If I Can Make It Here…..
Today marks my 2 year anniversary in New York. Somehow, some way I’ve made it in New York City. I wanna stand up and dance but I’m to mentally exhausted to move. It’s been the hardest most brutal journey of my life but I’m proud to say I’ve done it. From dealing with Hurricane Sandy, assault, being basically homeless, and having bed bugs, to making the callbacks for Standup NBC and being internationally published, it’s been an up and down roller coaster. Here are some of the lessons I’ve taken away in my short (yet feels like forever) time living and doing comedy here.
1. Comedy’s A Bitch
New York is the city for standup. It makes you the best comedian you can possibly be. Know why? Because just like an overbearing father, New York doesn’t let you think for one second that you’re special. When you do comedy here you’re just another face in the crowd. It took 6 months for people to start acknowledging me and I’m a 6’6″ homophobic gay guy. Black/Chines lesbian? New York doesn’t care. Albino in a wheelchair? Pshhh that’s nothing. When you do comedy here you’re one of 10,000 other people looking for stage time across the city. Even when you stand out, you don’t stand out.
2. But It Has To Be
There’s a reason comedy in New York is so hard. It separates the men from the not-so men (and women). When you tell jokes here you face the worst possible conditions for laughter. From open mics where the entire audience is comedians, to bar shows where the entire audience is comedians, (or the occasional uninterested-yet-savy patron) telling jokes in this city builds a thick skin. You get comfortable in silence, which is something every comic needs.
A sane person would pack it in and realize how good they have it at their cubicle. Many do. Hilarious people you’re certain will be on TV, don’t have the resolve needed and quit. It’s that hard, but it’s the tooth and nail struggle that makes you appreciate every good set.
You live and breathe being funny. You’re always doing something. Writing, performing, shooting a sketch, thinking about a sketch, taking a class, networking. When you’re not you feel guilty. Unlike most parts of the country with a glass ceiling, New York is the city where dreams come true. Knowing that is both amazing and incredibly disheartening. It’s the constant dangling of a life-changing set that makes you feel like you’re never working hard enough.
You build and lose confidence in yourself everyday. It’s a weird Yin-Yang. On the one hand I know I can rock a stage. I forget how good I am until I go on the road and see the style/quality of comedy in other cities. But then I come back to New York and watch killers annihilate and realize I still have a long way to go. You’re surrounded by the best comedians in the world. It really is sink or swim. 2 years here is 4 years anywhere else. I remember doing a show in AZ just 6 months after moving here and everyone told me WOW you’ve gotten so much better already. Yeah cause as Guns N Roses would say, “you in the jungle baby.”
Every night you get to watch and work with the best comics and learn from them. You can pick their brains about comedy. It’s one of the only cities where pro’s co-mingle with the semi-pros and the micers. Once you get past the hazing ritual and become just another face, comics are friendly and supportive.
3. Everything Costs Here, Even Laughter
You know how they say New York is expensive? That’s not an exaggeration. Even open mics cost in this city. That’s right, to tell jokes to comics who most likely aren’t paying attention you gotta pony up money up front. The old adage “nothing is for free” has never been more accurate. To truly take advantage of all the stage time in this city, you’re gonna have to pay. There are free mics but not enough to do 4/5 sets a night like people say. I stopped killing myself at mics awhile ago but when I first moved here I wasted a lot of money telling jokes. It’s all a part of learning how this city works.
Another huge cost? Food. Groceries are twice as expensive as they were in Arizona. A burrito is $10 a pop without a drink. Most comics survive on $1 pizza to save money. When you’re out every night doing shows, it’s physically impossible to not spend money on food. That’s why I’ve Chipotle’d my way to the poor house.
The only thing that doesn’t cost? Being an audience member. There are 1,000’s of free shows in this city. New Yorker’s are inundated with comedy even when they don’t want to be. “Ambush” shows are incredibly common, where you didn’t know comedy was happening that night and all of a sudden it is. In many ways New Yorkers are comedically jaded because they’ve seen so many bad versions of it. Unless you’re at a club, or being generous when the tip bucket is passed, the audience normally gets comedy for free, whether they want it or not.
4. Non-Americans Are Different And They’re Everywhere
I’ve been fortunate enough to perform at nearly every club in this city. I’ve done 100’s (if not thousands) of shows in every borough and the one constant is that non-Americans will be at the show. New York is a melting pot. A lot of the referential jokes won’t work. In New York the more universal your comedy is, the better off you’ll be. Caribbeans have a different sense of humor than Australians. Europeans tend to be more sensitive, Canadians are more like Americans. Ukranians, well they just don’t laugh. You quickly learn that the American experience is not one everyone understands.
5. You Think Europeans Are Bad? Wait Till You Meet Hipsters
If you think Europeans are sensitive, wait till you venture into Williamsburg/Bushwick. Like a zombie invasion, these uber-liberal hipster vegans are slowly taking over the entire country and PC-policing comedy clubs along the way. As is the case with all groups, not all of them are awful, but 9/10 you’re gonna bomb (or at least I will.) They’ll tell you after the show they were offended by such and such joke. Instead of laughing at your struggles they’ll politely stare. They don’t want Chris Rock, they want jokes about Jenga and obscure Russian philosophy. They like “experimental” forms of comedy or as most of us call it, writhing around on the floor screaming.
6. Alt-Comedy Is Now Club-Comedy Is Now Mainstream?
There’s a big difference between “alt-comedy” and hipster comedy. I don’t know what that is, but I do know right now, all the industry lies in the alt rooms. UCB is the premier sketch/improv space with many high demand stand up shows. The Creek and The Cave is a comedy behemoth. The owner has tremendous influence in most of the top clubs. Just For Laughs auditions are held there. There are exceptions, but most of the people getting noticed these days are doing it from those two places.
The clubs are so hard to get into (and cater to such a specific clientele) that many comics have stopped trying and instead are focusing their energy on the bar scene and the chance of an agent/manager/etc… being at the show. There are so many scenes (Manhattan, Brooklyn, LIC, club, urban, latino, etc…) and so many comics it’s impossible to be in all of them. But the old adage is true, it’s all about who you know.
7. Credits Don’t Mean Anything, But They Mean Everything
When you finally do figure out how to be funny, figuring out how to get noticed by industry is like finding the magic bullet that killed Kennedy. I have every credit besides TV right now (festival, writing, radio, clubs, competitions) and it doesn’t mean anything. Credits in comedy are like a college degree that takes twice as long to get. Sometimes people become huge successes without it, but more often than not it’s necessary to succeed. Then once you do get them, you quickly realize that it means nothing. It’s an arbitrary way for people to say comic A is more important than comic B.
What credits really do is help clubs figure out who can draw. If you’re on a major show, like say Guy Code, then you’ve been exposed to a ton of people. You have more of a chance of people coming to see you because they’re familiar with your comedy. At the end of the day, comedy is a business and the thing that keeps the doors open is food and drink sales.
P.S. Life Lessons
The last thing I’ve learned from being a NYC comedian is perhaps the most important. If you actively pursue comedy here you can do anything. Living in New York is the closest America has to living in a third world country. Every one of your 5 senses is exhausted on a daily basis. It’s easily the most unlivable city I’ve ever encountered, yet the allure of reaching your dreams and changing your life draws people here every day. There’s no other place like New York. For better or worse.
I don’t know if I’ll be here for the long haul. I think of moving all the time. One thing I do know, as long as I’m here I’m gonna ride this ish till the wheels fall off. When you live in New York, there’s no other way.