>I love being a comedian. That is, to say, I love standing onstage, making people laugh. There’s rarely a time when I’m as happy or as comfortable as I am when I’m in front of an audience, doing my show. That time I spend in front of a crowd is enough to carry me through the entire day and, if it’s a good enough show, the entire week.
That being said, I hate almost every other single detail about my profession. When I say “hate”, I don’t mean the same way I hate the line at the coffee shop or the crowds at the mall. I’m talking about the kind of hate reserved only for people who have killed a family member or kicked a dog right in front of me. That hour onstage every day is wonderful, but it pales in comparison to the awful, soul-crushing world that inhabits the other parts of my career. There are so many aspects to being a comedian and, oddly enough, the performance every night is probably the smallest part. No, there is an entire lifetime of daily suffering that goes on in a comic’s world, with a deluge of annoyances that help it take shape.
First and foremost, there are the bookings agents. These are the people who represent the clubs for which I work. Sometimes they are also comedians or former comedians; sometimes they are the managers of the club in question. More times than not, they are people who get paid to write on a calendar and make decisions no one else wants to make. For that reason, booking agents are very powerful, and the people who make the most profit in my business. They know how much comedians need them and, with that in mind, often milk it for all it’s worth. I’ve never kissed an ass the way I’ve kissed a booker’s ass.
The bookers who are failed comedians are difficult to deal with simply because they are the biggest hypocrites on the planet. They spent years in the trenches, being overlooked and treated horribly, only to finally leave the performance side of stand-up and venture to the opposite end of the business. What happened on the other side? Well, a majority of them became exactly what they always despised. They are now exactly like the people who once ignored their phone calls, patronized their every word, and altogether belittled the comedian at every turn.
Sure, there are a few bookers I admire, like to work with, and might even call my friends. But, make no mistake; they are few and far between. Until you are famous or, at the very least, very well-known (and well-managed), dealing with booking agents can tear you apart. You can spend months leaving messages that never get returned, emails that never get read and mail that is simply tossed aside all because a booking agent doesn’t feel like changing the routine he’s been in for the past several years. And he doesn’t have to. There’s only one of him and dozens (perhaps hundreds) of comedians waiting to work for him. They, more than anyone, control this business.
These same people who are in control of most of the stand-up comedy world are also the same people who know the least about it, have no passion for it or the people who perform it, and are incidentally some of the laziest, two-faced, liars a person will ever encounter. They get used to booking the same comedians in the same clubs, year after year, without changing a thing or lifting a single finger to attempt something new or challenging. If they can find a way to make more money by doing the exact same thing (or less) over and over again, they will do it, especially if there’s someone else (especially a comedian) footing the bill. The only difference between a vampire and a booking agent is that one is soulless, bloodsucking demon…and the other is a vampire.
Agents aside, there’s more to my business than just the constant searching and tap-dancing for jobs. The travel is exhausting and a comedian rarely has any time (or money) to truly enjoy the many different locations he is able to visit. A comedian never seems to know anything about the local monuments or museums but everything about the nearest mall or cheap place to eat. Sometimes a comic travels as many as 12 hours in one day, only to find that the show wasn’t advertised and there are only 8 people in attendance.
The accommodations are often insulting, from horrible hotel rooms that even cheap, truck-stop hookers would find offensive, to a poorly kept condo where the sofas are supported by old paperbacks. Cheap hotels rush you out as early as possible, regardless of what the “Do Not Disturb” sign reads, and many clubs require that the comedians clean the condo themselves before heading out on their next venture. One club I’ve performed in (more than once) is notorious for putting comedians up in a hotel that is downright nasty and, unbelievably, only across the street from a very nice chain hotel that charges—no kidding—just ten dollars more per night.
Comedians these days are paid exactly what they were paid twenty years ago. There has been no pay increase to combat the rising cost of living, or the rising cost of expenses. Even though tickets have increased over the years, as have the prices of food and drinks, comics are still being paid as if gas was only ninety cents per gallon. In order to make a livable wage, the average comedian, one without extensive TV credits or top management (which come via luck these days more so than via talent), has to tour constantly, rarely taking a break or spending very long at home. People wonder why comedians always seem to be single.
So, when a comedian says “you’ve been a great crowd” and seems to thank you as if you just saved his life, that might just be the case. I’ve often spent an entire day trying to talk myself into staying in this business when every sensible ounce of my brain tells me to quit. I’ve finally decided that I just can’t convince myself to stay in this business any longer (not because of lack of talent or persistence, but for sheer exhaustion and utter disbelief at its sheer absurdity), only to have thunderous applause at the end of the night do what I couldn’t accomplish all afternoon. I go to bed deciding, yet again, to stick it out for another week, or month, or year.
