When you do comedy, a drunk relative or someone who doesn't find you funny might say, "Don't quit your day job!" Meaning: Your dream of making a real living pursuing this passion is a terrible idea. Nobody's ever said that to me, which is probably a good sign because it's generally meant as an insult.
I've been doing comedy for more than a decade now and I have yet to "quit my day job." I was positive when I first started comedy that I'd be making a full-time living at it a year in. One year later, I realized I was dumb. With that year's worth of wisdom and a fresh perspective, I allowed myself a more realistic three years. Three years later, I realized I was still dumb. Around the five-year mark, I was hired by a new media company to produce a web series I'd created for real money. Between that and standup gigs, I was making enough to get by. I did it! For about six months. Then the company folded, because they too were following their dreams. I've been pulling double duty ever since.
One Monday night in the summer of 2013, I was booked on a popular standup show in New York called "Whiplash." The booker said there would be a big drop-in that night. I wasn't told who the guest would be; I just knew I was up right before them. I was pacing backstage, writing down my set, when I turned to see Louis CK doing the same thing. He was the special guest. I walked to another corner and waited to be brought on stage.
I think of nights like that when I get frustrated about how expensive it is to live in New York. It's like an amusement park, in that you have to wait in line a lot and everything costs twice what it does just outside the gates. That's why it's nice to have a day job — it lessens the finance-related panic attacks.
The downside to having a day job and doing comedy is the hours. Day jobs are in the day, and comedy happens at night. Sometimes late at night, like in the case of Whiplash. It doesn't start until eleven, so you get home with a few hours to sleep before you start it all over again. Every night after work, I'd head off to a show, or go home to write. Always hoping for some audition to work out, or a writing sample to get me hired on a TV show, so I wouldn't have to keep going into work. But nothing big happened. That was fine, I was making money, and performing more than ever.
While I waited to go on, I tried not to think about how tired I'd be the next day. I did my spot, and couldn't have asked for a better set. I came backstage and Louis was standing there. He complimented me, asked my name, then gave me a suggestion for one of my jokes. We shook hands and he was called to the stage. That compliment was enough to get me through about three more years of steady failure.
A month later, he contacted me through Twitter and we ended up talking on the phone. He wanted to see a longer set of mine. I gave him a few shows to check out and sent some clips, but didn't hear anything for a few months. Then he emailed me one night asking what I was doing the following day. He needed a comic for a short scene in "Louie." That would be my first TV appearance, something I'd been working toward for 10 years.
I emailed my boss telling her what happened, saying, "I have to go do this tomorrow morning, regardless of how you feel about it." She was encouraging, and the next morning I was on set. As I walked toward the trailers around the corner from the Comedy Cellar, I could see in one of the open doors. Jerry Seinfeld was sitting inside. No big deal. No pressure. Just Seinfeld.
I was called to the set, Louie welcomed me on and told the crowd of background actors what was about to happen. We shot the scene in about 20 minutes. Afterwards, he thanked me for coming out on short notice, which was flattering, him assuming I had something better to do. Then he said, "Have you met Jerry yet?"
"No, I haven't met Jerry ... Seinfeld?"
"Come on upstairs."
We walked up to the cafe above the Cellar and over to where Seinfeld was sitting. He introduced me, "This is Jim Tews. He just did a scene for us downstairs. He was really funny."
"Oh, sorry I missed it," Seinfeld said, sounding exactly like Seinfeld. He shook my hand. I thanked them and walked out. I stopped at the craft services tent because it was a free lunch. I also wanted to spend more time away from the day job I had to go back to.
I walked from the Village to my office in Times Square, then I sat back down at my desk and caught up on the work I'd missed that morning. Anytime someone asked me to do something that day, I wanted to say, "Maybe find someone else to take care of this. Someone who wasn't just hanging out with Louis CK and Jerry. Seinfeld." But I didn't. I like having the job. I still have it.
If I wasn't okay with working a job outside my dream profession, I may have made a lot of hasty decisions that led me farther from my goal. Not putting yourself in a position where you have to say yes to everything for financial reasons keeps you away from a lot of terrible gigs. So if you're doing comedy or anything like it, and someone says, "Don't quit your day job," don't be afraid to follow their advice.
Jim Tews lives and works multiple jobs in New York.
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