1,001 Straight Nights of Standup
Sammy Obeid didn’t intend to be in the midst of a streak, but that’s exactly where he is. Sammy takes the stage nightly to perform comedy. Each night he does this, his streak of consecutive performances continues. Though Sammy is considered a pup by comedy’s standard — age: 29, years of service: 6 — he is well on his way to accomplishing something never before done in the world of comedy: perform for a thousand consecutive nights. That’s 2 years, 9 months, and 1 day — no days off — of getting in front of a crowd and trying to make them laugh. Sammy isn’t quite there yet, but he’s close. If he can persist, the streak will come to a close on September 21st, 2013. The past 880 days have brought Sammy from the inspiring highs of national television appearances to depressing lows of performing for heckling crowds of three.
The streak began innocently enough. Upon graduating from UC Berkeley with degrees in math and business, Sammy considered his options. Pounding on one door were high-powered companies of the Silicon Valley, where his analytical skills and business savvy would be easily be applied to keep the high tech motor of the American economy thriving. Lightly tapping on another door were the painful memories of a dream that broke several years ago, stand-up comedy. After months of preparation, Sammy had worked up the nerve to display his comedic talent, inviting scores of family and friends to celebrate his outing. After being received with an awkward silence, Sammy shelved his dream of being a performer and redirected his efforts to academics, which ultimately landed him lucrative offers from companies like Microsoft and Google.
However, something nagged at Sammy. Though the financial security and social approval that came with a successful business career were markers of success all his peers sought, they did not offer something that Sammy had tasted while on stage: risk. Granted his initial performance hadn’t gone as planned but that didn’t mean he couldn’t take another crack at it.
And so, Sammy decided to take a risk. Armed with a renewed fervor, he performed for 30 consecutive days. Only after reviewing his calendar did he realize he hadn’t yet taken a day off, so why not go for the world record – 365 days. On his 365th day, Sammy received an anonymous message hinting that there was another comedian – Hal Sparks – who had performed every night for 2 years straight. Not one to back down from a challenge, Sammy amended his goal and even upped the ante to honor his Arabian heritage: he would perform 1,001 nights consecutively.
In the face of his pursuit, Sammy has faced exhaustion, hecklers, sucker punches, flat tires, and many more obstacles on a daily basis, all in the name of keeping the streak alive. Recently he took a break from the streak to discuss the rigors of performing nightly, receiving the ultimate compliment from Louis CK, sharing headspace with Bill Burr, and more.
Tell me about the streak.
I’m performing standup comedy for 1,001 days in a row. It was originally just to get as good as possible as fast as possible, but then it became this thing I was doing that was different from everyone else. I was drawn to idea of setting a record. Once I committed to it that was that.
What are the ground rules?
Every day I perform to a crowd who knows they are receiving a comedy show. If it’s not a regular comedy show (at a comedy club) it’s an open mic where at least three people are listening.
What’s the most challenging aspect of performing every day?
The part I like the least is the driving. I wish I had a driver. Other than that, there are the challenges of getting booked places. Sometimes I get nervous if I go to the middle of nowhere and there’s only one show. If it gets canceled for some reason I’m screwed. Or if I’m flying back from somewhere and my plane gets delayed. The last place I can get up and do a set is on an airplane. I don’t think it would be a good situation to get myself into. “All right everybody, listen up!” No, I don’t think that would work.
What’s the closest you’ve come to having the streak end?
There have been a lot of close calls. There’s only one show in San Francisco on Sundays and one time at 11:30pm I learned they didn’t have room for me. I found an Irish bar nearby and interrupted karaoke to do some time. The crowd wasn’t into it. A guy from the crowd came up, punched me in the stomach, and threw me on the ground! Fortunately I did my set before it happened so we were good.
I assume he got kicked out?
No, apparently that kind of behavior is encouraged in an Irish bar. They gave him a beer on the house!
Speaking of beer, I understand your current streak is not recognized as a Guinness World Record – why not?
I looked into it but they would have to send out a guy to live with me the whole time and I’d have to pay like $50k or something ridiculous. Instead I document my shows diligently and rely on witnesses if needed. I’m also making a documentary to document the experience.
Can you tell me about the documentary?
For a long time, I wish I had someone following me around with a camera capturing the crazy stuff that happens in the comedy world. And then I started doing the streak a lot of people encouraged me to make it happen. I didn’t have money so I asked around for people who would do it for free. Finally I got connected with guy in LA named Julian who was excited about the project and so he basically agreed to come out a few nights a week and record. We’ve developed a great bond. I met him right around the same time I broke up with my girlfriend, who had been my support team. When we broke up, largely because of the streak, I felt like I had no one. And then Julian came along. He’s the guy that picks me up when I’m down. I’ll have a bad day and he’ll be like, “nope, you’ve gotta keep your head up man!” It’s a great thing.
You have a joke about it not being fair for a homeless man to tease a comedian, the premise being that beggars make more money than a comedian.
The average homeless person in America makes $50/day.
Is that so?
I read it online.
Ok, fair enough. So how do you do it?
