Every August I look forward to the same milestone: one more year in the stand-up game. I have officially been performing stand-up comedy for eight years. We as a society tend to look at someone who put in their time as an authority in their field or on their craft. Comedians especially tend to grant themselves this authority quite easily, with very little question. I mean, use myself as an example. I handed out more comedy advice in my first year than I ever would dare to today. There is something about the enthusiasm and euphoria of starting out in stand-up that makes ambition and confidence a toxic combination. As the years go on, and the more you grow to appreciate all the little intricacies of making people laugh, your eyes are open to how much you don’t know anything at all. So goes the old expression, “The know that I know nothing.” And that dude was Socrates!
A modern day Socrates had his own say on the realm of comedy advice. Doug Stanhope says any time you give someone advice you’re only telling them how to be more like you. We are singular and so is our perspective. So I agree with this take. But I also think that doesn’t stop people from giving advice or receiving it.
For today’s post, instead of directly giving advice on standup comedy, I’m just going to freely talk about what I’ve learned along the way and if it helps you, great. If it doesn’t, then you’re less than human and undeserving of the sun’s warmth.
Year One – Completely Clueless and Very Lucky (2009-2010)
I was working at a call centre after racking up copious amounts of debt from film school. I was broke and felt like a loser. I wanted to try stand-up comedy for two years but didn’t have the guts. I needed to hit rock bottom first before going into stand-up. Then Stand-Up said, “Oh? You thought that was rock bottom? No, no, no.” After condescendingly wiping crumbs off its chin.
I was attracted to stand-up because, as opposed to my path in film at the time, it didn’t require a bunch of crew members, actors, directors, editors, sound engineers and producers to get it right. It was just you and the independence was sexy to me. There was something very pop-punk about comedy. It felt rebellious even though everyone was doing it.
I spent my first year coming up with bad jokes and trying to learn how to be funny. I became obsessed with what makes people laugh and quickly learned that my jokes weren’t funny but I could be with or without them. I started dabbling in crowd work a little bit and experimenting often with different comedy styles.
I had some cheesy one-liners: “Last night I had a wet dream. I was a synchronized swimmer.”
I had some weird jokes: “So my mom looks like the Penguin from Batman…”
And I experimented. A lot. Most evident in my live poem, ‘I Don’t Fit In My Bathtub.’ This one might have came closer to Year Two but who knows. It’s all a blur to me now.
I got a lot of lucky breaks right away. I won a few amateur competitions within my first couple months, I was making fast friends with some great comedians who were also first starting out (Patrick Coppolino, Anthony Mlekuz, etc) plus had the help of some old-pros to guide me along my way (Manolis Zontanos, Donnie Coy, etc.) I did an open mic for a single table that eventually lead me to opening up a show at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre for 1100 people. The first time I heard the concept of “feeling the wind from the laughter.” I also got paid gigs my first year. I can admit that all of this had everything to do with luck and nothing to do with talent.
My comedy sucked but I was taking big risks and people liked my energy. This created an expectation of a fast-moving career. I think I started my fan page within the first three months of being in stand-up? I was already planning my HBO special and writing pros like Ralphie May and Patton Oswalt to see if I could open for them. I thought very highly of myself and had a naive disregard for how I was perceived or how I was representing myself.
So it was perfect. That’s how the first year of comedy typically goes. What I didn’t notice until years later was a lot comedians stretch out their first year mistakes for a long time after. Evaluating yourself is really important because you are your everything. Don’t be content with who you are at the beginning. No self-respecting adult wants to live like a newborn. You want to walk and talk and run and play. Same goes for comedy.
- Moral of the Story: Give yourself over to the process and not your ego. Speaking of…
Year Two – Hubris, Ego, Friends and Failure (2010-2011)
Yeah, I became majorly full of myself. And I still am (at times). It’s a defense mechanism for people who feel like they’re not good enough. Something comedy is going to do is make you do one of two things: You’re either going to confront yourself or delude yourself. Stand-up is vulnerable. You’re the one in the spotlight and all eyes are on you. During the first year, everything was so new and exciting that I walked into Year Two with some swag. I was producing shows with friends, doing our own thing, and then reality smacks you in the chops.
I remember that was the first year I had an audience member physically charge me on stage. I got rejected by one of my comedy heroes after doing some work for him and walked home in the rain like a sad teen movie. It was the first year I was booed off stage. The first year where my family told me maybe I’m “wasting my time and should find a new hobby.” The reality started to settle in. I liked comedy but I wasn’t as good as I thought I was and started to realize I wasn’t entitled to anything. This didn’t humble me. It only made me go deeper into the bad parts of stand-up.
