How My Comedy Career Died
One of the best jokes I ever wrote was about suicide. It wasn’t a “suicide bit,” making light of one of life’s darkest subjects, not some lazily scripted satire of someone I disliked or disagreed with. Too many comedians recycle the punch line: “Just kill yourself,” to follow some hypothetical descriptor of a behavior or trait they determine irredeemable. Instead, I took pride in offering a bit about why nobody should ever kill themselves. Kind-hearted humor with a positive message burdens a much greater degree of difficulty to make funny than does cold cynicism or the animalistic cruelty originally berthed in elementary school cafeterias. My bit had punch lines peppered throughout, the way professional comedians write. I delivered it in a conversational style of rant that took me over a decade and literally thousands of sets to finally sound like myself and resonate as organic with savvy crowds. Comedy is hard.
The premise was the unfortunate tunnel vision I imagined suicide victims to suffer with: “Fine, ‘kill yourself,’ but not literally. Just kill your present world. People say: ‘Oh, I hate my life, I hate this city.’ Well, you can move. ‘It’s my job. I hate my job.’ Then quit your job. ‘But I hate my family.’ Then kill your family! Don’t kill you. You’re not the cause of your problems. (pause for laughs) Or try heroin. What’s the worst that could happen? If you O.D. that’s what you wanted anyway. But you might have some magical heroin high where you have an epiphany: ‘Oh, I want to open up a daycare center. That’s my dream… now I just gotta kick this habit.’”
I should have done this bit at my audition for the Montreal Comedy Festival in 2016. Instead I did safer, more cleanly scripted bits, which had been my most consistently effective for years, and they bombed. Bad jokes can kill, good jokes can die. Comedy is hard. For the subsequent weeks, at the end of the closing shifts at my restaurant job I found myself sitting at the bar in the dark, utterly hopeless, researching the suicide hotline on my phone as I waited for the dishwasher to finish for the night. That was when I knew it was time to leave L.A.
I’d taken my courageous leap west, spent three years, failed, and arrived back home in New York without a dollar to my name — thousands of dollars in credit card debt and hundreds of thousands in student loan debt. I was living at home with my parents for the first time in twenty years, watching Wheel of Fortune after dinner, emailing the new club bookers and managers in town who had never heard of me and responded as such, by not responding at all. I never should have left; but I was happy to be back in New York. The moment I crossed the city’s border and felt the pace of the people, the pulse of the traffic, and that familiar beat that somehow manages to all magically harmonize as one, it was like kissing a long-lost love on the lips after a three-year hiatus that never should have been, but for it we knew now more than ever, this is right. Sneaker shopping in Soho felt like a dream. Drinks in the Village felt like the finest slow dance, and just walking through Harlem was like a warm hug so invigorating I could have walked all the way home. I no longer felt invisible to the opposite sex in New York. For the first time in three years dating became fun, or at least comprehensible, not like some bad hidden camera show starring attractive psycho aliens opposite pathetic, struggling comics. I attended a few hip-hop shows in the parks with friends on the weekends, sat on the warm grass to drink beers under the sunset, and wished I could have pressed pause and frozen time forever. I was home.
Still in need of supplementary income, I swore up and down that I would never wait tables again. I swore to never do anything again that wasn’t comedy or acupuncture, my field of graduate study. I was too old and had worked too hard for my weekly efforts to be towards neither of these passions — and since healing by laughter was not paying the bills, I began sending out resumes to medical venues. I solicited hospitals, chiropractors’ offices, and finally landed a gig at a community acupuncture clinic in The Bronx, coincidentally located just ten blocks from the bar where I’d had my first good show fourteen years prior.
I loved working as an acupuncturist. Instead of speaking at a room full of strangers I was speaking with several strangers a day, each individually, and most importantly listening to them with great care. Instead of girls with fake lips and breasts reminding me of their food sensitivities before placing their order with the kitchen, it was now my responsibility to educate an underserved population on what food sensitivities are, and how theirs’ might be exacerbating their symptoms. Going from Beverly Hills to the Bronx, for my soul, felt like the world’s best foot massage after having walked cross-country from the former to the latter without socks on. The down-to-earth relatability, authenticity, and diversity of my patient base may have been even more healing for me than it was for them (especially as a first-year practitioner). I felt excited to go to work every day and proud when I left in the evening. The looming challenge was one of time management between honing my new craft and maintaining pursuit of the old one.
