Blog #6: Support and Vulnerability

I had forgotten, maybe deliberately, how supportive the comedy community can be. I shared my first post about comedy on Facebook some time after midnight on Sunday and after receiving my first like and comment a few minutes later, I was blasted with immediate self-doubt — who did I think I was, what did I think I had to say that Alex Hooper (seriously, check out his writing about comedy — it’s beautiful) or someone else couldn’t say better, who even wanted to hear from me over a year after I abandoned them?

And then there was the guilt. The very club that I’m criticizing took a tattered soul and filled it up with hope and love and words. It reminds me of a scene in the original Roseanne in which Roseanne laments to Dan that they were so excited when Darlene learned to speak. It feels like a betrayal to criticize the people without whom I might not even be alive.

And, yes, a lot of that had to do with introducing me to the comedy community, but the owners themselves invested a lot in me. Neither of them is perfect human beings, but I love them and I know that the debt I owe them can’t ever be repaid. Which means that, of course, I am a monster.

I immediately hid the post from my timeline, thinking that would prevent people from seeing it and then I went back to trying to sleep. I didn’t delete it, because I didn’t want to thank my one commentor by deleting him entirely.

I woke up the next morning to a couple of comments and a bunch of likes. Apparently, even if you hide something from your Timeline, people can still see it in their feeds. Over the past few days, I’ve gotten over 70 likes and a dozen comments. And even though I can’t figure out how to restore the original post to my Timeline, three people have shared it, so now it shows on my Timeline three times in a row.

I even got comments directly posted to the blog, which marks this as the first time I’ve ever received a non-spam comment on any blog I’ve ever started since my LiveJournal days.

A lot of people said that they found my post helpful, and I guess I thought I was just validating things that they already knew, but then I got a direct message from one of my comedy friends and she thanked me for explaining the reason why she was stuck in limbo. She’d wondered why she hadn’t been able to feature or otherwise move up, and my blog post explained that to her. It encouraged her to know that she wasn’t inherently lacking in talent. So, if for no other reason, I’m glad I shared the post.

My post isn’t intended to hurt owners or bookers. I was a booker. I, more than anyone, understand that they’re just people, and with some notable exceptions, they’re mostly decent people. At least, at the club I was working at, the owners worked at minimum as hard as any of their employees, and they were barely breaking even. It never seemed to me that owners and bookers are purposely choosing the most exploitative way to run a business. It’s a desperate way to keep the lights on, and that means that all the talk about comedians “not caring” about getting paid is an attempt at justifying choices that made while backed into a corner.

It’s easy to judge, without the weight of a mountain of debt on my shoulders, how other people should run their businesses. I even, when I first found out that comedians didn’t get paid, wondered why anyone would decide to open a comedy club if they couldn’t pay their performers. And I still think that if I were ever to open a club, I wouldn’t do it unless I was sure I could pay the comedians. That said, if the owners of the club hadn’t opened exactly the club that they did, exactly the way they did, I might not be here.

When I found the club, I was three years into mourning my dead mother, and I was strangling the last shred of my will to live. I’d made a deal with God that I would stay alive as long as my older brother was alive (younger brother was already dead). I wasn’t a person; I was a sister to a dead brother, a daughter to a dead mother. I had no identity outside of that.

When I walked into the club, it was the first time in three years that I did something because I was actively interested in what I might find. Every choice I had made from the moment my mom died until that moment, had been out of obligation or defiance. I didn’t stay long, that first day. My soul was like a foot that had fallen asleep; it tingled with the pain of waking up. But the next morning, for the first time, maybe in my life, I actively wanted to be somewhere. I didn’t know why exactly, I just knew that I did.

I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the club and all of the people in it. I think that people think of me as a naturally nice, supportive person, but any good aspect of my personality was nurtured and fostered by the environment I was in and the people I was around.

The club I worked at isn’t perfect. It’s not run by perfect people who make perfect decisions all of the time. The business of comedy is also plagued by a relatively low percentage of shady opportunists and predators who sometimes seem like a very large percentage. By the time I left, I was so overwhelmed by all of the yucky aspects of the business that I’d stopped seeing and feeling the good. I had to step away in order to gain some perspective.

