It took a few years but it finally happened, so good for him! It has to be a great feeling as an artist. On the other hand, I can’t help but think of the years of stage time missed, at least at that club. On the other, other hand, who’s to say who’d he be now if he’d continued to trade work for gigs?

When I’ve run clubs in the past, I’ve met comics who were willing to help out, and of course that lead to me giving them special treatment. More gigs, longer sets, better spots in the lineup. On the flipside, I’ve met comics who never mentioned the club on social media, would come a few minutes before their spots and leave immediately afterwards, all but expect someone to throw rose pedals on the floor as they ascended regally to the stage… which would, of course, lead to me not wanting to book them.

To sum up, pride and self-respect are good things, but so is perspective. You don’t have to accept stage time in exchange for grunt work and club owners don’t have to book you just because you want to be booked. It’s up to you to decide how much effort is worth each opportunity, how much value you have. But if pride is the only reason to turn down a gig, it probably isn’t a good move.