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Never Call Me a Thief

In a few weeks I will “celebrate” 17 years performing stand up comedy. After my second year at Georgetown University Law Center, a year that found me deeply depressed, so much so that my then-girlfriend called a priest from Georgetown to counsel me.  Basically he showed up to my apartment like Father Merrin in The Exorcist, we had Chinese food and subsequently had a few months of therapeutic lunches. At the end of that I realized I needed a hobby and went to my first open mic in DC in June of 2003.  And if law school was my heroin, for many years it seemed that stand up comedy became my methadone.  It stopped me from being depressed about law school and later, about being a lawyer but then it became its own dependency.  After a good show in 2006 I might feel high for three days.  Six years later the buzz from even a great set would wear off by the time I descended the stairs of the stage.  This is not some exaggeration – I remember the show at NYC’s Gotham Comedy Club in October 2012 when it happened.

            Is there a giant law student here?

Part of the problem was that my career, after a solid trajectory for a few years started to feel like treading water.  One or two things might happen to give me hope that a career in comedy was in the offing only to realize that it was just a tease.  In 2007 I made my national TV debut on The Late Late Show (a great debut set that I find hard to watch simply because I was in such great shape), but months later, when looking to make another appearance on TLLS two things happened: my manager (nothing in writing, but he was helping me immensely with an eye to the future) was let go and I made the rookie mistake of trying to stay with the agency. They officially dumped me months later after the heat of my appearance had died down and this occurred around the time of a writers’ strike in Hollywood. By the time things came back TLLS did not return emails from my manger-less ass.

I was then laid off from my law firm in 2009, but with savings and the money from a returned (snatched) engagement ring I felt like I was good enough to make that money last until I became a star.  I ended up featuring around the country (one memorable gig in Detroit paid $300 for 5 shows – I took a train to Detroit… from NYC and a Greyhound back. Found a cheap hotel and managed to make $13 profit, which I considered a major accomplishment and why I have not stopped complaining about stagnant feature pay for years, despite the fact that the industry and almost no headliner care.  I kept taking gigs that did not make financial sense because I though if I could keep writing and performing and rubbing elbows with headliners a combination of skill, luck and relationships would take me where I wanted to go.

Most headliners seemed to enjoy my presence and my material but none extended a hand other to say good job.  And that’s OK. I think maybe my combination of NBA/NFL size, the “side gig” as an attorney and the fact that I was in my early 30s did not lend itself to a conventional mentoring relationship. I was not some young kid in need of guidance. I was a smart, grown ass man in need of work and a manager, not someone to “teach me the ropes.” But in 2010 I worked with a comedian who would be able to see me in a different light, because he seemed to think of almost every comedian as beneath him: Patrice O’Neal.

I only worked with Patrice twice, but you can hear me introducing him on his two big albums. I emceed for him the first time by luck. I did not take emcee work, not because I was above it but I refused to lose money on road gigs (e.g. you could have me for $13 profit). But my brother and his family lived in DC at the time that I was offered an emcee spot at the DC Improv so I would not have to pay for my own hotel if I took the emcee spot.  So I took it. It was a few months before Patrice would record Elephant in the Room and it is one of the three biggest killer weeks of shows I have ever been part of. In terms of pure killing (strong audience reaction) the three guys who have destroyed crowds harder than anyone else I’ve worked with are Patrice, Sebastian Maniscalco in 2013 (another emcee shot I jumped at in DC) and Gary Owen.  I watched every one of Patrice’s shows.  Patrice did two things that week that made me think that perhaps I had made a potential friend. The first was that he told me one of the nights that he liked my Rocky bit (a bit I never performed in front of him, but that he had seen looking up my stuff – here is the updated version from Thots and Prayers) and the second was that he ripped me for about 10 minutes in front of the local comedians after the last show. It was more friendly roast and felt basically like he “fu*ked with me” as a comedian.

The great compliment came maybe 6 months or so later when he asked the DC Improv to have me emcee his next set of shows.  I still feel like it is the single best compliment I have ever received in stand up.  He valued the emcee spot, which he told me when I was trying to impress him that I “usually featured” (this is what he ripped me for in front of the comics the previous year).  Now I have never asked a comedian “if I could open for them.”  I am not super pushy to begin with, but I feel like that is like asking someone if you are invited to their wedding – let them invite you and if they don’t then you just keep working for the next opportunity. But once Patrice invited me back personally I thought that I might ask him if his feature could not make a gig, would he keep me in mind.  Like I said, I only would have done this because I felt like he had asked for me first.  But a few months later, Patrice would have the stroke that would take his life. I remember being 99% sad that a giant of stand up was gone, just a couple of years into me really delving into his work, but admittedly 1% of me was sad for me because the only headliner who had the physical and mental stature to see me as an inferior (in a good way) and might help me was now gone.

