The Economics of Being a Stand-Up Comedian in the Midwest

by Sean Dailey

Being funny can be expensive in a place like Grand Rapids, Mich., where comedians often have to travel great distances looking for a gig.

I gave stand-up a try last spring out of a combination of general boredom and creative dissatisfaction with my job in the marketing department of a non-profit healthcare organization. A year later, I’ve made precisely $20 doing comedy, which I got for winning second place in an audience-judged competition at a biker bar (to be honest, I would’ve been happy to make it out of there without being shived). But I’ve also “invested” about $15,000 into my comedy “career,” which is sort of insane when I actually type it out like that.

Technically speaking, I lose money every time I get up on stage. You don’t get paid to be funny when you’re first starting out. Hell, most people never get paid at all and wallow in the open mic circuit forever, or give up out of frustration. You have to earn your dues in the trenches, working on your material, refining your style, finding your voice, and eventually, if you’re good enough, someone might pay you $100 to make people laugh for 20 minutes. That’s the dream of an open-micer — and it’s not a cheap one.

I managed to get by for four years without owning a car until last November. My high school beater had finally beat it in 2008, and I wanted to see how long I could survive without buying a new one. Grand Rapids’ public transit system is nothing compared to the big leagues, but I learned how to navigate bus schedules, bought a road bike for getting around town in the warmer months, and bummed rides with friends when I needed to. I literally became the poster boy for public transit in GR. But then I tried doing stand-up at a hotel bar miles from the nearest bus route and absolutely fell in love with it. And I wasn’t overwhelmingly terrible at it either! There was one problem: Once winter hits in Michigan, you do not want to be on the roads on a bike. You barely want to be on the roads in a car either, but we manage because we’re hardy Midwestern folk.

Even so, I soon realized that if I wanted to pursue being funny with any real conviction, I needed to buy a car — which I did after I managed to land a creatively unfulfilling job as a media buyer at an ad agency last fall. Not only did the job come with a decent pay bump, but I also had tons of paid time off accrued from my last creatively unfulfilling job. Giving three weeks notice meant that time was paid out with my last check — instant car down payment!

I went with a 2010 Ford Fusion, mainly because if there’s one thing women love, it’s a sensible mid-sized sedan with a Star Trek sticker in the back window. I financed it because I’m no fat cat and have a terrible interest rate at the moment because I don’t have much credit history beyond some mistakes I made in college that have since fallen off my credit report. My car serves a dual purpose of building/rebuilding my credit and getting me to more open mics around town and around Michigan. That’s the bulk of my $15,000 investment in comedy. The rest comes from actually performing.

About a month ago, I drove to Detroit for a comedy competition. I was cocky coming off my biker bar win, and I had recently advanced to the semi-finals of the “Funniest Person in Grand Rapids” competition, the annual comedy tournament ‘round these parts. I ended up getting smoked by a 21-year-old kid and lost out on $500. Not only that, factoring in gas ($49.10) and the two Bulleit bourbons ($19.96 with tip) I had before I went up, I spent $70 to not win $500.

Since then, I’ve instituted a one-hour maximum travel rule for unpaid gigs, but pretty much every comedy club has a two-drink minimum — even for performers. So I’m paying for drinks every time I perform for free. It all adds up pretty quickly when you include the costs of gas, oil changes, headshots, festival entry fees, and all sorts of other stupid expenses. The initial feeling of just wanting stage-time at any cost has worn off, and now I’m thinking more carefully about the costs when I’m choosing gigs.

My friend Jen Dama is in her second year of doing stand-up and echoes that sentiment.

“Since I’m in a situation where I’m exploring both a career in communications and a potential career in comedy, I always think about ‘what is the return on investment’ when planning out my schedule and balancing both worlds,” she said. “From what I’ve learned, even some of the guys who are doing comedy mostly full-time and getting club dates in the Midwest area aren’t getting reimbursed for travel or other expenses. After driving, hotel, meals, etc. — you probably aren’t making too much. So when I think that’s what some of the pros are dealing with, it makes it even harder to imagine what kind of money people just starting out are spending.”

Yeah, like $15,000.

“I try to be strategic with my time and money for comedy,” Jen said. “I have a budget for both. Sometimes, I’ll go over — but generally I know what I’m willing to spend (again, both in time and money) and try to make the best of things. At the end of the day, hey, it’s stage time.”

That’s an important point. Stage time is stage time and the more you go up, the better you get (hopefully). But there has to be a balance. Jen walked me through her thought process on the return on investment of an out-of-town open mic gig.

“So say there is an open mic in Detroit,” she said. “I live on the west side of the state, so it is a two-hour trip each way. With gas prices at $3.75/gallon — and given my car’s gas mileage — it will cost $41 in gas alone roundtrip. I’ll get five minutes of stage time and it starts at 9 p.m. on a weeknight. It wouldn’t make sense for me to do it if: I don’t carpool with anyone, I have to work at 8 a.m. the next day, it’s a questionable room, and I wouldn’t get much networking done. Sure, performing at a bar in front of four people who just came to drink would help me build my character and teach me how to get through painful situations — but so would a kick to the head.”

So, what kind of gig would be worth the time?

“If I’ve heard good things about that open mic, was able to network with some of the east side comedians, perform in front of a different crowd, visit and/or stay with my brother (he lives in Ann Arbor), and have some of his buddies come out to the show — then it would be worth it for me to make that trip,” Jen said. “Even though I’m not getting paid, I still think that I’m getting a good return.”

These are the types of calculations we fledgling comics make all the time. Here are a couple more financial snapshots from some other up-and-comers from West Michigan:

Erin Field: I’ve been performing improv comedy for four years and stand up for two and a half. I’ve spent probably $4,000? I once drove to Indianapolis for a five-”minute set. I make a decent amount of money from The Murder Mystery Company,” but it’s also not consistent.

Andy Bledsoe: I’ve only been traveling outside of Grand Rapids for a few months, even though I’ve been doing open mics for just over a year. Over the past three months, I would say I’ve spent $50 to $70 a week between gas, food, and drinks. I have not made a dollar in anything I’ve done so far, but that’s because nothing I’ve done has had the possibility of winning money. Thankfully, I’m not in it for the money (yet). I have a job that allows for this as-of-now fruitless venture. Unfortunately for my wallet, I like it enough to keep doing it.

Josh Ortega: I have spent probably around $300 just on gas and I have no idea how much I have spent on courage juice, AKA booze. I also spent about $250 on a camera and tripod to record my sets. I have only made about $120 so far: $70 for one show, but I had to sell tickets myself. I also host a show at a sports bar. They pay me $25 and give me an open bar tab.

Jeremy Clymer: I would estimate I spend around $50 a month extra on gas to go to open mics and probably another $30 buying drinks so I don’t irritate the wait-staff at bars. So all told, I’m spending about $80 per month to support my stand-up habit and so far I haven’t made a cent. What do I hope to get in return for all that financial investment? A few minutes a week in which I feel like I’m doing something I’m good at.

That’s not a bad return on investment if you ask me.

Sean Dailey is a stand-up comedian living in Grand Rapids, Mich. His mom thinks he’s funny.

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