Shucking the day job and hitting the open road is a dream for many, but for aspiring comedians, it’s a mandatory step to full-time success alongside countless open mics, late gigs at half-empty clubs, and competing with loud drunks and bar televisions all to hone their craft and launch their name. For The Cherokee Effect Comedians, we interviewed four performers who made the journey from 9-5er to professional comedian to learn how they did it and how today’s aspiring comedians can too.
Our final featured comic is Mike Lawrence, a New York standup who cohosts the Nerd of Mouth podcast with Jake Young and has opened for comics like Marc Maron, Tom Papa, and John Oliver. Lawrence made his first television appearance in 2011, and his onscreen credits include Conan, New York Stand-Up Show, The Half Hour, and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.
So how much time did it take to go from your first attempt at standup to becoming a full-time comedian?
About five and a half years, maybe six.
How much of an investment did you make for that to happen?
Well my unemployment ran out and I had just done my first TV spot on the John Oliver New York Stand-Up Show in 2011, and I applied to work at a bagel place and they made me wear a hat, and I just broke down crying and was like “I’m never gonna wear a hat again.” I had this moment of clarity of putting that hat on and being like “No, I was just on TV, I’m a professional now.” [laughs] I started opening for John Oliver and he gave me like 12 tour dates and that was it – and I haven’t ever had to work again. And I don’t make a lot of money – I’m still pretty poor, but I’m making a living, and that really is the dream.
How did you hook up with John Oliver?
He just saw me. I did a five minute set for him, a guest set at Comix in 2010, and he really liked it and put me on the show and I had a great set, and then he put me on the road. It’s that simple. It took years of doing open mics and bombing and doing terrible, awful shows and Craigslist gigs. I did the [Just For Laughs] Montreal comedy festival a few months before he saw me, so I had more confidence than I normally do.
I’d love to hear more about “bombing and doing terrible, awful shows” and going on the road – things you might consider “paying your dues.”
It wasn’t even mostly on the road, just in the city doing every terrible show I could, every music open mic that would let comedians go on, you know, waiting sometimes two, three, four hours to get on stage for five minutes. And getting the crap kicked out of me while stocking restaurants at LaGuardia at four in the morning. I’d show up from open mics to that place just exhausted. It was fun though.
Now that you don’t work those kinds of day jobs, do you in any sense miss having that on-the-side struggle?
Nah, because the struggle of staying afloat in this is way harder. I mean my entire life is dependent on my emails and phone calls and whether someone wants me for something. Now I’m starting to headline, but most of my headlining is because a big name canceled and they’re scrambling to find somebody and I’ll do it for cheap. So it’s way more terrifying. Back when I had a fast food job, at least I knew that I was going to work five days a week. I don’t anymore. Sometimes I can be on the road four weeks in a row and sometimes I could be in New York for two months.
What were some of the sacrifices you had to make after you no longer had the steady day jobs?
I gave up collecting comic books and action figures and all of the nerdy stuff that I loved. You know – just not living well, eating terribly, not eating at all sometimes. And even in those jobs I never made more than ten or twelve dollars an hour outside of comedy, so I’ve had really bad low-paying jobs.
What have you learned about getting bookings and marketing yourself as a comedian?
I think having a narrower specificity helps. I don’t think there’s any pop culture that’s for everyone anymore. There’s no more event television, no more water cooler TV, and part of that is because everybody brings their own water bottles and nobody watches TV at the same time. Breaking Bad is a really key series that everyone’s watching at their own pace. And every time it restarts, a new group of people get into it for the first time, and I feel like pop culture as a whole is like that – there’s no Big Event Movie. Avatar is the highest grossing film, but you could find ten people who didn’t see it faster than you could find ten people who did. So I think that being specific and just going after the people you might appeal to is the best way to go. I know I’m not for everybody, and that may be the thing that saves me in the end.
How do you seek out your audience?
