In honor of my stand-up comedy anniversary, I'm sharing an essay I wrote last year for The Blog Out Loud Show: the live, staged reading version of The Urban Erma.
So, I ran into a fellow comedian whom I love and respect a great deal. He’s one of those guys who’s the cherished combination of funny and nice. I’ve always admired his success. I’ve seen him in commercials, he’s a respected regular in the A-level comedy clubs around the city, and he had his own Comedy Central special. Since I hadn’t seen him in a while I had assumed he was doing his thing out in LA. So I was crushed when he told me he’s selling real estate now.
How in the hell do you go from Comedy Central to Century 21?
My Friend said he was tired: tired of the road, tired of beating his head against the wall of the entertainment industry. “I did everything,” he said, “I auditioned, wrote scripts, took pitch meetings — but I just don’t know what they want.” And now I’m scared, because apparently I don’t know what they want either.
Part of me admires that My Friend could look at his life so objectively and say, “What do I want the next 20 years to be?” And then do something pro-active and positive for his financial and professional future. He, of course, still does shows from time to time. Essentially, leaving the business put him in a better position to say “no” to the crappy gigs he doesn’t want. But on the other hand, how do you let go of a dream? It’s hard to see someone who’s so talented, someone who I thought had a shot, throw in the towel and say, “Hey, I’m done.”
I don’t know if I can do that, leave Stand-Up. I don’t know how to do anything else. No, that’s not true. I don’t want to do anything else. I never have. Most people are afraid to get on stage and tell jokes. I’m afraid not to.
But now I’m also afraid I’ll be the comedic equivalent of one of those old jazz musicians that only other old jazz musicians know, and the public never heard of. I’m afraid I’ll pass unnoticed by the people in the industry who could make a real difference in my career because I don’t fit into their predetermined little boxes and so they don’t know what to do with me.
I heard that George Lopez was on the verge of quitting comedy, then Sandra Bullock saw him, loved him, got behind him and helped him get his TV show. Where’s my Sandra? You see Stand-Up and I had an agreement. If I gave it my time, my energy, and my all, if I — as Ntozake Shange wrote — loved it assiduously it would bring me things in return, little things like fame and fortune.
I’ve given up a lot for Stand-Up. I watched my friends have normal lives, regular jobs, houses, kids, and really weird stuff like retirement plans and health insurance. My husband once said to me that he knows I love Stand-Up more than I love him. I wanted to say he was wrong, but the look in his eyes told me not to even try to tell that lie, and the feeling in my heart of hearts agreed.
Our first big fight as a married couple was over Stand-Up. I was invited to go to the Middle East to perform for the troops and I accepted without even running it by him. To be honest, it never even occurred to me. Why would it? It’s Stand-Up.
My biggest fear is that I’ve been a fool. Entertainment is not a guaranteed return on investment. And as I get older I have to wonder, like My Friend, can I put in another 20 years? And what if the answer is no? If I don’t get out now, will I just end up being a very funny bag lady?
But I don’t want to sell real estate.
If I’m Bella, then Stand-Up Comedy is my Edward. I love it but I don’t know anymore if it loves me back. I don’t know if it ever did. I’d always assumed that I would never leave Stand-Up. But the bigger, ever more pressing question is: if I did leave, would it even notice that I was gone? Or would it just assume that I was in LA.