My booking agent called me in May of last year to tell me. I am aware that some of you may be already throwing up. You read the word “agent” and you puked. Hey, I get it. Maybe try to pop the word “secret” in front of there. That might help. “My secret agent called me in May of last year with some bad news.” That’s a stronger start. Or, if you’re thinking on Jeremy Piven/Entourage, refocus your mind on Jeremy Piven/PCU. Did that help? Did that make it worse? Bail now if you need to because I’m about to use that word again.
This is what I mean by booking agent: There is a man who negotiates the contracts for my live bookings. He makes sure comedy clubs include a hotel room or flight in my pay for an out-of-town gig. He connects with festivals and late-night shows on my behalf, and he books me at clubs. He’s a normal man with a cell phone whose work allows me to do my job and he calls me sometimes. His name is TJ.
TJ called me in May of last year to pass along a “no” from Montreal. Actually, he said, “Well, Cameron, here’s where we are at: You didn’t get New Faces this year and also you will never get New Faces. The festival doesn’t want to use you in that capacity.”
I’ll break down the jargon: In this context, “Montreal” doesn’t refer to a city; it means the Just For Laughs comedy festival. JFL is the largest comedy festival in the world and it’s from sunny French Canada. You might say it’s the Celine Dion of joke conventions. All right, you might not say that. Me, though—I’d definitely say that—but I can also put it in A.V. Club terms. Imagine a sort of Comic-Con but the Starfleet is Chevy Chase, Nick Offerman, and Seth Rogen, and the cosplayers are every talent booker or casting director or person-in-a-suit-that-makes-comedy-decisions. Or for the music fans: It’s Pitchfork?
For newer stand-ups, there is a specific focus to Montreal: New Faces. Each year the festival zooms around the country watching a zillion sets by a zillion emerging comics—comics who’ve generally been at it for more than four years and less than 10. That’s the emerging comic range. From these auditions about 20 comics are chosen as “New Faces” and these baby comics make their debut at Just For Laughs with a little extra fanfare.
Media coverage counts for some of this fanfare—the lineup is published on comedy-specific sites—as does the opportunity to be seen by a large group of industry professionals all at once. Live performance is everything in stand-up. A TV set and a podcast appearance and a special on Netflix—all those things are important—but screens and earbuds have yet to replace the impression left in our hearts and minds after seeing a comic live onstage. For be-hoodied young comics, New Faces is a chance to glide down a metaphorical white staircase into a coming-out party of industry folks, toss a rainforest’s worth of live performance business cards in the air and then fly back home. Being showcased at this part of the festival is an early goal I set in stand-up—probably a goal most young stand-ups share. It’s not a goal I met. And I’m okay.
I first auditioned for New Faces after I’d been doing stand-up for about a year. My jokes were awful and I believe I wore a white vest with hand painted stars on it to tell them. I’ve always said, “If you’re wearing a star vest and you’ve been doing stand-up for 12 months, you probably aren’t ready to do comedy on a national level.” I didn’t get a callback.
Another year I sailed through two rounds of auditions in Chicago, and was invited to a final round of callbacks in New York. I flew myself out there and crashed on my college friend’s Upper East Side couch. I felt great and couch-rested and then sweated through my vest the moment I got onstage (Assume I am always wearing a vest in these stories. This vest was better—kind of argyle with a little bow tie. The outfit holds up.) and ate massive amounts of shit for the rest of my five and a half minutes. I bombed so hard that when I walked off-stage, I just kept going. I walked 80 blocks from the Village back to my friend’s Upper East Side couch. It was an 80-block-walk level bomb.
My point is: I never had that New Face. Just For Laughs did end up producing an annual festival in Chicago for a while—an offshoot of the Montreal festival that, I believe, helped cement Chicago’s designation as a great stand-up town—and I played that festival every year. So this isn’t a sad-sack story about having something taken away from me or not getting to do this one thing that mattered so much or about perseverance and Rudy and having the heart to go all the way. This is a story about moving forward.
When I’m asked how to get started in stand-up—and that’s a questions comics get asked a lot—I always give the same answer: You just start. You go to an open mic, put your name on the list, wait your turn, tell some jokes, shake hands with the other comics, leave, come back the next night, and repeat. That’s how you start.
Strangely, few people ever ask how to progress. My thought: You set goals. You plan to work at this club by this date, or you prep for an audition set and you go out there and sell it. You tell yourself these goals can be achieved. You watch other comics get the things you hope for, and you wish them well, but you push to keep pace with them. To have a viable stand-up career, you will have to meet some of these goals.
Some goals will blow up front of you. You’ll set a goal and then have no jokes and wear the wrong vest and fail. Or you’ll set a goal and wear a better vest, still fuck it up, and walk 80 blocks home. You’ll be offered a different version of the thing you really want and you’ll hear, “No forever! Sorry! Bye!”
All of this is good, but it doesn’t feel good. It feels like shit. I’m not suggesting that you should play the comedy violin while the Rome of your career burns. I’m saying that every comic is made better by experiencing failure—every person, really, so go ahead and use this as allegory if you wanna be all Old Man And The Sea about it—because every comedy career is flush with it. If you get every New Face or Fresh Buddy or Best Of 30 Under-60 Female Dog Impersonators, how will you recover when you’re openly booed or you get your own television show and then it’s abruptly canceled or your brother-in-law makes off with all the cash from your sold-out Madison Square Garden run?
Every comic you respect has failed gorgeously, picked their shit up and moved forward. And they’ll continue to do so. It’s not about getting beyond the failure; it’s about outlasting it. If you hope to make comedy a lifelong career and you are lucky enough to live a long life, outlasting is the answer. Outlasting doubt, outlasting failure, and keeping a hare’s short-term goals on your mind while running a tortoise’s race.
Listen, maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. Maybe you’ll achieve everything you set your mind to right in a row. God, you’ll be insufferable. Or maybe you’ve already gotten knocked down and you hate me for writing a quasi-motivational Stand Up To Failure TED Talk column. You can take my thoughts on this or not.
Next week I’ll appear at Just For Laughs Montreal for the first time. Not as a New Face. I never got that. I missed it. It’s over. Instead, I’ll be taping a set as a Person Who Does Stand-up Comedy For A Living Face to be aired on HBO Canada, which I assume is home to Canadian Girls and Looking Canadian and do a few more in your head. I’ll tape alongside some rad pals—comics who’ve new faced and not, comics who’ve failed and moved forward. We probably won’t talk about who’s done what or who’s lost what. We’ll probably get onstage and tell jokes. Hopefully good jokes and hopefully while wearing good vests.