Don’t give up. If you ask me right now, do I regret doing comedy? It’s hard to answer. There’s no turning back now. There’s always gonna be a night that makes you want to quit. It can happen every week. It can happen every other day. You have to be able to tell yourself, “I need to keep doing this for a reason. I know that this is taking me somewhere I’m supposed to go.” That’s part of the streak. It’s a way for me to get as good as I could as fast as I could so that I could get out when I want to.
I imagine that the streak provides some structure that a lot of comedians probably lack. Once the streak is over and this structure dissolves, how do you see things changing?
Well, there’s something I’ll actually gain by completing it other than a vacation. What I’m hoping is that by the time the streak draws to a close more people will know about me and become fans of my work. So that, and to not stress about doing comedy every night even though I’m still gonna be doing it most of the time anyway. I’ll also know I’ve paid my dues. Even if I’m bombing one night in the year 2016 and someone’s like, “Man, you suck. You’re not a comedian.” I can say, “I did comedy 1,000 days in a row, you shut up!” I’ll always be able to play that card.
I read that Louis CK called you a genius. Can you tell me about that?
I opened for Louis last summer and I did my flat tire joke (punchline: Sammy asks a homeless man to change a spare, while the homeless man asks Sammy for spare change). The audience isn’t really laughing, which happens sometimes if they don’t like wordplay. After my set Louis didn’t say anything to me so I thought he must’ve seen that joke bomb and thought that I sucked. And then he goes on stage and says, “You know what, fuck you guys for not laughing at Sammy’s flat tire joke! That’s genius. ‘Spare change, change a spare.’ That concept has been sitting on the shelf for years. No one grabbed it. He found it but you fucks didn’t even laugh at it. I dare you to come up with something as smart as that!” It was pretty cool.
What’s a Sammy Obeid fan like?
My fans come in all shapes and sizes. My jokes tend to be higher brow I guess. People who like racial comedy love me. People who like sex jokes like me too. It depends. First and foremost the intellectuals because they’ll get the whole spectrum of my jokes.
What would you be if not a stand-up comic?
Happy doing what?
Pretty much anything else. My passion has always been music. When I was 11 I fell in love with Jimi Hendrix so I started learning the guitar. I was getting really good by 12. A few years later someone told me that Hendrix started when he was four, and I was 15 at the time, I did the math and figured Hendrix had a 7 year lead on me, there’s no way I can be as good, so I quit at 15. I looked it up and he actually started at 15, plus he died at 27, I would have been better than him by 23!
What’s been the best day of your life since the streak began?
One of them was Day 441 where Howard Stern said (on “America’s Got Talent”) I made the right choice doing comedy. That was a very fulfilling day. Another great day – this one kinda personal – was this day where I just did a whole month (of performing) in LA, grinding it out. My acting classes were going really well, and I just set this record where I performed at the three major clubs in LA in one night – the Improv, Laugh Factory, and Comedy Store – which was a huge feat for me. That next day my girlfriend and I travelled to Lake Tahoe for a week, for what felt like a vacation. This day reminds me of feeling like I had just completed something big, and now I was getting a break. That was Day 616.
You recently performed a set at Just For Laughs call-backs, how’d that go?
The crowd was tiny and non-responsive. It felt like I was bombing but everyone else was bombing too, so it’s hard to tell. A lot of times for auditions I regret my choices for material. This time I didn’t have any regrets. When it comes to Montreal, I really want to go. I know that I will be going if not this year then next year. One advantage to not going this year would be I would not have to worry about the streak. I can enjoy myself. That would actually be a blessing in disguise if I don’t go this year.
Who are your comedy influences?
I don’t really idolize anybody. I purposely don’t spend a lot of time watching a lot of other comedians so I can stay in my own head. As a consequence I’ll think of (a joke) someone else does coincidentally but that’s just bound to happen. I would rather do that and find out about it than watch someone else so much that you emulate them.
Can you think of a time when you’ve thought of the same joke as another comedian?
It happened with Bill Burr, a really funny comedian. There’s this joke I had for a while about gay adoption: “God forbid gays are getting rid of all the excess orphans!?” And I had another note about gay people saving the planet because they’re curbing the population. And so I saw those two things on my pad and thought I’ll put them together. Then a little while later that actor (Kirk) Cameron said that gay people are destroying society. Immediately I thought, I’m gonna tie these three thoughts together, “Gay people are destroying society? Last time I checked if anybody’s destroying the world, it’s human beings. We breed pollution, we cut down trees. The only people putting a stop to that are gay people, who are not producing more of us shitheads and they’re adopting the excess shitheads. I’ve never seen a gay guy chopping down a tree. I’ve seen one dressed as a lumberjack, but he’s looking for a different kind of wood.” After a few weeks I learned that Bill Burr had a similar joke so I stopped doing it. But that’s bound to happen with topical material. Gay adoption is a topic many comedians beyond Bill Burr and me have explored. It happens all the time.
It sounds like you have a lot of irons in the fire. Do you have special plans for show 1,001?
I don’t have specific show yet. I do have a room at the Comedy Store reserved for the thousandth day, so I can do something there. I’d like to have a couple celebrations, one for show 1,000 and another for 1,001, maybe one in LA, one in the Bay Area.