Creating a Comic

Bombing, killing, and other occupational hazards of stand-up comedy


I'm your host, CJ Alexander.
This is my blog about breaking into stand-up comedy.

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Let’s not sugar-coat this: stand-up comedy is a financially idiotic way to make a living, and almost always professional suicide as a career. Becoming a comedian means putting in years of unpaid labor, investing hundreds or even thousands of hours into comedy before the average comic even begins to approach a livable wage.

CJ and Jim, and pizza
The Dream: CJ, Jim, booze, food

As my friend Jim Kellner jokes, “I’m living the dream, baby – it’s just not my dream.”

A few hard-working and lucky outliers do of course become obscenely rich and famous, just as in pro sports or the recording industry. But the odds are so overwhelmingly bleak that there’s really only one reason to choose comedy — or writing — as a career: because the question “Why do you do it?” has only one real answer: “Because I have to.”

My alarmingly emo (but brief) career recap

Switching careers is easier than most people think, and perhaps even recommended.1 Everyone pays lip service to the idea that you can’t put a price on happiness, but it’s hard to understand how true this is until you end up in a job that leaves you both well-off and hating your life.

CJ's first career
CJ’s career as tech executive:
pre-bandanna file footage

I know, right: boo-freakin’-hoo! Even to me it sounds like whiny pampered nonsense, but this is a lesson that can only truly be learned through experience. I mean, what the hell did I know about anything when I was 19? I thought — no, I knew what I was “supposed” to do, and launched into a nice little executive career. During the next decade I racked up all sorts of objectively laudable achievements, propelled forward all the while by wrongheaded, immature motivations like spite (“I’ll show them all!”), inertia (“I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do next…”), and father-besting neuroses (I “won,” then ran up the score, then didn’t understand why I didn’t feel better). And that was the well-behaved part of my life…2

Have your goddamn cake and eat another one too!

My meandering career path came up, recently, during a conversation with a new friend and her hyper-talented little girl. The daughter’s some sort of math/science prodigy, with dreams of eventually becoming a doctor—and she’s also so proficient at dance that she has an astonishingly realistic shot at doing it professionally. Which means both she and her Mom have begun to feel the anxiety of the Big Looming Life-Altering Decision that lies ahead…

But is it ever really as dire and irreversible as we make it out to be? The willingness to make lots of correctable mistakes is arguably the single most important factor in success, because progress comes from failure. This is true of big decisions as well as little ones. So… why not have several careers?

The cake is a lie
I’ll be able to remove that watermark
once I’m making Dane Cook money.3

As I was sharing my thoughts about careers, I suddenly remembered that the people I was talking to only knew me through my new (wonderful, but non-creative) job at the gym. So as my monologue wound down I sort of lamely caboosed it with: “Which is why I’m writing and doing stand-up, now… and, uh, managing the gym during the day.”

When I saw their tandem looks of polite skepticism, I knew I had done a poor job of explaining myself. Not only was it a crummy conclusion — hel-lllo? comedy guy?? always close strong, remember? — but I had crucially left out the moral of the story: that I’ve never been happier in my life. I’ve never been more excited about where I am, what I’m doing, or what tomorrow will hold. There’s a difficult journey ahead, but these feelings tells me that I’m on the right path.

Trial and error is how jokes improve — how everything improves. Why should careers be any different?

  1. The one exception being if you have children, especially if you have children early. Having mouths to feed narrows your decision matrix rather dramatically. []
  2. My preference is to avoid steaming autobiographical blog dumps like this, especially when they don’t serve to build positive energy or illustrate a larger point. This feels like it qualifies for the latter, barely, but I realize most of you come here for light-hearted comedy talk. And dirty jokes. So, thanks for the brief indulgence. Here’s a street joke:
         Q: What’s the difference between an oral and an anal thermometer?
         A: The taste! []
  3. I steal because I’m looking out for you, by the way. If you don’t believe me, then take a gander at the runner-up image for cake-eating. []
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    8 Responses to “Stand-up comedy as a career decision”

    1. “why not have several careers?”

