Bergman: Mind the SharksWritten by Keith Bergman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Breaks are few and far between when you are on the lowest rung of the ladder, in comedy or anything else. So I was excited when I got some work from a tiny booking agency — small town shows, for gas money and not much else, in some of the most backward nooks and crannies of two-lane Midwestern purgatory. But paid gigs! Things to put on the calendar, and chances to keep honing my craft in new, probably weird places.
Then a more seasoned comic broke the news. “Hey, you gotta quit working for Agency X. They have a bad reputation. If you’re on their shows, Agency Y won’t touch you.”
Really? I never got this information from Agency Y when I reached out to them. I just got the usual “don’t call us, we’ll call you” spiel. How was I to know I’d violated some unwritten rule? Why don’t people explain these things up front and let you decide what your best course of action is? And why don’t they understand that in the absence of better offers, new comics hungry for stage time and work are gonna take what is available?
They just don’t, that’s all. As the guitarist Tommy Womack once said, “you want justice? Watch ‘Matlock.’”
Going into a creative field, and working mostly as an independent contractor, doesn’t save you from petty office politics and arbitrary dick moves by colleagues. You might have a show ruined because the headliner brought his friend along (read: made his friend drive and didn’t kick in for gas money), and his friend happens to be the crappiest emcee on earth. You might get passed over for a festival spot because you’re too old, or too young, or black or female or gay or white or just funny-lookin’.
One of the most heartbreaking early lessons I fell face-first into in comedy was that other people can bounce off you and affect your trajectory to a depressing degree. It’s no different than fighting off nimrod co-workers while trying to angle for a promotion at an office gig, except there you might have health insurance.
Musicians run into the same thing dealing with bookers, other bands and bar owners. Painters and sculptors deal with it trying to get into galleries and studios. It’s particularly frustrating to me, I think, because comedy is such a “lone wolf” pursuit, and you feel like you should be in control of your destiny. When you’re in the car alone heading to a show, you feel like all the tools for success or failure are in your hands.
You may spend most of your journey navigating the waters alone, but the sharks are ever-present. You can’t avoid them all and you can’t wish them away. Best to dodge and weave when you can, do damage control when you can’t, and try your damnedest not to ever become one yourself.