I believe that constant success from an early age makes you lose one of the most important things a comedian needs to truly be great; perspective.
For several years I really struggled in comedy. I came close to quitting, especially when I was deep in the trenches of one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. And yet, now that things are happening, and continue to happen, in my career, I can really appreciate them.
I was listening, the other night, to a comedian complaining that he could “only” get on television a few times a year these days, a figure that would be astonishing to anyone in the business, but especially, I bet, himself when he was doing open mics. And whenever I’m tempted to complain about the good things in my life, I remember where I was a decade ago.
The following story was written for my old blog nine years ago. I would bet you anything that the people I talk about are all still in their exact same jobs. So it goes.
In order to explain just how awful the job of doing market research over the phone is, I have to start by explaining that I have a fantastic system for paying bills when I don’t have enough money; I just sit there and hope that some job comes up that wants to pay me a large amount of cash. What’s scary isn’t so much that I rely on this system, but that it works as often as it does.
For example; years and years ago, I had fallen into making food money by doing lights and sound for various shows that were so Off-Broadway that the more honest name for them would have been “In Hudson River.” The phone company had given me ten days to pay a two hundred and forty-nine dollar bill, or my service was going to be shut off. I had seventeen dollars in my bank account, and maybe another seven in change on my nightstand. This was my first-ever shut-off notice, and I was genuinely frightened. For some reason, I had this mental image of two large phone company goons breaking down the door to my apartment, ripping all of the phone cords out of the walls, breaking the receivers in front of me and saying, “See? Dis is what happens when youse crosses Ma Bell.”
I was doing tech for my friend Todd’s, and after a particularly good show, his friend Dave approached the tech booth. He said to me, “Oh my God, you were great! You got all the music cues and blackouts perfect! I’m doing a live off-Broadway production of two episodes from The Odd Couple next week and I need a tech guy. Would you do it for two hundred and fifty dollars?”
Several years later, and now I have a roommate. Consolidated Edison has been threatening my electric flow for a few months now, but at this point I have become jaded to the whole process. Turn off my electricity? Ha! I’d like to see them try it! Don’t they know what happens to utility companies that mess with Liam McEneaney? And besides – the Universe was going to provide me with the money I needed, when I needed it.
I’d been looking for steady day work for several months. As a comedian, I needed a job that had enough hours that I could pay my bills, yet flexible enough that I could leave for a few days if something better came up. This meant spending a lot of time on the Craig’s List part time/etcetera section, competing with thousands of people for the three jobs that sounded like they weren’t a complete scam.
Out of frustration, I placed my own fake Craig’s List ad, claiming that I ran a company providing the service of sifting through organic waste for contraband that people had swallowed, or valuables that pets had eaten, thinking I had invented the one completely demeaning job that no self-respecting person would want. Forgetting who was looking for work on Craig’s List.
Within the first two hours, I received three hundred responses. Over the next month, I got hundreds upon hundreds more, over a thousand, all with resumes, many misspelled, many who ended up following-up because they hadn’t heard from me and they were very interested in getting started in the exciting field of sifting through shit for hours in search of something of value. Little realizing that, by searching Craig’s List for a worthwhile job, they already had.
A friend had told me about Galaxy Surveys Incorporated (not their real name) a market research firm that held open job interviews every day, and while market research was not my first, fifth, or nineteenth choice – to digress for a second, I did market research when I started comedy, when I was about twenty. I was still in college at the time, and to accommodate my schedule I worked an all-weekend shift; six hours Friday night, thirteen hours on Saturday and seven hours on Sunday morning. I couldn’t keep up five days of school followed by twenty-four hours of market research AND nights doing unpaid open mikes, so I really had no choice but to quit going to college. I ended up working on the day shift, and quitting after one of my bosses told me that I had the potential to be a supervisor there.
Consolidated Edison shut off the electricity in my apartment while my roommate was still sleeping, and I put on my one nice button-down shirt and hauled ass out of there for a job interview at the market research place. On the F train, I caught my reflection in the window and noticed that I had a weird, patchy Amish farmer under-beard. Now, I’m not sure why I felt the need to look my Wall Street very best for a shitty phone job that pretty much had an all-day process of hiring people literally off the street. But I really wanted to ace the interview.
So when I got off the train, I went to Duane Reade and bought a sample size of shaving cream and a disposable razor. Luckily, I already had a place picked out to shave – one thing about the New York Public Library system is that anyone can use it. Which means that on any given day, you’ll find a homeless person bathing in the men’s room sink. I figured, what’s acceptable for the homeless is great for borderline cases like myself.
But as I lathered up in the men’s room mirror, I had a small panic attack. What if I was caught by an elderly gentleman, a benefactor of the library, who then called for security, a large hulking man who kicked me out of the New York Public Library, shaming me in front of the stately stone lions, in front of the spirits of all the great American men of literature whose works call this institution their home, yea in front of the very homeless guys on their way in for their weekly bath?
So I did what any rational person would do – I took my shaving gear and my freshly-lathered face into one of the stalls. I started shaving over the toilet, and I gave myself a pat on the back for my genius. I was almost done with the right side of my face when I felt something warm and wet smear my finger as it slid down my cheek. I instinctively checked the razor, and the blade was dark red. I used one of the tissue-thin pieces of toilet paper to daub at my face, and it almost disintegrated in a pool of deep red blood. I wanted to check out the damage, but oddly enough, the New York Public Library system doesn’t have shaving mirrors installed in their bathroom stalls.
