Sunday, April 10, 2016

Kwitting Komedy

Everyone funny person arrives at a crossroads when they have to decide whether they want to continue to sling punchlines behind a mic, or whether they want to retreat anonymously into the throws of civilian life. It’s a place that is painful, because as a comedian, it’s not just a job or even a hobby. Writing jokes take up every fiber of your being. You look at a situation most would think of as sick or twisted, and are looking for the angle to make it a good bit. Even in times of crisis, you are eagerly awaiting the punchline. Most comedians are strange, awkward, sad clowns to begin with. So in the end, it all makes sense.

But how long can you be a strange, awkward, sad clown? Especially when the art form is brutal, the life style is abusive, and the politics are just incomprehensible. Not to mention that sexism is A-Okay. I have seen things at comedy clubs that would get most normal people a sit down at HR in most places. Not to mention I have known women who have slept their way to the middle, lacking the stage presence and talent of more deserving female comedians. And the jealousy…….oh we wont even go there. In an industry where there are so many comedians and so few spots, the scorpion in all of us comes out.

So then the crossroads arrives. It could be after a number of things. It can be after a horrid bomb akin to Nagasaki. It can be after a series of onstage disappointments where you feel your mojo is gone. It could be tiring of the bullshit politics of the club scene. It could be after being denied in favor of someone less talented. It could be after a so called big break falls through and you are just tired of fighting. It could be after seeing everyone else is “making it” and you aren’t. It could be you are passed at a club, but are tired of the same bullshit check spots because you don’t have the TV credits required. It could be that you get those credits, but are bumped in favor of a more senior comedian who has the same credits but hasn’t been on those shows in years. It could be that you are tired of the late nights. It could be that you are tired of the road. It could be that you are tired of the rat race, and tired of being broke. It could be that you are tired of your family pressuring you to have a normal life and just want to give in. It could be a devastating life event leaves you wanting something other than a nonsense, playtime career. It could be that you are just burned the fuck out.

Bob Newhart even explained it in a Reader’s Digest piece. He said he almost quit comedy, because as he was getting older, living in basically a shoe box and doing the road, his friends were getting the house, the car, the wife, the kids…….getting on with it. Sometimes pursuing your dreams, especially alone, gets to be kind of old. You get tired. You want something else.

It’s a scary universe picking yourself outside of show business. Who will you be? What will you do? I have known plenty of talented people who have made the great jump. One young lady won a contest and even had a hot shot manager courting her, something we were all envious of. But she was sick and tired of being funny, broke, and poor. Now she teaches math to disadvantaged students.

Another guy I lost a Laugh Off to was tired of the late nights and politics. Johnny Carson funny, he didn’t have to resort to the edgy, vulgarity many of my peers and I do. Now he is married with two kids, living back home in the Midwest, and is the funny guy at the office.

Then one of my old open mic homies who had the best tags for jokes, genius if you will, dropped out of the game after his son was born. He says he doesn’t miss it and doesn’t know if he will ever be back. Sure he hates his advertising job, but says he uses his creativity in a different way.
Bottom line, they are all happy. Do they wonder what if? Hell if I know.

Whenever someone has that conversation with me, in the midst of a meltdown, I tell them not to make any rash decisions. Sometimes they are upset, fed up. I tell them sleep on it. Give it a week, and if they still feel the same way then take a step back. Sometimes we need a vacation from getting onstage, and if we miss it enough, we often do return. Rodney Dangerfield did………after 20 years. So I always end with saying, “The universe will tell you if this is or isn’t what you are supposed to be doing. And only you will know.”

Yeah, I talk from experience. I was there recently myself

Life events had given me the shaft. Despite some attention and noise I was making, life wasn’t good to me. I was at the mercy of the landlord from hell, and was in and out of court. Because my living situation was not only emotionally unsafe but physically unsafe as well, I lost my hair. I broke up with my boyfriend at the time, and it was bad. The only thing getting me up off the floor was the fact my landlord kept taunting me with eviction papers and dragging me to court.