      Because one thing you can not have is unlimited time.

      Time is money (or money over bitches as they say in the streets) is one of the most correct annoying cliches ever.

      Think of your WOW character. When you level up. You get a certain amount of skill points. You can upgrade +7 to funny or you can upgrade +1 to 7 different things. Now imagine you can only play your WOW character two or three times a week. and the other days you have a different character in DIABLO. You play him a couple times a week two. The rate of advancement of both suffers because your time is split.

      Now That’s easy. Just do both as much as possible. So during the day you’re at the gym (playing second life) for 8 hours. As soon as you get off you go out to the comedy club (playing WOW) and you spend 3 hours playing that before it’s off to bed. But on Tuesdays you have to wake up early for school and then you get to the comedy club and you’re tired so even though you spend 4 hours there its not very productive. Then you haven’t gotten laid in two weeks because you’re trying to get to the next level in your games, so friday you spend at the bar hitting on chicks. But you’ve neglected your pimp character so you’re women skillz are -7.

      Choices have to be made. At some point. A sacrifice is made. It’s science. Fact. A law of Newton. “Every action has an opposite or equal reaction. Bitches.”

      but that’s why I’m selling my xbox. Because that leveling up video game shit is for NERDS. I’m tryna tell jokes baby!

      Andrew Rivers

    2. What the hell was that?? I cast Magic Missile…

      Heh… OK, your points are all well taken, but they don’t really disagree with my premise. I don’t think I argued against hard work and sacrifice.

      I mean, what’s the benefit of telling yourself that you can have one and only one career? It’s a rather major eggs & basket problem.

      If you guess wrong about your career the first time, then what? You have to kill yourself? Or just start selling possessions?


    3. lmao. Magic Missle.

      We can debate this further this weekend. But I’m simply saying. Putting all your eggs in one basket is a better strategy. Even if it’s not the right basket.

      I didn’t know this is what I wanted to do until I did. My fault partially for not spreading my seed a little earlier and more liberally.

      but would I have known what I WAS doing wasn’t for me if I hadn’t put all my eggs in THAT basket?

      You don’t REALLY know something well enough to make a educated decision about it until you’ve spent some time doing it. Maybe if you half ass it for a while it takes you two years. Maybe if you do it hardcore. It only takes you a couple months. Saved yourself some time.

      Hypothetically. That’s just how I see it.

      Too bad you can’t un cast MAJOR NERD on yourself. lol. I know. Good one. ;)

      Andrew Rivers

    4. I agree with you! I think the All-In approach is often the best strategy. No hedging or half-assing. Putting all your eggs in one basket… at a time.

      But if your eggs don’t hatch in that first basket, that doesn’t mean you should just give up and start smashing them. I mean, lots of people DO drink themselves to death, or whatever, after their first career fails. This is… suboptimal.

      Instead you can find another basket to get excited about, and move all of your eggs there. Rinse, repeat. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail – until you succeed.


    5. […] FAQ | Bio | Contact « Stand-up comedy as a career decision […]

      Video: “Stand-Up Comedy is NOT Pretty” | Creating a Comic

    6. […] to Andrew for commenting with the long, tortured, ultra-nerdy metaphor that inspired my most recent quote — and this post. [↩] Share this […]

      “I wanna cast… Magic Missile.” | Creating a Comic

    7. I don’t have a day job I’m on ssi disability so as far as making a lot of money I just want to make people laugh and forget their problems even if only for a little while. It makes me feel good inside hearing the laughter.

      terry obrien aka cod comedy on delivery

    8. I think your being hard on yourself saying this doesn’t build positive energy. As a 19 year old wanting to get into stand-up, I know I’ll be staying in school and trying to get a day job, that actually gives me money. But knowing people out there are grinding away and working hard but are happy, gives me motivation. Or I’m just high and this stuff makes me sappy, but some real positive stuf man!

      Keith Singh

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