Comedy festivals are huge right now. They got ‘em everywhere. Pretty much any city with a scene has its own festival. In my home state of Iowa there are 5 different comedy festivals right now. I’ve never done the *big* ones like Bridgetown, JFL or Edinburgh, but I have done a bunch of the smaller ones. Here are some of my dumb thoughts…
If you’re not familiar with how comedy festivals work, usually a group of producers (often comedians, sometimes not) come together and organize a multi-day comedy event where they bring in comedians from all over the country to do stand up (or improv or lectures or podcasts) in their city. There are usually a few headliners who are paid to perform and raise the visibility of the festival and scene, but majority of the comedians are performing for free.
To get into these festivals, comedians submit a video and pay a fee. That fee can be anything from $5 to $100, depending on the festival, although usually it’s around $25. This money ideally goes back into the festival and makes it possible to happen. Most festivals don’t have sponsors or someone bank rolling them. If that feels gross or shady to you, I understand, but I’m cool with it. I’ll submit to certain festivals just because they were good to me in the past and I want to help contribute to them.
Then, the festival producers go through the process of watching these submission videos and picking who they want to invite to perform. Sometimes this is done meticulously by a board through a strict review process. Sometimes this is done by one or two people. You hope it is fair, sometimes it’s not.
After the submission and review process is over, they send out invitations or rejection emails. If you’re selected, you start making your arrangements. Majority of the time, travel to the festival is on you. You gotta buy a plane ticket or a bus ticket or drive. Majority of the time, lodging will be taken care of by the festival. This could be anything from a fancy hotel room to a comedian’s couch to a hostel bed in a church basement. However, every once in a while a festival will make you find your own lodging.
Once the festival starts, they usually give you a festival lanyard, t-shirt and a swag bag full of weird shit and then you spend the next few days doing nothing but hanging out with other comedians. This is always a good time. You go out, party, do drugs, drink, eat shitty food, go to museums, and bond like fucking crazy. People often compare it to summer camp, and I totally agree. It’s a blast.
The shows at festivals can be hit or miss. Sometimes you’re doing stand up for hundreds of people in a packed theater and sometimes you’re doing stand up for no one in a coffee shop. I’ve done 3 festivals this year and have had one of the best shows I’ve ever had and one of the worst shows I’ve ever had. I’m not the first one to say it, but you don’t go to comedy festivals to have killer sets.
Some comedy festivals are scams or cash grabs or they only exist so the producers can pay bigger comedians to hang out with them. It’s gross, but that is just how it goes. On the other hand, some comedy festivals are fucking great. I’ve made so many friends and got some much work from going to these weird places and hanging out and having fun. We booked 80% of the Young Dinosaurs Tour of relationships Nick, Albert and I made at various comedy festivals.
I’m not talking about “networking”, I’m talking about making genuine friendships with comedians you otherwise wouldn’t have met. So far this year I’ve made a ton of new friends. One from Tucson. One from Detroit. One from Toronto. Etc. Etc. Etc. Hopefully I’ll get to watch these comedians and do stand up with them for the rest of my life. And maybe we all would have met somewhere down the line, but since we had this whirlwind shared festival experience, it bonded us and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
Plus, the good thing about comedians is that we fucking talk and gossip all the fucking time. If a festival sucks, word is gonna get around and if a festival rules, word is gonna get around. Cream rises to the top. So if you are considering submitting to a festival, Google and find someone who has done it in the past and ask what they think.
Also, I feel like I have been very lucky with the festivals I have been invited to and I have had way more good experiences than bad. So that fuckin’ rules!
Before writing this, I reached out to some friends and asked what they would be interested in knowing about festivals. Here are some of their questions:
What do you wish you had known before doing your first festival?
I did a handful of smaller Midwest festivals in 2011 and 2012, but I consider Out of Bounds in Austin in 2013 my first *real* festival. I was 2 and a half years in and had been living in NYC for 4 months. I was VERY in my head the whole time. I was nervous to go talk to people and the only real friend I had there was a comic who was 2 years ahead of me that I really respected, and so every interaction with him made me anxious. After the second day though I started to relax and ended up having a lot of fun. What I wish I had known was that everyone isn’t judging you, you don’t have to be shy and that it’s ok repeat material. Boy, I do not think this answered the question at all.
Which festivals should I apply to?
Whichever one is best for you. Do research. You don’t want to apply to a festival, get in and find out it costs $800 to get there. Figure out which ones have good reputations. Which ones have your friends done and liked. Go look at past lineups. That’s what I do. There are a few festivals that I don’t think I’m right for so I don’t submit to them. Also, if you want to know my true opinions on which festivals I think are bullshit, give me $4,000 OR just have a conversation with me for more than 15 minutes and I’ll probably tell you.
What makes a good tape?
I don’t know shit about shit, but I did recently go to a panel with a bunch of representatives from some of the big comedy festivals and listened to them, and so this is what I do know, submission videos should start with the first joke you want shown. Not the host! They specifically said “sometimes we wish we could book the host more than the comic”. Make sure the video is good. You gotta be seen and you gotta be heard. You gotta be doing well. If it’s a bad room, that’s gonna hurt you. Also, if you use a phone do it landscape and use a little tripod or something. Don’t just hold it. If you’ve been rejected a few times, don’t let that discourage you. Two of the biggest festivals both said they keep tabs on comedians over the years and look for growth. So maybe in 2012 you weren’t ready but in 2018 you are. They also said that if you’re a woman, you should 100% be submitting to comedy festivals because not enough are and there are SO MANY hilarious female comedians.
