Bo Guthrie knows that the key to success in stand-up comedy is never giving up, but when does persistence become foolishness?
I became a comic for two reasons. The first, it was hard for me to imagine working a job for the rest of my life. I was fairly well educated and I was – and I think I still am (maybe) – intelligent, but taking the nascent adult I was and forcing it into a career path seemed a waste of potential. No matter what I considered – lawyer, doctor, web developer, fucking taxidermist – I couldn’t help but get caught up in downsides. The second reason was that I loved comedy. I think most people do. For me, though, humor was and remains the primary way in which I bond with people. I was good at making people laugh. So, in July of 2010 I took the plunge and did my first open mic. It was such a harrowing experience that it took me three months to regrow my nuts and try it again. I got up for the second time in October, which I mark as the beginning of my “career” as a comic, and I fell in love. Don’t misunderstand, I bombed terribly that second time, but I also knew with a certainty I hadn’t felt about anything else that I wanted to be a professional comic.
I got a very important piece of advice once from a very well-known and successful comic. He told me that everyone he knew that stuck with it had success in comedy. You just have to be “good enough” and the rest is a matter of resilience. This is at once the most bleak, optimistic, and accurate description of a comic’s path that I’ve ever heard. And what made it worse was the fact that it sounded familiar.
I’d been told something very similar when I took my first corporate sales job, literally going door to door pitching office supplies. If you follow the sales process and play the law of averages, you’ll make money and one day you’ll get to have an office and lead your own team of sales reps and then you’ll be rich and you’ll be able to buy nice things and live in a fancy house and have a lot of crazy rich people sex, they said. It’s simply a matter of persistence and determination! They said that, too. It scares me to think that comedy might share that business model.
Through comedy I felt I could unite my avocation and my vocation, to paraphrase Robert Frost. I felt that comedy was the way I wanted to make my mark on the world. Which is why I am particularly bothered by the fact that I may give it up. I am also bothered by the fact that I paraphrased Robert Frost.
I want to believe that persistence will pay off in comedy. Like that successful comic told me, you don’t know if you’re “good enough,” you don’t know what kind of success you may have, and you have no idea how long it will take to reach that success, but if you grind through it there’s a good chance you’ll get to live out your dream of being a comic. Why couldn’t I have developed a passion for dentistry? There you at least get a professional license to prove you’re good enough.
I remember why I left that sales job, though. It was brutal. After a month of constant rejection of the worst kind it dawned on me that, yes, success might come with persistence, but look at what I’m enduring to get there. How much risk am I taking investing so many years in thankless, low-pay work on the chance, the slim chance, of early retirement? The last thing I want is to realize fifteen years down the line that, for all my sacrifices, I’m left with an unfulfilled dream and the nagging feeling that maybe I should have given up a long time ago. At what point does persistence become delusional? You always hear parables about mountains being worn down by slow trickles of water, but obviously that doesn’t work every time because there are still a lot of damn mountains.
Real quick, let me make it perfectly clear that the comparison between corporate sales and comedy ends right fucking there. Sales is predatory, unfulfilling, borderline evil work and I’m sorry if that offends you but it’s true so shut up. Comedy is an art and it’s fun as shit even when it’s terrible. But they both have that grim model of blind, heedless persistence. They both demand that you invest years of your life in unnoticed work. With comedy even more so, you trade in the stability and peace of mind that a more traditional career has to offer for the chance to live your dream and the hope that you can achieve it if you just never, ever quit. But never is an awful long time. In the real world, how long do you wait for that dream to come to fruition before you decide that the sacrifice is no longer worth it? In short, when is giving up prudent?
It’s a question I don’t pretend to have an answer to.. Right now, I still can’t imagine doing anything else. And in the end, I personally feel that it’s better to have tried and failed than to be a dentist.