Every group of comedians talking into a mic at a public place is called a "show," whether it's fourteen terrible noobs in the corner of a bar interrupting the TV's, or a sold-out theater excited to see their standup hero. It's easy to get confused. I'm going to try to break down what the different kinds of "shows" are, for the benefit of new comics who frequently get asked to be on one kind or another and sometimes feel misused as a result.
OPEN MIC: this is where it starts. For most of us, this is where it ends. It's a showcase for literally anyone to stand up and talk into an amplified sound system to other adults. No one's getting paid, unless the show organizer is getting a nominal fee from the bar to organize the show or provide sound. No cover is being charged. These shows are free, on slow nights, to get someone in the bar, even if it's just the comedians running up a tab.
The quality and type of open mics vary widely. There are the notorious free-for-alls in places like Chicago where 45-50 comics do three minutes each to a wall of surly indifference. Other places offer somewhat-more-curated lineups (often booked in advance) with slightly longer time slots. These are the boxing gyms of comedy. This is where you do new jokes, learn how to speak on stage, and make friends in your scene.
New comics at this level are ripe for abuse. In the midwest, it's rare to see people asked to pay for the privilege of stage time, but it happens elsewhere. There are also unscrupulous folks who'll charge a cover and expect open-mic level talent to entertain paying customers. Even if more experienced comics do a mic, they're generally doing brand-new, untested jokes. This is a formula for exploitation and unhappy patrons who paid money to see what is, by definition, a hit-or-miss show. Don't participate in this bullshit.
SHOWCASE: This is the vast gray area between open mic and a traditional, ticketed, paid "comedy show" at a club or theater. These are generally a comic's first paid gigs -- someone charges $5 at the door or gets a budget from a bar, a lineup of comics is put together, and the proceeds get split in some way.
The term "showcase" used to have a more rigid meaning, and still does in some situations, as an event highlighting new comics to bookers or industry scouts. Trust me, if there's anyone even remotely connected to the industry at a show, the people running it will let you know, repeatedly (see: every comedy festival that's popped up in the last few years).
This type of showcase is a more collective affair. Usually no one's making real money, but anything's nice after doing dozens of unpaid open mics. The lineup is generally vetted and the comics get do longer sets. Everyone might get $10-50, or a headliner might do a longer closing set and get the lion's share of the proceeds.
Older and more experienced comics often complain about these kinds of shows, and not without reason. With the decline of comedy clubs, there are far more shows like this than "paid shows" in the traditional sense. The bar of entry is so low that almost anyone can "produce" shows like this, and many are fraught with problems. Lots of venues have hosted one or two poorly-organized, badly promoted shows full of unready talent and decided comedy is not for them based on that experience.
However, that genie's pretty much out of the bottle at this point. There simply aren't enough comedy clubs left to accommodate every aspiring comedian and there's no longer a "farm team" system with club open mics providing a path to becoming a working comic. Some of the best-known alt-comics of the last decade have made their bones outside the club system, touring bars and headlining these showcases, often on the backs of local comics and would-be promoters who'll willingly take a financial hit to work with their up-and-coming podcast heroes.
"SHOW" SHOWS: If a venue has a regularly scheduled show with a cover charge, featuring a headliner and an opening act, you can expect that's a show with at least some professional pedigree. A number of bookers specialize in this type of show, where a headliner with a strong 45-60 minutes can make $200-500 and a 25-35 minute opening set will earn you $75-200. Sometimes hotels are provided. Hopefully there's an MC to warm up the crowd and get them to face the front and pretend they turned off their phones.
These shows are the most like traditional comedy club shows, structurally, but they still take place in bars, typically in smaller towns, and they demand a skill set beyond just having written some jokes. Dealing with hecklers, doing crowd work, rolling with a raucous crowd that may have been drunk since 2009 -- it's not for the faint of heart.
Typically, bookers of shows like this are willing to give you a shot as an MC, or let you do an unpaid guest spot before the feature, if you reach out to them. This is an easy way for them to scout new talent and a chance to see if those hot takes that make your 23-year-old open mic buddies laugh have any traction in front of middle-aged partiers in the heartland.
(Spoiler alert: they don't. But if that was gonna stop you, you wouldn't be this far into this article, would you?)
So what do you do?
If you're new, you do all the open mics. You write. You edit. You talk slower. You learn how to spend a night out without getting shitfaced and driving home. You make friends. You start asking those friends about showcases, probably before you're ready to. Sometimes you move up the ladder. Sometimes you become an open-mic lifer. Sometimes you wash out a year in and tell your friends comedy was bullshit anyway.
Most importantly, set a floor early. Decide what you will and won't do. Adjust accordingly as you go. Learn to say no to things. If someone offers you an unpaid spot on a sold-out show, question why it's an unpaid spot. If someone's vague about the money, realize there's generally a reason. If a gig 500 miles from home offers no lodging, decide if there are other benefits to that much driving, or if a night off is a better idea.
Work smarter. Bleed for your goals, but have a plan too. Don't get so blinded by your dream that you let other people, through incompetence or avarice, take advantage of your excitement. That's the surest way to let those dreams curdle and make this shit no fun.
Where I write about the stuff I do when I'm out doing the stuff I do.