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Careers in Comedy: Sometimes the Worst Mess Leads You to Success

How do you know when it’s time to change your direction in life?  Are you going to keep waiting on tables, or should you GIVE UP on your fantasy career and do something else? How much longer do you stay with an agent who’s not getting you jobs? Are you better off in a so-so relationship, or is it smarter to LEAVE while you still have all your original parts? STAY OR LEAVE: a question that resurfaced over the holiday weekend.

I’d been SO EXCITED as I arranged a 4th of July vacation with my family in Big Bear -- hiking with the dogs, lying in a chaise lounge by the lake, sipping a drink, swimming. Then I saw the place. The Lake Front Lodge was a 3-STORY WALK-UP with nails sticking out of the plywood steps (I put the pictures up on my Facebook page). The room had curtains with BULLET HOLES; no, they weren’t lace. The one lamp was without a bulb. The bedspread, circa 1982 K-Mart, seemed to have holes from the SHRAPNEL, probably related to the curtain incident. There were no chairs by the lake, maybe because of the Hitchcock-like swarms of MOSQUITOES.  Swimming? Only if you could step through multiple CATFISH CARCASSES floating belly up on the shoreline.

So much for not checking Trip Advisor.

In one shattering moment, we discovered there were NO refunds, no other places available, and it started to STORM. Lightning, thunder, and a 4.8  EARTHQUAKE. The room was a crime scene, it was storming, our cellphones were beeping with an emergency flash flood warning – what next? Locusts, vermin, the slaughtering of firstborns? Did it make sense to STAY and smear the blood of a Paschal Lamb on my car? Or give up on the fantasy of what I had envisioned and LEAVE? We had to make a decision.

This reminded me of another time in my life where I had to make a decision to walk away or stay and make the best of it.

In 1989, I had a series of 10 stand-up comedy gigs booked by Rick Messina, who later became Drew Carey’s manager. I was staying in New York in the kind of neighborhood where even a schnauzer could get mugged, and that’s what happened to my beloved Walter, who got attacked by a pack of stray dogs. Cabs apparently don’t stop for bleeding animals, but I managed to get him to the animal hospital. Handing him over, I was crying as I told the doctors, “I can’t stay, I have to work!”

“This late? What do you do?” they asked.

“I’m a stand-up comedienne!” I said through my sobs.

At the time I had spent 17 years as a stand-up comedienne, sometimes 46 weeks on the road. This gig was in Long Island, a club called Governor’s, which somehow was a magnet for all the scum of the earth. I borrowed a jacket to cover my blouse that was caked with my dog’s blood. Making my way to the stage, I heard the crowd welcoming me with, “You suck! You suck!

I plodded onstage, starting a joke, “I’m worried about getting old…” Someone shouted, “Getting old?” I was 34. Do I stay onstage and “get them” or end this misery and piss off everyone?

Then, I had a EUREKA MOMENT where time seemed to roll in slow motion. I saw their drunken faces as a blur. I saw my father’s face with his bloodshot eyes. Then it hit me – that making drunks laugh was something I did as a child at the dinner table. I realized NOW I am an adult with CHOICES. And that night, I made a DARING CHOICE – to LEAVE. I walked off stage, walked out of my contracts with Rick, picked up my dog, got a plane home to LA, and looked for something else to do with my career.  For a year, I thought about how I could reinvent myself. That led to launching my workshops, writing Stand-Up Comedy: The Book, and appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and getting booked in a career I didn’t know existed – as a CORPORATE SPEAKER. 

This is what came to mind while we were in Big Bear waiting for the mudslide to clear that had been triggered by the earthquake. Sometimes when dealing with bad situations, we forget that we ALWAYS HAVE A CHOICE.  As with poker, if life deals you bad cards, you can keep hoping that your luck will change, or fold.  I folded. I left Big Bear.

Back in the comfort of my own home, I took a bath in my CLEAN tub, went boogie-boarding in the ocean down the block, and felt sure I’d done the right thing. Knowing when to LEAVE is as important as knowing when to STAY.

Feel free to forward this to someone you know in a terrible marriage, dead-end job or whoever’s had too much cosmetic work done.

Is it better to be sorry about something you did, or something you didn't do? You have to DO IT to find out.

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