Abandoned pilots, failed auditions, festival rejections, bombed sets, sketchy managers, lost roles. These are just a few of the industry hurdles a comedian will likely have to overcome on the way to landing a slot on Comedy Central Stand-up Presents. Since its 1998 debut as Comedy Central Presents, the series has become a benchmark for rising comedians on their way to hopefully bigger and better things. Despite the fact that cable specials and late-night sets don’t generate quite the same heat that they did 20 years ago, they are still a must-check box on most comedians’ growing résumés. And as comedians’ credits accumulate, so does their knowledge of how the business side of this whole comedy thing works. Early on, every major gig, meeting, audition, and spec script feels like it might be “the one,” the thing that could propel a comic into the big leagues. But anyone doing this long enough will tell you that opportunities vanish as quickly as they appear, no job is permanent, and disappointment and rejection are a major part of the game.
That’s what we discussed earlier this year when we sat down with all 12 comedians from the newest season of Comedy Central Stand-up Presents as they prepared to tape their sets at New Orleans’ Civic Theater. The excitement of shooting a special for Comedy Central — the biggest thing, stand-up-wise, to happen for most of these performers thus far — proved to be a great opportunity to reflect on what it took to get there. The sweet isn’t as sweet without the sour, so we wanted to hear all about the sour. We asked each comedian to tell us about a time in his or her comedy career when a show, opportunity, or job didn’t turn out as had been hoped. Some had an answer immediately, some had to dig deep through repressed memories to pick a defining moment, and others had a hard time choosing just one from a list of multiple disappointments. Overall, the responses reflect a similar pattern of growth from early naïveté to seasoned wisdom and acceptance. Below are their stories and the lessons they learned.
Working on the second season of American Vandal — American Vandal got canceled after the second season — that was pretty devastating. I felt from being in the room and watching the end result, I was like, I’m proud of this. This worked out great. But it just didn’t work out for whatever reason. There could be 7 million [reasons], because Netflix is really low-key about shit. So that was one. But ultimately, I don’t feel like it totally fell out because it was still a good product that turned out great. It was a good experience.
In Austin, that contest Funniest Person in Austin, I never won that. I got voted the funniest stand-up in the local paper, but the contest I never won. I always got third. That was always an, Aww, you know? I’ve done other comedy contests, too, and I feel like I’m just not a contest winner. At the time, they were big losses to me. I was like, Don’t cry, don’t cry. I felt ready. I felt like I deserved it. But now, looking back, I feel like I didn’t miss out on too much. I’ve submitted to things and have had auditions, too, that went nowhere. I mean, I almost thought I didn’t get this. I submitted and hadn’t heard back. I thought, This sucks, because I really wanted it. When they called and said, “You got a special,” I was like, Oh my God.
If you graduate from college and you get a degree as an accountant and you’re applying to all of these different places trying to get a job and you get one, but at six other places you didn’t get a job there, no one says to you, “You got rejected by six other accounting firms.” You just didn’t get those jobs. I apply that to everything. When it comes to me auditioning, I didn’t get rejected, I just didn’t get that job. But because this is your dream and artists talk about their dreams more than most other people in a profession, it becomes “rejection” because your dream did not get fulfilled. So I don’t think about jobs like that. There have been plenty of jobs I’ve auditioned for and thought, Oh, this would be great to do, and I didn’t get it. But then I had four more auditions that week. As much as I’m an artist and as much as I’m a comic, this is still business, and that’s all it’s ever been. Now, do I get disappointed when I audition for something and think, Aw, that would have been a great job? Yeah. But do I remember that job? No. There’s always going to be another job.
I had a job where I was going to work with the NBA and do a bunch of shit with them doing podcasts. I thought it was going to change my life, but it fell through. I was like, That’s it. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now. The muscle of stand-up is what I think helped with that, where you go, I’ve just got to do another thing real quick. Write. My friend Kevin Barnett — he was one of my close friends who just passed — he was so meaningful to me. He knew I did stand-up and loved stand-up, but he said, “If you really want to make it, you need to write a pilot.” He got on me about it, and I ended up writing a pilot, which is what got me on South Side, which is my first narrative show. I was working at The Chris Gethard Show, which I love, but I knew I wanted to write narrative. He was really influential in that part. I didn’t know writing was that important. I love doing stand-up. I’m here doing my biggest stand-up thing ever so far. But the things you think are important are often so meaningless when you think about it. [Kevin’s] passing has also made me realize that. Nothing actually matters as long as you’re having fun, being happy, doing good things for other people, and building up the people around you.
