A lot of comics talk smack on doing out of the way gigs. They will often times begrudgingly accept offers to perform at Firehalls, Elk’s Clubs, and Sport’s Bars in East Laurel Highlandsport (this is probably a real place). I’ve been in the same boat before. I’ll have nothing going on that week and a booker will call me with an “it’s-about-a-4-hour-drive” gig. Well, what else am I supposed to do? I’ll accept, assuming that the lingering Confederate mountain folk that I’m about to perform for won’t like my brand of ultra-highbrow humor (i.e. Jokes about constipated robots).
You know the old saying though: when you “assume” something…you make a generalized statement that may or may not be confirmed by your experience. I think that’s how that goes.
The truth is I always have an unbelievable time at these shows. The crowds are live. They’re respectful. They’re generally better than any comedy club audience (I’m looking at you Sunday night crowd). Why though? I’ve talked about this with a few other comics and I think I have a list of why the off-the-beaten-path gigs are usually great.
1) Free Beer – Most comedy clubs don’t make their money off of ticket sales. They make money off of food and beverage sales. Since most clubs are only open four nights a week, they need to make sure they capitalize on every item purchased. This means that drinks and food can be a little pricey. This isn’t the case with VFW gigs. These shows don’t necessarily need to make a profit. The shows are put on as a service for the members. If the organization can break even, or make a little bit of dough off the 50/50 raffle, that’s great. They’re not under the same pressure to make money as the clubs. Usually the ticket price to a VFW show includes all the food you can eat and a certain allotment of free (or cheap) beer. This makes for a lively crowd that’s not already stressing about the bill when the show begins.
2) Quick Drive – Most comedy clubs are now located in hot retail spots. This helps with walk-up ticket sales. People are going shopping or to a movie, they see a comedy club, get curious and buy a ticket. However, most people in a city live 30 minutes to an hour away from these retail centers. This means factoring in drive time into your night’s plans. You now have to leave an hour early, drive, and find a parking spot before you get to a show. Then you can’t really drink that much because you have to drive a long way home.
Most VFW shows are local, which means you can drive to the location in ten minutes. You can also get absolutely hammered and bum a ride, or walk back to your house if necessary. Or you can do what most self-respecting Pittsburghers do: take another shot of Jaegermeister, grab your keys, and say, “See you in church tomorrow. I’m going home.”
3) Entertainment Comes to the Patrons
If you’ve ever driven through an East Laurel Highlandsport at night, you know that there might only be two or three options available for nightlife (hang out at the Advanced Auto Parts, party at Frank’s garage, or party in Frank’s basement). Comedy is a welcome break in the routine.
A lot of the audience members for these shows live several miles away from a club. They can’t just make the hour drive into the city every Friday and Saturday night. So they really appreciate when the entertainment comes to them.
These VFW type shows are typically annual, meaning that a comedy show for that particular organization only happens once a year. However, this means that for several months the officials of that group are trying to drum up interest in their members over the course of several weeks or even months! Comedy clubs structurally can’t match that level of promotion because they need to promote a new act every weekend.
When you step in a VFW hall and the crowd is buzzing, you can feel a concrete sense of anticipation. They have been looking forward to this for a while now, and they want to have a great time.
5) Sense of Community
I think this helps with the overall atmosphere of the show. In small towns, everyone knows everyone else. This keeps the night feeling a little bit more light-hearted. Native American tribes had a set of behavioral expectations from their members. That way, if someone was out of line, they would be ostracized from the group. I’ve seen this happen at VFW shows. A heckler will yell out and the crowd will turn on them immediately. Because after all, this is their night, and that person is ruining it.
Even worse is that the whole audience probably knows that person’s name, address and who their little sister went to prom with. Heckling is a lot less attractive when you know the people whose night you’re interrupting.
Plus, everybody likes to laugh with people that they’re fond of rather than with strangers.
Even with all the benefits, these VFW shows will never take the place of comedy clubs. Comedy Clubs are the true bread and butter of the comedy scene and that will never change. You need a gallery to show art, you need a concert hall to play a symphony, and you need a comedy club to do stand-up. But for those elitists who turn their nose up at the shows off-the-beaten-path, I have one thing to say: “Take another shot of Yaegermeister and I’ll see you in church tomorrow.”