Ironically, around this time, I had begun working with my mentor. He’s the type where you have to have at least 10 years in for him to even consider looking at you. I had hounded this man from the time I was a kid toting a puppet. Now we were ready to work together. I should have been thrilled, but this was coming at a time when I was considering pulling the plug on my comedy career which made the whole thing more confusing.

At that time, I had a chat with a now ex friend and it was about God and faith. She was a nut, but she was a nice lady, or so I thought. “You want to do this comedy stuff, but God might be telling you no.” Veronica cooed in her nice Southern accident. “Maybe it’s time for you to just get a different job and do something else.”

I did a set at a comedy club that night with my friends words in my mind. There were lots of funny people in my city, and I was by far not even close to being the funniest. Not to mention I had worked long and hard, and still wasn’t where I wanted to be. I had some success, I made some noise on the international dateline. But maybe it was time to say I had my fun and did everything I was supposed to do with it. And maybe I was wasting my time.

I killed it that evening. This was God telling me to do comedy and to ditch my asshole friend.

The next day I got eviction papers again from my landlord. Days later he tried to burn my apartment down, and the police who came to comfort me encouraged me to leave as soon as I humanly could. Thus I moved under duress. While the living situation I entered was better, I was totally burned out. Days later, I got word a yearly test came back abnormal, and the odds of me having cancer were good. I silently hoped I would have cancer so I could just lay down and die because I was so tired of fighting.

Waiting for the test results was the most excruciating experience of my life. Around that time a magazine did a story on me, calling me “Master of All Talent.” It is a well known one, too. At that party, everyone was nice to me. Yet I felt like I was walking in a fog in a life that was once mine but wasn’t. They say you should quit when your spark is gone. My spark was gone.

Christmas came weeks later, and as usual I had certain family members pressuring me to quit and “grow up.” In the past I either let them upset me or tuned them out. Now I figured they might have a point. My aunt knew a woman who apparently made “lots of money” and worked in NYC once a month and was “interested” in hiring me. I met this woman and felt she was an obnoxious, boorish, moron and a phony at that. But she had a job for me, and my parents were urging me to take it. Knowing my options were running out, I gave it thought.

They tried to sell it to me that I could still do my comedy, but probably secretly hoped I would get so involved in this job I would quit. I had no problem with that as I wanted to quit, but didn’t want this woman to be my only option, but that was the way it was looking. Weeks later, it turned out she was a career criminal and the IRS was seizing her house. As for the money she made, looks like she cant buy a cup of coffee. Maybe she saw New York once in a movie before the electric company shut off her power and cable.

I went through a week where I wanted to go to law school, go to get the PhD in history, become a nurse, become a wedding planner, and finally turn my hair strawberry blonde and work in an office. I confided my feelings to a friend who had been through a nasty divorce. She said the following things to me, “April, I went through the same thing after my divorce. You are in no place to make any decisions at all right now, and anything you decide now you will later regret. Give it at least 6 months.”

The next week I went to Vegas and debuted a new routine with my mentor and crushed it at a legendary venue where the likes of Frank Sinatra worked. I told him about my crisis of faith. A man who has worked with the best of them, he told me, “This isn’t the universe telling you to quit, it’s telling you that now you really need to start doing this for real.”

My zeal was back for a minute.

That is until I came across an older former headliner I knew working as a waiter in Times Square. After several personal mishaps and the loss of a booking gig, he was no longer pursuing stand up but now working with a pad in hand. Beaten down and bitter, he told me “no one’s making it.” He confided in the newbie comedy friend who was sick of her office job and myself that he wished he never left his office job, because now he wouldn’t be where he was. To say he had regrets was an understatement.

I tried to put a positive spin on the conversation, but didn’t want to tell him about Vegas or the good things I was doing. Instead I said everyone had their path, and perhaps he would be back one day. But he had pulled me into his abyss. Afterwards, I began to question my decisions. Maybe this was a visitor from my future warning me about what was to come. I was still young. Maybe, just maybe, it was time to get out and be an adult before I ended up where he was.

