I never used to worry about money. Being broke didn’t bother me much. Plus, I could usually find unusual, but legal, ways to make a few bucks when I was desperate. Once, as a non-smoker, I convinced a research group I smoked two packs of cigarettes a day to take part in a paid study for smokers. “Are you sure you’re a smoker?” the moderator asked me repeatedly as I coughed my way to a hard-earned twenty bucks.
I also sold my plasma, let another study put a catheter in me, set up tailgating tents, painted houses and worked nights asking clinically depressed people questions about their trial medications. I did these things partly for the money, but mostly for the material they gave me for my real passion: Comedy – stand up, writing and anything else that fell under the ubiquitous umbrella of funny. Money was never a motivating factor for comedy, which is a good thing because it doesn’t pay much unless you’re wildly successful, but I did start making a little money early on.
I vividly remember the first time I got paid to do stand-up comedy or my impression of stand-up comedy. I got a call from “Dr. K,” the marketing professor/rocker had who asked me to do a few minutes of stand-up in between a night of cover bands, asking if I could swing by “The Brewery” to pick up my “cut.”
The reason I wasn’t paid after the show – the standard way bar performers are paid – was quite simple: I didn’t make it to the end of the show. During one of my bits – a long, jokeless atrocity, in which I imagined myself having sex with some of the nuns I’d encountered during my time in Catholic school – my microphone was turned off and Dr. K. politely, but sternly, asked me to slip out of the venue before I was hurt.
When Dr. K handed me an envelope containing $17, it was easily the most satisfying payment I’d ever received. I had gotten paid to make people laugh or, more accurately, I had gotten paid for trying to make people laugh. Being paid for making people laugh felt like I was getting away with something – the way I’d felt as a kid after sneaking back into my parent’s house undetected after a night of neighborhood pool-hopping.
While the novelty isn’t quite the same today, every time I get paid to write a funny essay or tell jokes in front of strangers, a part of me still feels like the kid counting the bills in Dr. K’s envelope.
As refreshing as this mindset is, it can also be dangerous. Because the writing and the performing doesn’t feel like work, it’s easy for me to accept less-than-adequate pay or, worse, do something for the opportunity and experience it provides – “I can’t afford to pay you, but think about what a great opportunity it’ll be to not only work with Chris Farley’s brother but also to drive him around all weekend! Who knows, this could be your big break.”
Comedy isn’t a full-time job for me, but it isn’t a hobby, either. A nice chunk of monthly income comes from the various writing gigs and stand-up performances I cobble together. Because I have no immediate plans to stop, I need to increase the monthly income comedy provides to justify doing it. That’s only fair. I can’t justify working an entire weekend in Poughkeepsie for $200 or spending five hours a week writing unpaid posts for a friend’s “almost profitable” comedy website.
I have a 14-month-old daughter and a son on the way. Money matters now. It matters a lot. Pre-children, I never prepared for the myriad emergency situations that could’ve put me in dire financial straits, and I sure as hell never worried about them.
Now I spend a decent chunk of time playing out highly unlikely scenarios that could ruin my family — If my wife and I both lose our jobs within the same month, get into separate car accidents that were both our fault, have our house destroyed by a tornado and fall victim to a sophisticated IRS phishing scheme, would we still be OK?
Of course, I could make my own situation less difficult. I could give up the comedy, focus on furthering a more stable (i.e., lucrative) career and free up a whole lot of time in the process, but I don’t think I should do that. My situation is far from unique. There are countless parents out there doing the very same thing: Struggling to balance their own quest for personal fulfillment with the 24/7 responsibility of being a good mom or dad.
By nature, parenting adds a certain gravity to every aspect of your life. It forces you to balance a variety of tremendous weights in a seemingly impossible manner, like the African women in National Geographic with the giant stacks of objects on their heads.
I should never have to give up doing what I love if I can rewire my brain to rethink how I do it. That means always asking “How much does it pay?” instead of “Does it pay?” or telling asshole comedy club bookers, “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to find someone else to babysit Chris Farley’s brother.”