Now, I can be grossed out by the bad but inspired by the good. I’m still nervous about dipping my toe back in, but the warmth of the welcome I’ve received helps a lot. I hope that I can maintain a level of perspective and help people maintain theirs. It’s a tough business, but most of us didn’t get into comedy for the business. We got into it for the art and we endure the business aspects. I think that the worst aspect of the business have traditionally been ignored, as a sacrifice to continue pursuing the art. But I also have hope that it’s within the realm of possibility to change those aspects so that they become a reward of pursuing comedy, rather than a punishment.

The Business of Comedy in LA

I went to an open mic tonight with a couple of friends. I went to the same mic last week, but was too scared to get up. This week, one of my friends got there early and signed me and my other friend up. It seemed rude to decline.

I hadn’t done stand-up in over two years, and it went as well as could be expected. I used the same jokes I prepared for last week, more or less. I was super rusty but it was nice to get laughs when I expected them, and people didn’t hold their own conversations during my set. It went poorly enough that I definitely want to try to do better next time but not so well that nobody who saw me tonight would expect me to be great next time, which takes the pressure off.

After I calmed down, the mic was fun. I’m glad that my friends like to stay the whole time because I always felt bad leaving mics early back in the day just so that I wouldn’t have to worry about a ride home. Plus, I like comedy.

After the mic, one of my friends let the host know that I used to be a Booker. I don’t like being introduced that way but I’m not sure if it bothers me enough to bring it up. I’d rather just be a person, or, at a mic, a comedian, not a former Booker at a comedy club a lot of comedians have had bad experiences at.

I always feel like I need to explain that even if 80% of comedians have a good experience and 20% of comedians have a bad experience, if you’re talking to one of the 20% and none of the 80%, your perception is going to be skewed. And, although I believe that comedy as a business is exploitative, I don’t know that I would say that my club is more exploitative than any other club.

In fact, they go out of their way to book newer comedians — not for altruistic reasons, sure, but is that better than a club that uses a strong gatekeeper who operates on a system of favorites and favors, or clubs that don’t book bringer shows but will allow “independent producers” to book bringer shows? Oh, yeah, Big Boy, your hands are soooooo clean!

To be clear, I think those are both terrible options, but, maybe due to being part of the 80%, I appreciate a club that goes out of its way to make room for less experienced comedians. I also had a lot of amazing experiences there, despite my reservations regarding the business itself.

Still, I end up getting defensive about the club, and angry at the exploitative nature of the business, and those are two reasons I hadn’t touched a mic in two years. I have more reasons, but those are two of the biggest.

I think I might start blogging about comedy — not just my experiences, but also tips and tricks for newer comedians. I think if I could only say one thing about the business of comedy, it would be that it’s easy to take things personally, but it rarely is. Sometimes it is, but speaking from experience, there are about a million comedians to one Booker*.

All comedians want to be booked. All comedians want to be remembered, all comedians want to be special. And I’ll say this, not as a Booker, but as a Human — everyone IS special. One of my favorite things was watching an unwatchable baby comedian get funny. Every single person has a spark, an essence; something that they bring to the world that no one else does. Watching a comedian tap into that essence is one of the most joyful experiences ever, and not just as a Booker — otherwise comedy wouldn’t be a thing that regular people pay to see.

The sad thing is that people want to believe that comedy is a meritocracy. That those comedians who tap into that essence the best, connect to their audiences the best, will be the most successful. This is not necessarily true. If thousands of comedians are able to tap into their essences and connect to their local audiences, but the world only has room for, say, a hundred legends or superstars, what happens to the other thousands of comedians?

Generally, they tour or do corporate gigs or have side jobs. Not everyone is “destined” to be rich and famous. The reason that baby comedians are so desperate for money and fame is because when they’re starting out, they can’t even get by, no matter how hard they work at it. I’ve known comedians who lived in their cars or other peoples’ couches or floors, for years.