I did about a month of spots and did okay. Nothing great or monumental. I was not inspired enough to write new jokes because I didn’t have the energy. While I wasn’t eating it, I wasn’t doing what I was capable of. Sure, I was good enough to book but no one was in a real hurry to have me back. I got the job done. Back in the day, I saw people who were greener and could best them because of experience and I knew where they were faltering. Now I was making the same mistakes they were. Bottom line, the passion was gone. I was just going through the uninspired motions onstage.

Then something happened to alter the course of everything. I was walking down the street planning on leaving NYC and marrying some random dude and having kids when my phone rang. It was to replace a guy who was having a bigger breakdown and crisis of faith that clearly topped mine. I said yes, but then kicked myself. It was an extended set on the road. I hadn’t done one in a while. This was going to be a blood bath.

I lamented my plight to my friend who is a 10th generation palm reader. A woman of spirituality, she has an autistic son and her life is one that is difficult, but somehow she has the strength to endure. “The universe is telling me to quit, and this weekend will be so bad it will reaffirm everything I know.”

“No, this is the universe telling you to do comedy. That’s why you got the surprise gig.” She reassured me.

“What if I tank out?” I whined.

“Then it will give you something new to whine about other than your breakup, your eviction, your hair loss and your cancer scare. Just put yourself out there and dust yourself off. Whatever happens, at least you wont regret sitting home and wasting your talent.” She admonished.

The first night was brutal. But I was expecting a car crash where I lost all my limbs and was paralyzed. I lost just both my arms and could still walk, so I was actually happy that it was less of a blood bath than I anticipated. So when the club owner gave me the talk afterward that tomorrow night needed to be different, I was expecting it. I knew full well I had sucked.

Just as I was in the midst of my “I’m not listening, Mr. Club Owner” phase, he said something that piqued my interest. I had seen him go up and he was funny, very funny. And then he mentioned he had just gotten back from headlining in Vegas, something I had always wanted to do but didn’t think I would ever accomplish. There is an old saying to flock to people who have what you want, and he had what I wanted. Then he began to dissect my whole act, and had some super helpful suggestions. To say he knew his shit was an understatement. Oh and he was super passionate about comedy. And to say he was absolutely right about everything is also an understatement as well.

What happened next deserves a blog all it’s own, because it would hardly do this man or his advice justice in one paragraph. But it was the kick in the ass that I needed. Basically the universe wasn’t telling me to throw in the towel. Instead, it was telling me to stick with comedy, but to get my head back in the game because there was still work to be done. And it was a process, a journey, that didn’t happen instantaneously.

The next night I knocked it out of the park. But more than anything, I realized I forgot how much I just plain loved making people laugh, and how much FUN it was to be onstage. It felt like the days before I even knew what having a TV credit was or I even answered a piece of fan mail. It felt like the days before people even remotely knew who I was…….not that they know a whole lot now. Either way, I got a taste of what I used to be able to do, and I suddenly felt like I could do more, and that I needed to do more.

I didn’t just want to do comedy again. I needed to do comedy again. And it wasn’t going to let me quit anytime soon. When I got home I ordered a puppet stand (club owner had me working with one as per his suggestion), and began to tape myself rehearsing (another one of his suggestions) and both have been effective.

I have also been working on a new routine, and it has been a lot of fun breaking it in onstage. Actually, I have been having a blast. I have also been finding a new sense of community, as we are all striving for the perfect punchline, the same killer tag, and strive for that applause. Needless to say, I also have some recommended reading I need to do.

In closing, when you send a script to Development, they always send it back with sticky notes. I wanted to quit comedy, and the execs thought that part on my page 31 was much too depressing, so they did a rewrite. That is why I say when you want to quit comedy, sleep on it. The universe will tell you, and the universe told me no. Looks like comedy and I are going to be spending some more time together. It’s not such a bad plot twist. Actually……….I kind of like it. 


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