Warning: sentimentality awaits…
Ten years ago, I saw Aziz Ansari play the Wilbur Theater in Boston. I was a junior in college, and my girlfriend bought us tickets for my birthday. The idea that I might be a comedian someday was not yet born. But I do remember watching Aziz come out and destroy for an hour, and thinking “it must be fucking incredible to perform here.”
It was the first live standup show I ever saw, even though I loved standup as a kid. I used to listen to the CDs of legendary (to us) Maine comedian Bob Marley over and over until I could recite them, which I would do for my friends at school. The first thing I downloaded on Napster was Eddie Murphy’s Delirious (“mom! throw down some money! the ice cream man is coming!”). I also discovered the angry rants of Lewis Black (“if not for my horse, I never would have spent that year in college”), and as a family, we’d listen to Seinfeld’s original special, “I’m telling you for the last time,” on long car rides. These were my heroes—more than athletes or actors or musicians.
In high school, Chappelle and Dane Cook took over. I was obsessed. I’d put their CDs on in the car when I was driving a girl around. If she didn’t laugh, chances were, we didn’t have a chance. But it wasn’t until college that my comedy dream began to form. In March of 2009, I read Steve Martin’s autobiography “Born Standing Up.” When I closed the book, I wanted to be a comedian. Admittedly, I’ve finished military books and thought I want to join the military. But this dream stuck. The next year, as a senior, I did my first show at Tommy Doyle’s in Cambridge. I did one more at the Comedy Studio above the Hong Kong Chinese restaurant. My jokes were trash but they were enough to elicit a few chuckles from a supportive audience. Once I was rejected by Teach for America, I decided to move to New York City to become a comedian.
Open mics: my nightly meal for two years. I took improv and sketch-writing at Upright Citizens Brigade. I tutored for an agency, then broke off and did it by myself to make more money. My girlfriend and I—the same one who brought me to see Aziz—moved in together. We were serious, and I started to fear that being a comedian wasn’t going to be enough for her, or for her parents. These were my own insecurities, but I couldn’t shake them. After a mere two years, and seeing no light at the end of the open mic tunnel, I decided I’d given it a valiant effort but it wasn’t meant to be. So I applied to law school and went for four days. On Thursday of that first week, I was miserable. Faced with the prospect of a three-year legal education followed by a lifetime of briefs, I withdrew from law school. It took me going to law school to realize I wasn’t ready to give up on comedy.
A couple years later, that same girlfriend who brought me to see Aziz would break up with me, sending me into a very dark place. Seriously. For years. Before she left, I was still doing mics here and there, but I was mostly focused on getting my tutoring business off the ground. But then she was gone, and in my misery, I turned to standup.
I wrapped myself in a blanket of open mics, bar shows, bringers, and eventually, feature spots around the city. I’d ride the subway to Bushwick and Astoria to perform for five unsuspecting strangers sitting at a picnic table; I’d eat check-spots (when the wait staff drops the checks on the tables and everyone stops paying attention for five minutes) and demand their attention through sheer volume. I wrote miles of premises in my notebook. 99% of it was utter dogshit. But somehow, by inches, I started to understand the craft.
The first “breakthrough” came when I was passed for late night at the Comic Strip. I’d seen an ENT doctor about some lumps on my throat (the origin of the now-infamous cancergate). When Dr. Woo found out I was a comic, he told me to say hi to Richie Tienken, the owner of the ancient comedy club, on whom he’d operated over the years. Richie and I bonded over stories about Dr. Woo and he passed me for “late night.” When the last show of the evening ends, the host comes up and tells the audience to stick around to see a few of the young “up-and-comers.” Most people leave, but some stick around to be polite. The farther down the late night signup sheet you were, the less people there’d be in the audience. You had to arrive early to get your name on the sheet or else you’d be lucky to have one table to perform to.
The good thing about late night was that it was a guarantee of four spots per week. I can’t overstate the importance of having consistent stage time as a young comic. I maxed out my late night spots, started producing my own monthly show in the downstairs room at Gotham, and asked for favors from producers and bookers I knew. I’d book them on my show if they booked me on theirs. Stage time is the currency of comedians, and we trade it in spades. All of a sudden, I was getting on stage 10-14 times a week. I’d load up my tutoring hours on the weekend and make sure I was done before 8PM on weeknights to make sure I could get to my spots. I didn’t want a second to think about how the life I had expected, with this girl I’d loved, was done. I needed to move from one spot to the next. Tutor, subway, stage, repeat. It was self-preservation.
The bitterness fueled me to write jokes. It’s such a common story from comedians, but I truly attribute heartbreak and misery as the forces that made me a comic. When people ask me how long I’ve been doing standup, I don’t start the clock from the day of my first set (2011); I start it from the day she left for good (2014).
Then I saw the blog about Barstool Idol submissions. So I sent in a standup tape. A false cancer diagnosis, a few DMs to a supermodel, some death blogs, This is Bartsool, Fronnie does China, some longer blogs about my friendship with Dave, some even longer blogs fantasizing about Frankie, an Eminem parody, a George Brett parody, the Variety Hour, Barstool Breakfast, makeup tutorials, and a hundred road shows later?
I’m headlining the Wilbur.
So. Now that you know what it means to me? It would mean a lot to see you there.
PS- if you haven’t seen this, it’s a cool look at what my comedy life was like before Barstool, as described above.