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.
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 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?
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?
- The one exception being if you have children, especially if you have children early. Having mouths to feed narrows your decision matrix rather dramatically. [↩]
- 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! [↩]
- 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. [↩]