The Road. It surfaces in every conversation about stand-up comedy. It’s concrete and tangible, but it’s also metaphorical and can take on an abstract, ethereal identity. To learn the craft of stand-up comedy and become a successful performer, the conventional wisdom is that comics must surrender to the road and figure things out.
I imagine young jesters in ancient Athens received the same advice when they asked how to go about performing for emperors: “Embark on the road my son,” said the white-haired, bearded guy in my imagination. “There, you will find that which you seek.” The road is a physical and spiritual journey.
For Women in Comedy week, we reached out to one of these road warriors making a name for herself on the club circuit and asked her to share her experiences. Nikki Glaser is a ribald yet brainy comic on the verge of the Big Time. Glaser, 26, has been performing stand-up in bars, clubs and theaters across the country since she was 18. She was featured prominently in last year’s stand-up comedy documentary I Am Comic, and recently moved to New York City after living with her parents in St. Louis for 18 months to save some money. (Her explanations for moving back home — she had previously lived in Los Angeles — as well as a scene depicting how lonely life on the road can be sometimes, were some of the best examples of the rigors road comics face.)
Glaser (@NikkiGlaser) conservatively estimates she’s on stage an average of six times per week, and even though she’s recently graduated from feature act to headliner, she won’t be slowing her breakneck pace any time soon. Her friends and colleagues in New York may stick to the local club and theater scene, but not Glaser. She’s about to hit the road for seven weeks straight, including a weeklong gig in Kansas City.
She’s got to pay the rent somehow.
What made you leave St. Louis? In I am Comic, you talked about how it became almost necessary financially for you to live with your folks.
Well, I moved to Los Angeles right out of college and was able to work the road from there due to my exposure on Last Comic Standing in 2006 (the first time I did it). Doug Benson took me out on the road with him as his feature, so I was able to break into a lot of clubs that way. But I soon found out that I couldn't afford LA on a feature's pay, so I moved back home where I could drive to gigs easily and save money for whatever move I wanted to make next. In that time, I also became a headliner, so the money got better. Not great, but better. By the fall of last year, I felt ready to move out. New York City made sense because I wanted to really focus on stand up. I love the scene here.
Why NYC over LA?
It's funny. When I moved here, and I told other comics that I used to live in LA, the first thing they’d say was "so you hated LA?" which is not the reason at all. I definitely miss the stand-up scene in LA, but it's definitely different here. The bar is raised. So many great comics are working incredibly hard every night. With that kind of work ethic and talent around you, you can't help but work and get better. I need that kind of motivation. Plus, I had a lot of friends here and knew the transition wouldn't be as rough as when I entered the LA scene when I was 21. That was very tough.
Are you working the road less now that you’re in New York?
Nope, just as much. It's the only way I know how to make money. My new goal in life is to never nanny again. I will do anything in my power to make that dream a reality. So yeah, I’m out on the road as much as I can be, but work comes and goes. You go through dry spells. I'm about to hit a wet spell, though — almost 7 weeks in a row.
But what about the junk food raids nannying allows?
Oh man, that's the best part for sure. But the thing is, I’ll just never love your kid as much as you do. It's impossible. I babysat for Judd Apatow when I lived in LA. It was a great gig, but it pained me to be around such greatness and only be known as a nanny.
Seven weeks? Holy crap. Now that you're a headliner, are you flying to these shows or still driving or both?
I left my car in St. Louis, so mostly flying. I plan on renting a car for the closer gigs though, and I’m still middling here and there. There are times when I just have to take what I can get. The road keeps me sharp in a way that I can't find in NYC yet. When I get to a point here where I can get five spots every night, I'll start turning down weeks. I just can't turn work down now. It's too valuable, not just for the money, but for the stage time. I like to think I come back after a week on the road about 2 percent better. That adds up after a while.
I'll get back to what you just said in a moment, but do you think you'd still be playing the road so much if you had to drive everywhere? That to me seems like it has to be the toughest part of stand up – spending so much of your time driving across the country.
I love driving to gigs. Before you get started, it seems like such a pain in the ass, but it's really not. It's good alone time. That's one thing I miss about living in NYC. I can't sing at the top of my lungs on the train. Also, I have roommates. THERE'S NOWHERE TO SING! But seriously, I look back on my four 10-hour drives to and from Appleton, Wis. last year so fondly — just me and my shitty Civic (Editor’s note: Glaser’s shitty Civic has more than 250,000 miles on it). I catch up on phone calls, get a lot of thinking and writing done, smoke pot. The time flies.
Is there a sense of accomplishment if you can kill on the road anywhere in America as opposed to killing in front of receptive comedy fans at theaters in LA and NYC?
