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Comedy Q&A with Andy Engel, Director of New Talent at Comix

Comix_white circle logo Andy Engel is the Director of New Talent for Comix comedy club in NYC. Engel has been producing comedy shows in the city for more than two decades, including at Carolines on Broadway. In addition to his current role at Comix, Engel is also the founder and owner of the Manhattan Comedy School.

We spoke with Engel for the Comedy section of the Back Stage "Guide to New York Acting Markets," which was published earlier this year. But he had a lot more to say about the New Talent Show at Comix. Read our Q&A with Engel to learn the importance of a good stand-up demo DVD, how stand-up comics can jumpstart their comedy careers in New York City, and why funny people need to keep getting funnier:

Blog Stage: Is the Comix New Talent Show essentially an open mic?

Andy Engel: No, it’s not an open mic. I get referrals, and I screen people. Before we go any further, I'd like to say that actors can do my show. A lot of actors, and a lot of people taking improvisation, don’t necessarily want to pursue a career in comedy. But they realize the value of getting a great DVD doing stand-up.

So even though you encourage actors to perform at the Comix New Talent Show, they do have to have some proven stand-up talent.

They’d have to call me, so I would get a sense as to where they’re at. I mean, if somebody’s done five years of improvisation at UCB, I’m going to give them a chance to do stand-up. If I get somebody on the phone who has trouble speaking clearly and is only 18 or 19, I’m not going to put them up. But if they’re 18 or 19 and they can tell me the difference between Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, and they’ve really done their homework, I’m going to give that some consideration too when I give somebody stage time.

To talk specifically about comedians who are focusing on comedy as their career, a comedian just arrives in New York from somewhere else, what do you think is the first thing they should do?

Get a great DVD. A great DVD is going to be their calling card, their comedy resume in terms of getting an agent, getting a manager, getting casting people to look at them, getting into a comedy festival, getting noticed by the major college booker, getting comedy club owners to look at you. A DVD is the be-all, end-all. It’s rule number one: you have to have a great one.

I would say our DVDs [at Comix] are better than anybody. It’s a two-camera shoot. Our club was designed as a TV studio, and it was designed by the same gentleman that designed the Live Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Time Warner building. Our digital and technological capabilities are on another level. No other club can touch us. We are state of the art.

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Do comedians have to pay an extra fee to get that DVD?

If they bring 15 people, it’s free. [If they don't bring 15 people,] they can pay 32 dollars for it. I’ve had people in the past use their DVD to get development deals that have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, managers, and careers. 32 dollars for a DVD, compared to what you'd be spending for headshots and demo reels.

You call it a "bringer" show, but to me it’s a New Talent Show, and there’s a lot of benefits. It's an unofficial audition for the club. You could say it’s an audition to get guest and paid spots at the club and be included on industry nights.

A lot of comics might say to themselves, "I know I’m new to New York and I don't have much experience, but I’m better than that unpaid open mic or amateur night."

If you’re not passed at the major clubs and working weekend spots, then you should do a show where you’re going to be seen by an individual who not only can give you a DVD that can get you development deal – by the way, people who have done my show in the past have gotten development deals. I’m talking half-million dollar development deals. Other individuals have gotten agents, and managers, and careers.

But why do a bringer show, rather than an open mic?

I get so angry when I hear that comment. Go ahead and do open mics and be one of the 2,000 young kids in the city. You’re not going to get seen at an open mic. If you want to audition at my club, it’s a lot easier to do it through me than to be one of the 2,000 taped submissions that my boss gets every year, you know? It just boggles my mind that people don’t see that that there’s a lot of other benefits.

Why should you do a bringer show? If you’re really funny, then getting a great DVD is going to make money for you instantly. You’re going to put it on YouTube, somebody’s going to see it, and things are going to happen. And if you’re a comedian and you can’t bring a few people to see you to get a career-making DVD, then something’s wrong, in my opinion. Maybe you burned yourself out doing bringer shows where you didn’t get anything out of it. If you just got stage time at a club – and there are a lot of clubs in the city that don’t give you great DVDs – then I feel bad for you, because you didn’t do your homework and you’ve burned your people out [who would come watch you at a bringer show].

