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Careers in Comedy: Sometimes the Worst Mess Leads You to Success



How do you know when it’s time to change your direction in life?  Are you going to keep waiting on tables, or should you GIVE UP on your fantasy career and do something else? How much longer do you stay with an agent who’s not getting you jobs? Are you better off in a so-so relationship, or is it smarter to LEAVE while you still have all your original parts? STAY OR LEAVE: a question that resurfaced over the holiday weekend. 

I’d been SO EXCITED as I arranged a 4th of July vacation with my family in Big Bear -- hiking with the dogs, lying in a chaise lounge by the lake, sipping a drink, swimming. Then I saw the place. The Lake Front Lodge was a 3-STORY WALK-UP with nails sticking out of the plywood steps (I put the pictures up on my Facebook page). The room had curtains with BULLET HOLES; no, they weren’t lace. The one lamp was without a bulb. The bedspread, circa 1982 K-Mart, seemed to have holes from the SHRAPNEL, probably related to the curtain incident. There were no chairs by the lake, maybe because of the Hitchcock-like swarms of MOSQUITOES.  Swimming? Only if you could step through multiple CATFISH CARCASSES floating belly up on the shoreline.

So much for not checking Trip Advisor.

In one shattering moment, we discovered there were NO refunds, no other places available, and it started to STORM. Lightning, thunder, and a 4.8  EARTHQUAKE. The room was a crime scene, it was storming, our cellphones were beeping with an emergency flash flood warning – what next? Locusts, vermin, the slaughtering of firstborns? Did it make sense to STAY and smear the blood of a Paschal Lamb on my car? Or give up on the fantasy of what I had envisioned and LEAVE? We had to make a decision.

This reminded me of another time in my life where I had to make a decision to walk away or stay and make the best of it.

In 1989, I had a series of 10 stand-up comedy gigs booked by Rick Messina, who later became Drew Carey’s manager. I was staying in New York in the kind of neighborhood where even a schnauzer could get mugged, and that’s what happened to my beloved Walter, who got attacked by a pack of stray dogs. Cabs apparently don’t stop for bleeding animals, but I managed to get him to the animal hospital. Handing him over, I was crying as I told the doctors, “I can’t stay, I have to work!”

“This late? What do you do?” they asked.

“I’m a stand-up comedienne!” I said through my sobs.

At the time I had spent 17 years as a stand-up comedienne, sometimes 46 weeks on the road. This gig was in Long Island, a club called Governor’s, which somehow was a magnet for all the scum of the earth. I borrowed a jacket to cover my blouse that was caked with my dog’s blood. Making my way to the stage, I heard the crowd welcoming me with, “You suck! You suck!

I plodded onstage, starting a joke, “I’m worried about getting old…” Someone shouted, “Getting old?” I was 34. Do I stay onstage and “get them” or end this misery and piss off everyone?

Then, I had a EUREKA MOMENT where time seemed to roll in slow motion. I saw their drunken faces as a blur. I saw my father’s face with his bloodshot eyes. Then it hit me – that making drunks laugh was something I did as a child at the dinner table. I realized NOW I am an adult with CHOICES. And that night, I made a DARING CHOICE – to LEAVE. I walked off stage, walked out of my contracts with Rick, picked up my dog, got a plane home to LA, and looked for something else to do with my career.  For a year, I thought about how I could reinvent myself. That led to launching my workshops, writing Stand-Up Comedy: The Book, and appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and getting booked in a career I didn’t know existed – as a CORPORATE SPEAKER.  

This is what came to mind while we were in Big Bear waiting for the mudslide to clear that had been triggered by the earthquake. Sometimes when dealing with bad situations, we forget that we ALWAYS HAVE A CHOICE.  As with poker, if life deals you bad cards, you can keep hoping that your luck will change, or fold.  I folded. I left Big Bear.

Back in the comfort of my own home, I took a bath in my CLEAN tub, went boogie-boarding in the ocean down the block, and felt sure I’d done the right thing. Knowing when to LEAVE is as important as knowing when to STAY.

Feel free to forward this to someone you know in a terrible marriage, dead-end job or whoever’s had too much cosmetic work done.

Is it better to be sorry about something you did, or something you didn't do? You have to DO IT to find out.

22 comments:

  1. Judy, you have such amazing strength of character and I've always admired you. Currently I am languishing at a cross roads and hope to use your wise words to move me... I was going to say forward but at this point movement would be sufficient. Thanks again.

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    1. Thanks Francesca - in it's time. I've been stuck in my life and there are things going to preparing you to be ready to MOVE. Have faith.

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  2. Great blog, wise words! "Knowing when to leave is as important as knowing when to stay"....for the first ten years of my speaking career I was constantly asking myself that question because I wasn't getting booked. Why? Because my speech was all about ME. Duh. Thankfully the light bulb in my brain eventually switched on and I'm sure glad I didn't leave.
    Think I'll forward this to Joan Rivers......

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    1. HA! You got it Theresa! Make it about the audience!

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  3. Judy- your post always seem to hit a cord. I am currently contemplating retiring somewhat early from my current career of 28 years to go more corporate comedy and public speaking. The fear is almost overwhelming, but your inspiration is giving me some food for thought. Thanks. Maybe a light at the end of the tunnel...

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  4. Loved this post,,,,full of truth,risky, and life changing. All big shit! Thanks for your wisdom, and taking the time to write it, Tim

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    1. Thanks Tim - great comment coming from you!

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  5. Stay or go? I'm 48, working as a waiter in the evenings and making $10 an hour doing administrative tasks during the day. I've been a copywriter in the past, but the work bores me and is uninspiring. I was born to write humor: novels, short fiction, articles, books... still haven't figured out how to do it for a living. Dave Barry does it, Art Buchwald did it, Christopher Buckley does it... why can't I? I'm 48... where do I begin and how do I pay bills while I'm figuring out the writing thing? I don't want my tombstone to read, "He never figured it out." I'm ready to leap but into what??? Absolutely maddening...