There was no one moment or date that I decided to quit stand-up comedy. I had no desire to quit. I loved comedy, and frankly, it loved me. At the time I was the strongest I had ever been on stage. My delivery was its most confident and nuanced and my writing was at its best, which really is par for the course. Most comedians in their fifteenth year are the best they’ve ever been, as this is not sports. Our physical power, stamina, or strength of our bones and ligaments are wholly irrelevant compared to our breadth of experience, mental muscle of wit, comfort in our own skin, and most impressively with placing ourselves in the scariest, most difficult situation in the world and not being scared. I had worked my way through the comedy circuit to once appear on HBO, MTV, and Showtime; I signed autographs, won competitions, and could headline for over an hour on stage. For the better part of my fifteen-year tenure I averaged about eight shows a week. I wasn’t some part-time wannabe, amateur nobody for whom my artistic pursuit was a weekend hobby; but I was in danger of becoming that.
I would get out of work at 8pm near the 6 train on Castle Hill after a ten-hour shift of treating patients. Most days I would transfer some case notes to scrap paper, stuff as many medical textbooks into my bag as would fit, and on the subway ride home attempt to better understand the complex paradigm of Chinese Medicine. Sometimes I was too tired. Other times there were no empty seats on the train. By the time I got home I was starving, exhausted, and discouraged by my lack of medical knowledge. I was thirty-eight years old, no longer twenty-eight, when working two jobs was effortless. After barista shifts at Starbucks ten years prior, I never went home and studied cappuccino steaming the way I now did how to treat various autoimmune patterns in my herbal pharmacology text. Acupuncture is hard. After full days of seeing patients I couldn’t imagine sitting in the back of a club waiting my turn to go on, and on days not seeing patients I still couldn’t imagine sitting in the back of a club waiting my turn to go on. For the first time in my career I found myself canceling on spots I had booked, lying to the local managers that I wasn’t feeling well, which technically was true, but it was a chronic case of burn-out — not an acute case of the sniffles.
One day a patient came in with an active flu infection, and for the first time in my life I caught the flu. I took a few days to rest, but nagging symptoms lingered for weeks. Considering the seasonal principles of Chinese Medicine, I thought it made sense to take just the winter off from comedy, as the body is more fatigued and requires more sleep during cold weather months. It should be noted that the seasonal principles of Chinese Medicine mostly do not align with the occupational principles of stand-up comedy. Taking even one month away from the stage could be career suicide, but I had to do something. I could feel it in my bones. I needed rest.
I took the winter off. It was weird, but not that weird. Reminiscent of the evolution of a romantic dry spell — of which I had many in L.A. — the beginning is odd and frustrating, then it reaches that peak of desperation when Pornhub auto-fills as soon as you type P in your browser, until finally you find a groove and inadvertently accept it as your new normal: “I don’t have sex anymore.” We know deep down that we’d prefer to be having sex, but we don’t consciously miss it in the same way. We don’t viscerally experience it as a void.
The spring solstice came and went. I was over the flu, but still felt burnt out. I was one year closer to forty, falling perpetually deeper in debt., living in a roach-infested shit hole in Harlem with the most dysfunctional shower I’d ever taken, and needed to get out. I took on an extra day at the clinic each week. I didn’t check back with any of the bookers or club managers, and only a few of them followed up with me, one even explicitly asking: “Yo… did you quit?”
I didn’t know how to answer. Had I quit? I told him that I’d just been traveling a lot… “back and forth between L.A.,” a white lie that affected the opposite impression of my reality.
