Slightly over a year ago, I wrote the post The Decision Point, mostly focused on an up and coming comedian who quit the business for a corporate job. I wrote this post well before I had applied to grad school, gotten into a top program and moved across the country to attend classes.
Here’s the gem of that year old post:
When I reach the decision point that he had, I hope for two things: 1) That a job in academia will allow me to do comedy, teaching and research without having to give any of those up and 2) If I can’t do both, I’ll man up and go for the chance at comedy
It’s funny how delusional I was. Teaching and research don’t coincide with doing comedy. In fact, teaching doesn’t coincide with doing research. All three are full time careers.
Given this, there’s two huge lessons I’ve learned in the past year:
1) You can’t have two careers. You can have two or more jobs, but only one career.
2) Sooner or later, any career is going to have a wall that sucks to climb over (or a dip to get through) and you’ll only be able to get past the wall if you have a passion for what you’re doing.
Today is the first time I read that Decision Point post since I wrote it and today is also when I officially announced that I’ll be withdrawing from the PhD program at Caltech. I’m moving back to NYC at the end of the month to man up and pursue comedy full time.
“I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.” (1)
“The comedian’s slang for a successful show is “I murdered them,” which I’m sure came about because you finally realize that the audience is capable of murdering you.” (2)
“I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps with a few intuitive leaps.” (2-3)
“Perseverance is a great substitute for talent.” (53)
“Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naivete, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.” (54)
“Teaching is a form of show business.” (86)
“I concluded that not to continue with comedy would place a question in my mind that would nag me for the rest of my life: Could I have had a career in performing? Everything was dragging me toward the arts; even the study of modern philosophy suggested philosophy was nonsense.” (87)
“Comedy is a distortion of what is happening, and there will always be something happening.” (104)
“Sign of encouragement… Bill Cosby said that early in his career, when the audience wasn’t laughing, he could hear the waitresses laughing, and they saw the show night after night.” (106)
“A laugh forms when the storyteller creates tension, then, with the punch line, releases it.” (110)
“I gave myself a rule: Never let them know I was bombing: This is funny, you just haven’t gotten it yet.” (112)
“Another rule was to make the audience believe I was fantastic, that my confidence could not be shattered. They had to believe that I didn’t care if they laughed at all, and that this act was going on with or without them.” (112)
“Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.” (139)
“The more physically uncomfortable the audience, the bigger the laughs.” (165)
“It is possible to will confidence. My consistent performing schedule had kept me sharp; it would have been difficult to blow it.” (171)
“My idea of success is the ability to make your films your way, and share them with people all over the world. That’s success.” -M dot Strange (56)
“In neither case did we think, “A-ha, this will get people to buy our records.” It has always been our position that the reason you wind up in a rock band is you want to make stuff. You want do creative things for a living.” -Damian Kulash (62)
“Every show I do, people sign up for the mailing list. Bill Clinton considered his presidency a permanent campaign, and that’s the way you have to look at your career.” -DJ Spooky (65)
“I spend more time interacting with the audience than I spend recording and producing the show.” -Brian Ibbott (76)
“I figured that the way to do it is to give out your complete archives for free, which increases the viral nature of the site, and it turns casual fans into die-hard fans, and even evangelists for your art online. It can take years of relationship-building before someone considers themselves a fan, and is willing to plunk down money.” -Dave Kellett (83-84)
“I understand why people don’t want to put in the time it takes to develop an audience and a business, or who don’t think they can make it work. It’s definitely an investment of time – maybe close to a decade – but most careers take a decade or so of investment before something really happens. Think about a doctor. The careers worth having are worth working for over years and years.” -Dave Kellett (85)
“As an artist, you have to do it because you love it. If you’re doing it for that reason first, you’ll find you’re producing better work, which attracts an audience. They can tell when you’re enjoying it. That carriers you through what are going to be lean years.” -Dave Kellett (85)
“I do several different things. I write, I act, I do stand-up, and I make films. You can now do a hundred different things, and they all come together to form your career.” -Eugene Mirman (100)
“The only advice I have is, you should go do things and try things, and in ten years, you’ll most likely succeed.” -Eugene Mirman (100)
“The whole thing is, you’re freelancing. If you expect that some big company will swoop in and give you a bunch of money and make you a star – that’s a flawed business model.” -Eugene Mirman (101)
“The more opportunities you create for fans to participate in your process, the more engaged and loyal you’ll find they become.” (6)
“When someone is getting their first taste of your work, you need to give them a reason – quickly – to dive in deeper. What you’re up to needs to be crystal clear, or so mysterious and bizarre that people can’t help but have their curiosity piqued.” (11)
“I’ve found that educational stuff can attract an audience. Share your techniques, and tell people about the software you’re using.” (13)
“One piece of advice for people is about consistency. A lot of people put out one thing and it’s really popular. They’re surprised, and they don’t have anything else to do. People really want consistent content. You can’t go three or four months without something new.“ -Michael Burns (40)
