(NOTE: Readers are warned that the following piece will feature a mix of delusion, depression and humble-bragging. – Scott Long)
I've been a touring standup comedian for the past 20 years. I've worked pretty much every major comedy club in the country, hitting the stage in 41 states. Last year I worked 48 weeks. Am I famous? I'm guessing most of you reading this would say "no."
Most people think that they could do comedy. Nearly all of us know we can't sing or play an instrument well enough to front a band. Almost everyone learns by the age of 10 that the art projects we craft in class are now only appreciated by our moms.
But nearly all of us have told a joke or come up with some impromptu line that made our fellow co-workers chuckle. If you can get past the daunting task of getting up in front of people, it seems pretty easy. Say funny stuff, get laughs, then get famous, right?
Not so much.
The number one question I get is, "Did you always want to be a comedian?" Yes — and no. I grew up with a tyrant of a father who was very abusive. He was manic-depressive and probably bi-polar. In the small Iowa town where I grew up those issues got him a diagnosis of "That fellow is kind of moody." A childhood like mine seemed to yield only two career options: standup comedy or serial killing. Since I wasn't really into murdering small animals, my biggest escape was comedy.
George Carlin was my gateway drug. His act taught me that I wasn't the only one who thought the world was full of crap. I watched every standup that was on TV growing up, but it still didn't seem like a viable career choice. I went to college to be a journalist. By the time I graduated college at the end of the '80s, newspapers were folding and standup clubs were opening everywhere. At a show I attended at the Broad Ripple Comedy Club, I was inspired to try it myself, since I thought two of the three comedians on the bill weren't that good and I thought I could do better.
I would do open mics at the Broad Ripple and downtown clubs and anywhere else I could get some stage time. I had good material from the start, but there were a couple other newbies from my rookie class that were better natural entertainers and they moved up more quickly. (Cue Inspirational Music.) I made the conscious decision to work harder and smarter than the folks with natural ability.
Those are the two facets of being a successful comedian that are never mentioned. I have never known a great comic who wasn't smart or hard-working. Even a guy like Larry the Cable Guy is far from a dumbass, despite his on-stage.
As I went from open-mic-might guest performer to opening act (or "emcee"), the comedy boom began to suffer from oversaturation. Clubs all over North America began to close in the mid-'90s.
Despite the fallout, I continued to move up in the business. By the start of the millenium, I was headlining most places I performed. I began writing Frank Caliendo's comedy sketches for the NFL on FOX. One of my TV scripts got some attention from a big-time Hollywood manager. He wanted me to make the move to LA to pitch it to the networks.RELATED: Scrabble and standup
The problem? After a number of years of trying without success, my wife had gotten pregnant. I passed on a move to LA. It wasn't that hard of a decision. I had just moved into a new house in the suburbs and knew that for the same amount of money, we'd be living in a crappy two bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood in SoCal.
Very few people get the chance that I did, but I don't regret it. My goal when I got into this business was to do standup comedy, not be a TV star. I understand my place in the business. I now have three kids to take care of, so I'm constantly hustling, since there aren't 50 comedy clubs each year that are asking ME to perform. Half my schedule is filled with gigs at bars, corporate events, county fairs — name it, I've probably done it. I even did a show once at Brad's Gold Club, providing burlesque-style standup between the strippers. I've even done a set at the Pendleton State Penitentiary.
I don't want to give the impression I feel stuck in Indy. Between Indy and Bloomington, there are four great comedy clubs in Central Indiana. These clubs have thrived because locals have always supported standup. Indy couldn't be more centrally located — half the clubs in the country are within driving distance. (That's a huge benefit; air travel is EXPENSIVE.) And it doesn't hurt that The Bob and Tom Show is based here in town: that show that has helped more standup comics than any other radio program in the country.
You'd think that given all the ingredients listed above, a few breakout stars from Indy would have made the big leagues. That's the one major black mark on the city in regards to standup. The power brokers here have never made any concerted effort to help push the local talent on any national level, unlike Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis. Fortunately, that's started to change as a couple of newer club owners here have created some different avenues like comedy festivals to bring more attention to the locals. This has been a major boost for the local standup scene, which is the healthiest it's been in my two decades in Indy.
