Saying When

When is the right time to walk away from the comedy dream?

We’ve all quit a dead end job at some point in our lives. We know how it feels to walk out for the last time, brimming with fear and excitement in equal measure. Well, here’s the thing — that feeling isn’t just for people breaking free from some dreary day job. Hell, sometimes it’s for people breaking into a dreary day job.

Innumerable amounts of ink has been spilled over the years telling people how to get into the comedy industry, with titles like HOW TO GET STAFFED or HOW TO FIND AN AGENT, but not so much when it comes to how to get out. No one wants to talk about dreams not coming true, especially ones you’ve poured your heart and years of sweat into. The sad fact, though, is that New York and LA are filled with supposed comedy professionals who can’t book a gig, or pay their rent.

While there are no official statistics on the employment of comedians, SAG/AFTRA, one of the unions comedians may join, finds 90% of their 160,000 members out of work on any given day. It’s a tough biz. But, even as early twenty-something dreams turn into late thirty-something confusion, it can still be hard to walk away and start over.

It’s not something that’s talked about often, or easily. In an industry where you need to be fully committed, 100%, right up until the moment you make a change, making public the complicated thoughts of moving on with your life can have an adverse effect on your career. If you’re one “big break” away from “making it,” not seeming like you’re dedicated can be a disqualifier.

Comedy is a vocation where a few make boatloads of money and the rest make little to none. There are no guarantees to success. As Bob Wiltfong, a former correspondent for The Daily Show, explained to me, he’s always valued “hard work being rewarded. In the entertainment industry it’s hard to reward work that, by its very nature, is subjective. What’s funny to you may not be funny to me. If Lorne Michaels thinks you’re funny, for example, you’re good. If he doesn’t, it’s hard.”

You can spend your whole life honing a voice that’s brilliant and perfect for you, but might not be what the world is asking for. There are plenty of people out there just as talented as the folks booking gigs, but lacking the right connections or luck. There are also plenty of people who just aren’t good enough, doing it for a love of the game. As retired standup James Parkinson once wrote in his book Half Dollar Rebel: Annals of Hard-Boiled Determination and Dogged Misanthropy, “my arrogance outraced my talent.” This is just a reality of chasing a dream. Nothing to be ashamed of.

But how do you know it’s time to give notice to the comedy gods? We spoke to a range of current and former comedy professionals, both on and off the record, and the one thing that seems to unite them all was the fact that at one point or another everyone has thought about walking away, and trying on a different type of life.

That’s not to say working, writing or performing in the comedy world can’t be incredibly fulfilling. It’s just that it can also be hard, harder than is often talked about in a public way. If you’ve had these thoughts, you are not alone. You’re also not without options. Here are a few ways people like you have decided it was time to move on, or make peace with the struggles of a life in comedy.

Figure out what you actually like about comedy. Why are you doing it? Not why did you start, but why are you doing it right now? As we spoke to people, we heard a lot about the diminishing returns of joy from comedy. As class shows and practice groups evolve into auditions and submissions, the fun can start to fade away. That’s a part of growing up, sure, but in other walks of life hard work can often lead to success. In this industry, the road map to a stable career is much harder to define. Five years in, the hustle can be exciting. Twenty years of the “Hollywood No” can drive a person insane.

Peter Karinen, a former comedy performer and writer who’s amassed millions of hits online as part of the comedy duo Pete and Brian, sold pilots, and worked with Bill freaking Murray, said, “The further along my career progressed, the less I enjoyed it. I wish I could go back to the days of doing open mics in the back of bars in New York. Jesus, I sound so old and crotchety saying that. But it’s true.”

That was a feeling a lot of people passed along. The idea that whatever got them into comedy had been buried under a mountain of career confusion and practical issues. Granted, that’s life, but if you can no longer find a reason for a life in the arts, then maybe it’s time to look for something else.

“It was a constant struggle to stay true to myself as an artist and try to make something that the masses would enjoy,” Karinen continued. “At the end of the day, I wish I had just written what I’d like to watch, not thinking about demographics or how sellable an idea sounded. When I first started, I achieved some success by just doing what I thought was funny, then somewhere along the way I got sidetracked worrying about what other people think is funny.” Karinen is now happily pursuing a degree in psychology.