“The idea that we’re going to hit some sort of steady model is false hope. You’ve just got to keep moving. We’ve had forty business models in nine years. I don’t see it slowing down at all.” -Gregg and Evan Spiridellis (46)
“The Internet is a collection of communities. You need to create a community around your film. That will not happen if you keep things to yourself. You need to open yourself up, show your face, show your production, let people get inside. People do a lot of things when they get enthusiastic about something. They help the production, give money, or run into the streets and scream about your production. You need to allow people to do that. It’s an enormous viral force.” -Timo Vuorensola (47)
“You need to offer different monetization options for different customers. Some people watch it on the Web for twenty minutes and then want to buy the DVD. Some people watch the whole film on BitTorrent, but then want to support us by buying merchandise. We want to let you give us money in any way possible.” -Timo Vuorensola (48)
“The way I meet people and get most of my jobs is offering to help people.” -Steve Garfield (49)
“I email everybody back. I respond to everything. Think about regular TV shows. In that world, you’d never expect to get any sort of response.” -Steve Garfield (50)
“The audience votes with their ‘forward’ button. If they see a video that they think has something to say, they forward it. All the money in the world and all the kings horses can’t get them to do that.” -Robert Greenwald (52)
“We want to have 5,000 people who are video distributors – who understand that they are Paramount Studios, they are CBS. If they take our video and get it to 100 people, that’s hugely important.” -Robert Greenwald (53)
“As fast as someone becomes your fan, they can become someone posting everywhere and saying you suck. But if you respond to them, they become powerful. They’re like bees, spreading your message.” -M dot Strange (55)
1. Get onstage as much as humanly possible In my view, becoming a really good comic requires hours and hours of stagetime. When I started, I did every open mic in town and at least one bringer show every week. I would also ask to perform at family parties, office functions, basically anywhere and everywhere I could. There is just no substitute for stagetime.
2. You will always be a bringer What I mean is suppose that someday you become famous and you are asked to be the headliner at the Laughy Ha-Ha Club in Plano, Texas. They will invest fortunes in advertising your arrival, marketing your performances, and staffing their club so that you can have a great show. If nobody comes to see you, do you think you will be asked back? Always promote every show you are in. Especially in New York where there are ten million comics, one great way to get a leg up on the competition is to help the club out by letting your fans know you are coming! Since comedy clubs are businesses, they will appreciate the fact that you help increase their patronage!
To put it another way, if you were in a great band that had absolutely no following, how many gigs do you think you would be able to get twice? Why should comedians be any different?
3. In the beginning, stick to one club. The other side of the coin is that if you are popular enough to have friends who want to come see your show, you should focus your efforts on one club. Many comedy club owners (Al Martin among them) pride themselves on developing young talent into tomorrow’s superstars. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a club owner say “I gave him his start and now he’s headlining for me!” or “Why should I book her? When she started out she did bringer shows and open mics every week at ______ Comedy Club! Now she wants to work for me?” You simply can not build a solid relationship with a club by spreading shows out in all the clubs around town.
Become associated with one venue and the rest will follow. If you are talented and you put the work in and show loyalty to a club and a producer, we remember this and look for ways to help you down the line. And then when you try to get work at Club B and C you can say “Well I do regular feature spots at NYCC and now I am trying to branch out.” It lends credibility much more than “I am doing bringers all over town” ever can.
4. There is more than one way to get there. Many comics ask me what they should do if they do not have friends. Frankly, I am skeptical of anyone who claims not to know a single person who wants to see them perform, but if you are in this group, you still have hope! Get your stagetime in “non-traditional” venues. When I started out I did shows in sushi restaurants, pizza parlors, every bar in New York that had a back room, and quite a few that didn’t. Most of these shows were disastrous but believe me if you can kill at McMickerson’s Pub while the foreigners watch a soccer game, you will tear the roof off the Broadway. Again it all comes down to stagetime and finding ways to get it.
5. Write write write. Comedians are writers. When you finally get up onstage, you should not be at a loss for words. Rework the old stuff, try to come up with new stuff. Never stop writing!
6. Produce your own show! One of the best ways to get onstage early in your career is to put your own show together. You can learn to MC, you can begin to network with your peers, you might even create the next “hot new comedy room” in New York. Best of all, you will have the flexibility to do what you want for as long as you want onstage. But even then, if nobody comes to see you I doubt your neighborhood bar will keep Jeffy’s Comedy Night going for long. As I said, we are all bringers and always will be.
7. Be polite. There are so many comics who seem to have never been taught manners. How many times haveI been dealing with a paying customer only to have a comic interrupt me: “What’s the lineup?” And howfew times have I actually been thanked for helping a new comic get an opportunity? Politeness is in shortsupply these days, so even a simple gesture of mutual humanity can go a long way.
In closing, I want you all to know that I am here for you and I am rooting for you. So build your act, find your persona, build your fan base, and we can all conquer New York City together someday soon!