Audience members are often the only saving grace, treating comics like celebrities when sometimes the club owners treat us like we’re a nuisance rather than the very backbone of their business. One club owner didn’t return my phone calls (made once per week) for almost two years. Once I finally got him on the phone, I was informed just how busy he always is. It doesn’t take an industry veteran to figure out that no one in this business is so busy that they can’t return a phone call for two years. After I got to know this same guy, I found out that he plays golf no less than three times per week.
A fellow comedian, very new to the business, once said to me “This is the greatest business on earth to be a part of”, to which I laughed and corrected him, “No, this is the best job on earth to have”.
See, there’s a difference. Standing onstage, making people laugh…that’s a great job. But stand-up comedy, as an industry, is an awful, terrible business. It’s run by people who hate comedy, dealing with comedians every day. It’s a business that expects performers, with no experience in business, to somehow be good businesspersons. It pretends to be about talented performers when, in actuality, its performers are amongst the lowest paid in show business. It isn’t even about being funny as much as it is about selling alcohol and food and, at a time when everyone seems scared of their shadow and censorship is running amok, it’s not even the goal to be “funny” as much as it is to be “safe”. Mediocrity isn’t a comedian’s goal, per se, but it certainly is rewarded with steady work.
Why am I writing this? Because I had a bad day. Or a bad week. Or a bad month. Or all of the above.
Many of my fellow comedians consider me lucky. I was able to move up quickly in my field and work quite a bit all over the country. Last year alone, I toured over forty-nine weeks straight, barely taking a break. After all, what choice did I have? There’s no “day job” that would let me tour that much and still have employment and, if I plan on being a full-time comedian, I have to tour that much just to keep paying my bills. So, I did it, both to engulf myself in my craft and, at the same time, experience everything—good or bad—this business had to offer me.
Still, that’s more work than most of my comedian pals were pulling in. So, why complain?
· My last “real job”, before going full-time as a comic, I was in sales. I made seventy-five grand per year and lived by myself in a nice apartment all by myself. When I left my job, I paid off all my debt so I could bury myself in my comedy business. Eight months later, I was back in debt, deeper than before, and was forced to move in with my girlfriend just to keep making ends meet. I wasn’t unemployed, just underpaid. That year, I put thirty-thousand miles on my car.
· Three years later, after I was gone for a majority of the year, trying to earn a living, my girlfriend finally left me. Even though she made three times per year what I was pulling in, she got to keep the apartment we shared, the car in my name, all of the furniture (except my recliner) and anything else we bought while we were together. It was decided she “earned” everything by supporting me during my struggling years. Anything she didn’t want was boxed up and moved into a storage space. I moved in with a friend, staying on his sofa until I “got back on my feet”.
· A month later, my ex called me and demanded the remainder of my things, all shoved in a closet, be removed so that her new boyfriend could move in. When I explained that I’d be on the road for over a month, now touring even more than before the split, the new boyfriend emailed me and reprimanded me for my “irresponsible career and life choices”. Six months later, I house-sat my old apartment while the two of them went on their honeymoon. The utilities are still in my name.
· That year, I put over fifty-thousand miles on my car.
· Six months after I moved all of my belongings there, the storage company sent me a letter to inform me that they decided randomly to raise my rent by twenty-five dollars per month. Sure enough, in fine print, my contract allows them to raise the rent whenever they want for no reason whatsoever. I haven’t the time nor money to move my stuff elsewhere.
· A club I’m working at tells me that, in order to save money, they only allow the comedians to order off the children’s menu.
· I find out that my mechanic, whom I’ve been using for two years, has been deliberately screwing me over, overcharging me, and making sure I’m constantly having to bring my car in for service that only he can do. Calculating backwards, I realize I’ve overpaid him by about two grand.
· Two months after the warranty expired, my laptop suddenly stopped working out of nowhere. It cost me less to buy a new laptop than to fix my existing one. My new warranty on my new laptop cost about half as much as the laptop itself. When I told my brother, a computer programmer, how ridiculous this is, he informs me that laptops are supposed to be replaced every few years. Christ.
· A booking agent, whom I’ve been trying to get in touch with for over two years, informs me that she has lost another one of my “promo kits”, which includes several publicity photos, random articles, and a DVD of my show. She will not book me without viewing the promo kit. I have to send another one to her, at my expense, and this is the fourth time I’ll do so. She’s already lost three.
· I get a letter from a toll-booth company that informs me that, four years ago, I underpaid them for tolls incurred in my old car. They want eight hundred dollars. If I agree to not contest the bill, nor to seek council, they’ll take payments and accept four hundred dollars instead. I start making payments the following day. In actuality, I don’t even owe them a dollar.
· I get hired to be the opening act for a comedian who is on a popular TV show. Two days later, I’m fired for being “too funny”.
