The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer (2016)
HOW TO BECOME A STAND-UP COMEDIAN
Stand-up is my favorite thing to do. Well, that’s not true. I love to have an orgasm and I love to watch a good movie or read a good book. I love to eat pasta and drink wine. Those things are probably my favorites. But after those things. Oh, wait, sleep, I love to sleep—and I love to be on a boat. I love to play volleyball with my sister and I love to go see a band or musician’s concert right when I am at my peak of loving them. Those are all my favorite things to do. But all joking aside, even though I’m not joking, stand-up is such a huge joy for me. Especially now, because even though you get better and better at it, the experience doesn’t change. Or at least that’s how I feel.
Standing up there, onstage, under the lights, and expressing something you think is funny or important (or both) and being met with laughter, applause, appreciation, and agreement is a feeling I can’t describe. I am a human being and I want to be loved, and some nights I just want to sit around watching movies with my family or my boyfriend. But mostly every night for the last thirteen years, I’ve wanted to get onstage.
My first official gig was at the age of five. I played Gretl in The Sound of Music. But I was performing even before that—for as long as I could speak. In my room as a child, the bed was placed on a platform in a nook that was built into the wall. There were curtains around the nook to create a cozy little place to sleep, but I moved the mattress out so the platform could be my stage instead. I’d gather any family members I could find, emerge from behind the curtain, and perform for them on my little stage. The performances consisted mostly of me telling boring, meandering stories about bunnies or cats or worms. They pretended they were interested even though they must have been dying for a meteor to drop on the house.
I always wanted to perform. My dad filmed everything, which constantly annoyed me—even as a toddler. I’d stop my performance and ask him to put down the camera. We have a video of me throwing a tantrum because he wouldn’t obey my demands to stop filming. You’d think I would have enjoyed being filmed, but for me, the experience was all about the audience and the live show. Even when I was three.
My first time going onstage to do stand-up was very last-minute. I was twenty-three years old and had been out of college for two years. A woman in an improv group I was in, a comic of about forty-five, had been doing stand-up for a long time. She was like a female Woody Allen without the marrying someone who was once his daughter. I went to see her perform one night, and like every other asshole who goes to comedy clubs, I thought, I could do this.
Not long after that fateful night, I discovered Gotham Comedy Club. It was on Twenty-Second Street at the time and seated about 150 people. I went in and found out that if I brought four people to be in the audience (people who would pay the door price and purchase some drinks), I could perform that night. I can’t remember who all four of these lucky souls were. One was definitely my mom, and another was my friend Eileen, a jazz drummer, but I don’t remember the others. I had a couple hours before I went onstage, during which I brainstormed the six-minute set I’d perform. The show was at five p.m. on a Tuesday. Still light outside. Great time for comedy. There were about twenty-five people in the audience. I unfortunately have a videotape of the whole thing. My hair is very curly and the only thing worse than my outfit was my jokes. I wore a Mormon-looking short-sleeved white button-down with jeans that would have fit the original version of Jared from Subway, and I ranted about skywriting:
“It’s so annoying. It always fades, and you can never really read it. If a guy proposed to me that way, I would say NOooooooo.”
And then I added:
“So do me a favor this summer, keep it at eye level!”
That was my clever little sum-up. Keep it at eye level. Blech.
I could vomit thinking about how awful my act was. But I wasn’t nervous. I had been doing theater since I was five so I didn’t have stage fright. I was pretty confident for a newcomer with zero original thoughts and even less timing. People laughed enough. They laughed because I was young and hopeful and they could feel my energy and enthusiasm. They laughed to be nice. All that mattered was that they laughed. I was in. Some of the actual comedians there complimented me. They told me I should work at it and that I could get better. Maybe they were trying to sleep with me. Wait, just remembered my outfit. They weren’t.