Sure, but LA and NYC don't really give a shit either way. When I first moved to NYC, I was super self-conscious about sounding too "roady" in the sense that it might seem too rehearsed, but really, I try my best to be the same comic on or off the road. I try and challenge road crowds to go with me on certain, more absurd bits. On the other hand, I try to trick hip NYC crowds into embracing bits I've been perfecting for years.
That’s really interesting. Is it a faux pas to perform a rehearsed bit to the hip crowds?
Yeah, I mean, they're hip, so they don't want to laugh at something that sounds contrived in any way. The trick is adding more "ums” and "likes” to give the illusion that you're coming up with it off the top of your head. I’m kidding, but seriously, they tend to clam up when they sense it has been done to death, as would anyone. It's good though, because it forces you to freshen up stale bits. It's a challenge.
NYC and LA aside, do you change up your sets or approach much when you’re playing different parts of the country?
Yes. I have learned over the years that the more liberal the town, the more groans you'll get. I remember thinking that San Francisco was going to be a place where I could spread my wings and let my darkest, weirdest material fly, but I quickly learned that was not the case.
That being said, I can't do that material in Kentucky either. The fact that they like racial material there scares me sometimes. It’s like, are you laughing at the irony or does the mention of black people just make you laugh? It's a weird balance. But like I said, I really try not to hold back wherever I go. I would rather a few people come up to me after a show and say that they loved me as opposed to phoning it in and mildly pleasing everyone. But really, I hide out after shows. I can't bear looking someone in the eye that I may have offended or not entertained. It stays with me.
Where can you get away with your darkest material, out of curiosity?
I can get away with it when I’m headlining because it allows me enough time up there to gain an audience's trust.
So why does performing on the road make you 2 percent better each week?
Because at the very least, you're doing six shows, 25 minutes each. Spots in NYC and LA are about eight minutes each, on average, and each crowd at a bar show or comedy club in the city is going to be filled with a different group of people. But when I go to a club in Richmond, Va., the crowds are going to be pretty much the same; you have a control group for your comedy experiment all weekend. When I have two or three-show nights, you can learn from your mistakes right away and correct them in the next show. The pace and length of shows at a comedy club on the road forces me to make changes and assess what happened in a way that I don't do outside the club. I’m just never going to be one of these comics who sits down after a show and reviews the tape. That process is much too painful. My growth as a seasoned performer comes from stage time and stage time only. Writing is another thing that tends to also happen on stage while on the road. You get bored with your act quicker and so stuff comes out on stage that you aren't anticipating. That's when you yell to the back of the room "someone write that down," and then no one does and it's lost forever.
Tell me about the road. Is it as crazy as we think it is? What are the absolute truths? What are the misconceptions?
It can be crazy. I’m a chick, so I tend to play it safe and not involve myself with too much debauchery because I’m often alone. But when working with other comics who are friends, or at a club with an awesome wait staff, there can be a lot of partying. For the most part, though, it's pretty tame and boring, and, at times, lonely.
You get that sense watching I Am Comic. Are there any particular goals of yours that being on the road so often has made them difficult for you to achieve or prevented you from accomplishing?
I'd like to say yes, because it would make me feel better about not accomplishing those things, but really, no. I have nothing but time on the road to do what I need to get done. I'd like to be able to make a living doing stand up in NYC or LA alone, and I wish the money were better out there, but I can't complain. It's a pretty sweet life, but I can't do it forever. It's perfect for my 20s. I’m single, I don't plan on being a mother any time soon, and I have no problem living like a nomad, but my enthusiasm for this lifestyle will surely wane. I never want to stop doing stand up, but a writing job is starting look more appealing every year. The road is just the only way I've found to make money doing comedy, so until something else comes along, I’m happy doing it.
That being said. What’s on the horizon for you? Anything in the works?
I have a CD coming out soon that I taped in September. The delay is only due to my issues with listening to myself on tape. I’ll get past it, though. From what I remember during the taping, I'm going to be very proud of it. Other than that, I have a podcast that people seem to really enjoy with my friend and comedian Sara Schaefer called You Had To Be There, where we interview a comic and musician at a small gathering of friends in her Brooklyn apartment. But yeah, just a lot of road work. I’m excited about it though because as a headliner, I get to bring out my friends with me to feature. There's nothing better than working with friends. That, right there, is my favorite part of the road. Next week I’m featuring at the Orlando Improv. I got booked on the date months ago and just checked their website to see who I'm working with. That's always a gamble. I was thrilled to see it's Bert Kreisher headlining. He is one of my all time favorite headliners to work with. And my friend, Amy Schumer, says their hotel has a water slide. So yeah, I'm pumped for that.
Phil Davidson is worried he uses the word "that" too much when he writes.