· I’m informed by a club that my booking with them now qualifies as “summer pay”. “Summer Pay” is normally doled out by clubs in the middle of July, when business is slower. Comedians are paid less in the summer than they are in the other months of the year when that club decides to adopt a “summer pay” clause in their contract. The saddest part is that some clubs insist on summer pay even when their club remains busy that time of year. And the clubs who insist on “summer pay” seem to believe that summer is longer than it actually is. In this case, the club in question has decided that summer starts the first week of May, and my pay has been cut by 30%. Meanwhile, every show is almost sold out with ticket sales at full price.
· A credit card I cancelled two years ago posts a delinquency on my credit report, even though I paid them two years ago and haven’t even had the card since then. I’m told by a credit counselor that proving my side of the argument to the credit reporting agencies will be nearly impossible and might take years.
· A guy in the front row of my show gets drunk and talks on his cell phone while I’m onstage. When I complain to the club manager about it, I’m told that I shouldn’t complain about “paying customers”.
· A comedy club books me but neglects to inform me that, as part of the deal, there is no hotel for me to stay in for the week. I have the choice of blowing half my pay for the entire week and putting myself up in a hotel or staying on the sofa of a local comedian who is, subsequently, opening for me for nothing but a free meal. I spend the week on his futon, wondering if George Carlin ever lived like this.
· My agent calls and informs me that a college wants to hire me for a show and have offered $250 for one show. I accept the gig, only to find out later that the offer was for $1000. Instead of taking the 15% we’ve agreed upon, the agent secretly decided he deserves 75%. I only discover this when the college accidentally makes the entire check out to me instead of my agent. Keep in mind that even Elvis’ manager only took 50%, and everyone considered that unethical.
· I get cancelled from a gig one week before I’m supposed to be there. The club manager made a mistake and accidentally booked two comedians for the same week. He flips a coin and I’m out of work for the week with no compensation for the mistake. I spend the next week sitting on the couch.
· I agree to take a pay cut and work at a comedy club for half-price, just to get the booking agent to notice me. He doesn’t show up for any of the shows that week and asks me to work half-price the following year, as well, since he never got around to being there. He drives a sixty-thousand dollar car and pays me what literally comes out to be minimum wage for the week. I get a standing ovation that he’s not even there to see it. He later tells me that, since he wasn’t there, it doesn’t count. He asks me to return the following year at that same, discounted rate.
· A club calls to inform me that it no longer has a Wednesday night show and will have to cut my pay for the week by $250.
· A TV show I was supposed to be on suddenly decides not to use me because they already have chosen to use some other comedians who, they’ve decided, look similar.
· I find out that my new mechanic has overcharged me by $200. As I drive away from his shop, my car starts making a noise it wasn’t making when I brought it in.
· My girlfriend’s father constantly reminds me that I don’t make very much money, have almost nothing saved for the future, and work in an industry with complete uncertainty, no health benefits, and more failure than success. Incidentally, he doesn’t think I’m very funny, either.
· Two months after I move into a nice, pre-furnished apartment with a friend-of-a-friend, my roommate decides to move out…and takes all the furniture with her. I’m about to go on tour for six weeks, suddenly stuck with an empty apartment I’ll hardly be in, and have to cover the entire rent by myself.
· After two years of trying to get an agent to take my call and book me at his club, the agent finally agrees and offers me a date…for half-price.
· My accountant gets me back $900 for the year…then bills me $600.
· This year, I put 65,000 miles on my car.
· I get bumped from my week of work at a club because some guy from “Best Week Ever” on VH-1 has decided to reschedule his date and he wants mine. He does half the time onstage that I do and is going to be paid three times as much. Hardly anyone seems to watch “Best Week Ever” and, those who do can’t name this guy, but he’s considered “A-list Talent” by the club booker anyway, so I get bumped until next year.
· A booking agent tells me to call him the first week in October in order to get some work from him for the following year. The day I call him, he informs me that he already booked the entire next year…in September.
· Because he feels like it, and without my asking, a club manager keeps sending me Jaegermeister shots while I’m onstage, only to take the price of them out of my pay for the week without telling me.
· A guy who was my opening act a year ago suddenly gets a job booking the very same club we worked at together. He bumps me out of the date I’m scheduled to be there because he’s got “other plans for that week”. That plan involves booking himself for that date and then never taking my phone calls again.
So, do I have a great job? That depends on which way you look at it. Sure, I get to see the world, meet all kinds of people, and tell jokes for a living, but that’s one hour a day. It’s the other 23 that are driving me completely nuts, and those are the hours I’m supposedly not even working. My job is keeping me active, positive, and alive. It’s my off-time that’s killing me.
That being said, I hope to see you all next week, when I’ll be headlining at Uncle Chuckle’s Yackety Shack. I’ll be the guy arguing with the car mechanic out front.