I'm doing stand-up and it's working. Should I quit my job?

I don't want to blow an opportunity, but I don't want to end up in the gutter either. What's my choice?


Cary Tennis
February 7, 2008 4:32PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm a single woman in my late 30s. I have a white-collar job that is not exciting, but pays decently with good benefits and lots of security. I could be way worse off.

A few years ago I started doing stand-up comedy at open mics around town. Guess what? I don't suck! I've had my share of bad sets and certainly bombed a few times, but I've also had a good number of great sets, and even some killer ones. Considering the relatively short time I've been doing stand-up, I'm progressing quite nicely.

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Winning over a roomful of strangers who moments ago didn't give a shit about you, getting laughs from an original joke that you wrote, having veteran comics congratulate you on your set ... it's a great feeling. Being a comic has become part of my identity -- I'm not just another office drone. Stand-up is an arena where I don't have to play nice, fit in and keep a low profile. I can be clever, snide, dirty and raw. When you make them laugh, nobody minds that you are the smartest person in the room.

And it's impossible not to wonder just how far I could go as a comic. Fame? Money? Could I get all that?

Here's my problem: The late nights are killing me. Stand-up requires spending many nights hanging out in divey bars waiting for your turn at the mic, and networking with other comics and MCs. This is not compatible with keeping up appearances at a 9-to-5. It also doesn't fit in well going to the gym and doing my other hobbies and interests. Like anything else, stand-up requires a consistent effort in order to become truly proficient. You can't do it half-assed.

I feel like my options are: 1) become an overweight, single-minded, exhausted, miserable person but a really great comic or 2) become a fit, well-rounded person who would be quite emotionally healthy if it weren't for that whole gave-up-on-a-dream thing.

What do you think, Cary?

Not a Hack

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Dear Not a Hack,

From personal experience I can say that if you continue as you are, something will break. You will crack up or get sick. You will blow a big gig or you will blow off your job or you will find yourself strangely drawn to momentary ecstasies that blur your vision.

So if you are smart (Don't look at me! I had to learn from experience!) you will begin now to look for a new job. The new job will be flexible. It will allow you to come in late and work from home when necessary. It will allow you to take time off on short notice. It may not pay as well as the current job or be as secure, but it will allow you to keep doing the stand-up.

Your goal will be to gradually increase the income from the stand-up and become less dependent on the straight job. What you want to do is decrease the time and energy you spend on the straight job, and expand your dramatic activities -- expand your writing, prepare parts for movies, try writing scripts, take acting workshops, audition for plays and movies, etc.

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It's not either/or. It's both. You take care of business and you do your art. You play roles. In your art maybe you act crazy. But in your life, you play the adult role. You act smart. You arrange things. You take care of your art.

Your art doesn't know what the fuck it's doing. It's art. What does it know? Your art is like a kid. You have to be the parent and take care of it. It's a big job. Some people get this intuitively. Others, like me and perhaps like you, we have to figure it out. It takes work.

I used to think books like "The Artist's Way" and some such were for sissies. I had this macho view of being an artist: If you are an artist, you are stronger than everyone else. You just do it. You don't need no stinkin' Artist's Way. You don't need no stinkin' help. Help is for sissies. Real artists just work and work and work. But now I see that while you, the adult, may not need help, your art does. It needs all the help it can get.

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I had this notion that real artists don't think and plan. That was a very crazy notion. It arose out of a misreading of the romantic tradition and the tradition of inspiration and spontaneity.

The truth is that thinking and planning are very difficult and they require courage and serenity. But they are essential to creativity. One may be greatly talented but lack life management skills. There is no shame in that. One can acquire life management skills more easily than one can acquire the ability to make people laugh.

Failure is not funny or artistic. It's just failure. So don't fail. Get the resources you need. Set up an ongoing survival structure. Do you need occasional counseling and psychotherapy? Look into it. Do you need financial planning? Look into it. Do you need accounting services, housekeeping, pet sitting, wardrobe? Look into the necessary maintenance services. Set yourself up as a going concern. And then keep going.

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I'm in it for the long haul now. Let's all be in it for the long haul. Let's survive. There is much, much, much more to do. It's a very interesting world, and a very funny world, too. Let's survive.


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