Someone from afar (Texas actually), emailed me about my book and asked why I encourage people to do it for the money when comedy is an art. Though I don’t think I previously said, “Do it for the money,” I am now. Here’s my response…
I think some (just some) of the controversy about the alternative comedy scene versus doing things that work for the mainstream clubs has to do with comics considering the sacrifice in art in order to make money. What’s overlooked is the sacrifice of pride (there’s hardly any money) you have to make if you’re going to be in this business professionally no matter what scene you’re in. Alternative or mainstream, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of crap from other people in the business…and pretend to like it. For example, a year and a half ago I was supposed to work a one-nighter at a bar with a booker/comic. $150, ninety minutes away, chance to sell merch (t-shirts) after the show (so probably around $200 for that night). One week before the show I emailed him to confirm and verify showtime. He wrote back that he accidentally double-booked me and would have to get back to me for a future date. I was mad because I had turned down some other work for that weekend. I found out that he replaced me with a female comic he was trying to sleep with.
So do I burn the bridge? No. I don’t take it personally, I stay in touch and months later I get a closer gig from him for just as much money. I’d say double-bookings are one of the biggest problems in the business. It hurts your feelings when you learn that someone booked you and someone else because they forgot about you. It happens. Show details get altered, people get screwed over, money is taken away from you but you still have to take it and like it because it’s show business. This is just a minor example of the many ways you’re going to be disrespected as you go through your career.
The email I received from Texas and a few other conversations have made me realize that I had made a false assumption that people are in this with money as one of the motivations. Thinking back, I would have emceed for almost free starting out at the Columbus Funnybone so money wasn’t part of the equation for me either at the start of my career. So no, don’t tolerate all of the politics and BS that goes with working a club for the money (MC pay is usually around $25 a show anyway), but tolerate it for the massive amount of stage time you get in front of hundreds of people. As far as learning and improving, it’s the equivalent of when someone is just learning a language and they take a trip to that different country where everyone else speaks it. By the end of the week, it’s so much more natural.
Now the part where I encourage you to do it for the money…
Performing in front of real crowds will lead to you becoming a skilled enough comic to start making money at other venues, alternative or not. By then you’ll be in love with comedy enough that you’ll want it to be your only job. Vince Morris, a very successful comedian who I worked with quite a few times while starting out, would always tell me, “When you rely on other means of income whether it be your day job or your parents, you will fail to reach your full comedy potential.” My biggest year for improvement was 2005 shortly after I had turned down a $7,000 raise and promotion at a bank which I quit completely to make comedy my only source of income. I lived at a poverty level for a good chunk of that year until I finally made myself get a job subbing that fall, but it’s still the busiest year of my career. This is why I encourage people to “do it for the money” at some point. You’ll hit your “comedy puberty.”
Don’t worry about thinking there is such thing as “selling out” in comedy at this level because selling out means you’re living comfortably and none of us are there. Yes, you might have to drop a few of your favorite lines (I did this and looking back mine weren’t funny anyway), but it forces you to continue to write better material. Success in this business comes from and along with sacrifice, ego-bruising and all around pain. You don’t get to pick your path to success, it just happens to you.
If you’d like to hear more stories of me getting screwed over while paying my dues along with other great advice I learned from professionals, please check out a copy of Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.