This blog is probably going to come off jerk-like but oh well. That’s not the intention.
I have had a Santa’s mail sack full of people this year asking me for advice. (Advice about how to get into, do and succeed at stand-up comedy. Poor kids. Don’t they know that I have no idea?)
Sometimes the advice wanters email me, approach me at shows and after shows. I give whatever answer that I can and usually find myself smiling and nodding and saying “totally” a lot when people want to know if they can contact me further for more advice, perhaps what I’ve told them was not what they wanted to hear and they are giving me time to come up with something better.
A while back someone approached me at the UCB Theatre. He was visibly nervous. He said that we were both from the same city and he had just moved to L.A. He had heard that I had “made it” and wanted to ask me about my said “making it.” Now, I’m a 33 year old woman with a vast amount of emotional and psychological experiences outside the realm of stand-up comedy. I can’t tell you how my definition of “making it”, whether in life or in a career has changed over the years. I look forward to it evolving more. I wasn’t sure how to answer him. I explained that I was having more fun doing comedy than ever, was pretty sure that after 11 years of doing stand-up I was just starting to find my voice. That 11-year thing isn’t because I’m bad at it or did something wrong it’s just that the style of comedy that I do which is revealing personal, funny stories about my self seems to strengthen with each passing year that I bother to live. That’s just how long it takes.
No offense, I know that this generation of 20-somethings were raised with parents who made them feel very special but you do have to put some time and seemingly thankless effort into what you love. Sure, you can technically “do and be anything” you want, it’s a free country but you must operate under the guise of ‘no one truly gives a shit what you have to say.’ I think I find that my generation and older seem to sort of just understand that and operate well within that boundary. If you’re a one-liner type comic and your humor is less revealing, perhaps you can succeed or find a voice faster. I don’t know.
Anyway, so this kid asks me about making it. I explain to him that I enjoy the fruits of many a compliment but that mostly, unless it’s on the road, the shows I do in L.A. are for free. The road gigs don’t pay that great for me yet, they are just for experience. And there are a host of other freelance gigs and trials and scripts and auditions and meetings and bookings and things that go on behind the scenes day to day but when nothing is coming in, you/I have to do whatever you can to make $$. This guy, his face fell. He was so confused that he nearly asked me how much money I make a year doing comedy. He didn’t understand the ‘for free’ thing.
I explained to him that the theatre community I’m in can’t afford to pay each performer – we perform for the love of the community and the craft. The pay-off to doing free stand-up in L.A. as opposed to other places, I guess, is that industry will totally come to see a show. They don’t want to have to read scripts and watch audition tapes all day. They like to go see people. So, the casting director of a network will see a comic, call their manager and espouse that they are the next ‘so and so’ and the manager (who should know better) will call the comic and repeat the praise and the comic (who should know better) will eat it up and carry a sense of hope with him/herself to the meeting with the casting agent. Once the comic gets there – the casting agent will never mention that he/she loves your act. They will behave as if you are a total stranger to them and it’s YOU who burst into their office and not THEY who booked the meeting. You’ll go home and probably nothing big will happen but that’s why we perform for free – for the moments like that. It’s not a sad thing. It’s just part of it. It’s like lifting a weight and expecting results after you put the weight down. It’s one curl, in a series of curls that will eventually lead to your Madonna arms.
Anyway so this kid, saddened that I have not made it – in the terms that his 21-year old mind has deemed – he starts to tell me not to worry, he thinks I’m funny but yeah, he could see why people haven’t warmed up to me yet. Meanwhile, I never said that people have not warmed up to me yet. I am completely on track and where I need to be. He hands me his card and tells me that if I am feeling left out he would like to START a stand-up community and I can be in it. I am in a stand-up community and have been for almost six years out here. He has completely misread my honesty for desperation and the need to be cheered up (and mainly condescended to.)
Lots of people ask me how to get into show business. I don’t know. I just started doing stand-up in Boston at the back of a bar. I started with Eugene Mirman and another who shall not be named as we are no longer friends, but he was there too. We all looked out for each other and watched one another fail over and over and over and we all ended up finding our niche and going to do our thing.
I went up to Janeane Garafalo and Laura Kightlinger, during my first six months of being a stand-up and drunkenly asked them how I could become a professional stand-up without having to compromise by doing movies that I thought sucked. The nerve of me! They were equally kind as well as rightfully dismissive. Of course they didn’t give me advice. I was asking an impossible question AND insulting them at the same time. Now when I see them I’m glad they have no idea that happened. I assume we were all drunk at that point.