I’ve met comedians who have been doing stand-up for twenty-plus years and are still grateful for a 5-minute spot on any show, whether it be in a club, in a bar, or on a street corner. I’ll be going to a comedy show in someone’s backyard next week. For a couple of months, I hosted an open mic in my carport.

Comedians love doing comedy. They’ll do it for free — hell, they’ll pay to do comedy and subsidize that decision with a job that actually pays. This love of comedy is what is exploited. The fact that comedians will work for free translates into comedy club owners deciding that “comedians don’t care about getting paid”. This is inaccurate. Not caring about getting paid is not the same thing as accepting that your particular skill holds little to no monetary value.

And we can blame the comedians all we want to, for choosing to work for free, as though if they all went on strike, the business of comedy would change. That’s not true. First of all, the overwhelming number of hopefuls desperate for any kind of stage time will always undermine any attempt at a strike. Second, as headliners rarely get paid a living wage to perform, they wouldn’t lose any income from going on strike. All they’d do is lose the stage time they need to be polished enough to go on the road so that they can afford to pay for their time in LA.

We already know that a strike won’t work. We have an alternative comedy scene that was built up by comedians fed up with being censored, under-booked, and underpaid by clubs. They created shows in bars and backyards and in tents. Here, they still weren’t being paid, but at least they could perform, and their type of comedy wasn’t dictated to them by club bookers and owners. But that didn’t fix the system. As stated, there are too many aspiring comedians who are desperate for stage time, particularly in a club, that a club is never at a loss for comedians to book.

Clubs don’t lack their pick of super-talented comedians. Clubs need audiences. In this city in particular, there are a lot of options for entertainment. Headliners who can sell out clubs all over the country, unless they’re Jerry Seinfeld or Kevin Hart or Iliza Schlesinger, can’t pull in crowds in LA.

For me, the solution is obvious: build up a reputation, as a club, for nurturing and showcasing the next superstars. Have every show’s line-up stacked with people who are funny enough to be famous, but aren’t. Hire promoters to make sure that there are at least a few butts in seats so that word-of-mouth has a chance to grow.

Or, you could do what LA has chosen to do. Put on bringer shows. A budding comedian doesn’t have fans yet, but do you know what they do have? Friends and family. So, you can pack a lineup full of inexperienced comedians and they will help sell out your rooms. And the shows are terrible and nobody in the audience wants to go back. The comedians who purchased the tickets for their friends and family, and possibly their two-drink minimum, try to focus on the fact that they got to perform at a Real Life Club instead of on the fact that they were not only not paid, but they (in a lot of cases) lost money on the gig.

These comedians realize that they can’t afford to be amateurs for much longer, and feel urgency to move up to paid gigs. Unfortunately, paid gigs in LA are few, far between, are granted mostly to touring headliners, and don’t pay as much as you would think.

So, what happens? Budding comedians become more experienced and less bookable. Their friends and family lose interest in watching terrible shows, but these comedians aren’t skilled enough to be booked on better gigs. A kind Booker will try to find room for them, but there’s a prolonged period of limbo between bringing and featuring, unless you get very, very lucky.

This business model leaves clubs desperately clinging to whatever audience they can manage to trick into a show, and comedians being bitter about particular clubs or producers. Comedians who once found comedy freeing become disillusioned and doubt their self-worth.

The art of comedy edifies; the business of comedy exploits. If you want to maintain your sanity, surround yourself with decent human beings. Anyone can get funnier. Decency is a skill that takes a lot more time and dedication to develop. Be careful about the environments you let yourself become involved in. If you find yourself defensive, angry, or increasingly cynical, take a step back. Pinpoint the source of this poison and cut yourself off from it, whether it’s a person/people or location(s).

I promise, there are enough decent people to be around and enough decent places to be that you don’t need to subject yourself to any environment that brings out the worst in you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that purposely dosing yourself with iocane powder will make you immune to it. That has only ever worked for the Dread Pirate Roberts.

*This might be slight hyperbole.