Stop comparing yourself to others. In fact, Karinen shared that one of the benefits of stepping outside the industry, and finding something else he was passionate about, was “being truly happy for other people’s success instead of comparing myself to them.” Too much of the time, working in this industry involves weighing where you are and what you’re doing against others. It’s an unhealthy habit, but one that can be hard to avoid.

As I spoke to people, and realized how many comedians have these thoughts about their peers, the irony became clear: all these comics were comparing themselves to other comics, who were comparing themselves right back. Everyone was having the same difficult thoughts. Whether the next step is leaving comedy behind or not, it’s good to know that you’re not alone in your struggles. This is a tough road to hoe, and everyone else is feeling it too. If you want off the merry-go-round, the only person you have to answer to is yourself.

Understand “Making It” is a meaningless phrase. Everyone we spoke to had a crystal clear idea of what “making it” meant when they first got started. Some achieved the exact things they’d dreamed of, only to realize it was just another stop on the long and windy road.

Chris Gethard summed this up fairly brilliantly, as he’s tends to do, saying:

I saw two very accomplished comedians talking… One of these people was a cast member on SNL. The other was a correspondent for The Daily Show… Person one said something along the lines of “I’m just not sure what I’m going to do.” Person two said, “Yeah, things have been so fucking dry lately. I’m really, really worried.” The conversation proceeded from there and sounded like the exact type of conversation I was having with my own friends who were in the trenches performing all around NYC with me…

These were two people who both had careers I would kill for. Being on SNL! Being on The Daily Show! I think for any of us whose dream it is to do comedy, those would be two crown jewel jobs. Those would be two jobs that most of us would think feel like a life-altering accomplishment. Getting those gigs would feel like grabbing on to the brass ring we’ve been chasing. Those are the types of gigs that you imagine lead to the validation, wealth, and fame that we chase so hard. You have to imagine that’s true, right? Those jobs? You will feel like you did it. You made it. Your life can have a movie ending where the sun rises and the credits roll and the hard times are over, you’ve done it. You’ve won… But I eavesdropped on those two individuals, and realized — the fear is inside us. It’s part of why we do what we do. The chase is the thing, and the thing is the chase.

Bob Wiltfong, himself a Daily Show vet, echoed this. “The closest I came to that was when I booked The Daily Show. I felt like I was on the first step to a long career in comedy. A year later I was unemployed again and freaking out about all the SAG dues I owed.”

Josh Cohen, a Muppeteer and improv comedian who ran his own comedy venue in New York called Freaks Local 413, has put his comedy career on hold to raise a family. He told me he saw this tumult, and knew it wasn’t a good fit. “I have a famous comedy friend who took me out for a drink before I left LA. I was crying over my beer. And was so conflicted as to leave or stay and I felt like a total failure. He told me a story about his life and how one year he had to sell the house and move his family of five into a studio apartment because his comedy jobs dried up. Then five years later he got a big gig on TV. Then he got a new house. Then he lost it all again and so on. Now he’s back on top on a HBO show, in a movie or three. That roller coaster did not sit well with me. I really needed more security.” 

No matter how high you climb, a career in comedy isn’t a given. You have to constantly be renewing and rebuilding it, and some people just find other priorities along the way.

Evaluate what you want out of life. “I love the actual work of being an actor/comedian,” Wiltfong told us. “Performing is fun and the jobs are usually pretty cush. But I hate the hustle required to book the jobs: know the right people, play the right rooms, get the right headshots, do the right workshops, get the right laughs, etc. There’s a desperation to it all that I find very unsettling.

As soon as I find a job — whether it’s in acting or not — that can provide steady income for my family and makes me relatively happy, I’m there. I don’t have to be an actor or comedian to be happy. I have other talents and interests, fortunately.”

A big reason some people decide that pursuing comedy isn’t for them anymore is by looking at the type of life they want, and realizing it doesn’t fit in with the chase. Stability is a common goal, especially for those who have or want a family. Or people want to live as far away from the New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles as possible. Maybe they just want a lifestyle that isn’t filled with rejection.

Cohen told us, “I recall talking to one of my friends about… getting ‘a real job.’ We talked about how it’s not such a bad thing to hang it up. And that being a funny plumber is still a great way to live life. And to be honest, comedy has so much rejection involved that leaving that behind (or at least putting that to the side for a bit) would not be the worst thing in the world.” 