A lot of people ask me about mistakes I’ve made hoping that they will avoid them. I think that they truly, truly believe that if I can just tell them where the mines are they can skip through the minefield unscathed. I can’t do that for anybody. If you don’t want to wait 11 years to quit your dayjob, perhaps you can write more spec scripts than I ever did or something. I’m also in a totally different generation. You were considered a weird loner psycho if you even did email in the days when I first started doing stand-up. Now you can sell series on the internet. You can make a funny video and millions of people can see it – all while you live in your mom’s basement. I didn’t have those opportunities and so I’m not the best one to ask about how to get in the business in this day and age. A manager friend of mine says that if two comics walk into her office and one is just a good live performer but the other one produces a sellable thing like an internet video……….she’ll go with the kid who has the sellable thing.
I would say if you don’t have stand-up in your town – there have to be other people like you. Use the internet to your advantage. Find them. Get a night at a coffee shop. Eventually move to NYC, Chicago or LA. I don’t know. That’s it. Once you start just making something, anything you’ll figure it out and talk to your peers about failures along the way – it’s going to be way more satisfying than asking me. We don’t know each other and I’ll only say something frustrating and from the future the way a parent tells a teenager that it’s ‘just a phase.’
So, I don’t give advice. No more. It has gotten me into trouble and honestly, I can’t tell you any magic tricks even if you think that after all these years I somehow know the trick and if I could only turn back time I could use the trick to my advantage. The trick is to love it so much that you’ll move anywhere, live anywhere and in any condition, work one job by day and learn your craft for free at night, sit in rooms and KNOW that you are good or could be good and have to suck it up and wait to go on anyway. You have to love it so much that if it has to it comes before having any kind of normal security that your other friends who don’t do stand-up might have. I say that because usually people say, “I could never do stand-up. You’re so brave.” Well, if I had to be brave in order to do stand-up, I probably wouldn’t do it. Seems too scary. I just feel like I want to do it.
Today I was in the grocery store and I ran into someone who said, “You’re Jen Kirkman. I’m a fan of your work.” It was a great moment. He then informed me that he has been trying to “steal” my album or download it from ripped torrents online because he “doesn’t like to buy stuff.” He had no idea that this was not appropriate to say to someone they are a fan of. I said, “But that’s how I make my living. He shrugged. “Yeah, I know but…”
A lot of times the people who ask me for advice, when they don’t like the advice I’m given start to feel had. They start to deduce that although they’ve seen me on their TV or on stage…I DID happen to answer their email and so I must be……….a nobody! And the tables turn and they start advising me how to get my career going. They are frustrated that they like my comedy but that I’m not famous. One start would be supporting my product with your cash. That’s one way. THe other is don’t worry about if I’m famous. I don’t want Dane Cook’s career. I want his money, not his career. Here’s my advice, don’t tell me that shit. Also, just go do comedy. Don’t worry about anything else.
Another thing I was mulling over in my car today is that I have a lot of successful stand-up friends and when they talk, I listen. I observe how they handle their professional business life off-stage, I listen to their road tales and how they triumphed in shitty rooms. I listen to what their rituals are. I never say, “How can I not bomb? How can I do this? How can I do that?” I just know from experience that it won’t apply to me. It’s really medical almost. It’s like asking someone how I can live to 100 like they did. I might not live to 100 even if I eat right and exercise. They might live to 100 even if they smoke and drink.
But what always helps me in terms of inspiration is I read biographies or stand-up comics or anybody really in entertainment. I find the philosophies of others approach to work, the way that other people handle failure, the way that other people learned how to handle themselves, inspires me and I take the time and thought to apply it to my own life – even if I don’t literally, directly do what they did. It’s not paint-by-numbers.
I know that some people don’t want to read a biography and then sit and think, “I have a long road ahead of me. What inspired me about that book?” Most people that I come in contact with go, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s great that Steve Martin was unknown for fifteen years. How do I skip that part?”
And I think I’m old enough know to realize that even if I could, I don’t want to “skip that part.” If I could turn back the clock I probably would change the fact that I had a debilitating shopping addiction. Otherwise, I’m glad someone threw a beer bottle in my head in NYC when I wasn’t funny enough on stage.