I walked out of the stall to check my reflection above the sink. I could have saved myself the trip; the look on the face of the guy peeing in the urinal told me more than any mirror could. Sure enough, I had cut myself in three places on the right side of my face. Now I was faced with a dilemma; stop shaving and show up to this job interview with half a beard on, or continue shaving in the stall and show up to this job interview looking like I’d just come off of fighting a band of ninjii.
Since my roommate had already woken up and was undoubtedly pissed at finding the electricity turned off – I’d ignored two calls from her by this point – going home was not an option. So I decided to finish shaving and wait in for my wounds to heal. After all, I had a book I’d just started, and the toilet seat was designed to theoretically be comfortable to sit on. The only problem with this plan was that I then gouged the hell out of my chin, and the bleeding didn’t even slow down to a trickle for an hour. I had to call the place to make sure that it was cool if I came in an hour late for my appointment, and naturally they didn’t give a shit.
I showed up chin still bleeding, shirt spotted with dried shaving cream and blood, and fifteen minutes later, I walked out a brand-new employee of Galaxy Surveys Incorporated.
Within two weeks, I was ready to move on. Cut to a year later, and I was still stuck in the job I’d decided to only hang onto until my comedy career took off. All of my coworkers were really sweet, and really on welfare, and – here’s two real-life announcements my supervisor had to make to all the employees on the day shift, to illustrate exactly how ghetto my work environment was:
1) “I don’t know why I have to tell y’all this, but there is something we call ‘soap.’ When you take a shower in the morning, don’t just stand under the water. Use the soap. And deodorant. You have to use deodorant. And if I find y’all coming in stinking from now on, I’m going to have to send you home.”
2) “I don’t know who smeared their tampon all over the walls of the ladies room. I don’t want to know who, or why. Please don’t tell me. Just don’t do it no more.”
I decided to bone up on my temp skills, and enter the exciting world of sitting behind a desk and doing nothing. But I hadn’t saved enough money to quit my job. To illustrate how little money I made, one week there wasn’t enough work, so I’d been sent home. It took a lot for them to do that, by the way. I was so good at this awful job of bothering strangers over the phone, that I was called in on days when they only needed two people to get one survey completed. During the week that I’d been laid off, I collected ninety dollars in unemployment.
But I decided that this job was such a dehumanizing ordeal – I could literally feel chunks of my soul fall off as I entered work every day – that I would rather live on ninety dollars a week and quit eating. Now, whenever an employee became unproductive, instead of firing them, the powers-that-be would simply tell them there was not enough work for them and to call in the next week to see if they were on the schedule. The employee would call and call until they got the hint and moved on to a more respectable line of work, like selling crack at a schoolyard.
The problem was that I’d spent a year proving myself to be a model employee, and no matter how badly I tanked the surveys, being rude to the people I talked to, “accidentally” cutting the call off mid-question, or dialing so slowly that one day I average five calls an hour, they would not let me go. Their thinking honestly was that if they were paying out unemployment for someone not be at work, they might as well force them to come in and not work at the office. And if I quit, I forfeited an unemployment claim.
It didn’t help that my supervisor had caught on to my little game pretty quickly – he wasn’t a stupid person, just a bad one. Every day before the lunch break, we had our ritual where he would pull me aside and ask me why I was suddenly unproductive, and then warn me that I was on probation. This lasted a month.
That’s when I fell into a black pit of despair. That’s when I wondered if I was doomed to be a market researcher for the rest of my life, like Dominic, the sixty-something man who’d snapped at some point and decided that he was on the verge of making it in show business, who always had screenplays that he was sending off to some executive at Fox that he claimed to know. Who claimed to be Luke Perry’s estranged father, and carried pictures of him in his wallet. Who lived in an SRO and who I had to lend a quarter to once so that he could afford his dinner of coffee and a fifty cent package of cookies.
Or Clinton, who semi-openly drank airplane-sized bottles of rum at his desk. Every afternoon. Or any of my other coworkers whose worlds had shrunk to the point where all they had was their homes, their monthly benefits, their lousy dead end job that was killing them as sure as if it was cancer of the will. I would caffeinate every morning out of sheer boredom. Two cups of coffee before leaving the house. Another large coffee from the deli around the corner on my way in. Two twenty ounce bottles of soda at my desk, all before lunch, just so I could feel a sensation other than sheer, soul-crushing boredom. Nights I would drink heavily, at one point so heavily that instead of spare change I gave a homeless guy my house keys. I half-hoped that at the least, I could give him a place to bathe other than the NY Public Library.
Somewhere in that mess, though, I found the will to work hard at comedy again. I came to the realization that my current plan, hoping someone would recognize my innate genius and give me lots of money, was not working. I started writing jokes at work while I was dialing, while I was talking on the phone. And when I was offered a chance to audition for a silly pop culture show on basic cable, I jumped on it, prepared my ass off the night before, and aced it.
The day I went in to quit my job was one of the sweetest days of my life. My boss, a horrid woman nicknamed The Dragon Lady by her employees because of her breath, was incensed that I was quitting without giving her two weeks notice. And so, she fired me.