The Road Less Traveled: the Upside of DIY Touring for Unsigned Comedians
There is no more divisive place in comedy than the road. However alluring or disheartening the stories you’ve heard, the truth is that the road is not as far away as you may suspect. You don’t need a TV show to tour. In fact, you don’t even need to get passed by a club. All over the world there are gangs of unsigned comics embracing a do-it-yourself attitude, cutting out intermediaries and touring on their own terms. You can join them.
Ramon Rivas II started out in Cleveland, the kind of Midwest city that road comics frequent.
“Most of the comedians that were established when I was starting hit the road. But their comedy wound up leveling off because they were no longer developing their unique point of view. I knew I didn’t want to go and work the road just because I wanted to.”
Even after five years of emcee work at a local club, road gigs were still unattainable. Instead Rivas turned his focus to self-producing shows for his Accidental Comedy brand, before taking trips interstate to do spots on indie shows.
These tours were booked sans invitation until a 2015 visit to New York. Comedy Central named Rivas a Comic to Watch, an honor he is adamant “came about solely because of the way I’d gone about doing comedy.”
Though TV credits on @midnight and The Half Hour followed, not all comics see touring as a pathway to other projects. For staunchly independent Austin-based headliner JT Habersaat, the road is an end goal in itself. After a youth spent romanticizing the touring lifestyle of punk bands, Habersaat decided to forgo the open mic circuit in favor of self-booked showcase tours with friends. With this approach he has since built a career out of a schedule that averages 130 road gigs per year.
“I’m trying to do a week to 12 days per month. The long three week drives are a grind, as you can imagine, but they are wonderful in their own way.”
Not all comics set out with such great ambitions, but the lure of the road can quickly reprioritize ones’ goals.
“I want to push it as hard as I can,” says Australian comedian Aaron Gocs. A regular on the Brisbane standup circuit for years, Gocs only recently fell into touring after a series of viral videos brought him a national audience.
“The touring seed was planted last year when I started getting more online interest. Before that I didn’t really think it was possible. I had done the five-minute spots, had enough jokes, and the following was there, but at first, people didn’t necessarily think I wanted to perform live. Once I did, then the messages [requesting shows] came rolling in.”
An established fan base is advantageous from the outset, but anonymity should be no deterrent. Ramon Rivas II built a network of supporters from scratch by tapping into already thriving comedy communities.
“I would save up enough money from producing my shows and working at clubs that I’d sublet a place (from a fellow comic who was hitting the road to tour) from a major city every so often. I’d go there and do a bunch of free shows, doing longer stretches so I’d get a sense of the highs and lows of actually being in that scene.”
Even as his profile grew and paid spots began to pop up, the purpose of these trips did not waiver. Money was never a motivator.
“Touring is an investment and a bet on your talent, but not all bets pay immediate dividends. Gauging your perspective in cities other than your own is invaluable though. It can validate you when you get overlooked by local clubs, it can refresh your hustle when you return home, and it also increases your peer group and shows you different sides to this business.”
To integrate regular touring into your gigging schedule, JT Habersaat concedes a compatible day job makes the dream a lot more realistic.
“I was working when I first started to tour, doing marketing and writing. It was a strictly work-remote job and it was stuff I could do in the van.”
Even though comedy full-time is the dream, being patient and realistic is important. As is the understanding that part-time work provides a safety net that allows for financial mistakes. Calling on the wisdom of years behind the wheel, Habersaat’s tips for independent comics new to the road are simple.
“For your first tour, don’t make it too long. Do a long weekend to start. Selling merch is crucial, as is making money on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. When I started out I did some maniac tours, five to six weeks at a time with one night off. That’s largely unsustainable. Economically and just… mentally.”
Aaron Gocs agrees that humility is important for touring beginners. Even with a social media presence that most would envy, Gocs is open about the economic difficulties he has faced in his first 12 months of touring.
“It’s not really financially viable at the moment. The expense of traveling around is hard to offset and the nature of the country makes it difficult. In Australia there are six capital cities, but you can’t just constantly go to them.”
The alternative — touring to smaller cities and towns without an active comedy scene — can be a greater risk, but Habersaat doesn’t shy away from this gamble. He is happy to take a financial hit if it means playing somewhere new and attracting new fans, provided there is help from local support acts.
“It’s important to have good locals as openers. Not necessarily the funniest person in the city, but perhaps a greener, more enthusiastic comic. If local comics are excited about your show, then they wanna bring their friends so they represent their scene well.”
The secret is don’t wait. Go out and book some dates. See new shows, be inspired by other comics and impress fresh crowds. Take this parting advice with you…
Aaron Gocs, on touring without representation: “I think you’ve got to wait for the industry to come to you, which is good because then you hold the power a bit more.”
Ramon Rivas II, on expectations: “Working the road is a mix of humbling yourself and being fine with less than treatment in order to pursue your craft and believing in yourself that you are as capable as anyone else.”
JT Habersaat, on the future: “Touring is definitely sustainable but it’s a matter of having done a lot of ground work over all those years when it was very, very hard.”
Ethan Andrews is a comedian and fast food reviewer from Singleton, Australia.