Guest Set-iquette

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on November 28th, 2012

In a perfect world, permission for a guest set would be granted by the headliner. It would be up to him or her if it would be all right if someone did five or six or eight minutes at or near the beginning of the show. But it usually goes down thusly: The headliner arrives at the venue, takes a seat in the green room and, minutes later, the club manager pokes his head in the door and says, “We got a guest set.”

Oh… okay.

No big deal, we suppose.

But more and more often, we cringe when we hear that there’s going to be a guest set on that night’s bill. In the past, it was no big deal. In the past, the pleasant guest set experiences outnumbered the unpleasant ones. But, in the last ten years or so, the guest sets have been leaving a bad taste. The reasons are many and varied. But there does seem to be a definite downward trend in not so much the quality of the guest sets we’ve followed, but the manners, the attitude and the gratitude.

We’ve examined whether it’s our attitude that’s changed. We’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not us… it’s them.

Herewith, our examination of the guest set. With tips (“Guest Set-iquette!”) on how to handle them. We hope folks take the advice. We can always hope.

The Audition Guest Set

Has anyone ever gotten a headline spot out of a five-minute guest set? We suppose it’s happened. But it’s rare. (You’re most likely auditioning for a spot as a feature or as a host/emcee.) So… don’t act like you’re taping your HBO special. Be competent, be funny. Don’t go up there and try to “blow the headliner off the stage.” You’ll have plenty of time to prove yourself if/when you get a gig. Until then, you’re part of a larger show. You are… a guest.

You might ask, “But how am I going to prove that I’m a hotshit standup comedy monster if I don’t go up there and crush, kill destroy?” Don’t worry, Pancho– the club manager probably isn’t even watching. And if he is (and he’s an astute observer of standup comedy, by which we mean that he’s utterly bored by watching guest sets and he wants to gouge his eyes out whenever anyone does a guest set), he’ll be able to recognize within about 20 seconds whether or not you are: A headliner, a feature act, an opener or an opener who might be able to feature some day soon. Or a feature act who might be suitable as a headliner when the headliner gets stuck at the airport and can’t make it into town on night number one. In other words, the guest set isn’t a slam dunk sure thing. It’s part of a process. It’s an adjunct to all the other tools you use to secure a booking– your press kit, your website, your exceptional prowess at schmoozing during a phone call, your local cable access credit, your increasingly popular podcast.

It is both the most certain way– and perhaps the riskiest way– of getting into a club. There are so many variables. Conversely, it’s a quantum leap over a mere DVD or Youtube clip, as you are in front of a club manager, in the flesh. (Which makes good behavior all that much more important… see the “Hot Tips” at the end of this posting for more on that.)

The “I have a couple new jokes I wanna try out” Guest Set

This is usually a set granted to a comic who is already working the club or already familiar to the club’s management. If your new stuff is dying a horrible death, you have an obligation to those who might follow you to switch gears and start doing tried and true material that elicits laughter. Don’t make your headliner and/or feature act work from a hole.

The “Hey, you wanna do some time?” Guest Set

You’re in town doing a coporate set. Or you’re working across town and you only have one show that night. You’re passing through town on the way to another gig. Whatever. You stop by the club and the manager (or the headliner) says, “Hey, you wanna do some time?” You say, “Sure!”

Keep the ego in check. Calm down. Do a tight ten minutes and get off. Hey, maybe even do eight. This isn’t your show. You… are a guest.

The “OMG! Look who just stopped by the club!” Guest Set

Note to Club Managers: Stop putting the “I just happened to be in the neighborhood” Celebrity Headliner on BEFORE your scheduled headliner. Not to scheduled Headliners: Stop insisting that you should follow the Celebrity Headliner who just happened to be in the neighborhood. What is to be gained by such behavior? Such a strategy is fraught with potential disaster. Of course, it all depends on what the club’s manager wants to do. But, if you have any input at all, insist on doing a normal (if, perhaps, truncated) closing set and then bringing on your “very special friend who just happens to be in the neighborhood…” The Celebrity Headliner looks like a hotshit, you look like a hotshit, everybody goes home happy. And the Celebrity Headliner can do as much time as he wants (within the confines of the provisions of the club’s liquor license, of course).

Note to Celebrity Headliners: Stop accepting the offer to go up onstage and do a set BEFORE the scheduled headliner. It is fraught with potential disaster. It completely destroys the dynamic of the show. It’s like serving death by chocolate cake just before the lobster. (And there’s always the tiny possibility that the Celebrity Headliner will– GASP!– bomb horribly. If you thought it was tough following a Celebrity Headliner that kills, just try following one that dies. It’s like doing standup after a screening of “Schindler’s List.”)

The “I haven’t been on stage, I’m feeling a little rusty” Guest Set

If you are granted some stage time on a paid show because you want to clean out the pipes after a bit of a layoff, it is imperative that you give it your best shot. Don’t act like the stage is your playground. It’s still a show that people paid to see. They’re not aware that you’ve been laying about, unshaven, in your underwear for the past two weeks.

Hot Tips for the Guest Setter:

Don’t ask a comic, who doesn’t know you and has never seen your act, to arrange for you to do a guest set. (And no, being someone’s Facebook friend is neither and excuse to drop that comic’s name nor an excuse to ask that comic to go to bat for you.)

He doesn’t know you… He doesn’t know how you operate… He can’t predict how professional you’ll be. If you go in and fuck up, it doesn’t just reflect poorly on you, it reflects poorly on him.

Don’t get upset when a comic who does know you well refuses to set up a guest set for you. Often a comic might not feel secure enough in his position at a club to arrange a guest set for someone else. No two situations are alike. But nearly all guest sets have one thing in common: it’s a favor.