I was already drinking but I started drinking heavier than ever before. It was becoming my crutch and comedy audiences became something I assaulted, not entertained. Taking out your problems on the general public is probably not the best course of action. A hard lesson I learned many times over in the years to come.
Even though things were about become harder, not easier, some good things came out of that year. The opportunity that stands out the most for me was the fact that this was the first year I became the regular host of the Brantford Comedy Festival. I got to help build that festival over the next seven years and I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned and been through with this festival.
Also! This was the year I first met Mayce Galoni. Very cool to see a true comedy master at his inception.
- Moral of the Story: Just because things are bad doesn’t mean there won’t be a pay-off down the line. Try not to be an asshole.
Year Three – Things Get Dark-Sided (2011-2012)
The next two entries I’m not going to write a lot for. These are the years I regret the most. I drank heavy. I got kicked out of shows and off of festivals for my drunken behaviour. Alienated my friends and family. Wasted stage time. Didn’t become any funnier. Bombed a bunch. Comedy coincides with your real life and is often a reflection of it. But this was the beginning of me starting to give into the concept of self-evaluation. I started to realize that my actions come with consequences and began to own my mistakes. Not that owning your mistakes makes you some kind of hero. It just makes it easier to seek closure and grow from what you’ve been through. But if you’re not going to own up to the bad things you say and do, there’s going to be an overwhelming sense of hopelessness down the line after you’ve burned every bridge in sight and have nowhere else to go. For every one comedian that makes it, there’s a thousand cautionary tales.
- Moral of the Story: The dark times suck but can be a necessary part of your growth.
Year Four – Things Are Still Dark-Sided (2012 – 2013)
I don’t even remember this year. I was neck-deep in a a day job I didn’t like, drinking all the time and taking Ls left, right and centre. I had some cool opportunities come my way but they fizzled out because I was either not ready or not conscious.
- Moral of the Story: If you hang in there long enough, hope is always right around the corner…
Years Five and Six – The Emerson Days (2013 – 2015)
Year Five was the first time I stopped being so attached to the validation of others and started making decisions with my gut. Instead of trekking into Toronto night after night in the unforgiving Canadian winter I decided to host a weekly open mic at a small college bar down the street from McMaster. I was eating chicken wings with my ex-personal-trainer when the manager at the time said, “Hey! You’re a comedian! Want to do a show here?” To which I replied, “When is your dead night?” He said Tuesday. I said okay. Then I started the most important chapter of my comedy life. Emerson.
Running a weekly show wasn’t easy and everyone wants to tell you the proper way to do it. I made unpopular decisions. I only booked a week in advance, I only booked six acts plus two lotto spots, I didn’t repeat acts very often, and I did a lot of time on the mic. This little science experiment showed me a couple things.
- The format that was heavily criticized by my peers ended up creating one of the most successful shows in the city. Just because someone says you’re wrong, doesn’t mean you are
- People are motivated by their own agendas and don’t know how to splinter their intentions: AKA doing something for yourself that is also for other people
- The show ended up being great for the audience because it was always different and great for the comedians because the audience was into it. This was the birth of my “crowd psychology” philosophies and started teaching me about how groups of people think and act when put into the same bottle at one time
- I wasn’t able to travel for mic time in Toronto and running my own show gave me the leeway to learn about being funny and controlling a crowd
- I learned about traditions and narratives: Giving people nicknames for fun and continuing stories from the week before
- I learned to embrace the audience because without them we have nothing. Going to the door and shaking their hands, getting their names, adding them to social media and being involved.
- All of this lead to comedy being much more missional and personally fulfilling because it was no longer about assaulting crowds but working for the crowd
- And lastly, just because you have a good thing doesn’t mean you need to hold onto it forever. Complacency is death for comedy. Get what you can out of your little ventures and once the personal growth stops, listen to the signs and bravely move on. It’s going to suck knowing you’re leaving something awesome behind but now you get to go forward and create awesome things in others ways, in other places, for other people
Leaving Emerson was one of the hardest decisions I had to make because we became a family. Everyone had a nickname, we would pack the place out and have people sit on the stage. It was magic. The problem with magic is that people want to recreate it, duplicate it, resurrect it, or hold onto it forever. But magic exists in moments and star alignments. Something that comes and goes and no person on earth has true control over it. The wise ones know what to do with it when it appears and the unwise ones have it in the palm of their hand and let it fizzle into dust, like it was never there.
- Moral of the Story: Comedy is and can be more than simply entertaining for the sake of being the comedy equivalent of a cat chasing a laser pointer. Find out what that means to you and don’t be afraid to take some heat for your decisions. Stand by your values as long as you’re willing to question them and learn from your mistakes.