However, if you haven’t burned your people out, then you get a great DVD and then you don’t have to do any more bringer shows. Period. And I know people are down on the shows. It has a bad connotation, unfortunately, but I think that it’s an unfair connotation, because if you talk to all the people on my website, and all the people who have had great career-making moves from the DVDs, they’ll say, "Look what I got, look what I got! Look what this got me, look what this got me!"

You also need to know what to put on a good DVD. It sounds like basic stuff. What do you put on a DVD? You need to put a strong defining joke right up front. That’s important. You need to define who you are as a comic in the first 30 seconds, practically, because you can’t think that people are going to watch the whole five- or six-minute tape to see what’s at the end. I think that’s an important point. Then if you have a great DVD, that’s what you have a friend preferably give to an agent or manager on your behalf. The unsolicited tapes are hard to get through. It all comes back to getting a great DVD.

You don’t want to edit a tape, because if you edit it, people assume you’ve edited out a bad bit. That’s a key point. You don’t want to send an edited tape. It should be straight through.

I say to people, “Do you have a DVD that’s making money for you?” That’s how I challenge people. Do you have a DVD? If you do, great, you don’t need to do my show. But if you don’t have a DVD that’s making money for you, and you’re not doing paid jobs, and you haven’t passed at the major clubs in the city, then you should probably think about doing the show. Or you can look at a career of open mics. And there’s a lot of people that choose to stay in the open mic world because it’s safe, because they think it’s hip, or because they can’t bring people. If you can’t bring people, you can bark, but barking is pretty brutal.

What about comics who are new to New York, who maybe don’t even know 15 people to bring because they've recently moved to the city and are just getting started?

I encounter that, and I empathize with them, but I can’t put them on my show. Why can’t I put them on my show? Because I’ve got people like Jim Gaffigan and Judah Friedlander coming in and doing unpaid guest spots.

So what would your advice be instead?

Get real funny real fast? (laughs) It’s very competitive. I mean, how do you get on stage in New York City? You do a bringer show, you do an open mic, or you're going to do bark shows, or you're going to start your own room, or you're going to take a class. Those are the five ways you can get on stage, basically.

I mean, there are people that have rooms and give spots away that are maybe not bringer shows and not open mics. There’s a whole group of these rooms under the radar to a degree, but I think they’re pulling from people that are already strong acts.

You mentioned the five ways to get on stage in New York City. For a comedian who’s new to the city and trying to get into the comedy scene, do you have any tips for how they can meet and network with other working comedians?

Obviously, just going to open mics and doing good bringer shows at better clubs, you’re going to meet people.

Basically, just start working, and you’ll meet the people you’re working with.

Yeah. But I think it’s a mistake when young comics rely on their fellow open mic-ers for career advice. Some people have good advice, and some people don’t. And I think that what’s very important for young comics is that they need a mentor who is very unemotional and very realistic about whether this individual is ready or not to be auditioning, and what they should be doing. I think that’s probably something that a lot of young comics lack.

Do you find that a lot of comics immediately think, “I want to be a headliner at Comix,” and try to skip the amateur nights?

Absolutely. For a lot of comics, I think one of the most fundamental, basic things that will help you get ahead is having a mentor and being realistic about where you are in your career. If you’ve been performing for a year and you think you should already be getting paid work at all the major clubs, you’re either a prodigy – and there are very few people that do that – or you’re not really grounded in reality. And if you’re not grounded in reality, it’s going to be hard for you to progress in your career.

Do you fill that type of mentor role at Comix?

I feel I do. Sure I do. If somebody does the show and they’re funny, I’m going to put them on an industry showcase that’s hosted by Eddie Brill, who books David Letterman. I’m going to put them on a showcase for Brian Baldinger, the booker of the club who’s also a scout for Jimmy Kimmel, and he’s the scout for the Montreal Comedy Festival. Or I’m going to put them on a showcase I put together, where I bring in agents and managers.

It’s in my interest to help somebody who’s funny. If somebody’s funny, it makes me look good if I discover them. I don’t have to be asked to help somebody who’s funny. I do industry showcases often. I genuinely want people to do my shows and progress and get further, and a lot of them do. And I do try to function, in some way, as kind of a mentor to certain people. I try to give people good advice and try to be a positive influence.

