The Business of Comedy: Funny Business
I get flack sometimes for being friends with the Yoder family, but that’s how it’s been with every job I’ve had. When I managed a Gamestop, I regularly hung out with district managers outside of work. When I worked in a call center, my boss not only became a friend, but he became one of my closest friends and even stood up in my wedding. It’s not that I’m an ass kisser, I’m just a hard worker. I’ve been in situations too where I hung out with employees and became friends. The only way friendships like that can start and last is if the lines are clearly drawn between work and play and no one takes advantage of the other.
My friendship with the Yoders gives me a unique perspective on the business side of comedy. I feel lucky to get that behind the scenes point of view sometimes. I think about this season of Breaking Bad. Last season, Walter White thought it was all about him. As comedians, we tend to do that a lot. Now that Walter is running the show, he’s seeing how much work goes into the business. He was just one piece in the puzzle. Yes, like a comic, you could argue that he’s just about the most important piece, but there are still lots and lots of other pieces.
John Yoder founded Funny Business years and years before many of us ever picked up a microphone. Now he’s taken more of a back seat approach to the family business and turned the reigns over to his three sons Jamison, Eric and Michael. I got a chance to bounce some questions off of the two elder brothers (because Michael’s dashing good looks are too hypnotic) to give you a behind the scenes look at the company that employs so many of us. I hope you enjoy.
I was surprised when I found out how long the Yoder family had been involved in show business booking and the fact that it sort of started with music. Can you tell me about the history of Funny Business?
Eric: Well, to keep it short and simple – my dad, John Yoder, started out in college booking bands for some of the bigger local music venues. Later he also begin running a foreign film arts theater here while continuing booking bands. An opportunity came up for him to break into comedy right before the boom hit and became a major player in the years to come as somewhat of a pioneer in the comedy club world. When club business slowed down a bit, he made the wise decision to diversify into the college and corporate markets and we have continually been building off of all these over the last many years.
A lot of comedians are quick to want to move to New York or LA, but it seems to me like a bulk of the paying work in comedy is in the Midwest. Have you noticed a trend for where some of the cities where comedians are coming from besides New York and LA?
Eric: I would say that it really depends on what you are looking to do, and which direction you want to head in your comedy career. I see some incredible acts coming out of the Minneapolis and Chicago areas over the last couple years. The Detroit scene has been steadily rising as well, and I can see it returning to its former glory as a comedy and arts hotbed.
NYC and LA have always been the cities to be in for TV, Movies and for acts looking at specific careers in comedy. They both have their ups and downs. I believe the Midwest has some of the best club crowds for comedy, and for those just breaking into forming longer, full feature and headliner sets, there are more opportunities to do this, and more stages that provide the necessary stage time. In NYC and LA – it’s a lot of places providing 5 or 10 min. sets, which is great for building that short tv set , but not so much building a full 30 or 55 min. set that almost all clubs require.
With the internet and all the opportunities on it, there are so many things you can do to gain exposure and build your “brand” now despite where you are based out of. But of course a time will always come where you need to decide what you plan to do with your career and if living in a city like LA or NYC is going to provide you with more resources for that goal.
Funny Business has had much more of a presence in a lot of the festivals in North America. What do you look for when you go to these?
Eric: Festivals are a huge part of my role as a club booker, and they are great because you are able to see so much talent over the course of a couple days, that are all already hand-picked acts – thus giving you the opportunity to see some of the top talent all in the same venue(s). It’s also a chance to have face time with a lot of acts you may deal with regularly but don’t always get to meet face to face. I look at each act in comparison to the clubs I book, and what markets I seem them being the best fit for. I look for all the usual things, unique – well written material, confidence, stage presence and experience, etc. and a lot of time it’s a no-brainer who stands out to you as someone you want to get on the books right away.
Very successfully, Funny Business has helped out a lot with Gilda’s Laugh Fest in Grand Rapids. How did that union begin?
Jamison: I think they originally got in touch with us through the owner of The Bob. Knowing that we book Dr. Grins here in town as well as several corporate events and our roots here in the community was what got us started. From there it’s been a great marriage with a great organization and group of people we really support and work very well with.
The first two years of Laugh Fest have been humongous! I know you can’t really say much now, but I know planning for the following year pretty much begins as soon as one year wraps. What can people expect in 2013?
Jamison: You’re right…Can’t say much. Suffice to say that people can expect the same caliber and diversity of talent as the past years. Our hope is that each year builds on the next and support and visibility for Gilda’s Club continues to grow along with it.
So we’re getting ready to go back into the busy season of comedy when you’ll be booking emcees again. For people looking at transitioning from open mic to emceeing, what’s the best way to get noticed by you?
Eric: Performing at open mics in clubs we book and asking the club owners for referrals are a quick way to get on my radar. We speak with them frequently and they always mention the acts they see consistently improving and who they would like to see given a chance to host a weekend – sometimes we don’t always agree, but it definitely will put them at the top of the pile for review. Having quality tape, with minimum 10 mins of CLEAN material, suitable for an emcee set is important and almost ALL bookers require this.
Another important thing is being prepared. Have all necessary items before emailing bookers. Know what they will want/expect from you. Come across as a professional, it is essentially a job interview when applying to work at a professional level. Check your references, I’ve had guys use references, probably assuming we won’t check – then those references have no idea who the act is that used their name. That automatically puts a bad taste in my mouth, personally. Their also a handful of acts that work regularly for us that have consistently introduced us to high quality acts, so names they bring us we tend to take notice of quickly.
What do you and the clubs look for in a good emcee?
Eric: Clean material, confidence and good energy. An act open to feedback and willing to be taught. They need to recognize their role as an emcee. You are NOT the star of the show. Your job is to warm up the audience, promote the venue and the acts on the bill – not yourself. Being humble and recognizing your position on the bill is important. Hosting is not an open mic – and not the time to try out new material. The audience paid for this show, and deserves your top performance.
Eric was surprised when I told him I thought it was easier for me to go from middle to headliner than it was to go from emcee to middle. The reason was that I felt I didn’t have to ask for it. The clubs where I started closing the shows at first were the ones that requested me to do so. Generally speaking, how do you decide to move people up to the next spot?
Eric: Typically at the time you are prepared to move up to the next level, we are already hearing that you should be. Sometimes mentioning or making your case to be moved up is what needs to be done, but at that point most of the time we’ve already begun to get that type of feedback. We closely check progress, and monitor feedback and new clips, performances, etc. The biggest mistake some comedians make is pushing to move up before they are ready. It’s important to be honest with yourself about where you are at. Asking for honest feedback from club owners and comedians you work with is important.
The business side of comedy is so incredibly important. Is there one thing you think all performers, in general, could do in order to be better business people?
Eric: Ask for advice, take the time to learn and soak up knowledge about how the other side works. I see all the time that the acts that are consistently working on writing, building content, contacting venues/bookers and actually putting in full days of work to build their career tend to genuinely reap what they sow. The comedy business isn’t just writing and performing, it’s learning, promoting, building and growing your own business – and you are your own business as a comedian. Balancing working on your act and learning the business side of comedy is incredibly important.
If a bar or a club are looking to either start comedy or have someone help them with booking, how do they get in touch with you?
Eric: They can check us out online at www.funny-business.com for more info and to request quotes – and we are also always available to discuss further via phone at (888) 593-7387.