How I Became a Comedy Rock God by Mikey Mason
How exactly did I become a Comedy Rock God? No, seriously. I was asked that very question just last week on [Social Media Name Withheld Per Court Order,] which caused me to sit back and reflect.
I came to the conclusion that the person who asked is buying the hype my publicist (re: me) is putting out. I also realized that this person was being just as jokingly optimistic as I am when I refer to myself as a Comedy Rock Star. But you’ve gotta brand yourself somehow, right? It’s all about branding these days.
Seriously, though, I do make a living doing standup comedy (I travel around the country telling dick jokes to Middle America,) and that’s pretty cool. And some people want to know how I ended up here, so forgive my lack of modesty, because I’ll tell you what I can. It’s going to seem long and circular and self-centered, but you were just warned, so if you keep reading and end up mad or disappointed, you can go suck it. You’re to blame at this point.
I’ve always been a smart guy, scoring high on tests and stuff. I could read and write when I was four years old, and my kindergarten teacher (I was in kindergarten at four) put me on display by having me read to the rest of the class whenever the principal or any other adults came by the room. Sometimes she’d have me read during story time so she could do something else (I’m pretty sure she wasn’t grading papers…) In any case, the kids hated me for it. It was my introduction to how the world treats you when you’re different. It was my introduction to social ostracization.
Throughout my life, things have happened which made me incredibly insecure. I’m not crying about it, not in therapy over it, not going to discuss it, and sure as hell not looking for sympathy, but to understand how I got to where I’m at you need to know that. Somewhere along the way I learned that there was a difference between being laughed at because everyone hates you and being laughed at because you did something funny on purpose. Do the latter enough times and you suddenly have friends, or at least an audience who doesn’t hate you.
So that’s where the sense of humor came from. Seriously. The rest? Well, I said I’d display a lack of modesty, so here goes…
I’m a talented guy. Always have been. Smart. Voracious reader. Good Writer. I draw well. I play guitar. I sing. I dance. (Seriously, I lettered in Show Choir in High School.) I act. I write songs. I’m incredibly modest. I even have good teeth. (My hair used to be remarkably fine and the envy of all the girls at school, until it ran away, and my waistline is just in hiding. It’ll come back someday.) I’m not just singing my own praises, here. I actually have a point: I’m a generally creative person. It comes easy for me. I’m “gifted.” And that has been my particular problem my whole life.
I had a poetry professor in college, Dr. Tom Thornburg, who saw it immediately. He told me in a comment on one of my poems that what I had were “Dangerous Gifts.” If I’d had the sense to know what he was talking about then, I’d be much more successful by now. I realize now what he meant, that because I didn’t have to work for any of my creations, really, truly work for them―they all came to me naturally―that I was a slave to ‘inspiration.’ I didn’t have any discipline, and the key to success in almost every endeavor is discipline, the will to not simply give in and walk away when things become difficult.
There was so much I wanted to do: write books and novels and plays, write and draw comics, do stand-up comedy, sing in a band, act on stage, make movies, etc… And I still do want those things, but I spent most of my time paralyzed by options. If you’re only good at one thing, you have a kind of built in focus, but if you’re good at a LOT of things and love doing them all, how do you know what’s the right path to take? I was treading water, metaphorically, in the sea of possibilities, and I was getting nowhere. I knew that my only option was to pick a direction and swim (again, metaphorically.) I narrowed my choices down to either being a serious musician or a musical comedian, knowing that I’d be able to get the attention that I wanted and still hold down a full-time job either way, and not have to wait too long to get that attention. I asked my wife (then girlfriend) which I should do. She chose serious music, so I picked comedy. True story.
I’d been performing comedy and writing funny songs since I was in high school, though never as a standup. In fact, my first two attempts at standup (wayyy back in college) where such abominable failures that I immediately decided I didn’t want to do it anymore (see Dangerous Gifts.) I was in comedy troupes and bands and a semi-funny musical duo with my best friend (we did serious music, too) so by the time I decided to actually be a standup comedian, I already had a lot of good material. Almost two decades worth, in fact. Which turned out to be about 26 minutes, all told, but certainly enough to be a middle act.
I recorded some of my songs without vocals and took the cds to karaoke nights. When it was my turn, I did my own material. One of the bars I did this at had a comedy night, and the owner’s wife told him I should open a show. I did an awkward audition for him on a Tuesday night to a nearly empty room of people who didn’t pay attention to it anyway, and he kind of shrugged me off. A month or so later, he needed a comedian on short notice and called me right after I got off of work. Within 2 hours I was a standup comedian.
I opened for Todd Yohn that night and did so well that he asked me to perform with him again in two nights, and I did. I begged an audio recording of the first night from the DJ who worked at the club and sent copies of it to club bookers in an attempt to get work. Elaine Steffek from Snickerz Comedy Bar in Ft. Wayne, IN called me one day and said, “You know what? You’re a funny man.” She booked me to middle for John Fox (of Bob & Tom infamy) and I went. That week they shot the regional NBC TV show “Night Shift,” and so the first time I actually worked in a comedy club, I was also on NBC.
I used my pay from that week to buy a copy of the set―a pro-shot, three camera setup with high quality sound―and used that to send to bookers. Like Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” But also remember that this is a very simplified version, a long period of time condensed for one reading session. There were sacrifices, too. My first paid gig for one booking agency entailed driving 11 ½ hours to Minneapolis, MN for one show, where I earned less pay than the gas cost me, and performed for 5 people, only two of whom didn’t work at the club, and they got in free because they were having sex with the emcee…
It wasn’t uncommon for me to drive a very long way for very little pay at first. I’m still willing to do this to get in with a new booker. It’s a price you pay to get work. I slept in rest stops. I still do. I ate off dollar menus. I still do. I burned vacation time at work. I missed my family. I played for great crowds and crap crowds and once I even did a show for no crowd at all–just the wait staff–because the owner of the club was paying us for a show and didn’t let the lack of an audience deter him. I’ve stayed in great hotels and in hotels that I wouldn’t have masturbated in when I was a teenager. I’ve had a lot of great shows and a lot of mediocre shows, and enough bad shows that I’d not care to mention them, except to say that failing is the single most important thing you can do. I’ve had a lot of fun and made a lot of friends and continue to do so. But I also learned the ropes of comedy: the business and the discipline. I learned how to not give up when things sucked, when I failed. For once in my life I was persistent. Every time I write that word (persistent) I think of another college professor who was fond of quoting Calvin Coolidge:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
I really feel the weight of those words now, every time that I realize that this is my job. That I’ve worked for myself for the past three years, driving across the country and making people laugh. That I am, in some small way that will hopefully continue to grow, in fact living my dreams. My business card reads “Comedy Rock Star.” It only goes to show what is possible. If you want it bad enough, and work hard enough, and are willing to sacrifice enough, then you still have to get lucky, and even then you probably won’t get famous and it probably won’t pay well. But yes, you can live your dreams. I do.
[check out some of Mikey’s albums -ed]