From then on, I did a couple shows a month. Always “bringers,” which means you have to bring between eight and twelve people to sit in the audience and buy drinks in exchange for six minutes of stage time. It’s a bit of a racket, but everyone gets what they want. Everyone except the audience. I’d usually rely on my family and friends from Long Island and whomever I was waiting tables with at the time to fulfill my audience quota. It was brutal to need something from people all the time. Later on down the line, as soon as I stopped doing bringers, I deleted about a hundred numbers from my cell phone. I was thrilled I wouldn’t ever again have to text, “HEY! WANT TO COME TO MY SHOW?” As I have said before, I’m an introvert, and after shows I’d just want to go home and think about my set, but instead, I’d have to go to a bar with everyone who came to support me. Doing a show already takes a lot out of you, but then to have to kind of “work a room” was too much. It seemed easier to give a lap dance to an angry porcupine than to stand around with my restaurant coworkers hearing what they thought of my punch lines.
My first year of stand-up I’d pace in the parking lot outside Gotham before the show. I’d walk back and forth past the valet attendants and go over the set in my head the way an actor goes over a monologue: over and over again. Then, when I was a few minutes away from being called onstage, I’d get diarrhea. Every time. It was almost a ritual. I’d panic at the thought that they’d call my name while I was still in a cold bathroom wiping myself within an inch of my life, but it always timed out well. Somehow, I consistently managed to empty my bowels, wipe, and flush before my name was called. I even had a few extra seconds to stretch like a long-distance runner before I had to go on. Which I always did, until I saw someone shadowboxing before they went onstage and thought it was so lame that I quit my own ritual of stretching.
Now I can be fully asleep or in the middle of a conversation and walk onstage, but back then it was like sacrificing a lamb with all the creepy superstitions I had. The strangest one was watching myself. You could buy a VHS tape of your performance from a guy at Gotham for fifteen dollars. I didn’t have a VCR at home, so I’d bring the tape to a store that rhymes with West Buy and put it in one of their machines so I could watch my set and take notes. People shopping would walk by so confused as to why a girl had brought a video of herself to a store and was writing about it. Or once someone thought I was on a really low-budget TV show that I’d happened to catch the airing of. But I couldn’t afford a VCR with all the money I was spending on stage time and rent.
I didn’t graduate to open-mic shows for a while. Open mics are a bigger step because they aren’t bringers, and a lot of the time the audience consists only of other comedians. I decided a good place to get my feet wet would be up in Harlem on 106th Street at a place called the Underground. I went up with a lot of confidence. I’d been performing for months in front of real audiences with a couple hundred people in them, so I thought I could handle thirty comedians. (I’m singing these three words:) Noooo I cooooouldn’t! I bombed. Hard. Not one laugh.
There’s nothing quite like your first bomb. You can feel it in your bones. First you think there might be something wrong with the sound. But there isn’t. It’s you. You’re the problem. You and your terrible jokes that are not funny. You realize everyone has been lying to you. There are no friends in the audience laughing so as not to hurt your self-esteem. It’s a sea of unfriendly faces, people who do the same thing you do, so they don’t think you’re cute. They think you are boring and that you’re wasting their time. And all they are focused on is their own set and how they should be further along in comedy than they are. I was dizzy when I got offstage. I sat back down with a few other comics who smiled at me in a “sorry for your loss” way. I hung my head through the rest of the show and realized I had a lot of work to do. I didn’t cry but my confidence was in tiny little pieces shattered all over the dirty Harlem floor. Okay, fine, I cried. And I drank several warm beers.
From there, I began doing a couple of shows a week—an open mic here, a bringer there. I’d finish one set and go home to have dinner with my boyfriend, Rick, with whom I lived very happily in Brooklyn. We were both actors who met waiting tables, meaning we were both auditioning for shitty roles in shitty plays and not getting any parts. I remember thinking it was strange that a lot of other comics I knew would do more than one show a night. I could feel their insatiable hunger for stage time and I pitied them. What were they chasing? As if one more five-minute set at a hair salon (yes, they have shows everywhere) in front of ten other drunk open-mic performers would change anything.