I think there’s other benefits to doing my show besides getting a DVD that can make a career for you. You’re going to have somebody like myself who’s going to look at you, and hopefully who’s going to be in your corner.

So what are some of the pitfalls, or things that comics should know to avoid when they’re getting started?

Don’t steal. That’s a big thing, when comics steal material. If you get a reputation for that it’s going to be very hard to shed it. Don’t be known as somebody’s who’s a stage hog, who goes along and ignores the light.

What other basics? Be easy to work with, low maintenance. Be reliable. If you commit to a bringer show, then do it. If you cancel on me the day before, and you have no track record with me, then I’m certainly not going to consider you for an industry show in three months. You want to develop a relationship with me. Listen, I’m the new talent guy at the club, so I have a very strong relationship with the owner and the booker for the whole club.

People should really do their homework. Read the "hack list" to see what material has been done to death. That’s like the guidepost of material to avoid. There’s several of them on the internet that show what audiences – and other comics – are sick of.

You also need a room where you can fail, which is a really important concept. Probably an open mic or some smaller room. You need to be able to test material and not worry if it’s working. If I book somebody for a New Talent Show and there’s 150 people in the audience, I don’t want to see this person experiment improvising, but I understand that they need a room where they can do that.

In your opinion, how long should a stand-up comedian realistically expect to work at open mic nights and amateur shows before graduating to paid gigs, or even headliner status?

To get into the better major clubs in the city, the weekend spots, you’re competing against people that haven’t necessarily broken through but are already successful road comics. So they’ve been performing for six years, eight years, 10 years, and they haven’t passed at some of the major clubs but they’re already pros with a solid 30 to 45 minutes of material. They know how to handle hecklers, they know how to deal with other things that arise during a show. When you pass at the major clubs in the city, you’re on one big huge audition. It’s a huge opportunity, because casting people are continually looking at all the different clubs in the city on a regular basis. Or the owners get to know you and they know what kind of type you are, so when they get a call for a certain type of comic, they call you in.

CBS will maybe call up a club and say, “We’re looking for these types of comics.” So the owner or the booker will say, “Ok, let me call these 20 people that I know.” Now some of them might be regulars, but some of them might be just starting as regulars and the person thinks of them as a certain type. It helps to define yourself in terms of what kind of comic you are. Are you a college comic? Do you skew older, maybe to corporate stuff? Are you going to be a road act? Are you an ethnic comic? A gay comic? And I think that really helps. If you define yourself as a comic early on, it will be easier for you to get work and to progress.

Have an honest mentor, work hard, write often, and get as much stage time as you can however you get it. If you have to do open mics, do open mics. If you have to bark, bark. But you have to get stage time. There’s no substitute for that. And you also have to make progress. Some people are doing it for a long time and they don’t make progress.

And how do you judge progress?

Are they getting funnier? If you see somebody over the course of a year or two, or three years or even more, and they’re just plateauing, they’re the same act and that’s a really bad sign. You have to be continually getting funnier. Be funnier than the time you were before.

You're not just talking writing new material, but also a comic's general persona or performance style?

You have to be funnier on stage, whether it’s a combination of writing, performance, delivery, whatever. I looked at somebody recently the other day who hadn’t made any progress, I felt, and I said, “Wow, this individual’s been doing this a long time. I like this person, and I’d like to help them, but for whatever reason they’re just not making any progress.”

You certainly don’t want to see anybody who is dong material that I would say is hardcore racist, misogynistic, sexist – and they’re not funny.

Get as funny as you can as quickly as you can. But you know what? The funnier you are, the more people are going to want to help you. What’ll happen is, somebody will be running a room and they’ll say, “Hey, you know what? I got a room and it doesn’t pay anything, but here’s this free spot.” Or, “Here, we’re doing a gig in Jersey or whatever. You want to open? It pays very little – or it pays nothing – but do you want to open?” And the funnier you get, the more things are going to happen for you in a positive way. And I think that’s probably the main piece of advice. It sounds very simplistic…

But it’s something people probably forget. Do you give comics this advice ahead of time, before they perform at a New Talent Show?

No, but I give it to them if they take my class. I try to help my students as much as possible in every way. It’s important.

For more info about the New Talent Show at Comix, visit www.comixny.com.

-- Daniel Lehman

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