I was up for an Onion job. It wasn’t even a big job, but my buddy got me an opportunity to submit headlines for Onion Sports. It was an eight-week trial or something like that. I was really happy with what I was putting out. I just assumed that I got it, which was stupid. When I got the email where they were like, “Sorry, now is not the right time. We’re going to pass,” I was so devastated. I think I found out at the same time that didn’t get the half-hour [slot on Comedy Central] that year. A lot of this stuff I feel so removed from now, but my first year in New York, everything that I thought I was going to get didn’t happen. The biggest one for me was coming out of Just for Laughs [Comedy Festival]. Going in, I had a guy who was an agent who promised me the world. He said, “You’re our guy. We love ya.” I’m from Indiana and lived in Chicago at the time. I had never heard of any of this shit. It went to my head in a way like, Oh, it’s going to be easy for me to move to New York. He said, “You’re going to be in every club. We’ll get you acting,” blah, blah, blah. The second I left JFL — I didn’t get signed — he kept telling me it was going to happen. He told everyone else it was happening. People were telling me, “Congratulations!” He said, “Hit me up when you get to New York.” I moved to New York three days later, emailed him, didn’t hear a word. Six months later, I hit him up again and sent him a tape. He gave me a note on a joke, another tag, but that was it. I had to start over in New York. I thought it was going to be easy. That was a bitter pill to swallow.
There were two things that kind of happened back-to-back. At one point, I remember being like, I have to do college shows. If I don’t do college shows, I’m going to die. That’s how I felt. I got booked for a show, and I might have bombed the worst I’ve ever bombed in my life — with my parents in the front row. Before that, I was so hyped up, like, I’m finally doing a college show! It was terrible. People were tweeting stuff like “I hate her.” It was so bad. And then there was a show — and I won’t say what the show was, but it was a comedy-competition-type show — where I had done the audition, didn’t hear anything, and then a few days later one of the producers of the show called and said, “Hey, Mia, do you have your passport?” I was like, “Yeah!” They said, “Can you travel?” I was like, “Oh my God …,” because I didn’t think I had made the show, but I’m going to be on the show! I called back, called back, never heard a word. I got ghosted. I was like, “Hi, this is Mia. I’m just following up to see what I need to do. I got my passport. Remember the conversation?” Never heard back. I was just like, Okay, I guess I just wasn’t meant to do that thing. One thing I’m thankful for that I haven’t done because I’m terrible at social media is that I’ve seen people post, “Got something big coming up! Just wait!” I’m glad I wasn’t like, “Guys, you should look out for me on …” I just try to put things in perspective. Maybe I wasn’t meant to do that. On to the next thing.
I have never really felt like I was in contention to do Just for Laughs. A lot of people who have done the half-hour have done New Faces at JFL. I’ve never gotten to audition. I’ve been able to submit clips, but I never got a response. That’s kind of a huge thing. It’s a weird situation, because in Los Angeles and New York, if you are not repped, you do not get to audition. I don’t have representation, so I don’t get to do a lot of auditioning. I would love to, but the way it works is that if you aren’t repped, you send a clip. It feels like you’re sending it out to the void. If you’re in front of the people, you’re like, They’re hearing me. But they must get so many clips. I’ve sent in clips for years with nothing. I kind of doubted that I would be able to get a half-hour without getting New Faces. It seems like the stepping-stone to get here. It’s an interesting thing that I have not been able to crack. Last year, I got a passport just in case. It’s good I have a passport regardless, but in my head I was like, This could be the year for me.
I tried out for late-night sets so much. I auditioned for Fallon when he was doing Late Night, the 12:30 spot. I didn’t get it. I think it was between me and the Lucas Brothers. Come on, man. You can’t be two black n- - - -s that look like me. There’s two of them and they’re identical? Goddamnit. It’s twins. You can’t beat that. I mean, it’s dope, but I never got to do Fallon. But it wasn’t my time. It became apparent pretty immediately that I wasn’t ready or else I would have got it. Plus I always feel like things happen for a reason. I believe in the universe and that things you want you can definitely get; it’s being worked out for you. It’s so easy in this business to want acceptance, and when you don’t get it, it feels like a rejection from your own fucking family. It’s so easy to become bitter, but it’s like, No, no, no. I wasn’t ready yet. It’s cool. Let me focus on this. I can control my stand-up, make it as great as I can, and people will start gravitating toward it.