But I kept plugging away. In 2013, after ending a relationship in 2012 that had to suffer through the most disappointing stretch of my career I drank a lot, but also created my best work. In April 2013 I released a video that would be my first viral video – Louis CK Tells the Classics, where I mocked Louis CK’s writing and delivery style through knock knock jokes. This was CK at the height of his powers within and outside of the stand up world.  Many people called me a hater, but most thought the impression and the content were A+. It got me a few meetings with managers that went nowhere.  But in September of 2013 I released Keep My Enemies Closer, the best album of my career.  I wrote and worked the 75 minutes of material in only 16 months (as I had released a very solid album Too Big To Fail in the beginning of 2012).  It sold modestly, but almost every fan I have acknowledges that it is a superb stand up album (performed in front of about 30 people, because 10 years into your career your friends abandon your career because they have families and little of the “oh man you do comedy!” enthusiasm that overflowed when you were new and terrible.  But you have not developed a large enough fan base of strangers because you are not very successful by the measure of the lay person who often assumes that 10 years without headlining or being on TV regularly means you are probably not that good. It is a terrible place to be in your comedy career, but I had dropped the two best pieces of content in my career at this nadir.

But, predictably, 2013 yielded nothing except all my money had run out, I was a feature of great skill, but little renown and I had put on 50 lbs since my Late Late Show debut.  So I started doing part time legal work. Living month to month for the next 5 years.  Dependent more on the godsend of Sound Exchange, which paid out streaming and satellite radio royalties (one of the fortunate moves of mine in not believing in the shady comedy labels that dominate the stand up album world and believing in myself, no matter how foolhardy, was that I owned the rights to every stand up album I self produced. So from 2015-2018 the vast majority of my comedy earnings came from those albums, not the 1988 wages clubs were/are still paying middle acts (features, if I did not explain earlier)).

So I went from being a prosecutor and a big firm associate to a meagerly-paid document reviewing attorney, simply to have the flexibility to do road gigs that would most of the time net me less money than clicking on emails for large corporations as a “contract attorney.”  I had fun runs on The Adam Carolla Show as a resident impersonator and video maker (videos that cost me as much to make as a weekend of feature work), flying myself to LA on my own dime just trying to boost my Twitter and YouTube numbers by appearing on a big podcast (see how much my Trump has improved by watching a sample video below – which will mostly only make sense to Carolla Show fans).  I made around 15 appearances on ESPN radio as a Trump impersonator, but could never convince the show to make a guest, despite being a huge sports fan and a popular segment on the show.

In 2018 I recorded Thots and Prayers, for me the only album of mine at the level of Keep My Enemies Closer, at Helium in Philly. I remember when the set was done I felt a complete exhaustion and sense of relief.  I had cranked out 6 stand up albums, all an hour or more in 15 years (at the time) as a stand up. I was proud of every one. I had produced every one. I had been a road warrior. I had cost myself relationships, financial stability, physical health and happiness in pursuit of making myself a real stand up comedian. I had made podcasts and videos and was proud of that work too, but a headlining stand up comedian was the goal for me. A real popular headliner. Special event on my poster outside the clubs level comedian.  And I had maintained an elite headliner level of output, all while only featuring and doing bar shows in NYC because no club had yet passed me after all that time and all those seemingly important accomplishments.  But after that 2018 recording I felt done. I felt like I had done all that I could, had become a great stand up, but the career wasn’t going to happen for me.

On a related note from 2016 to today I believed I had the best Trump impression (though it clearly has improved “tremendously” since my early assumptions about its quality), but I was seeing everyone from comedians to sketch guys to famous actors getting paid well to play Trump and I couldn’t even propel ESPN radio and Adam Carolla appearances into anything even decent as far as a payday. So combined with exhaustion from stand up I felt like, “If my best pitch (Trump) is not getting me a sniff then it really is not going to happen.”

The final straw was 2019 – I had only received 3 gigs after March – a headlining gig in Ann Arbor (lots of fun) and two feature spots in Baltimore (fun) and Long Island (some fun and an awkward racial conversation after one show). That was it.  So when I received a call out of the blue from a legal staffing agency offering me a position at a big firm I took it. I also moved to NJ, away from the hustle and convenience of NYC, because I figured if I was not working as a comedian and work was no longer coming to me, why not get 2 bedrooms for the price of the studio I was living in. When I left my apartment in midtown in August 2019 it was a happy day for many reasons, but it also felt like the saddest day of my life. I was leaving the only home I’d really had as a non-student since my childhood home. It also felt like my stand up career was staying there while I went to start a new life.

I have messed up relationships. I have hurt people. I have been hurt. I have not been the perfect Catholic I sought to be in my youth and adulthood and I am not the Daniel Caffey/Atticus Finch lawyer I thought I could be when I enrolled in law school. But comedy was the thing that I had done perfectly. Not successfully, but perfectly.  I worked hard at it. I had multi-faceted talents within it. I had received unsolicited praise from big time comedians. I had achieved some rewards and opportunities, with the exception of The Late Late Show, all on my own.  I have a track record of videos and albums to prove I was here and I produced. And I did it the right way. I stuck true to my voice. I didn’t violate any personal rules I had set for myself in my personal or professional conduct. I wanted my comedy career to be pure, in the sense that if and when I reached where I wanted to get it would be an unassailable journey that others could look at with admiration and for which I could feel an unblemished pride. I did all of that and it did not happen. Until March 2020.