Somewhere around the summer of 2017, when the weather was warm, days were longer, and I still wasn’t soliciting spots, my decision — or at least my conclusion — was apparent. I could look in the mirror — otherwise at my brother and biggest fan sitting across from me over drinks — and confess that it was over. A friend gave me an acupuncture treatment one night and as I lay there in her dark basement with a handful of those magically gentle needles protruding from my limbs, I started crying. I couldn’t move my hands with the needles in to wipe my tears away, but I didn’t want to. I needed to cry. I wanted to feel the tears trickle down the side of my face as a reminder of fallen dreams. As heartbroken as I was shocked, I couldn’t believe it was over.
For fifteen years, no matter how many walls I punched at home or outside of the comedy clubs, no matter how much gut-wrenching rejection I suffered, pillows I screamed into, or how many times my ATM receipts read $0.67, I always knew I was destined for success. I didn’t know what it would look like or when it would come, but it had to come, because I couldn’t accept failure. I just could notimagine how I would go on. A friend and colleague once confided in me his depression as we stood outside of a comedy club in between spots. “I’m gonna give it five more years,” he told me. “If I’m still not a working comic by then, I’ll kill myself, dude.” I told him to not do that, because we are all obligated to at least that response. I also thought he was insane, that his projected punishment hardly fit the crime of disappointment, but as I laid there, coming to terms with my own fate, I better understood.
My whole career flashed in front of mind. One third of my life dedicated to one passion, sacrificing financial stability, domestic comfort, and often a social or romantic life with the conviction that it would one day pay off. About 5000 shows, flights all over the world, a failed pilot written, produced and edited for no fanfare, hundreds of auditions, TV sets, incredible sets, terrible sets, all of the best and worst nights of my life, late nights in freezing cold train stations, then awfully humid train stations, long waits for delayed trains, many times acutely aware that I was networking while socializing, other times rejoicing that I was socializing while networking, feelings of growth and maturity juxtaposed, both in my memory and literal chronology, with the most painful experiences of insecurity and defeat.
I love Chinese Medicine. I am now in my sixth year of practice. I’ve completed not one, but two advanced clinical externships with the free time left by the void of an artistic pursuit, additionally continuing education to apply in my private practice that recently grew enough to leave my job in The Bronx, a bittersweet milestone. Much like in comedy, I find with greater skills and knowledge comes a capacity for execution that is more rewarding. I am grateful to have a second passion, grateful that it has worked out financially, and especially for the people I get to touch, literally and figuratively, every week. On many days I feel happy, fulfilled even. But not a day goes by that I do not miss comedy. Not a day goes by that I wouldn’t drop every book, needle, and patient in a heartbeat if an old colleague called with an opportunity for a writing gig on a series he/she just booked. I think I’d even go back to L.A.
I know this isn’t losing a limb or a loved one — that I am lucky in life — but I don’t know if I will ever fully emotionally process my disappointment. It’s like my team lost the World Series and it was all my fault. On my bad days I curse the world, silently denouncing the positive platitudes and media cliches that prescribe passion and dedication as promised keys to success. In holistic medicine we know better — there is no one-size-fits-all prescription, in medicine or in life. “What about me?!” I silently scream at the top of my lungs. What about my passion and my dedication? I wonder what should happen to all of my material, all of my videos and hard work? Do they simply dissolve into the ether of nothingness, as if they never happened, as if I never happened? On my death bed, what place comedy will hold in my heart? One of sadness and regret, or pride and fond reflection? I’m reminded of this while watching Hollywood movies about long-awaited success or agonizing defeat, and I cry the way I do at songs that recall my father. I shake my head at the floor, the way he used to while struggling in his own career, acutely aware of our many similarities. Life is hard. I walk along the park and kick rocks or sling one into the Hudson River, bewildered by endless questions. Was I just not good enough? Was it my negative mindset, some matter-of-fact karma, or just dumb luck? I’ll never know, and it will never matter. All that matters, ultimately, is that I bombed. They say you can’t blame the crowd — we must take creative ownership of our flat bits and poor sets on stage. But veteran comedians know better: It isn’t always that simple. I didn’t fail at comedy. Comedy failed me.