I'm definitely a believer in the saying "Success is relative." While my TV credits consist of a brief moment on Last Comic Standing or a short appearance in a sketch for FOX, I make more money than a lot of comics you've seen on Comedy Central. I would guess there aren't 200 standups in America who made over 50 grand last year, which is why I always tell young comics not to get into this business for the money. Do it because you can't imagine doing anything else. I don't know if it's because I've been making the yuk-yuks so long that I can't imagine being able to hold a 9-to-5 gig at this point, but there are no plan Bs for me. I'm glad to say I still love taking the stage almost every time I get the chance. Thanks for listening — and don't forget to buy my wacky t-shirt and CD in the lobby.RELATED: Check out the Gal Pal Comedyfest, why doncha?
THE YOUNG COMEDIANS
Editor's Note: There are a LOT of funny people in Indiana. NUVO went looking for the young'ns, the up-and-comers. A quick poll of those in-the-know led us to chat with three excellent standup dudes and a female improv star. They can all be seen at local venues — check your local listings, folks.
Tim McLaughlin - touring standup comic
NUVO: First, the resume: what would an emcee say about you when he or she is bringing you on stage?
Tim McLaughlin: "This next guy has been in The Boston Comedy Festival, Cape Fear Comedy Festival, he has been on Comcast On Demand, and is featured on XM/Sirius Satellite Radio." But I don't care about that stuff. I just tell them to say "Welcome Tim McLaughlin to the stage."
NUVO: What was your first time on stage like for you — how'd it go?
McLaughlin: First time on stage was at The Spot (which is now closed) next to the laser tag place in Castleton. It went absolutely terrible. I was incredibly nervous, then I was drunk, then I was done and it couldn't have been any worse.
NUVO: What was the best gig you've ever played?
McLaughlin: The best show is a hard one to pin down. There have been a lot of good gigs, but two stand out. The set I had in the semi finals of "Trial By Laughter" at Morty's Comedy Joint. The crowd was laughing at my setups — it was crazy. And the second is a show I just recently did at a winery in some hillbilly Illinois town right next to Terre Haute. Everyone on that show destroyed. It was so fun, I was hosting and that usually goes poorly but they loved it all.
NUVO: Okay, now tell us about the most hellish of the hell gigs you've had.
McLaughlin: The worst gig I have ever done was for some guy named "Tucker" out of Bloomington, IN. It was at a golf club down there and he was "sick" and couldn't drive ten minutes to bring us a spotlight or a PA system. So the headliner and I had to split $75 out of our pay to rent the PA at the venue, and we had to do the show in the dark. I hated everything about that night.
NUVO: What's your advice for someone just starting out?
McLaughlin: Get on stage as much as you possibly can. Continue writing and never sit on a joke and think it's perfect, there's always something else that can be tagged on to it or reworded to make the joke better. Also don't go on stage and do a brand new six minutes every time. Jokes don't get better if you don't continue to do them and figure out the correct way to deliver them. But the most important thing is getting on stage anyway you can. You can sign up for Morty's Open Mic if you feel like you're funny. Go to Mortyscomedy.com and click the Great Indiana Mic Off banner and select the date you'd like to perform.
NUVO: What comics do you love?
McLaughlin: Dave Attel, Jimmy Pardo, Louis CK (of course, because I am a trend setter), Kyle Kinane, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Earthquake, Dave Chappelle ... I can continue to write down more and more black comics — Bill Cosby! — but I think you guys get it. I watch a lot of comedy. Stewart Huff is one of the greatest unheard of comics working the road right now. His show is mind melding and life changing. (That sounds so pretentious, but it's true.)
NUVO: What comics do you loathe? (We'll understand if you skip this one.)
McLaughlin: I have no problem answering this question. I HATE Jeff Garlin and Charlie Murphy. I can't say anyone else, but I've worked with those two and they are jerks. You can listen to Jeff Garlin be mean to me on my podcast The TNT Dynamite Party Hour available for free on iTunes. He was such a dick. When I worked with Charlie Murphy I sold $1,600 worth of his merchandise all weekend and he didn't break me off a penny. He also insulted my car and told me I should be picking him up from his hotel in something nicer.