Leaving a dream doesn’t just happen. You probably need something to take its place. Envisioning the life you want, not necessarily the one you dream of, can help you decide what needs to happen to get it. Open mic nights don’t pay for college tuition, after all.

Money isn’t the only issue, though, even if it sometimes feels like it. There are people who make a good living in the industry and still walk away. Sometimes the spark isn’t there anymore, and it’s a matter of finding where a new spark is.

For Karinen, who says his last year in the industry was filled with satisfying work, it was an epiphany that led to his life change. “I realized one day that I wanted to be a psychologist. It hit me like a bolt of lightning. Getting to quit the entertainment business too was just the cherry on top.”

Make a change. “My first roommate in NYC was a huge inspiration to me,” Cohen told us. “He was the best stage actor I had ever seen. The best. A huge talent. But after five years pounding pavement in NYC he couldn’t catch a break. He packed it in one day, became a lawyer and never looked back. I hate him. He has an amazing house now, and married the girl we used to cater waiter with. But he made the point to choose a life of comfort, with much less struggle and that is the kind of thing that looks pretty damn good when you start a family.”

Whether it’s a big change, like going to law school, or a small one, like taking a wood working class, exploring what the world has to offer outside of comedy can be a step towards a fuller life. Sometimes you can find something that helps you get perspective, and keep chasing that dream. Sometimes you find something that can provide a new way of life, financially and emotionally.

Trying to stay sane in the hurricane that is the comedy industry can be difficult. Nurturing yourself, your interests and your talents outside of it can lead to a happier life, and even a new career.

Keep creating. Former SNL star Julia Sweeney up and moved to the suburbs of Chicago a few years ago to raise a family. Living a life outside the industry hasn’t stopped her from practicing her craft on her terms. She jokingly told America Magazine that even though the best thing in her life may well be her housekeeper, she’s still “trying to become a better and more disciplined writer. I’m working on a TV show idea and a screenplay and a novel at the moment… I really aim to get as good as I possibly can.”

Just because you aren’t hustling to “make it” anymore, doesn’t mean you have to fold up your artistic side and live a bland life. Whatever else you find out there, there’s always room to create. And now, without the pressure of having to be the best, or having to make a living off of it, you can do it for yourself. It’s amazing what you can do without network notes getting in the way.

Beyond that, there’s no silver bullet. No one size fits all answer. People leave the industry for different reasons. People find a variety of experiences on the other side. Sure, that uncertainty can be daunting. On a purely practical level, it can be hard to justify a change. This is what you’re good at, what you’ve spent your entire adult life working on, and the place you have the most connections. Those are advantages you won’t immediately find in another field.

So the question becomes, can you do anything else? You see famous actors or comedians joking in interviews all the time, how thank god they made it, because they lack skills to do anything else. Well, what if you spent the last fifteen years pursing this field, lack the same basic skills, but haven’t made a million dollars from that one comedy about a talking kangaroo that opened big in Europe? Chris Gethard also wrote, “I often wish that I had a resume with anything on it besides comedy, but I started doing this when I was 20.” 

Here’s the good news: you almost definitely have skills! Funny, thoughtful, a good writer, a people person. You’re young. Whether you’re 25, 35, even 45, you are young and you’re not alone. A 2013 Harris survey for the University of Phoenix showed that only 14 percent of U.S. workers felt they’d found the perfect job, and well over half wanted a career change.

Even if you aren’t transitioning into a fully formed career, it can be a seismic a shift to realize that comedy isn’t the driving force anymore. But it can be done. Karinen followed up our interview a few days later with one final thought. “I woke up every day for 13 years thinking about myself and how I could further my own career, and then realized one day it would be nice to think about other people for a change. There’s more to life than craving the adoration of strangers. I’m still trying to figure out why I needed that, so in the meantime I’m going to try to help some strangers.” 

Some people don’t have big breaks until late in life. Some people have a flourishing comedy career and then decide they want something else. Some people never make a dime off of comedy, but keep at it forever because of their love for it. Some people walk away after bombing in their Level 2 class at The PIT. There are no right answers, just an understanding that thoughts of frustration, and a desire to understand if there’s something beyond the comedy world, seem to be universal. Your doubts are not unique. And if you want to move on in life, there’s a whole world out there. As Deepak Chopra famously said, “all great changes are preceded by chaos,” and few things are more chaotic than a life in comedy.   

Photo by Mindy Tucker.