Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Great White Dope

The only way I can be of service to humanity is as an example of what not to do. I have made many mistakes, piggybacked on those mistakes, then waited until it was too late to try correcting them. Here is one blunder you might learn from:

I moved to NYC to advance my comedy career. This was before YouTube and social media platforms were catapults to fame. Industry gatekeepers mattered. In comedy, the "industry rooms" in NY and LA were essential to getting management and/or TV and comedy festival auditions. I knew someone who regularly played one of NYC's industry rooms. He got me an audition there. I'd been doing comedy about eight years, and was beginning to think my quest for comedy success was Pickett's Charge with a two-drink minimum.

I crammed in several spots on crappy open-mics in the days leading up to what in my mind was the most important performance of my life.

"All right, please welcome Mike Payne!"

I hit the stage running. Had a great set. I didn't quite destroy in the five or so minutes of my audition, but it was probably an 8 out of 10.

I alighted the stage quite pleased with myself. I figured I'd at least start doing the low-rung, late night Monday spots that newly passed comics were granted at this club. I approached the club manager with tremendous confidence and relief.

His assessment, "I've already got a lot of white guys."

Comics I'd consulted before my set warned me I might hear this, but like every creative wannabe, I fancied myself different. Sure, other comics heard that, but I wasn't just any white guy comic! All I had to do was perform well and the rules wouldn't apply to me!

The rules applied to me. I didn't pass, and was given the very reason I'd been advised me to expect.

I recall waiting on the subway platform after the audition, my stomach and chest tingling a bit. I had a long train ride ahead of me. My reaction wasn't so much "HOW DARE HE!" There was a tiny gremlin in my brain murmuring "Unfair," but that didn't predominate my thoughts. I was frustrated, deflated, shocked, but my internal response was, "Well, all I can do is work even harder until he gives me another chance in a year or so."

That response was entirely useless. Of course I would have to work hard. If he'd passed me, I also would have had to work hard to stay in the rotation. It wasn't a question of effort. The question was: what was I going to work hard doing? Getting a tan? If I turned a little beige, was the booker going to make me the house emcee? Unlikely. Instead of developing a new strategy for my career, I made the unbelievably asinine decision to double down on the strategy that was failing me. Moronic!

What I should have said was, OK, I have no near-term prospect of passing at any industry rooms. Instead of working harder at being funnier on the shows I'm already doing, I'll start some of my own shows. I'll approach some bars, tell them I'll set up a microphone in the corner, and we'll book a show each Monday or Tuesday when bars have nothing going on and need a way to yank in customers.

Eventually, some bar would have said yes. I knew plenty of funny comics in the same purgatory I was in and could have booked them regularly. If the show was at all successful, I could have pulled in some bigger comics, who might have reciprocated by getting me onto some bigger shows. If nothing else, I would have expanded my comedy network. Had I done this, perhaps I would have found a backdoor into one of the industry rooms.

The odds would have been against me, as they are with all entrepreneurial endeavors. Had the show failed, at least I would have known I'd tried a fresh approach. Instead, I kept doing what hadn't worked and a few years later flamed out of comedy while waiting bitterly in the wings for another shot at advancing. Moronic!

I could have tried something as simple as sporting a new look. Purple hair, breast implants, something. I could have worn a spiked glove and sold myself as some kind of "punk comic." I would have felt sheepish, but the industry might have seen me in a more marketable light.

Hard work without a plan is masochism. If you have been working studiously in one direction for eight years and haven't gotten anywhere, working harder in that same direction is downright Calvinist. Unless you're an attractive woman, your life will always have a lot more no's than yes's. When the no's really start stacking up, you need to change the question.

My blunder was comedy-related. I have seen plenty of people make the same slip-up in the romantic arena. Someone rejects or dumps them, and instead of finding someone else, they work fiendishly trying to become what they believe the person that rejected them wants. Never works.

Comedy isn't the only line of work where this applies. If your employer has a framework that makes it crystal clear you can't advance, the least savvy reaction is working harder. Try another company or another career or start your own business. Otherwise, five stagnant years will pass and you'll be doubly frustrated, because not only did your career stand still; it stood still in the face of increased effort.

When the structure you're trying to conquer makes it clear it doesn't want you, you try a more entrepreneurial approach to conquering it, or you try doing something else altogether. The structure doesn't care that you're sweating more as you work harder to overturn its rules. That sweat will end in tears for you, not the structure.

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