Mark Lonow and JoAnne Astrow are performers, actors and comedians, and producers, they are partners in the World Famous Improv Comedy Clubs and they’re married. They’ve both got a long history in the comedy business on all sides of the stage, and most recently have contributed their talents as Executive Producer to the off-broadway musical version of Cruel Intentions currently running in New York City’s West Village at Le Poisson Rouge. Starting in the late 1970s Mark help take the World Famous Improv from a one room in New York and one room in Hollywood operation to its present licensing group of 22+ clubs nationwide. But even before that, both Lonows were active advocates for comedians rights (you’ll see them quoted in the book, I’m Dying Up Here, which told the story about when L.A. comics all went on strike). The Lonows continue to be passionate about the need for comedy to be valued and recognized and I saw down with Mark and JoAnne to hear their thoughts about a common comedy phenomenon- giving away the door.
Cities like New York and Los Angeles are soaked in art. Any night you can see almost any type of performance. With so much happening and so much competition, it can be difficult to fill seats and it’s not uncommon for venues or promoters to “give away the door” – by handing out copious amounts of free tickets in order to fill the room. This is particularly true of venues that usually charge a “two drink/item” minimum. As an early pioneer of the practice in the mid nineties, which he quickly stopped, Mark is a comedy club owner who knows a thing or three about why this seemingly innocuous way to fill seats is actually damaging the industry it feigns to support. “We wanted to expand the audience, and so we thought we can get college kids,” he told me. This doesn’t apply to open mic shows, the Lonows agree, or shows where comedians are working out material. But other types of free shows endanger comedy, and here’s why.
#1: Giving away “Free Tickets” trains the public to look at comedy as a free commodity and thereby devalues the very thing it is trying to promote.
Mark and JoAnne agree, charging even a $5.00 cover is better than a nothing cover. Any comedian, worth his or her salt has worked at their craft for years and should demand something from the audience for their work, according to Mark. So, except for those that are beginning and can only perform in “bringer rooms” their work should be worth at least $5.00 to see. You wouldn’t expect to see any other skilled practitioner of anything for nothing.
#2: A free door devalues your room.
Giving away the tickets not only devalues the worth of the comic. It devalues the worth of the room itself.
“Without question,” Mark said, a free door devalues your club, “because your room gets associated with the free ticket. Then, when the room wants to graduate to become a real “club,” it becomes difficult to start charging. Patrons get upset, not understaninding why one show might be free but another similar show has an admissions price “Free is for short time grab and run operations,” Lonow said. “Not for stay the distance and make it a professional business operation.”
“Do it for a month. Do it for a month of Mondays, on that fifth Monday the customer says…I was here last week. Why are you charging me? Isn’t Monday your free night?”
#3: No charge tickets devalue the comedians to both the audience, and the club owner.
To fill a room you have to have comedians who draw. According to the Lonows, giving the door away destroys, or at the very least restricts to a great extent, the ability of the up and comers to develop a reputation worthy of payment and then graduate to a level where they can get better ticket prices for their performances. “The comics that appear on that night- the free night- get associated with free. So you assume, you know, they’re not as good,” Mark told me. “The comic winds up kind of hurting themselves in a funny way.”
Performing for “Free” tends to keep the comic at the “Free” level for way too long. That’s not because he or she should be there but when an audience gets used to not paying, they tend to not want to pay. The audience also equates all the comics they see in “Free” rooms as all equals. For the comic, that’s no way to start a career.
And, they said, the comics who accept the free night are telling the club,”Oh, it’s okay not to pay me.” Unless of course, they’re breaking in new material.
#4: Free tickets hurt producers.
“I know a lot of the comics reading this don’t believe this but, Producing takes talent. So, giving away the door is a hucksters way out of developing a room and it deprives the Producer of the ability to develop the skills needed to Produce,” Mark said. Free shows mean the comedians don’t get paid (see #3) but it also means the producers don’t get paid. And while that may seem like a great thing for someone trying to put a show together on the cheap, you don’t develop quality producers, if the job is unpaid.
#5: The audience is more likely to no-show a free-show.
When tickets are free, your audience is a lot more likely to be no-shows, “because they think it’s a “who cares” scenario,” Mark said. So even if you sell out your show, you can still be screwd, because there is no obligation.
#6: The quality of your audience declines with a free ticket.
A free door, the Lonows say, bring untrained audiences; people who don’t what it means to be at a comedy show, who will yell out more often, and talk at their table. “You get much much more boisterous patrons, who don’t know comedy manners. They’ll heckle each other. It’s a free show. They think its your job to handle this.” He added, “I think there is an obligation to enjoy the show if you’re paid for it. That kind of keeps you more on the straight and narrow.”
A final note: Different prices for different comedians is not a solution:
“The room establishes the comic,” Mark explained. “The comic establishes the room. If you have a $10 cover, every comic that’s in that room should be a minimum of a $10 cover. You can say, “This is a new guy, new gal, breaking in material.” That’s fine, but that’s not the show. That’s the person. You’re introducing a new comic, but you shouldn’t put up a night of beginners and call them your comics, unless you’re a total idiot.”
Visit The Improv family of clubs and now you can see Cruel Intentions: The Musical full of all the seduction, passion, revenge and sex of the classic French novel, Les Liasons Dangereuses, and the sexiest teen drama of all time, Cruel Intetions, the 90’s throwback is getting praise all around. Featuring your favorite nostalgia-inducing hits like, “Lovefool,” “Just A Girl,” “Only Happy When It Rains,” and, of course, “Bittersweet Symphony.” Tickets available at cruelmusical.com