First and foremost, I want to say that the majority of things you don’t get. But thinking about this half-hour and how much I’ve put into it reminds me of when I was younger and I was trying to get into the San Luis Obispo Comedy Festival. I had been doing comedy and did Bridgetown once. I saw about this festival in San Luis Obispo and got gassed up on the website: “There’s going to be industry insiders there! They’re going to get you a hotel!” At that time I was sleeping on the floor in Tulsa, you know what I mean? But I thought, I’m on the level, I’m really funny, I think I can do this. I was telling my friends about it, thinking I could move to L.A. after it. I had so many ideas about it. The list came out and I didn’t get it. I was super-crushed. You get that, What am I doing? I’m crazy for doing this. This is stupid, blah, blah, blah. But then I looked at the website and saw who got in. It was almost the exact same people that had got in the year before. I was like, This is bullshit! Why would I want to do this anyway? I never applied again, but every year they still send me the email: “It’s time to apply!” I look at it and smile because I’m really thankful. No disrespect to that festival, but none of the people who got in that year have done this.
Allen Strickland Williams
I, with some other people, wrote a show that was at a network. We wrote a pilot, and the timing of what it was about in context with what was happening in the world … it would have been such a home run for the network and for us. It was such a no-brainer. It seemed like all signs were pointing to yes. We were talking about production schedules, where to shoot, all that stuff. And then it didn’t happen. It was a big rug pull. It was the first time after a big wave in the comedy world that I had the huge crash. I’m sure people in all walks of life experience it, and I’m sure I’ll experience it again. Now I’m like, That wasn’t that big of a deal, but it really seemed like it at the time. The reason they gave us was that the network didn’t green-light anything that was in development that year. It was like, Wow. We made something good; we put the work in. It was a lesson that so much of this is out of your fucking control. You might get a bad crowd, you might get a dumb executive, your agent might fuck something up. At this point, I’m just like, I’m happy to be here. I’m going to have a good time. Once it’s over, I’ll have something else to worry about or something else to get excited for.
I auditioned for this Amazon movie that starred Jeff Bridges, Pierce Brosnan, and Kate Beckinsale. I got a callback, and they said, “Hey, we want to bring Charles in for the table read. We’re doing a read of the entire movie, and we want him to read the role.” I thought that meant that I had gotten the part. I came in to do the full table read. There were like 50 people there. Jeff Bridges was there. All the stars were there in the room. We read the movie. My part was a comedic role, and Jeff Bridges laughed like [does an impression of Bridges’s laugh]. It was so funny. He was the only one who laughed. People were smiling, but that laugh! Anyway, I did the read, met all the people, and I thought I had the part. Two days later, I found out they ended up going with somebody else. I was like, Oh, shit. I really thought that was mine. But then I watched the movie and that part got completely cut out.
I’ve had the “This is it” moment go forward. I wanted my own talk show. It’s all I ever wanted, and I got one. That was amazing. I know what that feels like, so I think the worst disappointments have been since then, because I know what it tastes like now. I had a pilot for another network after [Nikki & Sara Live] that was my version of a Daily Show–type newsy, funny show. I was so passionate about it, but there were some real problems at the preface of the pilot. Looking back, I made some mistakes. I didn’t ask for help when I needed it. I didn’t delegate or demand certain things. I was still proud of what came out, but it didn’t go forward and I was so, so upset. I knew that to get another show right away would be really hard and rare, but I wanted it. It wasn’t even about, I want to be back in the spotlight! I just love the work. What I learned was that I was never going to re-create the experience I had at MTV. It just isn’t going to happen. Even if I had gotten that show, it would have been different. Since then, I’ve done so much work that hasn’t seen the light of day. It hurts. Some of it is ego. I want my peers to know that I’m still out here like, I’m working! I exist! But I know I do. I’ve made a lot of really great things since then, and this is one of those accomplishments in my mind, the half-hour.