Greg Sammons, managing director of artist representative body The Comedy Agency, says: “Comedy nights can be transformational for pubs.
“They bring in extra sales, attract people who haven’t been to the pub before, they can fill pubs on quiet nights and make them more bustling places. You can become known as a performance venue and it can help differentiate your pub from others.”
Helen Stead – director of the annual Nottingham Comedy Festival and its spin-off company NCF, which organises events all year round – says some pubs have taken twice as much money on a comedy night as a standard evening.
“Comedy fans are a great audience,” she enthuses. “Comedy and drinking go hand in hand. People like to have a drink, watch a show, get more drinks in an interval and stay behind at the end as well.” If this all sounds great, but the idea of organising a comedy night from scratch makes you laugh nervously, then don’t panic, there is plenty of advice and support out there.
Watch some comedy yourself
Consultant Philip Sambell – also known as industry consultant Publican Sam – says the first thing to do is go and watch some comedy yourself.
“Take a night off and go to a comedy night at another pub,” he says. “See how they set it up – you will see what needs to be done.”
Sambell used to run a pub in Nottingham and put on a comedy night there that often sold out (see Pub Comedy Gold).
He says basic things landlords might not consider include elevating the stage slightly, dimming other lights, and having furniture facing in one direction.
His next piece of advice is to get professionals to run the event. It may be tempting to cut this corner and take charge of the night yourself, but you would be taking on both the organisation and some fairly critical stage duties.
“Look online or go to visit pubs putting on comedy and see who the promoters are,” says Sambell. “A lot of promoters are jobbing stand-ups, they do a bit of shtick, introduce the acts, and do a bit more at the end.
“There’s a difference between having some banter with your regulars and being able to stand up and do it cold while judging a room.”
Organising an evening
The Comedy Agency takes a fee to organise an evening, sending landlords an MC to run their event as well as the comedians themselves.
It will also organise kit for you if it is needed, and Sammons says there are a number of important factors to consider in this regard.
“The best idea is a PA with two inputs at least, so there’s a spare for a keyboard, a guitar or an MP3 player,” he says.
“A mic should be cabled, which gives a comfort factor for comedians, and presence of a mic stand can make or break an act that uses props.
“The best place for lights is in the two back corners of the stage, coming in at 45 degrees; this prevents glare or shadow.”
The key is to arrange the room so all the focus is on the comedian. Removing tables is recommended by Sammons. “The more packed in people are, the better the laughter will spread.”
Charging a fee
Audience engagement is critical to a successful comedy night, says Stead. She recommends charging a fee to ensure people are invested in laughter, and keeping the comedy separate from the rest of the pub to minimise distractions.
Then it’s over to the promoter to practise their craft and run the night, keeping comedians and punters smiling. The landlord should be thinking about running the bar, although it is important there is liaison between the parties.
“Work together with a promoter,” says Stead. “The best nights I’ve seen are when the landlord is welcoming; on hand to help; there’s a quiet, clear room; and help from the pub to promote the event.”
She says having regular intervals – and closing the bar between sets, to minimise distractions and encourage customers to stock up on drinks – is the best way to manage the close relationship between booze and laughs.
Sammons says ensuring food is finished and cleared before acts begin is important.
“It is very distracting when people are eating and there are waiting staff moving around,” he says. “Also when someone is eating, they are concentrating on two things at once and more likely to miss a crucial bit of the set-up of a joke.”
Once you’ve found a promoter and agreed the format of the evening, and you’re on top of the physical set-up and the various logistical arrangements, the key to making a success of your comedy night is marketing.
“Successful nights are much about good promotion,” says Sambell. “Talk it up. Most comedians have showreels on YouTube, so drop those onto the pub’s Facebook page. Put posters up outside. If you expect people to choose your entertainment against others, you have to do the work yourself.”
Stead says getting people talking about the event – both in person and online – is the main method of building a following.
“Social media is the way forward for promotion – you can tag artists and press in,” she says. “But also advertise in the pub. Word of mouth is crucial, so don’t give up after one quiet night, keep going and word will get around. It can take a while to snowball.”
Promoting other offerings
As well as using the pub to push the comedy, you can use the event to promote the other offerings of the pub.
“Some venues will do a ticket like £25 for a three-course meal, including comedy,” says Sammons. “That can work well but you have to have a comedy-only option as well and get the food out the way before the acts.”
You may prefer to offer deals on bottles of Prosecco at the comedy night, perhaps, to encourage customers to group together rather than buying individual glasses. Or you could combine the event with something else.
“Comedy can run alongside beer festivals,” says Sambell. “People normally have an extra couple of pints and become more receptive. When I was running a pub, we would have a couple of cask ales on that we would push out that evening with promotional pricing.”
Dealing with heckling
There is, of course, always the risk of customers becoming over-excited from the heady mix of alcohol and laughter, and heckling remains an issue at many comedy nights (see When pub comedy goes wrong). The advice here, as with any other potential risks, is to have a plan to deal with it and to put someone in charge of doing that efficiently and calmly.
“A good MC will lay down the rules at the start, and nip any problems in the bud,” says Sammons. “It can help if venue staff tap unruly customers on the shoulder and ask them to be a bit less chatty. You don’t want to kick someone out in a way that all their mates never go to the venue again but you don’t want it to get out of control.”
Of course, no one running a pub would be a stranger to the need for crowd control and, overall, comedy nights are likely to bring a positive vibe, both on the night and to the general reputation of the place. There could also be new customers and the opportunity to rake in plenty of hard-earned cash.