Year Seven: Something’s Gotta Give (2015 – 2016)
I had a moment of self-reflection (because I’ve reached Super Saiyan levels of self-absorption and reflecting on my life is basically all I do) when I realized I was getting complacent, doing the same things for the same people, and had to move on. It wasn’t just in comedy. But it was in my day job, my personal life, everything. I took some time away from the mic and started coming up with a plan. I knew at this point in my life I wanted to be a father and that was very important to me. I used to put it off because I wasn’t financially stable enough and didn’t respect myself as a comedian or a person. So there was this downtrodden attitude towards myself that kept these conversations going of what I deserve and don’t deserve. It took some humility and shutting up to just lay my values on the table and start walking towards what I want. I realized, yes, I really want to be a father. Also, I don’t want to work a full-time job for someone else anymore. In fact, I would like to work for myself and free up my time. I also don’t want to be a world famous comedian. I am comfortable being the indie-guy and contributing to amazing shows for amazing people. I have become comfortable with who I am and what I’ve experienced and once I owned ALL of that…moving forward was a cinch.
The next year I had a baby and left my job. Now I’m the thick of figuring it all out.
- Moral of the Story: You can try your best to avoid the inevitable but if you got some truth in your gut that won’t stomp rumbling, it’s going to come out one way or another. Don’t make excuses why you deserve to live with the indigestion.
Year Eight – There’s a Very Thin Line Between the Future and the Past (2016 -Present)
I had an experience recently where I was confronted by a comedian about something I had said in September of 2015. I took the liberty to critique the comedian’s set and was very harsh about it. It had a long-standing impact on the comedian to the point where I wasn’t confronted about it until two years later. I can talk all day about how much I’ve changed or the things I’ve been through, make excuses for myself or twist the other person’s point of view. But the truth remains: Comedy is about ownership. As much as I hate to admit this, comedy means a lot to me. I wish it didn’t. I wish it didn’t hurt me, I wish it didn’t revive me, and I especially wish that I wasn’t so obsessive over this craft. I care about the art of it, I care about the business of it, I care about the audience, I care about the comedians, and I’m notorious for saying that caring is a crutch. That the moment you care about something or someone you leave yourself vulnerable to pain, misery, failure and contempt. But as much as I want to be a cold-hearted Cylon, I’m not. I’m just an average citizen of Caprica hoping my planet doesn’t get blown to smithereens.
Your actions and words can have a lasting impact that you’re totally blind to and you could be effecting people in positive or negative ways and have no idea what is happening and why. I heard the comedian out who had the courage to confront me and had to eat my humble pie. Admit my wrong, apologize and move forward. I don’t think any of us are entitled to forgiveness or for that matter validation. Life is conflict and people are imperfect.
I look back over all the years, all the places I’ve been, shows I’ve done and people I’ve seen, and I think to myself, “Damn, that’s a lot of life.” We all have different definitions of winning and I have been plagued by mine. The idea that once I get on this one show or do this one thing or be appreciated by this one comedian or have this one thing go well that everything will be okay and I can say from the top of Everest, “I made it!”
I may never be able to say “I made it” but I can confidently say “I make it.” I make comedy, in real places for real people. I make memories, I make lasting impressions, I make a place for people to fail, I make a place where people accept each other. I make so many things, all the time, and my life has been on this trajectory. To make things, for myself and for everyone.
That’s the sweet spot.
- Moral of the Story: Own your shit.
Where Do We Go From Here?
My next steps will be working on a comedy promotion that will be running some unique monthly shows starting with a show at a board game cafe in the east end of Hamilton. From there, I inspire to one day open my own independent comedy club or run independent comedy tours across Canada. For now, Hamilton is my home, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m open to what comes my way but also selective about what I do and who I do it with because I care so much about this and want it to be great. I will continue writing if I have something to say. I will continue making people feel safe to be themselves as the world continues to implode in on itself. Most importantly, I will continue having fun, experimenting, failing and searching for myself. The fact that we’re never complete, even when our story comes to an end, is the ultimate punchline.
Ask Me Anything!
I only know what I know from my perspective but if you’re a new comedian or an old comedian or a troll or just someone who likes to read my blog: COMMENT BELOW AND ASK ME ANYTHING! I’ll make this an open forum to talk about comedy, addiction, self-discovery, strategy, business, whatever. I’m an open book and happy to do this if you want to.
If you managed to get this far into my blog, wow, you’re a champ. Thank you so much for reading and I hope you got something out of it. Sharing this kind of stuff with your social media circles would be doing me a huge solid. Just looking to write more, write better and create some interaction if we can.
Also feel free to tell me a bit about your journey. What’s it been like for you and what are some hard lessons you dragged out from the muck?
Clifford Myers is a stand-up comedian from Hamilton, Ontario.