When you’re starting out in the world of stand-up comedy, you pay your dues. “Paying your dues” in show business means you make no money. None. Zilch. The money you get paid for a gig is barely enough money to get you to the next gig. But when you’re in your early twenties and trying to build your act, money isn’t your priority. Stage time,working and learning from more experienced comics, and making connections to help you get to the next level are much more valuable and should be every young entertainer’s priorities. That’s what separates future professionals from future hobbyists.
When I started grinding the road as an opener in the one-niter circuit, I only had twenty minutes of material. But I was an easygoing, nice guy with a reliable car. That alone can get you work as an opener in the one-niter circuit. A one-niter is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a bar, a restaurant, or a hotel lounge that has a comedy night once a week. If you can string enough of these together you can work four, five or even six nights a week.
When I started, openers made between $75 and $100 a show, plus a free hotel room and sometimes a free meal at the venue. So, the main objective when you’re on the road is to have as few nights off as possible, because if you’re on the road and not working – lodging and food is on you. The solution for some comics is to sleep in their cars on nights off. If you’re lucky, you might have a friend who has a couch.Otherwise, you’re looking for the cheapest roof possible.
On one of the countless road trips I made as a young comic, I found myself in Elko, Nevada. It’s as mall truck stop town with a casino. If there was more to the town, I didn’t see it. I had $5 in my pocket and a quarter-tank of gas in my car with 150 miles between me and my next gig. I was hungry but wasn’t sure if a quarter of a tank of gas would get my 1981 Ford Fairmont 150 miles. There was a blackjack table in front of me and in a very Clint Eastwood a la Dirty Harry way I asked myself, “Do you feel lucky … punk?”
After running the risk vs. reward scenarios through my head, I chose to try to double my money on the blackjack table. In retrospect, it was undoubtedly the most irresponsible choice to make. But I was 23 years old. I put my $5 on the table and received two face cards - a 20! Obviously, the universe was on my side.
I snatched up my $10 and headed for the cashier cage like I’d just hit a jackpot. I put $5 in my tank and bought a couple of cheeseburgers and a coke from the closest McDonald’s. Doing quick math in front of a McDonald’s menu to make sure I didn’t go over my pathetically small budget didn’t help my self-esteem, but they were the best tasting cheeseburgers I’d ever had.
About a week later, I found myself in the same familiar situation just outside of Pocatello, Idaho. I had just dropped the headliner off at the airport and was ready to continue to the next week’s run of gigs, but I had to get through two days off first.
The headliner I was working with knew my challenges (money) and suggested I go to a motel called, “The Cozy Sleeper.” Yup, that was really the name. It was an abandoned motel that had been closed for about five years. He told me there were a few rooms that had a key under the mat at what was once the registration office. He said it was “safe enough” and that a lot of comedians and other traveling entertainers used it when they had an off-night and needed to save a buck. I had a sleeping bag and my own pillow in the trunk, so I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, I had just doubled my entire life savings a week earlier at a truck-stop casino, so I figured I was on a roll!
Sure enough, there were three keys under the mat at the front entrance of this abandoned motel. I looked in all three rooms and chose the one that still had some carpet left on the floor. It was also far away from the other two rooms that had a key. By taking the farthest room, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have neighbors.
I put the other two keys back under the mat and moved in. I was in good spirits and hoping at the very least I’d get a decent night’s sleep and maybe even a joke or two out of it. I was basically camping within four walls of an abandoned hotel, but it was better than my car.
Later that night, I started hearing other voices and footsteps outside the other rooms. I peeked out my window and saw two guys moving into one of the other rooms. Being the eternal optimist, I thought maybe they were hip to the same information I had gotten and tried to steer my thoughts away from them being serial killers.
After a few hours, I bravely stepped out of my room to grab a couple of things from my car. The slam of my car door inadvertently alerted the other occupants at the abandoned “Cozy Sleeper.” From across the parking lot I hear, “Hey man! What’s up?!”
I came as close as I ever have to actually shitting my pants as an adult before I heard, “You’re not a comic, are you?”
I said, “Yeahhh, why?”
“So are we!” Shocked, surprised, and most of all relieved, I met two other comedians named Mark and Del (I’m purposefully leaving their last names out of this story) who it turned out I would be working with on the next week’s run of gigs!
I had already scouted the best room to choose from, so they moved into my room for the “safety in numbers” theory. We spent the night laughing, writing and bonding. The next morning, we drove to Helena, Montana, pooled our money together and bought a room at a hotel that was still in business, but ironically, not much nicer.
Today, as I write this story on a luxury cruise ship where I’m working, I give thanks to the universe for getting me through those “paying dues” years. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.