Mike Lawrence delivered a sincerely stirring speech on Saturday night at the second annual Creek Awards, held to celebrate the 11th anniversary of The Creek and The Cave, the Mexican restaurant and performing arts venue that has become a hub for New York City’s independent comedy scene from its outpost in Long Island City — just one stop into Queens on the 7 train, as anyone will tell you!
Here’s another fun fact: Colin Quinn delivered the first Creek Awards keynote a year ago, and this summer gave the keynote at Montreal’s Just For Laughs.
Proving once more that it doesn’t matter what city you’re performing comedy in — New York City, Long Island City or a city near you — here are the words of Mike Lawrence, republished here with his permission. The lessons are universal.
The Five Most Important Things I’ve Learned Doing Comedy In New York That I’d Pass On To Newer Comics
1. Other people will want you to succeed but no one cares if you fail. No one cares if you quit. Tons of people move here who were the shit at the Laughateria in Maine and Chucklecunts in Wisconsin and either die quickly or of a slow and painful death, impaled on their own dick jokes. You can usually see the moment they give up and never truly try again. Some move back and regain their righteous place as the feature’s feature and some stay forever, getting the charity booking once a month, that like Iron Man’s magnetic core, keeps shrapnel from piercing his heart. Don’t worry, that’s the only comic book reference I’m going to make. (P.S. Fuck Ben Affleck.) It’s never too late to get better and to paraphrase famous blogger Anne Frank, I believe that ultimately comics are good people that want to see each other succeed. I don’t wish failure on anybody. But I’m also too worried about myself to stop it from happening. I think we all want to see people turn it around and become successful. Remember, the same people that stared at you at open mics and never laughed will be the first to post “Check out my buddy on Conan Wednesday. I did open mics with him.” And that’s because deep down they did like you, they just hated that you never laughed at their shit either. This all leads me to my second point…
2. Indifference is the meanest form of bullying. I used to be a dickhead to people at times. I’d make fun of their sets and shit on them. This came out of the fear and insecurity that I would never escape open mics. If some crazy whack job is at an open mic how am I any better than him or her? I regret a lot of the mean and terrible things I’ve said. And yet, what I see now is even worse. At least when I shat on people, I had to watch their act. Once you start to get things, start making it, there’s not a lot of feedback. You send writing packets into the ether. No one tells you why and you’re not even sure they read it. You’re agent sends you out to a club and doesn’t tell you why you weren’t asked back. You just aren’t. You may know it’s because you didn’t draw well or got shitty comment card responses, but no one’s telling you. So support each other. You’re all going to know each other for a long time because you all love this. When you go to open mics, there’s no one there but other comics. It sucks. You try your best, you want to get laughs, but it feels hopeless. Except for one thing: You can make it better. You can sit in the empty seats. You can move towards the front of the room. All new bad jokes deserve to die a natural death and not be aborted. But because most of us stand in the back instead of sitting in those seats, it’s terrible. You’re adding years to the ammount of time you’ll have to do open mics because you refuse to sit down for forty-five minutes and pay attention. If you’re six months in, where the fuck do you have to go? Watch other comics. Go to two open mics instead of 4 if you think you might learn something. You decide how many of you become successes based on the environment that you create. It’s in your hands.
3. Knowledge is weakness if it’s the wrong type of knowledge. I think with the internet and podcasts and all the general gossip that goes on we often know too much. You don’t need to know who books the Montreal Comedy Festival until you’re asked to audition. If you know who books Conan but don’t know how to do a tight 5-minute clean, TV set, you aren’t industry savvy, you’re a fucking idiot with the wrong priorities. Headliners you feature or host for don’t care if you have their IMDB page memorized if you run the light or get their names wrong. Are you easy to get along with and able to adapt to any situation? That’s going to be more important to someone than if you can quote their bits to them. Being a person every once and a while will get you further than always being on. Know your comedy first and your industry second. Be blissfully ignorant and just work towards getting laughs and having a unique act. What can you do that other people can’t and why do you deserve money for it? Who’s your audience? Asking yourself that constantly will get you on shows way quicker than begging to be on shows
4. Live a life outside of comedy. Abscence makes the act grow stronger. Have passions outside of comedy. If you can be a real person, you will be a better comic. Take a night off if you’re only going onstage because you feel obligated to. Have a significant other and not just so that you can to talk to someone outside of comedy about comedy but so that you can hear about their life and realize your not the only thing that matters. Having a significant other or having a kid may slow you down a little bit but it also give you a reason to do it. I don’t love comedy or my girlfriend Adina more than the other. Loving Adina allows me to love comedy at a safe enough distance that I can back away when it’s way too much to deal with.
5. There’s no alt and club divide. Do both and respect both. There’s old dinosaurs that haven’t written a new bit in both types of rooms. There’s as much alt hack as there is club hack. And there’s as much thoughtfulness and creativity in the club scene as there is in the alt scene. And all the best and most successful comics are doing both anyway. New York has more clubs than any other city. So take advantage of that. And if your first time in a club is when you do an audition and you bomb it, do whatever the fuck you can to get back in there and rectify that mistake. If there’s any real divide in comedy it’s between comics who do it for a living and those who don’t. The guy who’s making a living will come to a mic once every few weeks and see all the regulars doing inside jokes and just think “fuck this place, I just want to see if this tag works” because it’s his job. Everything changes once you say, alright I’m going to make my living doing this. You don’t get to fuck around as much, because it’s more real. I used to hope my jokes were good enough to get on Kabin. Now I hope they’re good enough to convince my girlfriend that I can help provide for the family we want to start. Guys who have to think “Can I buy a house with my jokes” can talk to each other in a way that they can’t with the guy who thinks “One day, I’m going to get them to laugh at me, you’ll see.” When it becomes more serious it becomes lonelier. And you shouldn’t be completely beholden to one scene anyway because comedy is ultimately nomadic. It’s hotel rooms and airport breakfasts and late nights hammering out scripts and packets. You should never truly feel comfortable anywhere. You can have a home club but you should never feel at home. Open mics especially can be helpful or harmful. For every career that’s been fostered and has flourished because of them, there is an example of someone who’d probably be better off without them. They’re often just a gay bar for a guy who loves to say he’s gay but that you never actually see being romantic with another guy. When you go to them every night are you coming because you have something to say or because it’s where your friends are? Do you want to actually do comedy or just say your a comic? Get the fuck out and experience the rest of this amazing comedy scene. Do the urban rooms. Do the gay rooms. Go to Jersey. Go to Staten Island. Get up on any stage that will have you. Leave your friends and the things your used to behind. It’ll all be there when you get back.
Mike Lawrence is a stand-up comedian based in NYC. He has performed on Comedy Central and Conan. You can buy his first stand-up comedy CD, “Sadamantium.”