A lot of it is the internet. I haven’t done enough of this myself, but web series, podcasts – it’s just going after the right audience that’s based off of your sensibility. My sensibilities as a comedian fit well on a podcast and appeal to a podcast audience, so when I do audio it helps me. It doesn’t help everybody – guys who are really physical a lot of the time or more performer-based and not so much character-driven persona-based don’t often work as well in that medium, but they do other things, more visual things.
Does your material evolve differently now that you’re full-time versus when you worked day jobs?
Yeah, I mean it’s funny how technology works, because when I worked those low-paying jobs I’d just test my jokes out on the other employees, some of which didn’t care and they’d be like “Leave me alone, I don’t like comedy,” but I always found a few people, regardless of where I worked, that I could test stuff on. And some would even like it. And then around the time I stopped working day jobs, Twitter and Facebook really exploded, and so now that’s how I do it. I know there are people who are like “I’d never tweet my jokes,” or “I never use Twitter.” I use it. If a joke gets a hundred likes, you better believe I’m going to at least attempt to put it in the act.
So Twitter’s like your new coworker.
Yeah, it’s my 3:00PM open mic. [laughs]
How exactly did your transition to full-time happen – was it overnight or a longer process?
I got fired-slash-left the airport in 2009 and collected unemployment for a good amount of time and would do one odd job here or there for a little while with nothing really sustaining me. A lot of great comedian friends would help me out every once in a while. I had a buddy let me stay in his basement for three months. Things were getting a little better – I was starting to get booked on the better shows in the city, so there were these breadcrumbs that were telling me I was in the right direction. And I think that that’s a lot of it, because if you have the same year every year for five to ten years and you’re not Jay-Z or Adam Sandler – you’re not the most successful person – then you’re a failure, you know? But for me, I was getting enough, just getting booked more and getting more opportunities, that I knew, “Okay, I gotta keep doing this.” I also gave myself an ultimatum which was by the age of 30 if I wasn’t on TV and I hadn’t made five thousand dollars I’d quit, and I did both of those on my 28th birthday. But I also got up all the time and begged people to work.
Obviously the majority of your success has come from just continuing to get up on stage. But how much was also the more businessy, networking side to comedy?
Oh a lot. They go hand-in-hand. If you have a great set and you just leave every time, it’s going to be a lot harder. It’s having the great set and talking to people afterwards and also just being somebody who people want to root for. Every show that somebody’s on is because somebody booked them – no one is on a sitcom because they hijacked their way on and they’re jumping in front of the cameras. Someone is booking them and paying them. And another part of it is having specific talents for specific needs – they need this type of guy to do this type of thing – and if your act showcases certain skills then people can look at that and say “These are the skills that they have, and we know how to use them” and boom, there’s more opportunity. If you write great one-liners, you can capitalize on that by writing monologues for late night. It all connects together.
Do you have near-future goals for your career similar to the ultimatum you gave yourself in your twenties?
Maybe to get a writing job, something steady, because I am 30 now and I don’t have health insurance and that’s terrifying, and I have a girlfriend and want to get married and start doing the more adult stuff. I want to be able to drop off my laundry comfortably and not be the guy who stays there and does it – that’d be a nice thing. [laughs] I want to buy things because I like them and not because they’re on sale. I’m not as poor as I used to be, so things have gotten a little better. I used to always take buses from the airport and now I’ll pay for a cab every one in a while.
Knowing what you know now, what do you think is an ideal job for an aspiring full-time comedian?
I think an ideal job is 9-5 and flexible – the main thing is that you kind of have to be on call. If somebody says “Hey, I want you to come travel with me for three dates” and you can’t, that’s not a good job because you have to be able to immediately leave. There are people who are like “Hey, come to Japan with me” – “Hey, I gotta go to Long Island and do a college, but you’ve gotta leave right now” – “My guy just canceled on me, come right now” – you know, that stuff happens. I’ve been asked the day before, “Come do this $500 gig somewhere.” So to be able to do that is important because if you’re in a position where they need you there and you can’t leave, who knows when that other thing’s going to happen again.