Actually, it’s multiple layers of favors. The comic who sets up a guest set is doing the auditioning comic a favor. The club manager who agrees to allow the auditioning comic to do the guest set is doing the auditioning comic a favor. And often the club manager could be considered to be doing the comic who brokers the deal a favor. There is, quite possibly, a whole lot of social capital being spent. Acknowledge the various directions in which that capital flows.

Never call a club (or stop by a club) and use another comic’s name in order to request a guest set UNLESS you have that comic’s absolute, unqualified permission to do so.

Don’t go over your time. If the club manager says, “Give me six minutes,” give him six minutes. Or, better yet, give him 5:45. Nobody’s really counting the seconds… until you go over. It doesn’t matter if you’re “crushing” or “killing” or “blowing the feature off the stage.” It doesn’t matter if you “wanted to get off on a big laugh.” If you go over, it indicates a glaring inability to follow simple directions. Or, worse, it indicates a ludicrously inflated ego. Consider that you are taking time away from the other comics on the bill, and act accordingly.

Should a guest set comedian use the word “fuck?” Depending on the venue, it’s either up to the club manager or the headliner. Some club managers don’t care. Some do. Some club managers will say, “Ask the headliner.” If the club manager doesn’t care, we would advise you to ask the headliner.

We would advise any guest set comedian to refrain from using the “f-word.” Unless you are specifically instructed to do so (which never happens). Or if you are given express permission to do so (which rarely happens). If you aren’t clear on whether or not it’s permissible to use foul language, err on the side of clean. For years, we have been of the opinion that working clean is no harder or easier than working dirty. Working clean is difficult. Working dirty is difficult. Being funny is difficult. Our advice to work clean during a guest set does not contradict that sentiment. However, using foul language in the short space of a five-minute set might make it appear as though you are incapable of working without using foul language. If you say “fuck” twice in 300 seconds, you’re averaging one “fuck” for every 2-1/2 minutes. Extrapolated over a 30-minute set, that’s 12 “fucks,” which some club managers might calculate to be an awful lot of “fucks” for an audience to handle.

Don’t sell merchandise. If you can’t grasp the concept that your guest set is taking time away from the regularly scheduled comics on the bill, then you can at least understand that your ill-considered decision to sell your gag T-shirt after your guest set is taking money out of their pockets. If you can’t afford the gas or hotel for your guest set adventure without the proceeds from merchandise sales, then find another way. Once again, the underlying concept is: “This isn’t YOUR show.” You are… a guest.

How about a nice “Thank you!” (before or after the show) to all the comedians who are making this guest set possible? (Oh, sure, it’s ultimately up to the club manager to decide who gets on that stage, but it would be swell to show your gratitude to the other acts on the bill– from the top to the bottom.)

And, prior to the thanks, please introduce yourself to the other comics on the bill. You’re going to have to interact with the emcee/host, there’s no getting around that. He’s most likely the one who will bring you up. But throw a “Howdy” to the feature and the closer while you’re at it. (And say “Hey!” to the other guest sets, should there be any.)

And don’t cherry-pick. Or try not to. Any comic would want to do a guest set in front of what is typically the best crowd of the week– Saturday, first show. But club managers shouldn’t allow it. (Really, what is learned by putting a guest set on in front of a hot, packed crowd? The club manager sees a comic kill in front of what is arguably the easiest crowd of the week. The auditioner kills in front of a hot crowd… it’s like falling off a log. So who benefits?)

For God’s sake, DO NOT sit up front after doing a guest set. It is the mark of a rank amateur. How many times have we witnessed a guest set exit the stage, then scramble to a chair in the front row to sit and enjoy the rest of the show with his college buds or his co-workers from his day job? Very bad form.

Don’t bring a group of friends to a show, do a guest set, then allow those friends to exit the show immediately after you’re done. It’s incredibly bad form. All of them should stay for the entire show. If your group is there to see you– or to “support” you– they should have the courtesy to watch and enjoy– and “support” the entire show. If their intention is to leave as soon as you’re done, tell them to stay home. Of course, they can do whatever they want… they can also spit on the floor or play Angry Birds during the show… but we’re asking for courtesy here. It’s something that’s voluntary.

Don’t bring an entourage into the green room. (Again, it’s up to the club manager, but…) If you’re doing an eight-minute set and you arrive in the green room with an coterie of hangers-on that rivals that of the heavyweight champion of the world– and the paid acts have nowhere to sit– you’re exhibiting a special kind of rudeness.

Hey– what’s this crap about asking to come back the next night and do another guest set? What, exactly is the point of that? If you’re asking to do a second guest set, then maybe you’re not clear on the concept of the guest set. (See above.) Of course, once again, it’s up to the club manager. But we’re of the opinion that guest sets should be rare and special. Are you coming back and doing a tight 4:30 in anticipation of a television appearance? Are you prepping for an impending shot in a contest? Both might be good reasons for serial guest-setting. Other than that, with rare exceptions, you might be a stage hog.

News flash: Just because you did a guest set (and perhaps got a good response), it does not mean that you are automatically entitled to a future booking. How should one proceed? Very simply: Ask whoever is in charge exactly how to proceed. “Can I call you for a booking?” “When?” “How far in advance are you currently booked?” Such inquiries will probably be met with definite answers. If they’re met with uncomfortable stares or vague, rambling replies, you’re probably not going to get a booking out of the deal. Wait a decent interval and ask for another guest set… say, six months.

Did we leave anything out? Certainly. We suspect that folks will comment.