10 Years In Comedy – A Cauvinary Tale

This weekend represented my last weekend as a 9 year stand up comic.  That is right, today marks the 10th anniversary of the first time I picked up a microphone attempting to be a stand up comic.  The venue was the Takoma Station Tavern, a jazz club in Washington, DC that played host to an open mic on Monday nights (it’s the laughs you don’t hear that make the difference).  The memorable things about that night were that my friend and law school classmate Hank came with his brother, the emcee referred to the sweat under a woman’s breast (the exact quote “fu*kin’ sweat under a titty be tastin’ like buttermilk”) and my set went very well for a first time.  I got a few laughs and did not forget any of the five minutes I had written and practiced for two weeks in my apartment. My thinking was simple: if I get booed or don’t get laughs I would have the set so committed to memory that I could get through it no matter what.  Now a whole lot of pain and some joy could have been avoided if that crowd at the Takoma Station Tavern had just told me to “get the fu*k off the stage” or booed very loudly (where is the student body of Medgar Evers College when you need them – STILL my worst gig in ten years), but they gave me enough support to motivate me to take the stage the next night (I use stage loosely to describe “The Cave,” a friendly and tiny room in the basement of a Best Western near Georgetown Law’s campus).  And that bit of preparation and good fortune ten years ago led to the weekend I will describe for you.

Me after a mic in DC in 2003-04, my first year in comedy. Smile has been reported missing since 2005.

I had a spot at the Laughing Devil on Friday night in Long Island City.  The attendance was very light, but I ended up having my best set in probably a year.  It was fifteen minutes, which was approximately one minute for every person who heard the set, and ten of the minutes had been brand new stuff I had been working on during the past week.  It all went well and to show you how far my perspective has come from that DC night ten years ago – the set pissed me off.  It pissed me off because I had just recorded an album set and this 15 minutes was not on it (now trying to schedule another show so I can edit together all the material I want on the new album). It also pissed me off because there were so few people there (while simultaneously making me feel guilty for not appreciating a top notch group of people in attendance).  One thing I tell young comedians, who are looking for (immediate) keys to success, is that you need to become successful before you lose most of your friends.  Success will keep your friends around and bring you fans.  Skill, without success will lose you friends (if you devote as much time and energy to comedy as is required) and not replace their vacancy with new-found fan support.  In The Dark Knight he said it was said “it is darkest just before the dawn.” Well in comedy, it is loneliest just before everyone wants a piece of your sh*t.

When I started comedy, my closest friends were in their early twenties which meant that they had no wives, no kids and were intrigued by the new activity I had chosen.  Now ten years later, despite a series of modest accomplishments and an act that grows and sharpens exponentially every year, almost all of them either have no time or no appreciation for what I do.  But because of the scarcity of feature work, the lack of a mentor or, more importantly, a manager I have not been able to advance my career to the point that fans fill the empty seats where enthusiastic friends once sat.   As an example, I can draw more people to a show in Philly or DC, where I am viewed as a comedian by the people in those cities who have seen me, than in NYC, where after 10 years some of my friends still tease me with the moniker “the comedian” as if it is some quirky, hopeless activity I participate in, like collecting stamps.  I mean, I know the average career in comedy now ranks slightly below poetry slamming, but I am no stamp collector!

Which brings me to the second illustrative event of the weekend.  I have not been booked for 2 1/2 years at a prominent comedy club chain in the country.  I was passed to work these clubs in 2009, received two bookings in 2010, three in 2011, at which point I received an unsolicited e-mail from the booker telling me the great things he had heard about my work and that I would be bumped up his list in priority.  This was great news and it led to zero bookings over the next 28 months.  These are clubs where I have gained fans, sold albums and been able to work with top tier headliners.  But I received an e-mail this weekend that basically said it is a buyers’ market for comedy right now and that I will remain on the fringe of booking priority.  So now other road gigs are still available, but the trajectory is not good.  From 2007-2011 I received more road work than the year before.  Then in 2012 that took a huge bump down and my calendar has yet to recover.  This leaves me with the option of becoming a headliner, which means becoming famous through something other than stand up to facilitate that, or writing off a couple dozen A-list clubs as avenues of potential income.

That brings me to the third emblematic moment of the weekend: Sunday. I received a last minute booking to be on an independently produced show at The Stand.  I also had a bar show afterwards in Astoria.  The show at The Stand went really well and I was extremely happy with my set.  Then I got paid.  This may not seem like something strange, but it was the first time I had a comedy club pay me for doing a spot in Manhattan.  That is right, after 10 years of comedy and 9 years in NYC doing it I have yet to be passed at a single Manhattan comedy club.  For the first half of my pursuit of comedy glory I did a lot of bringers at a lot of different clubs.  Then I decided to consolidate all of my efforts at one comedy club.  Any tape I needed I did a bringer at that club.  I put in face time at the club and went to shows there when I was not doing spots.  But for whatever stroke of bad luck, bad look or bad connections – I am not closer to being passed at that club or seemingly any others.  I no longer have the energy or spare time to “put in face time” at clubs because I still prefer to prioritize actually performing over face time, even if that means lonely bars in outer boroughs .   But still it felt good to have a club employee hand me some money for performing.

The second show of Sunday and the last official stage time of my 9th year was how I expected – a few laughs, a few blank stares and a barely audible amount of applause as I exited the stage.  I do not pretend to be an expert at the business of comedy, but I know I am an expert in comedy.  I know it and do it very well.  But this is no longer enough, or even the most important thing.  So despite the things that occurred in the middle of the last decade for my comedy career – in ten years I basically gained $25 and lost a few applause from the first night I did comedy.  Can’t wait for the next ten years.  It may not get better, but it can’t get much worse.

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