So freelancer jobs, at-home jobs, stuff like graphic design – jobs that are like comedy, where it’s freelance and client-based and you can do things at home. Surface jobs are tough, not just because of the time commitment but how draining it is – with the way that you’re treated, you end up lashing out at the audience sometimes.
Is that always a bad thing?
…yeah, a lot of the time. It depends. You can project a lot of times, and that’s bad. I mean, I think comedy by its nature is nomadic, and nomadic day jobs are probably the best. Anything where you can use your actual talents, any type of writing-based or creative job. Obviously a writing job is comedy-based, but even things like advertising, there are a lot of people who go from that to this.
What elements do you think need to be in place before a comedian should attempt to make the full-time leap?
Having concrete prospects – having gigs booked, having connections. Also, having an act. [laughs] If you can save and if you can cushion that’s good, but having real security helps. The fact that I had a TV credit was huge and the fact that I had higher-ups who believed in me, I had a manager, and I think one of the most important things is once it’s full-time, you still have to treat it like a job. How you manage your daytime is crucial – writing spec scripts, making web videos, working on podcasts – it’s not like “My job starts at 8:00PM and ends at 8:15PM” – it’s a full-time thing, and you have to keep sustaining it. Because a lot of the things you’ve already done, a lot of the times you can’t do again. I got the half hour this year, I’m not getting a half hour next year, so what do I do? I’ve got to get something else.
After all this time, you must like that kind of uncertainty, at least a little.
Yeah, but it’s terrifying. There’s that part of me that doesn’t want to fight anymore, but I know I have to and I always will on some level. Talking to guys 20 to 25 years in who are way older than me and have done way more than I have but have the same fears and insecurities and failures – that always scares you. Even when you’re close to a billionaire like Seinfeld and he’s trying out new material and wondering “What do I do next?” The only time I’ve ever seen Seinfeld was at The Creek – Colin Quinn did his hour-long show and [Seinfeld] opened with ten minutes and it was newer stuff. Some of it was great and some of it wasn’t, and he was open mic’ing like the rest of us. It was awesome to see that even after having all of that money and success he wanted to try something new. So if you want to do comedy, you have to know that’s what you’re in for – it’s not stable, it’s not secure.
That “what’s next” feeling’s not ever going away.
Yeah, because with a lot of other jobs you get X amount of years then get a promotion, or certain things happen over time – not here. Someone else could get three promotions in a month and you may never get one and do it for 20 years. And it’s not fair either, but it’s not supposed to be. At the end of the day, I’ve seen enough really talented people make a living and be successful to know that it’s possible. It’s definitely fertile, and if you do treat it like a business and you do treat it like a day job, it can be one. But if you don’t it probably never will be, and I know a lot of the guys who don’t make it don’t because they look at it recreationally. If you show up every night drunk or high and fuck around onstage, don’t bitch when nothing happens for you.
The way I always see it is like “It’s never okay but it always gets better” or “It gets better but it’s never okay.” It’s just always that idea of what’s next and how can you progress, because even traveling on the road, how long can you do that, or how long can you do any specific thing, before it grinds on you? I love doing standup and I have a blast doing it, but it also is a job and I don’t want to do it every single day I’m up there. There’s some times where me and my girlfriend will be watching a movie, and then it’s like 7:30PM and I’m like “All right, I gotta go perform for some Swedish tourists now and miss your smile, goodbye,” or “Hey I gotta go for three weeks.”
At least with those old day jobs you knew which days you were getting a paycheck. It seems with standup it’s all about making it happen for yourself.
And just realizing that you have to be savvy, you have to adapt and change with the times. A guy like Maron stumbling onto this new medium of podcasting that wasn’t around for the first 20+ years of him doing it, then him realizing “Oh, I have to evolve” – that’s a genuine thing that happens. Because I know a lot of older guys who are like “What’s a Twitter? Is that a part of a woman’s vagina?” or “What’s a Facebook? I don’t use that stuff.” Well you better, because if the biggest guys are doing it – If Louis C.K.’s doing it and Patton Oswalt’s doing it, if the giants can adapt – then us little guys can too.
Photo credit: Cassie Wright