Becoming a Pro

Becoming a Pro


My students always ask me,

“How do you start getting paid shows?”

It’s a totally different game now than when I started. There’s a lot less places to do comedy and ten times more comedians. If you’re good at what you do, eventually you will be paid for it. More than likely, your first paid work will come to you the same way it came to me…Somebody will offer it to you.

Starting the second week of November, I had done every open mike available in the area. By early December I had been on stage 10 or 12 times and they had all gone good. There was no stopping me.

There was Tickle’s on Monday, The Pittsburgh Comedy Club on Tuesday, and The FunnyBone on Thursday. Occasionally there was something on a Wednesday. That’s what happened in early December.

One of the local professionals was hosting a show at a bar in his hometown. There was no pay, unless you were the winner of the contest. He told me,

“I think you’ll probably win and get the fifty dollars.”

He probably told that to everybody because he needed bodies to fill the show. Forgive me for not realizing, I was still young and naïve.

Chrissie and I pulled into the parking lot of the place and there were quite a few motorcycles. As we entered the bar, it was rowdy and smoke filled. A lot of leather with gang names, facial hair and tattoos. The dream of winning fifty dollars was far outweighed by the hope of surviving.

From what I remember, there was a lot of weirdness. Nobody was doing comedy including the guy who invited me. He was just bringing up the acts and ducking outside.

Up until this point, I hadn’t had a bad set. The crowd wasn’t really into the show but, they hadn’t seen me yet. I’ll get them. I heard my name introduced and walked onstage. I did the line I had been opening with for a few weeks.

“So, everybody ready for Christmas?”

I will never forget the overwhelming sense of hostility I felt being directed my way. The microphone wasn’t loud enough for me to be heard over their heckles. A few minutes into my set, a fist fight broke out. I think there was some discrepancy over whose turn it was to scream an obscenity at me.

As the fight turned into an all-out brawl, I jumped off the stage, grabbed Chrissie and we ducked out a side door. At that point, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be one of the finalists for the money. Plus, my life was worth more than fifty bucks.

I had been lucky. All of my sets had gone well up until now. I’d only been doing comedy for a little over a month. Everyone kept telling me,

“You’re going to bomb one of these times. It happens to everyone.”

Bombing is one thing. Having your manhood questioned and a riot break out during your show are not confidence builders.

That night was rough, but I shook it off and went out and did my usual Thursday set at the FunnyBone. I just realized my first bad show was inevitable, now it was out of the way. There would be plenty more through the years, but the first was done.

The following Monday at Tickles, Billy Elmer pulled me aside. I mentioned Billy and I have been friends since we met. In the early days he was more my mentor. He gave me some of the early tips I share with young comedians today.

He was the first person to tell me not to open with new material, in case it doesn’t work. Open with something you know gets a laugh to get the audience on your side. Do the new stuff in the middle of the set.

Anyway, Billy wanted to know if I would be interested in driving down to Waynesburg with him on Wednesday and doing ten minutes before he went on. He was looking for three acts and I was the first he asked.

Another set and it’s on the road…How could I turn it down?

Bob Ryan and I met up with Elmer at his apartment and he drove us down to Waynesburg. The other act, Robbie, was coming from another direction and would meet us there.

Waynesburg is forty-five minutes to an hour outside of Pittsburgh. It’s actually closer to Morgantown, West Virginia. If it didn’t have an exit sign, you would never know it was there.

As we pull up to the place we will be doing the show, “Daddy Jim’s,” I notice a lot of motorcycles parked in front.

“Oh crap, not again.”

As we walk in, I sense a friendlier atmosphere than the week before. We were in a small town where they don’t get much entertainment. They were there for the show.

The three of us went up and did well and then Billy went up and crushed it. We were sitting around a table and the owner called Billy back to the kitchen. I would later learn, this is where you usually got paid for gigs like this.

Upon his return, Billy shook each of our hands and placed a five dollar bill in them.

“What’s this?”

“You’re doing good work, it’s time you start getting paid.”

It was only five dollars. It wasn’t going to make or break me, but there was something significant. I just got paid to make people laugh. I was a professional comedian.

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