Professional comedians have a variety of venues to perform in - probably more than you can imagine. I've outlined a few of the most prominent ones below. Each of these venues have their own markets, associations, magazines, trade shows, and opportunities. I will write a blog post for each market below with links to further resources. Be sure to bookmark this page and subscribe to my RSS feed for updates.
Every comedian should start in a comedy club, no matter where you want your career to go. There's no more welcoming and nurturing place to hone your craft. (Don't laugh, the venues below can be much tougher.) When you tell people you're a comedian, they will always assume that you play comedy clubs, even if you haven't set foot in one in years. You can be a touring comedian, working clubs across the country, or set up shop in a major town (New York, LA, Chicago, etc) and perform in the showcase clubs. The competition for top spots is fierce, and the pay is generally dismal. But for starting out, it's absolutely the way to go.
Some comedians make their entire living playing nothing but college shows. These are typically booked through the school's Student Activities Office. The two big college market organizations are NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) and APCA (Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities), but you can also book comedy shows on college campuses through Residence Hall Associations, Student Government Associations, and even Greek (fraternity and sorority) Associations. High energy acts work great, and you need to be clean and in touch with today's college students.
There is big money for comedians in the corporate events market. If you can do a 100% clean, 45-60 minute, non-offensive show that appeals to all ages, you need to look into the corporate market. The key is the time. You should have the amount and quality of material equivalent to a comedy club headliner, and it needs to be squeaky clean. If you're just starting out at comedy clubs and you have aspirations of someday doing corporate comedy, start being clean from the beginning. It's a lot tougher, but the financial rewards can be great.
For many comedians, getting a steady gig as a cruise ship entertainer is the ultimate goal. There is the real possibility of working 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year on the high seas. You'll travel the World, live a life of leisure, and "work" an hour or two a day making people laugh. For those not willing to make such a time commitment (which can be killer if you have a spouse and children), there is the opportunity of working cruise ships sporadically a few times a year or working specialty comedy cruises. Since these are considered plum gigs, competition is tough.
If you are both a comedian and a Christian, you should strongly consider the Christian comedy market. These shows may be held at churches, fellowship halls, Christian conferences, or any Church-sponsored venue or event. A small percentage are actually held in the church sanctuary. There's even a multitude of Christian-owned companies who need Christian comedians for their corporate events and year-end parties. To really excel in the market, it helps to have a strong testimony and a deep understand of all of the different Christian denominations. Don't try to fake it, there will be a quiz.
If you're hip enough and can sell tickets you may want to consider a tour of music venues. Today's "alternative" comics are bypassing the comedy clubs to perform in non-traditional venues. This has actually been going on forever, as Steve Martin outlines in his book "Born Standing Up." These venues can work well for established acts with strong followings, especially among the college-aged crowd. If you've got an act that works great on morning radio, that really helps in getting the crowd out to the clubs. Deals are usually a percentage of the door, and it's largely up to you to put butts in the seats.
Once you've hit the big-time and are a proven draw, you can take your earning power to theaters. Nothing beats the rush of playing a packed house in a beautiful theater. If you're not well known, you can still get work as an opening act for headliners (comedy, variety, or even music acts). If you're super-creative, you can turn your stand-up comedy performance into a "one-person show". A good themed show can turn a nobody into a touring theater act very quickly.
It seems like every town in America has their own Festival. From the enormous (Little Rock, AR Riverfest) to the obscure (Bethune, SC Chicken Strut), these seemingly never-ending events offer a variety of entertainment. There aren't a lot of comedians working this market, so the potential is there. Positioning is key. You should be high-energy, engaging, and unafraid. If you mix music into your act, or if you can serve as an all-day emcee, opportunities abound.
Fairs & Expos
Fairs are similar to festivals, except they often last longer and take place on designated fairgrounds. Many fairs will use comedians as opening acts for music groups or other national headliners. If you're creative, you can also find ways to book your show on the smaller stages for multi-day or even week-long runs. If your act includes hypnotism, juggling, magic, music, props, puppets, or other ways to attract attention - all the better.
Private parties may include weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, reunions, or bat mitzvahs. Often times a family member will hire a comedian to "roast" or poke fun at the guest(s) of honor. Other times, the comedian is simply there as a different form of entertainment. These shows can be the most unpredictable, as you never know what you're getting into. And the people throwing them aren't usually professional event planners. But if you have strong nerves, this can be a lucrative field to explore.
High schools... Rest homes... What have I left out? Leave your message in the comments section below and remember to check back for expanded listings on each of these markets.