BACKSTAGE•

bout four years ago, on the night Helen Hong launched her standup career, the camera rolled, preserving every hilarious nuance of her act. Ecstatic that all had gone well, Hong sent copies of the tape to smaller New York comedy clubs, confident that her career was off and running. Instead she heard crickets.

Looking at the tape years later, Hong cringed. "I was so 'And now, here's my next joke!' " she says. "It wasn't fluid. It wasn't good standup in the sense that I was in the moment at all."

Hong, like other comics, set about searching for the elusive "perfect" demo reel. Sometimes she felt cursed. Whenever she had a really good set, the camera wasn't running. And when it was, she either had an off night or something happened to spoil it—a server walking into the frame in the middle of a punch line, for instance.

Finally, Hong got a new tape she could live with, although at 10 minutes she considered it too long (most bookers prefer to see five-to-eight-minute sets). There was a bit of a lull at one point too, but at least she started and ended strong. This was no high-tech bells-and-whistles production—it was shot on her own camcorder.

One booker who saw and liked Hong's reel was Francisco Aldorando, who has been booking midtown Manhattan's Ha! Comedy Club since 2003. Aldorando—himself a standup veteran—doesn't care whether a comic's reel is simply made (though VHS is definitely obsolete). What matters is the quality of the picture and especially the sound and that the material works.

Aldorando receives three or four reels every week, but with his busy schedule it's hard to give each one a thorough viewing. He also knows some bookers who don't watch unsolicited reels at all. Nevertheless, he says, if a booker sees your act and likes it, he or she may ask for a DVD, so a solid demo reel is still an essential promotional tool.

One thing bookers look for in a reel is the ability to sustain a comic arc for the whole set. Most don't want an edited reel that uses the best takes from several performances. Aldorando doesn't mind an edited demo, as long as the transitions are subtle and the comedian wears the same clothes and appears on the same stage throughout.

On the other hand, Wayne Rada, managing partner and booker for Manhattan's Stand-Up NY, definitely wants to see an uninterrupted single performance—and its quality had better be consistent. "If you have a lot of peaks and valleys in your demo, that is not a good thing," he says. "You want to ascend and never really plateau. You want to end leaving them wanting more." And be sure to avoid outdated jokes: "If I get anything on Monica Lewinsky, I'm like, 'Come on!' "

Aldorando and Rada agree that you should not—as Hong did—make a demo too early in the game. "You want to make sure you have a little time under your belt," says Rada. Aldorando suggests that when you believe you're ready to make a demo, give yourself another six months to further tighten and polish your act.

When you finally do submit a reel, you can follow up politely, contacting the booker a week or so later. But, adds Aldorando, don't expect an overnight breakthrough: "This ain't Hollywood in the '40s."

Moving beyond bare-bones technology can be beneficial, especially if you also want to sell the DVD to customers at clubs. Gerrit Vooren of Reels4Artists points out that with DVD technology, you can use a menu to highlight different aspects of your repertoire. If you have clean and "blue" versions of your act, for example, you can place them in different chapters. If you also act in films or commercials, you might even include samples of that work in another chapter.

Vooren does video production as well as editing. For a single-camera shoot, the charge is $500; for two cameras, $900. Editing costs $100 per hour, though Vooren says he works fast—depending, of course, on how much footage is involved. He can enhance the reel by providing music, titles, and other effects that complement the performer's vibe. Periodic updates to the reel are as easy as refreshing the material on a digital résumé.

"And I would compress everything for the Web and put everything on MySpace and YouTube and all the different places where you can plug yourself," Vooren adds. "Because I doubt that five years from now we will still have DVDs."