When people think of comedians they usually imagine a bunch of chatty clowns with a social and professional life that often gets glorified. Being a comedian can label you as an interesting person with an exciting life. There are many reasons why people choose to be a part of this industry, but the harsh reality is that very few succeed or have the endurance to handle all the things you need to deal with to reach and maintain a successful career.
Almost every comedian had their “Why do I do this?” moment at some point in their career, no matter how long they’ve been in the industry. Some of you are having it right now as this Coronavirus sucked every joy from our lives and we are just trying to figure things out. Some of you are questioning how to get back into the game and is it all worth it.
Besides the obvious challenges of performing live, there are other things that you should take into consideration when planning a future in comedy. Please keep in mind that my goal here is simply to keep it real with you so you can have that conversation with yourself and decide if you are really ready to hustle and deal with the good, bad, and the ugly. Only you know what you can handle and what sacrifices you are ready to make.
So let’s get into it.
It takes a long time to become undeniably good
On average it takes at least 10 years of actively doing comedy to become good enough to start getting seriously noticed, 15 - 20 years to become undeniably good. Of course, there will always be exceptions but the majority will really have to clock in some serious hours to get to that level, which can lead to frustrations with its own progress. One thing you should ask yourself is how many years of experience you truly have. Having experience means that you are steadily improving with each year. Do you really have 5 years of experience or you are just doing one year 5 times? Your progress has to be evident with each year, you can’t just exist on the scene for years being on the same level and expect better opportunities will come your way.
Facing judgments and rejections
As a comedian and a producer, I’ve been on the receiving end of both. A stand-up comic’s life has very low lows and extremely high highs. The moment you step on stage the audience is judging EVERYTHING: the way you look, your clothes and mannerism, all that before you even open your mouth, and when you eventually do the judgment level goes higher and higher with each moment - the way you talk, your point of view, your likeability level, being relatable, how fast you produce punchlines, can you handle crowd work, can you improvise and can you deal with a heckler? You are performing live and so much can (and will) go wrong and people will judge you for the way you maneuver through it all. All the self-doubt will be magnified. Judgment will also find you on social media as your content might not be everyone’s cup of tea and people will always try to find something to complain about.
Rejection in this business is unavoidable and constant, and in my experience, a lot of comedians don’t have the mental stability to deal with rejections. Sometimes it’s due to their depression, anxiety, neurosis, unrealistic expectations and a simple punch to their ego. They just can’t comprehend how they are rejected over and over again (by a comedy club, producer, network, casting director, festival and sometimes their peers). Professionals will tell you that rejection is God’s protection but to a young comic that can sometimes be hard to grasp, as they take everything personally and desperately want to be accepted and rewarded.
Multitasking and financial struggles
In the first years of their career, the majority of comedians don’t have agents and managers to manage their careers and are forced to do everything by themselves. There’re many things you need to invest in to put yourself on the booker’s radar: having a decent headshot, building a simple website, creating a social media presence, promoting yourself, booking gigs, taping your shows, creating content/project to attract followers, producing a show to increase your stage time, and all of that with often a very modest budget. Wearing many hats can be a lot and you can become overwhelmed, anxious, and eventually give up.
In order to support yourself in comedy, you will need to have a day job, and, depending on the profession, it can feel like you are pushing two careers at the same time. You find yourself rushing from work to an open mic and then to a late show. You don’t go to bed before midnight (or later) almost every night and you have to show up fresh for work the next morning. The rhythm can be brutal.
Traveling and sacrificing personal life
If you are lucky and good enough to start making money by performing around the country and/or overseas you will deal with a significant amount of traveling. Professional comics are on the road a lot, from 4 days a week to a few weeks in a row, depending on the location and duration of the gig. Sometimes comedians travel with other comics, other times they are by themselves. This can leave you lonely and isolated so if you are someone who can’t handle being alone for days you will have a difficult time navigating that part of your career. Casual online dating can be fun and helpful but that lifestyle is not for everyone.
Things get harder when you have serious relationships or decide to start a family. Married male comics are dealing with this easier as they have wives who are taking care of their children and households, while things are trickier for female comics, especially those who are planning a pregnancy or have small children to take care of. Separation from your loved ones can cause emotional stress especially if your gig that night didn’t go as well as you hoped so. Sometimes money is not enough to justify the absence and the distance can scar relationships.
The pressure to stay relevant and avoid getting “canceled”
Having a following means that people enjoy your work and they are interested in what YOU, your original self, have to say about issues that surround our society: political, social, cultural. This requires you to constantly be informed about current events and have a fresh and innovative look at things around us.
In order to stay relevant, you have to produce content. Creating content that people will love to see can be challenging at times as you run out of ideas and you don’t feel like being a dancing TikTok monkey is your thing (I sure don’t). On top of that, you really have to be conscious of what you tweet as people tend to “cancel” comedians more than ever. Before tweeting something ask yourself what will you accomplish with that. If you can handle the outcome go for it, just make sure you own it. Nothing is less attractive than a comedian who can’t take the heat.
Vices and facing personal demons
Psychologists will tell you that comedians are often damaged people, but I believe that we are no more or less “damaged” than anyone else, we are just more vocal about our issues.
This ability to face their demons and process the emotions which will result in a well-crafted joke relatable to strangers is one of the most valuable traits of successful comedians. In order to avoid being a hack you want to stick to the original material, and in order to get it, you have to strongly rely on personal experiences. In comedy, bad behavior in personal life can be rewarded on stage. Being high on drugs, excessive drinking, promiscuity, overindulging, mental issues, and deviant behaviors - these are all the topics that can generate easy laughter. The problem with that is that some comics don’t know how to create a balance between their act and their personal life. They feel like they shouldn’t improve themselves privately and deal with certain demons or even health issues as that will prevent them from being in dysfunctional situations that will be fun to talk about on stage. I vividly remember a professional comedian talking about how she has no intention of losing weight because being obese is a fundamental part of her act. She will lose a lot of leverage talking about certain topics that are now killing on stage and she is not ready to give that up, ever.
There are a lot of comedians who died from heart attacks related to them being obese and/or heavy smokers, comics who OD-ed, comics who ruined their careers due to severe drinking problems, sex scandals, untreated psychosis, and similar, all the things that were a source of their best material. In comedy, it’s good to be bad, but it comes with a price. I strongly believe that you can joke about whatever you want but make sure you take care of yourself first.
I understand that I fed your brain with these cruel facts but believe me these are the same questions I ask myself often, as I need to check myself periodically and make sure I’m not just investing all this energy into an empty dream and this is something I really wanna do. Refusing to do a personal inventory and have a reality check will just make this comedy journey full of disappointments, and it doesn’t have to be that way. You CAN be successful in comedy (whatever your definition of that is), you just need to make sure you really want this and have a plan on how to tackle all these challenges. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Got questions or something to add? Comment below and share your thoughts!