Shucking the day job and hitting the open road is a dream for many, but for aspiring comedians, it’s a mandatory step to full-time success alongside countless open mics, late gigs at half-empty clubs, and competing with loud drunks and bar televisions all to hone their craft and launch their name. For The Cherokee Effect Comedians, we interviewed four performers who made the journey from 9-5er to professional comedian to learn how they did it and how today’s aspiring comedians can too.
So what is the Cherokee Effect? It’s what happens when you seize the moment and begin living on your own terms.
Next up is Mark Normand, who made his late night television debut on Conan in March and has appeared on John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, Gotham Comedy Live, and Inside Amy Schumer. He also co-produces a weekly show in New York called Hot Soup.
So where were you working when you first tried comedy?
I was down and out – I was in college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was working two jobs at a Mexican restaurant and a video rental store, which sounds pretty good on paper, but…not good, not good. So yeah, I was drinking a lot, I was depressed, I was living in a house with like 28,000 guys and all we did was drink and try to get laid. Which is fine, but…you know. We had a hot tub and that was our biggest thing, all we cared about was getting people in the hot tub and we had beer pong and all that ridiculous stuff.
So I just hated everything and I had no outlet. As a kid I was in plays and made little movies and I was creative, and then in college I slipped into party mode and wasn’t getting anywhere. Eventually a guy I worked with at the Mexican restaurant who did standup was like “Yeah I’m going to Lafayette tomorrow to perform” and I was like “Wow that’s so crazy, I could never do that” and he was like “You should come!” and I said “Nah I can’t.” So that kind of planted a seed in my brain, then I started going to open mics and watching – not even going up. Then eventually I put a couple ideas together and a year went by and I still never went up.
I started dating this girl who was a soccer player – she gave me a yeast infection. I was down and out and went to a doctor, I thought I had AIDS, I didn’t know what the hell I had. I was just freaking out – I had lesions all over my genital area, so one day I just said “Fuck it, I gotta talk about this.” I got shitfaced and went onstage and just talked about it. And it was going well and it was actually hitting and getting laughs, and it was amazing. I felt great, I was like “This might be what I wanna do.” I went way over the light – I didn’t know what the light was, but they turned the music on me so it was super embarrassing standing there talking then Britney Spears starts blaring. But after that I was hooked.
And then you moved to New York?
I went to New York for film school for like a year, then I had to move back to New Orleans. And I’ll tell ya, I was just bummed, I was depressed. I didn’t know why – it was because I wasn’t doing standup but I didn’t really know that yet. So I said you know what, I’m going to move back to New York. I moved to Crown Heights with $800 in my pocket, I got mugged three times, and my landlord died of AIDS. So it was a hell of a first year in New York, and I couldn’t get a job anywhere because I had no skills and left college early. I ran out of money, obviously, in like two seconds, and I went to back to the New York Film Academy and begged them for a job because it was the only building I knew. I was like “I used to go here, can you give me anything, I’ll push a broom,” I was so desperate and sad and downtrodden, and I think they felt bad for me. They made me a file clerk. So I’d file papers from 9:00AM to 6:30PM every day in a room with wall-to-wall file cabinets. And they didn’t have any computers, it was crazy and super old-school. Eventually I moved up to registrar, which is the worst job of all time because you have to kick kids out who aren’t making their attendance requirements. So I’m kicking these creative kids out of school – I don’t even give a shit about the job, I just want to be a comic – so yeah, that was crazy. I was just juggling, leaving at 6:30PM, living in Crown Heights, taking a jam-packed train for an hour all the way to Union Square. I did that for about two years then just quit and lived on unemployment while doing comedy at night. And mind you, I’m doing three, four, five shows a night and barking for shows, which means I’m going around saying “Hey, come on in!” If I can get people in, I get more stage time.
I moved furniture for a little while, then I started temping. I temped everywhere – Pratt, Columbia, NYU, all these offices, that was hell – you’re making like five, six bucks an hour, you don’t know if you have a gig until the last minute – sometimes they call you at 8:00AM in the morning like “Hey, they need you for 9:00AM!” You went out the whole night on a bender, you’re hungover like “All right, I’ll be there!”
Then the ol’ prized gig came in when I was floundering again and my friend said “Hey do you need a job? There’s a janitor spot opening up in my building.” And I said “Really? How’s that work?” and he said “Well you just come in 9-5 three days a week and you mop up and shit.” I was like “I’ll take it!” I didn’t have to talk to anybody, put the headphones in, and three days a week – that’s gold! So I did that for two years straight, and you just feel like a real bum. You’re mopping, you’re wearing a jumpsuit, I worked at this swanky law office and no one talked to me really, no one looked me in the eye, they all thought I was a weirdo. I worked with like eight Portuguese guys who didn’t speak English and made fun of me. I taught them how to deposit money at the bank and stuff – they helped me, I helped them. They actually taught me a lot of sexual tricks. Um, but yeah, you’re out so late every night – you’re out until 3, 4, 5 in the morning, and that was it, that was life.
Eventually I started opening for Amy Schumer so the money was coming again – not much but pretty good, like $500 bucks this weekend but you still have to fly your way out so you end up with maybe $250, and that was huge in the beginning, when I was just doing it for the gig, the experience. Eventually I started getting enough that I started saving money away, moved in with a girlfriend, then I saved about eight grand, quit the job…I was such a pussy I couldn’t just quit so I had to lie to them. I told them I won five grand on a scratch-off lottery ticket. So I was like “Yeah, I’m just gonna quit for a while!” So that was dumb, but it worked. And that was it – I got a Comedy Central special right after that.
