When you are an addict, you will do anything to get your fix. You will ruin relationships, compromise personal hygiene and safety, and ignore the worried advice given to you by friends and family, all to feed your addiction. Two years ago, I was alone on the floor of my barely furnished crappy apartment, penniless, having not eaten a full meal in nearly a week, crying softly to myself and wondering where it all went wrong.
They say that laughter is a drug, and, sister don’t I know it. I will do just about anything for a laugh.
What had actually happened was this: I was waiting on a bunch of checks from various freelance gigs, and since I lived extremely hand to mouth at the time as a comic, was unable to effectively patch the gap. When two checks finally did come in the mail, I was so excited. I mobile deposited them on my phone, which I did not know at the time takes at least forty eight business hours to process. On my third very hungry day, a dear friend in Chicago GrubHubbed me enough Thai food to feed a small army, and after eating my bodyweight in Pad Thai, I once again stood behind all of my life choices.
The transition from being funny to making funny my job was -- and is -- challenging in a way that only the creative freelancer can understand. When that which one loves becomes that which one does for money, the stakes for success are paralyzingly high. When people tell me they want to go into comedy I ask them first if there is anything else in the world they could picture themselves doing. Anything at all. If there is, then do that, I say, because comedy will destroy you many times before it will let you build back up again.
In order to do what you love for a living, you have to love what you do a lot. Sometimes I think back on how it all began and wonder if I wouldn’t have been happier as a lawyer or accountant, instead. (Side note: I wouldn’t have… Er… I don’t think I would have… At this point, who can say?)
I became a comedian rather by accident. It started in high school when the other theater nerd in my class was super into physical comedy, and I became his de facto straight man. Then, in college, I learned that I could make my seminar classes laugh if I couched a joke within a question or statement about whatever it was we were learning at the time. I tried to get one good laugh in every class, no matter what the topic. I then decided that laughter was the singular thing capable of saving the world, and my need for it spread to other parts of my life, until, eventually, it was my life… by which I mean, it was my job.
My first goal as a performer was not to have a day job. This process can take years, or it can happen overnight, (#AshtonKutcher) but no matter what, deciding to turn away steady income for one based on freelance creativity takes more than one dramatic leap of faith.
The biggest difference between freelancing and having a salaried job is that when you freelance, you are getting paid to be somewhere. When you have a salaried job, you are getting paid not to be anywhere else. As a freelancer, when no one needs you, no one needs you to be anywhere at all. If this goes on for too long, it can get in the way of your ability to do regular human things, such as pay rent or have a sense of self-worth.
For me, comedy is my Superman cape. Without it, I feel un-special and sad. Making sacrifices for my job feels like an ancient virgin sacrifice, you know, for the sake of having good crops. It isn’t always logical, but you have to do it because it connects you to something bigger than yourself.
Living full time as a live performer looks something like this:
First, you are tired all of the time. You work late nights, but also often early mornings. For comics, this is generally local radio interviews to promote your show. It can also be auditions, meetings with producers, or travel to the next city. Then there’s the simple fact that regular human beings usually wake up before noon, and sometimes those human beings will call you on the telephone or make noise outside your apartment at ungodly hours, such as ten in the morning.
Second, you drink too much. When you perform live, you are performing for people for whom this is their night out! They came here to party! So, you party too. One of my friends who -- a seasoned touring performer -- said it best: “I was throwing up in the back of a minivan somewhere in rural Colorado on night three of a two week mid-western tour when I realized, not every night can be the best night of my life.” Preach.
Third, it is insurmountably difficult to make plans with people who have normal jobs. When you sing for your supper, here is when you are free to hang out: weekdays between noon and 4pm. Nights and weekends are, with rare exception, totally off limits. Also, forget about holidays.
Next, you are always beholden to your next gig. This becomes less true the bigger you get, but everywhere except at the tippy top, you need that money, even if it is relatively sh*tty money. Fortunately, few of us are in it for the cash. We are in it to feed the monster within.
Because I love what I do, I have a nasty habit of tying my value as a person to my success as a comedian, which is far from an anomaly in my profession or otherwise. Whether it’s status, money, or a combination of both, there is an overwhelming temptation to rest who you are on what you do.
Which leads me to my next point: the pay gap. Despite there being some incredible exceptions at the tippy-top, there are significantly fewer women in comedy than there are men. But what about Amy Schumer? Tina Fey? Mindy Kaling? All amazing women who have been amazingly successful. Mazel tov to them all. What I’m talking about is that from 2011-2014, only 8.3% of headliners at Caroline’s on Broadway in NYC were women. We are working in an industry without an HR department, so when one of your co-workers wants to holler at you, you’re on your own to let him down easy without also risking your job. I’m talking about how often we are introduced to audiences as: “are you guys ready to see a girl?” I’m talking about how in interviews, we have to talk about what it’s like to be a “woman in comedy” rather than what it’s like to be a comedian. I’m talking about the abysmal percentages at which we appear as comedians on late night TV.
I’ll get off my soapbox now. I’ll go back to making people laugh, and also for the rest of my life no matter what any booker or executive has to say about it. And if, for some reason, you don’t find me funny at all, I’ll try not to take it too personally.
Addendum: I still believe that laughter can save the world. It’s hard to fire a gun when you’re laughing too hard to aim.