What if I don’t get in?
Who cares! You can continue doing stand up exactly the same as you have been doing and working to get better and maybe you’ll get into the next one. I feel like people think it is a lot more malicious than it really is. I’ve met so many festival producers and they are just people. They watch hundreds, sometimes thousands, of videos and have to whittle that down to 30 or 40 people. It’s hard. If you don’t get in, work harder, and try again. Don’t get mad. Don’t get jaded. Don’t reply to the rejection email with a nasty letter. Don’t write a Facebook post putting them on blast. It is only gonna make you look bad. Remember, in regards to the people who got in, it was never “you vs them” it just wasn’t “you”. So in that case, it might as well be “them.”
How do you handle rejection?
I try to be cool with it. I understand that it is part of this whole goddamn thing and so you can’t beat yourself up over it. I also try to be very honest with myself. In 2014 my tape was shit, I knew it was shit, I submitted to a bunch of festivals with it and didn’t get in. That is my fault. Also, I’m a 32-year-old balding white dude. There are 1,000 dudes just like me submitting for every festival. So it’s hard to take it personal. I have had some shitty things happen though. One time a festival sent me the rejection letter, which is not a big deal, but then a month later they sent me the exact same rejection letter word for word. It was like “hey, remember last month when we didn’t think you were funny, guess what, we still don’t!” Also once a bunch of my friends started getting the invitations and rejection emails from a certain festival, and I didn’t. I mean, I submitted. I got a receipt. I just never got an answer back. So that was crazy. I didn’t get mad though, I just know for the future not to submit to that one again. Also, I can’t imagine either of those things were actual slights at me. It’s like I said before, these things aren’t personal. It’s just the people running these festivals are regular people. If I had to email out rejections and acceptance emails to hundreds of people, I’d fuck up too.
What do you think about “partying” and the perceived obligation to hang out?
I think you gotta space it out. I used to get hammered at festivals, but now I don’t drink, so I’ll still hang out or eat an edible or whatever, but you can’t be out until 4am every night. I mean, some people can, but I can’t. What I like to do is go to bed early one night and stay out super late one night. That way you can have fun, but still feel like a person. I do highly recommend hanging out with comics during the day though. Don’t just sit in your hotel room or go do something by yourself. Make friends and get to know them. Plus, that’ll make the partying a lot easier.
Biggest pro to doing comedy festivals?
As I said before, the relationships you make are huge. And it’s fun. Plus, it is important to travel and meet comics from other places. When you only do stand up in one place, be it New York City, LA or even Des Moines, you kinda start thinking that it is all there is. You forget that there are AMAZING comedians all over the country CRUSHING. So going to these festivals and seeing that kind of gives you a better perspective on stand up as a whole and where you fit in it. Comedy is so much more than your scene.
Biggest con to doing comedy festivals?
It’s expensive. In 2017 alone I’ve spent $900 on travel to do festivals. It sucks. Also, sometimes you get to a festival and find out it blows. That has happened to me. You’re a day into it and realize it’s one of those shitty ones and you just gotta tough it out. My hope is that meeting the people and hanging out and doing the stand up will lead to me getting to go back to these cities and doing stand up with these people and hopefully making the money back eventually. Hope is important.
Do you think you have to do comedy festivals?
I don’t. One of my good friends and favorite comedians has been doing stand up for 10 years. In that time he’s done like 2 comedy festivals and been rejected from tons. He’s great though, beloved and doing just fine. On the other hand, I’ve done 15 comedy festivals and nobody really cares. So you don’t HAVE to do them. Plus there is this thing Jake Head said once that I think about all the time because it is fucking true: “Comedy Life Hack: You can just go to a city when there isn’t a festival going on and get on better shows.“
Any other advice?
Only this, and it is my advice for everything, not just comedy festivals: BE NICE! BE KIND! DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE! At every festival there seems to be one or two comedians who are just goddamn dipshits. They big time, boast, brag, it’s so gross. Especially since EVERYONE is there because they are a good comedian. There is no use trying to prove it anywhere but on stage. Dang. Also, be polite. Politeness is important when you’re spending 4 days with people.
Do you have any horror stories from festivals?
This isn’t at all the festivals fault, but in 2012 Gideon Hambright, John Eide and I did the Great American Comedy Festival in this tiny little town called West Point, Nebraska (population: 3,380). It was a good venue and a great crowd and everyone had good sets. At the end of the night, all of the comics came out on stage to kinda take a bow, and the festival producer (a sweet little old lady) said into the mic “Give it up for all of your performers” and everyone clapped, then she said “This is a weird way to end a comedy show but we have just been notified that there are 2 fugitives currently on the loose in West Point tonight. Police officers from all over the state are looking for them. This building is on lock down. You can leave, but you can’t come back in. Please be careful, the men are to be considered armed and dangerous. Have a good night. God bless”. Then John, Gideon, the other 8 or so comedians and I all ran together the half mile across town to the hotel. It was pretty fucking crazy.
Patrick Hastie is an American television writer, director, producer, composer, and production manager. He has created a number of successful sitcoms such as Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mom. He also served as an executive producer of Roseanne and Mike & Molly. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife (Rebecca) and his poodle (who is also named Rebecca).
In all seriousness, check out Patrick’s Blog at patrickhastie.com, where this article first appeared. Patrick Hastie is a NYC comedian who’s not only done a ton of comedy festivals; he also writes a ton of great articles like this one.