Friday, March 11, 2011

Technology, Showbiz, and The American Dream

Back in 1989, I quit my day job to focus on pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian. I'd been doing comedy for a few years, and had become obsessed. I figured the only way to really give it a shot was to quit my day job. And it was a good job, too. A technology-based job. The kind of job where you need an education and a resume and...

The ability to sit in a cubicle for 8 hours a day.

While I did possess that ability, it wasn’t satisfying me. In fact, it was sucking the life out of me.

So I ventured out of my cubicle, and into the Bohemian lifestyle of stand-up comedy.

It was a risk, but it was something I had to do. I was 29 years old, and not getting any younger.

I really enjoy live performances. There's nothing like the immediacy of a live show. And I'd gotten to the point where I was able to hold the attention of an audience for 30 minutes, which led to my first full-fledged comedy booking for an entire week at a club in Phoenix.

They flew me out, put me up in a hotel room near the club... and gave me by biggest paycheck to date. I got to do 30 minutes in the middle of each show... a sweet spot. You don’t have to warm up the crowd, and don’t have the pressure of closing the show. I did six shows that week... three hours of stage time... in 4 days. People even asked for my autograph at the end of the night. It was awesome... except for one thing...

I don't like to travel.

Now, I don't mind it now and then, but it's not something I want to do all that often. Not only is there the inconvenience of airports, taxis, packing, unpacking, never sleeping in your own bed... but when you're doing stand-up, most of the day is free time. Don’t get me wrong. I like free time. But it drove me crazy being away from home with nothing to do. I suppose I could have played tourist, but I wasn’t exactly rolling in dough. The money I made on the road was going to come in real handy paying rent and bills. I supposed if I'd been more disciplined, I could have been writing all day... but that's not the way I liked spending my day. Comedy ideas have always been things that hit me while I'm living my life. Funny stuff happens, I jot down a note, and expand on it later. I can't just sit down 8 hours a day and write jokes. And being totally immersed in the airport, hotel, and comedy club, I began to see why so many comedians had so many jokes about those things. They had no other life to draw from.

I’d finally achieved one of my goals as a comic, and I didn’t like it. The stage time was awesome, but I wasn't in the mood to be away from home 42 weeks a year.

Unfortunately, that's the only way to make money as a comedian. You can get stage time in Hollywood, but you aren't going to make any money there. A free drink or a sandwich... maybe. A few bucks here and there... if you're really lucky. But to make a living as a comic, you have to hit the road.

So, after about 3 years of focusing on comedy, I was ready to go back to the land of the cubicle. More importantly... the land of the steady paycheck. It may have been a mind-numbing experience at times, but it was a hell of a lot easier to eat and pay the rent doing my technology-based job from the comfy confines of a cubicle. And when I wasn't in my cubicle, I could spend the rest of my time on my couch. Cubicle... couch... cubicle... couch...

I was back to living the American Dream...

Kind of.

Problem was, I kept feeling like something was missing.

In the 20 years since I quit the 100% Bohemian lifestyle of stand-up comedy, I've hit the stage a few times here and there. I get the urge, hit the stage, get it out of my system, and go back to my couch. I even started "pursuing" it again several years ago -- hitting stages in Hollywood and Orange County every week -- until it occurred to me that reality hadn't changed.

You can't make a living as a stand-up comic without going on the road.

Then there was a stretch of time in the late 1990's to early 2000's where I added some more mileage to my car doing the singer-songwriter thing at coffeehouses, and hauling DJ equipment around for some parties and festivals. Again, I liked the live performances, but got tired of getting up off my butt a couple times a week to drive around town for a little bit of stage time.

For the past 5 years, I've been pursuing a career as an actor. There were times in that first year of auditioning that I was going up to LA once or twice a week. Living in San Diego, working a day job, driving the kids to and from school, and going to LA once or twice a week, well... I’d count that as “paying my dues”... again.

I don’t drive to LA nearly as much as I did that first year.

The first year I was auditioning in LA, I drove up there for the chance of getting a role in something that would pay a hundred bucks. I even submitted myself for roles that would only "pay" you in food... plus the promise of "credit" and "copy".

Those last two are hilarious. You invest several hours of your time driving to and from an audition -- sometimes, if you're lucky, you get a "call-back"... meaning that you get to drive several more hours for another audition... for the same role -- and your "pay" on the back-end is "credit" and "copy"!

In case you don't know... "credit" means they'll put your name in the on-screen credits of the film/show, and "copy" means they'll give you a copy of the film/show... so you can add it to your "reel" (the equivalent of a video resume).

Once I added up all of the hours and gas money and vehicle wear-and-tear... I realized that even if I were lucky enough to be cast in a role (which, by the way, would mean more time invested, and more gas money, and more vehicle wear-and-tear), I would be losing time and money indefinitely... all with the promise of a carrot-dangling prize of someday making a lot more money than any human deserves to make.

But I digress... or do I? Isn't this the point? What is the point?

The point is, while I love performing, I've gotten tired of spending hundreds of hours, driving thousands of miles, and spending thousands of dollars... at the off chance that I might get to say 2 lines in a film or TV project. And on the _really_ off chance that I’ll be making obscene amounts of money someday.

I haven't totally given up on that, mind you. But I'm much more selective now. I'll only submit myself to stuff that's either very visible, or that's going to pay a decent amount of money if I get it. And in the years since I quit my day job in 1989, I've found a balance between my techie day job and my desire to do something on-the-side.

Mainly, I’m getting my performing fix on my own terms -- and feeling much better about myself in the process -- by doing daily YouTube videos. I'm personally rewarded by creating a new project every day. Technology is finally allowing me to get rewards greater than the level of energy I’m exerting.

It may not be paying me anything (yet), but it's also not putting any miles on my car. And since I'm not investing all of that extra time and money, it's kind of like making money... but not spending it.

Most importantly, I don't need anybody's permission to do it. I'm getting cast in every role I'm up for... every day. I'm "putting myself out there" more than I ever did by driving all around Southern California performing for a handful of people here and there over the past 20 years.

Thanks to technology, I've found my own place in the entertainment industry... without ever leaving my apartment.

Now _that_ is my idea of "The American Dream".

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