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    1. I find that there isn't money in writing humor without a platform. You see, I don't get paid to write these blogs. The secret to making a living from comedy is identifying your audience and giving them words of value and building your own platform. Meanwhile, you work for others who have a larger platform than yourself.

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    2. Hi Judy. I feel like I "sort" of intuitively know what you mean a platform, but would you mind a quick explanation?

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    3. A "platform" is a combination of your brand and your followers. For instance, book publishers give deals to people who have a lot of followers following their brand - i.e. their blogs, buying their products, showing up when they perform, and of course... commenting on their blogs :)

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  6. You always seem to hit the bell with your blogs. I'm at a crossroads in my life. A time to make CHOICES with home, work, play. At 62 I am having to make to make these choices. Since 1979 I have been in a should I stay or should I go work, home, relationships cycle. I've become quite successful in my theatre world but looks like I may have to leave my Designer status, which was a scary commitment to make. I'm good at that What do I know beyond lights? Is it time to go in front of the lights or something completely different? I love your blogs about regretting things we have or haven't done. Making CHOICES and getting thru or over that wall that holds me down. I will continue to read your blogs and consider what I know about you.
    Perhaps there is some clue or inspiration for me there. Meanwhile, I nap, am nauseous and make calls about housing. ~kod

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  7. We only regret the things we don't do...like leave a dead-end situation. I hail from the Burned Hand Learns Best School, but I'm much better at cutting my losses earlier. I look at bad experiences as the Accelerated Masters Course of Life - what not to do the next time around, quickly learned. You are a light.

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  8. Well, I just had a Eureka moment -- and no, it wasn't because I was in my clean bathtub and displaced most of the water. Maybe I had a D.U.H. moment, which I just labeled "Determined Unstoppable Hussy!" I'm sick of making perfect strangers laugh -- who aren't perfect -- just more impartial. I'm on my way to every comedy club in our galaxy and possibly Zeta Reticuli! That's All it was -- a simple choice. Next year will still be -- next year! Thanks, Judy! And thanks for my D.U.H. moment. (I'm still wet, BTW. Time to USE the towel -- not to throw in the towel!)

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  9. Thank you Judy. I'm at that crossroad again in my life and career. After over 20 years of trying and getting nowhere in my comedy career, I think I'm best in a day job. I have one that doesn't pay enough so I still take a small paying local comedy gig to get a little extra cash. After the FICA convention, I was considering trying to do the corporate gigs that you mentioned, but I need a CLEAN SHOW to make it and I struggle with clean material. I can clean up language, but the jokes that go over for these clean and mainstream shows, I just can't write for. I have such a huge writers block, I can't develop jokes anymore. Also, when I do have a new joke, by the time I finally get a gig, I forget to do the new joke.
    Your blog really hit home for me today. So many people say "don't give up" or "never quit", but realistically, there is a time when one should consider walking. I'm struggling with my choice because my alternative is no better, but it continues to present itself. Am I not a real comedian? Did I just do this because I'm somewhat funny and wanted to showcase for agents? I am really struggling.

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    1. Being a comic is hard as talent DOESN'T always win out. Jobs are few and far between. And you have to really work social media, and build your own platform. So hard. Having money gives you more choices. But, it doesn't mean that you aren't a REAL comedian. If you want to be a comic, spend 50% of your time on research, 40% on marketing, and 10% on being funny.

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  10. Forced into retirement in 2011, due to the closing of where I worked, I finally had no more excuses for doing the things I always wanted to do. Since then, I've published a humor book, joined writers groups, started my own comedy writers group, took acting classes and wrote and starred in a mock USO show as Bob Hope, and a play I wrote, is being produced in October. Procrastination was my worst enemy, but now I look forward every day to finding a new way to spread the laughter. Am I making a lot of money from it? Not much, but I'm enjoying the hell out of my life. From all this, my advice would be don't wait until you're forced into retirement. Find a way to do the things you love. We were issued a one-way ticket at birth, enjoy the ride.

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  11. Thank you, I needed that. I'm thankful I'm not the only comic who thinks Governor's is a pit, along with that awful club in Brooklyn (whose name escapes me) who loves ventriliquists with dummies who talk dirty. What a non-hoot that place was/is.

    It is disturbing that if the crowd doesn't think you're funny they morph into Roman peasants at a gladiator bloodbath. Its so chilling that it changes the way you look at humanity forever, at least it did for me.

    The problem with doing stand-up comedy is you can't pick your audiences, you can stay in NYC and get laughs for no money, or venture out into the hinterlands and be stripped of your soul, what a choice. Sometimes I think I would've done better in comedy if I had had no formal education and been raised by wolves. No offense to wolves, since their predatory natures are fueled by survival instincts, and they are largely illiterate.

    I used to wish I had been born in a time I could've been someone like Jane Austen, until I realized it would've been something else, like not being born with her money and time to write, since I would have been busy scouring the brothels I would have been forced to clean to feed my nine kids. So, comparitively, I suppose I'm lucky. As you can see, I am reknown for looking on the bright side.

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  12. A great motivating write up..pls advice me my comedy career just started..

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Judy's Blog

Judy Carter blogs on comedy, storytelling and public speaking techniques, using personal stories and her adventures as a stand-up comic turned motivational public speaker. Her weekly blogs are read by fans of her books, “The Comedy Bible” (Simon and Schuster) and “The Message of You” (St. Martin’s Press), which include comics, speakers, and entrepreneurs. She is also known for teaching the value of humor and storytelling to businesses as a leadership and stress reduction tool.