Before you got that break, was there a certain point where being a full-time standup felt like a realistic possibility?
Well I was a janitor for two years and it probably wasn’t until the second year of janitoring where I was like “This could be something – I think I’m getting there.” I was so broke – I ate the cliché ramen noodles and all that good stuff. Sometimes there would be free bagels at work and I’d put like eight of them in my pocket. But if you start looking at it like that for long, your back is against a cliff and you just have to write write write. I tried everything. I submitted packets for the Charlie Sheen roast, I wrote a packet for Jimmy Fallon. I didn’t have a manager and no one had heard of me so it was all bullshit. So there were a lot of baby steps.
What was it like to go from those tough day jobs to one day being a full-time comedian?
Oh that was insane, especially because your self-esteem is so low when you’re working these jobs. I have jokes about how sad work is and all that – you feel so low, you’re like “I’m a janitor, I’m literally the guy who pushes a mop around.” And then you go out at night and kill and go back to your job the next day and you’re that loser guy again.
When you don’t have the day job to draw from directly in your comedy anymore, do you feel like you lose something?
It feels good to quit, don’t get me wrong – that first day you wake up at noon instead of 7:00AM and you’re like “Oh my God, this is amazing.” But first of all, you start to get this euphoria of “I’m done, I did it” and you kind of get in denial a little bit. And then your money’s running out. But that first thing where you keep sleeping in and you keep drinking and all that stuff – so as glamorous as it may seem – all my friends are like “You’re so lucky, you don’t have a day job” – but I’m like “Yeah, it’s not that great…” because when I had my job as a janitor I had a vacant office I’d go write in every day. And when you’re at home you’ve got a computer, you’ve got a TV, so you have to discipline yourself. Luckily I had those seven depressing months of unemployment so I never wanted to do that again. So I’d learned from that, and that kind of saved me.
What would you advise an aspiring full-time comedian to have in place before they think about quitting their day job?
There’s a couple things. I think you need to have a solid, killer 15-20 minutes. You need some money saved away. And you don’t need this, but it saved my ass – having someone who believes in you. For me that was Amy Schumer, she was the one who was like “Yeah I’ll take you on the road!” My first club on the road was at the Chicago Improv, and I had never been to a club before outside of New York. We were sitting in the green room and they gave us water and I was like “We get free water? A bottle of water? This is insane!” I mean I used to go to bars and go in the bathroom and drink out of the faucet – that was my thing.
So Amy – I wouldn’t want to say she saved my career or anything, but she was a huge boost. Now I have all this experience opening for her and I’ve watched her grow as a comic – I remember her doing shows when like twelve people would come out, and now she gets like 3,000 people. So it was a real learning experience that a lot of my friends didn’t have. So the boost helps – you’ve got to have somebody who believes in you, and it helps to know your voice. You really should stick to your guns. If you want to be this kind of comic, then you need to be that kind of comic even if it’s not killing. You have to know who you are a little bit before you quit that day job.
What jobs do you think are ideal for an aspiring full-time comedian?
I think anything where you can get out there and think. Like a pizza delivery guy isn’t bad – something where you’re on the move, because when you’re in that office you just lose your soul, they suck it out of you. So I’d say anything where you’re out there – like the guys on bikes who deliver shit, or a dog walker…dog walker might be the number one job. Anything where you’re interacting with people but you’re on your own I think is perfect. Cooped up is bad. And obviously anything in the day is good – you don’t want to be a bartender because you can’t do shows, and booze is bad news. I mean it’s great, I love it, but at some point every comic has to discipline himself and make some rules about the booze.
How did you learn to get booked and network with other comedians?
I started in the “alt scene” so I was doing free shows just to get a drink ticket. I was trying to kill every show, trying to meet everyone who booked it, and be nice to people. Niceness is key; there’s not enough nice comics. I think if people are comfortable around you they’ll book you because they like being around you. So I was kind of going off that. And I think people saw I was working hard, and I never said no to any gig. I’d do any gig – “Hey we got a gig in the Bronx for no money” and I would’ve been like “Oh, I’ll be there!” I think that helps. I think my desperation showed. After a gig I’d email the guy and say “Thanks for having me, I’d love to do it again, really appreciate it” – and then yeah, I think it grew from there. I’d meet your Comedy Central lady or I’d meet your manager guy and be like “Is this my break? Is this it?” like a real loser, like a wide-eyed idiot.
And another thing – meet every single comic. When you go to these open mics and you go “Ooh, that guy sucks,” just go meet him! Don’t push everyone away, don’t be like “I’m the man, I’m gonna fuckin’ take over this town.” You’ve got to be nice to everybody. They’re just as eager as you and you’ve got to be the bigger man and just go “Hey, good set! I’m Mark! I like that one joke you had.” Because they’re all scared, and you’re scared, so if you just step up and say hi they’ll be like “Oh thank God, someone’s talking to me.” Don’t be the scared guy. I mean you can be the scared guy, but realize they’re the scared guy too. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met at an open mic my first year when I didn’t know what the C train was, and then I see them five years later and they’re like “Hey, you were that guy, do you want to do my show?” and you’re like “I’d love to do your show!” Just always be nice.
Photo credit: Cassie Wright