After a night of watching a comedy show, audience members leave talking about many things. They loved the comedian, they hated the comedian, that one joke was really clever, and so on. They're naturally focused on the comedians, but what about the person who put the show together?
A comedy promoter has one of the hardest, most unsung jobs in comedy, operating as an air traffic controller of funny. Promoters are the point of contact for the venues and comedians, often putting out fires to successfully produce one hour-and-a-half show, with most likely no one recognizing the work they did.
A promoter must be organized, juggling the schedules of multiple stand-up comedians, who historically are not known for their reliability. The day of an event, a booker can receive last-minute notification that a comedian has dropped out, and he or she needs to replace 45 minutes worth of comedy for a sold-out show.
Brian Breckenridge, a DFW comedian, has performed around DFW for more than a decade, but in the last four years has become one of the more prominent independent bookers in the area. Breckenridge is a one-man show, doing everything from finding the venue, booking the comedians and spreading the word to putting audience members in chairs on his own. His venues are varied, with some shows in dive bars in Arlington and others at Main at South Side, a music venue in Fort Worth where Breckenridge has built a steady following of audience members.
Independent comedy shows usually mean a lineup of stand-up comedians no one has heard of before. It’s one of the many obstacles Breckenridge faces when putting on a show.
“One of the biggest challenges is trying to get people to come see something that they may have seen on a big level,” Breckenridge says. “Maybe they’ve been to the Improv a couple of times, and [we're] introducing new crowds to the local side of something they know on a larger scale.”
Breckenridge operates with no budget for marketing, so the local comedians involved in a show also have to advertise the date. Breckenridge says he largely relies on social media sites to raise awareness of future shows, playing the numbers game that if you invite a thousand people out, you might get 10 to show up.
This is a drastic difference from how a larger institution, like the Addison Improv, approaches the creation of a comedy show. Sean Traynor, the general manager of the Addison Improv, has been working with the Improv comedy clubs since October 2000 and became general manager in 2005. Armed with a massive amount of resources, Traynor is tasked with producing a quality show weekly, sometimes daily, with the livelihood of multiple employees affected by the outcome.
“As far as the headliner, obviously you want to get a headliner that has a draw or that you can market, so they can sell tickets and make sure that your waitstaff can eat for the week,” Traynor says. “Artists have familiarity with us. They’ve been coming to us for years. ... They could choose different venues, but because of our relationship and they understand that we help them build what they are today, whether it’s our venue or all of our sister venues across the country, there’s a mutual feeling of respect there."
Traynor markets his larger shows in similar ways as Breckenridge, utilizing social media and relying on the comedians to promote their shows, but the Improv with its larger budget is able to pay for print and radio ads. Traynor also has the advantage of reaching out to the many audience members who sign up to be informed about future shows, a growing list of comedy fans built over decades.
Because so many comedy shows are produced in the DFW area, some comedy clubs won't allow comedians they book to perform in independent shows. Traynor and Breckenridge don’t view each other as competition but rather two important aspects of comedy coexisting to help the other.
“I never tried to compete with the clubs," Breckenridge says. "It’s impossible on so many levels. There’s comics that are booked by talent buyers, like Margin Walker [an independent events promoter] booked at Majestic and Texas Theater. I can’t compete with them, either, because they have bigger spaces and more money to work with, and that’s fine. I like that. They bring those people through here who are, like, too big for clubs, or they don’t want to do a club, or they like doing the one-off thing at a Majestic or Texas Theater.”
Traynor doesn’t see locally produced shows as drawing away from his business.
“There’s millions of people in the DFW market,” Traynor says. “There’s millions of people in the Houston market. If I can’t get enough asses in the seats at my club, it has nothing to do with other venues doing shows. We don’t view it as competition. It’s an opportunity for an artist to grow.
"If you only worked my club and only my club — No. 1 you would be starving because there’s not enough stage time, but two, where would you be as an artist? It requires you to tell your joke, quite frankly, 50 times, to figure out the best way to say it. These venues and these other clubs, they’re our friends, they’re our allies.”
With all the work promoters do to elevate the DFW comedy scene, there’s still a desire to see more likeminded individuals join the cause. The hope is that more independent comedy shows would develop more talent to be used at clubs like the Improv and create a reputation for Dallas comedy to compete with areas more known for it, such as Austin.
“I’d like to see more mes — more people out there doing what I’m doing,” Breckenridge says. “Being able to facilitate more good independent shows where touring comedians can come through. Because the clubs are booked out so far in advance, and that’s the club scene, and that’s fine, it’s the backbone of the DFW comedy scene. But then there’s a lot of comics out there, the ones that are good enough for clubs and can do clubs. With the right setup, if there’s someone like me out there, then hopefully they can do a show.”
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