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Comics Who Quit

No one ever really quits standup comedy; it’s too easy to relapse. The retired road dog dusts off his act for a quick cash infusion to cover a late cable bill. The career hobbyist drops in at an open mic after years of abstinence to say hi to old friends and try out a new joke she thought up on the bus. All it takes is one quick hit of validation or failure (it doesn’t matter which) to get pulled back into comedy’s orbit.

There’s always a mic going on somewhere populated with familiar faces, a mostly supportive nocturnal network you can tap whenever you feel the urge for performance or camaraderie. It’s like a 12-step group, except here the pathology is celebrated and the meetings actually fuel the addiction. Plus there’s lots of alcohol. It’s a circle of friends for people who have no other friends, which is why some comics can do it for years with no discernible signs of progress or success. Don’t call it perseverance; they’re just still hanging out.

Comics regularly fall off the wagon, and even those with enormous potential are forgotten instantly, lost in the endless tide of setlists and show lineups. Those who quit are often the ones with the highest levels of ambition and self-awareness. In an industry where even nominal success can prove elusive after decades of dogged pursuit by the world’s most elite performers, isn’t quitting the rational response?

I asked a few retired local comics about the experience of quitting comedy.

Rosalie Gale

Rosalie Gale met her husband (Douglas Gale, previously on City Arts here) at the first open mic she ever attended, and she’s been a reliably funny and feminist fixture of the local scene on and off for the past 13 years. She co-owns Ugly Baby and La Ru where she sells hilarious and nerdy crafts including her patented “shower art.” Gale performed her last set at the Comedy Womb two weeks ago.

Why did you quit comedy?
There are lots of reasons really, but the main ones are that I've found other ways I would rather spend my time and I was never that great of a comic in the first place. We opened a store and I want to spend more time focusing on that and my art. Plus, after 13 years I've only reached the ranks of a mediocre local hobbyist. That's probably enough time to spend on that. 

I would be lying if I said my quitting didn't have anything to do with the way women are treated in comedy. It doesn't happen everywhere, but at some clubs, there is, at best, a dismissive attitude toward comics who happen to be women and, at worst, women are treated like objects. The last open mic I attended was a tipping point for me. Three women went on stage. One was introduced without incident, the second was referred to as "fuckable" in her intro, and the host pretended to jack off on the third while she left the stage after her set. Then he said, "I'm not looking to go to jail." WHAT? How about you just say her name and bring her up on stage and then shake her hand when she's done - just like you do for every male comedian? 

It's hard to be funny when you're angry and I found myself getting angrier and angrier. Anger isn't something I'm trying to cultivate in my life right now so I decided to let comedy go. 

Do you still find standup entertaining?
Yes, absolutely. Over the years, the things I find funny have changed dramatically but I will always love some aspect of stand up. At this point, mistakes and failure are the things I find most hilarious - the things people do when they aren't trying to be funny. I'm hoping that I'll become less jaded the farther away from performing I get. We'll see.  

Paul Merrill

Paul Merrill was a regular on People’s Republik of Komedy shows in the alt-comedy boomlet of the mid-Aughts. He co-produced Lo-Ball, the Week of Fun, and LaffHole. He was an actor and writer for Emmy-winning, locally-produced PBS kids’ show Biz Kids, and he’s currently working on an autobiographical novel and a book about the Seattle Supersonics. He wrote eloquently about his moribund comedy career in a recent essay for Flipcollective.

Why did you quit?
When I first started, I had a very romanticized vision of what I thought stand-up was. I saw it as the ultimate expression of an individual artistic vision. What I didn't factor into it was that most of the time you were sharing this artistic vision with drunks, drug dealers and waitresses who could not physically give less of a fuck. 

As a former drummer, dramatic stage actor and amateur basketball player, I have a long history of quitting things, so stand-up was just another disappointment to add to the list. Throughout it all, though, writing was the one thing I kept doing. Writing was like the "nice boyfriend" in a romantic comedy that I finally noticed in the end.

What was the high point of your comedy career?
I dealt with severe anxiety and panic attacks almost every time I stepped on stage, so there aren't a lot of great memories of actually performing.  My first time at Bumbershoot was probably my peak as far as my act goes.  Most of my favorite memories of stand-up, though, were hanging out backstage with all these amazing, brilliant people, like the time I got to talk at length with my childhood hero, Robin Williams, about all the cocaine they did on the set of Popeye.

Do you still find standup entertaining?
I love seeing people I started out with like Hari Kondabolu, Reggie Watts, and Ron Funches get the huge, breakout success they deserve, not only because they are talented, but because they are genuinely nice people. In general, though, I have a hard time watching stand-up. It's like watching an ex-girlfriend dance with another guy, and I am a horrible, jealous, petty human being.

Nick McCord

Early in his standup career, Nick McCord’s commanding and theatrical stage persona landed him a lucrative gig as the emcee of local, national, and world Pokemon Championships. He also started a weekly showcase at the Owl & Thistle (which I took over when he quit comedy and left Seattle) that still stands as the longest-running paid weekly alt show in Seattle. McCord now lives in Olympia, where he recently completed his first musical.

Why did you quit?
I quit because I fell out of love with the whole affair. All of it. Every aspect of stand-up soured on me. The crowds, the stage time, the hecklers. Hell, even the other comics themselves became too much to bear. Again and again I heard, “You’re an actor, McCord, not a comedian.” And when I finally started landing steady corporate work, the affront from my fellow comics came in even harder. That’s the thing about stand-up. You don’t have friends. You have competition. It’s a very small stage up there, and there is rarely space for more than one. But who can blame them? The industry virtually runs itself, regardless of whether or not you’re along for the ride.

What was the low point of your comedy career?
The low point of my career was one night at the Comedy Underground. I just remember that I bombed on stage and couldn’t bear the shame. I never expected to bomb. Ever. The grand delusion of an attitude like that led to many, many bad nights. Another [Seattle] ex-comic, James Parkinson, wrote this great line in his book, “my arrogance outraced my talent.” We were all arrogant in regards to our talent back then. Some of us just happened to be right. I sure as hell wasn’t one of them. Again, I wasn’t made for stand-up, for the brutality of repeat public defeat.

Do you still find standup entertaining?
No, no I don’t find it entertaining anymore. It’s strange. I wonder if other performers who transition to other art forms suffer the same fate. I still do theater, just now I’m writing operas, plays and musicals. It’s a meaningful change beyond just clips of silliness for the purview of drunks. The plays allow me to go further down the rabbit hole of what it means to be a person. Not that comics can’t do that, it’s just nice to write joy and loss sometimes. It’s nice to be “other than funny.” But I don’t miss stand-up. The comics who stayed can have it, and honest to god, I hope it serves them well.

Rosalie Gale photo by Chris Leher. Nick McCord photo by John C. Hoffman.

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