The Covid-to-Riches story of my career is probably the best known thing about me because it what I have discussed on TV and podcasts for the last month.  The Covid hit and thanks to a text from a friend I decided to make a selfie video as Trump.  It was my 4th or 5th video in the last week and a half, but this one went off like a fire.  Within a week I was already Twitter famous.  All of my social media metrics skyrocketed and the irony is that I am now famous and have fans with nowhere to perform. And the undeniable flip side of this is that if the world was not in a health and economic crisis I would have been in an office and not posting an off the cuff Trump impression video on March 24th.  And my career would likely have been done.

But as I was enjoying recognition and increased opportunities to entertain, a comedian posted a video lip syncing Trump that caught fire in a way that literally doubled, if not tripled the viral impact of my big video a month after mine. I remember laughing at the video and thinking “wow that is blowing up.”  But unlike most comedians who will not acknowledge their competitiveness I will admit that I did not feel threatened because I thought, “That is not even my lane. I am free styling A+ material in the best Trump voice people have heard. Hers is a fun Tik Tok.”  But then people began @-ing me telling me she was better and/or that we should collaborate.  I would be lying if I said it did not bother me on an artistic level to have what I do compared, or equated to a lip sync, but these are tough times and anyone who can make people laugh (including myself) deserve respect and positive vibes.  So I just liked the comments or ignored them.  Lot of people just want to laugh and equate big belly laughs with big belly laughs no matter how they get them.

But over the last few days I have gotten several messages accusing me of stealing this comedian’s successful act.  Never mind that I predated the comedian’s video by a month or that I am improvising a great impression that has been 5 years in the making.  They are not merely dismissing that. They are accusing me of theft of something that I take the highest pride in (ironically it is because they think my impression is a lip sync, which is an accidental compliment, but I truly don’t care).  For many years, all I had in comedy was pride in that I was doing it the right way because I did not have any other marker of success or progress. To quote Scarface, “All I ha[d] [wa]s my word and my ballssss.” It was like being on a hamster wheel and having to tell yourself, “well I haven’t gone anywhere, but I am really running with good form.”  But accusing me of stealing will not be tolerated.  I don’t know if you are ignorant of comedy, stupid or just an aggressive on-line presence. I do not give a shit.  You put that out there I will stomp it.  And if you among the people questioning why I have reacted so strongly to those accusations it is simple.  I am not a Twitter comedian. I am a stand up comedian and impersonator that you discovered on Twitter. Please, enjoy my work, but do not confuse my work as a quirky diversion. It is born of many years of hard work and sacrifice.  I will not surrender pride in my work and how I got here to be more palatable for Twitter.  I hope you understand that. I am not diminishing others.  I am defending what I am doing, which I did not think would be necessary.  My blog and my podcast were often places where I would write and speak truths (and a lot of humor) about life, politics, art and most of all, stand up. The things I wrote, in some cases, could have been detrimental to my career, but they were always honest words from a frustrated comedian who wanted to see the business work better for himself and others similarly situated.  So forgive me if you did not expect this level of honesty from someone you may know as a “Twitter” comedian. Diminish my work and I may be able to bite my tongue. But call me a thief, after all this and how I have tried to pursue it in as pure a way as possible, then all I can say to you is fuck you.

8 Responses to Never Call Me a Thief

  • Well, that was awkward. Reading someone’s heartfelt emotions from someone I met through Twitter. I feel used……..brilliant

  • Well said. I have enjoyed your impersonations immensely, and admit that the lip-syncing videos were entertaining. Great story of your career. I left Georgetown early to play music with a band out of Missoula, MT. Thanks for sharing.

    Keep it coming…I look forward to the post-Covid, post-Trump presidency world and going to your live shows. Put Miami on your 2021 schedule!

  • There is no competition between the real article (yourself) and a tiktok lip syncer.
    This is just sadly the crazy world we live in where there are also those out there who worship a corrupt idiotic leader.
    Who has ‘made it’or a ‘ star’. That stuff is all bs in the end.. staying true is the only way worth going.
    I am a musician and deeply relate to your path.
    Thanks!

  • Good for you

  • You are original, brilliant and creative.
    Great piece you’ve written to explain your history and the struggle and commitment it takes just to hopefully get a shot in comedy.

  • J L C,
    You da Man. I have seen fair a sample of your opus, and I think I can say without reservation your Trump satires are peerless. No one will ever skewer that pompous dullard more sharply than you. This is your very best work ( that is surely why your star is ascendant) so stay with it. Please. Even Mort Sahl and Woody Allen at the top of their games couldn’t have done a better job than you are doing.

    So PLEASE stick with it. Use crazy glue if necessary, but keep the laughs coming and the presure on the Donald all the way out of this pandemic and all the way into the Presidential Election. Stick it to him hard. Beyond humor and your career, help defeat the Orange Monster.

    Dr. Bob

  • J-L: I am not a comedian, but I know comedy, and your Trump is the impression we’ve been waiting for. Brilliantly observed, written and performed — as defining as Tina Fey’s Palin. Keep on keeping on. We need you.

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