And then it happened to me. I thought of my first good joke. The kind that made me feel I had to get onstage to tell it. It happened on the L train on my way home to Williamsburg around one a.m. I was sitting next to an elderly black woman and we were having a nice conversation. Just chitchat. She was Crypt Keeper old, like a California Raisin. That is not racist. If she had been white she would have looked like a yellow California Raisin. Anywhoozle, out of nowhere she asked me, “Have you heard the good news?” At that moment I saw she had one of those cartoony religious pamphlets and I realized she was trying to save my soul. I let her down easily, explaining that I was Jewish and would not be joining her in the kingdom of heaven. That was that. I thought she was just this sweet woman I was connecting with, but she was using me to get salvation points. Little did she know I was a godless, shifty Jew. I walked home from the subway thinking about the interaction and I wrote a joke. A good joke.
I called my sister early the next morning and woke her up. Kim hates being woken up. But she sleeps with her phone on and I know that, so ring ring ring. “Kim, listen, I have a new joke!” She answered me with a supportive, “Good-bye.” But I got her to stay on the phone and listen to my joke, which was:
This old woman on the subway asked me, “Have you heard the good news?” She was trying to save me.
I said, “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. My people are Jewish.”
She said, “That’s okay, your people just haven’t found Jesus yet.”
I said, “No, we found him. Maybe you haven’t heard the bad news.”
I listened into my phone for Kim’s response. Like I had so many times before. After about three Mississippis she said, “That’s funny. Good-bye.” And she hung up. But that was all I needed. I loved my new joke. I tried it that night at an open mic, and it went well. But I started working on it. Maybe if I added a couple of wrong guesses of what I thought the good news was, it could be funnier. I went to another open mic, and then another.
A couple weeks later I wrote a new joke:
My boyfriend is always turning the lights on when we have sex, and I shut them off, and he puts them back on.
The other day, he said, “Why are you so shy? You have a beautiful body.”
I said, “You are so cute! You think I don’t want you to see me.”
I loved that joke. I wanted to run it a million times. And I did. I found out there were some clubs where you could “bark”—which meant standing on a corner and giving out flyers, telling people about a comedy show. “Hey, do you like live comedy?” Have you heard those annoying people when you’ve visited New York? Well, that was me. In ten-degree weather, I’d be out there on a corner trying to get enough people inside so they would let me go onstage. I needed bodies in there, English-speaking or not.
I had caught the bug. I was totally and completely addicted to stand-up, to getting better at it, and it was working. It turns out if you do a ton of open mics and bringers, and if you bark, and if you produce your own shows, and if you have other comics in your shows, and if they have you in their shows, and if you do it every single night several times, and if you are totally obsessed with it, you will get a little better. “Little” is the key word.
Ultimately, anyone who does stand-up is delusional and masochistic. It takes so much work and so much time to be good. To get real laughs requires years and years. I got better little by little. A comic, Pete Dominick, whom I met doing a bringer at Gotham, pushed me hard to get better. He said, “You need to know the name of every club in New York, and you need to get up whenever you can. It has to be an obsession.” He was right. Jessica Kirson was the funniest person I’d ever seen. I used to watch her close out the shows at Gotham. She would kill in a way I still haven’t seen anyone else do. The audience was physically exhausted from laughing. When she got offstage, your face hurt. She was the first person to let me open for her on the road. I’d go anywhere for nothing. She would give me fifty bucks to be nice, but I was just thrilled she would take me with her.
Then one day—about two and a half years in—I went to a free seminar for new comics at Gotham Comedy Club, the place where I did my first stand-up set. The owner, Chris Mazzilli, had arranged for an agent and a nationally headlining comic to be there to answer the questions of about one hundred comics in attendance. I was furiously taking notes while Chris was talking about the importance of working hard. I’ll never forget when he said to the group of hungry comedians, “A good example of a hardworking comic is Amy Schumer. She doesn’t know it yet, but I am recommending her to be a new face at the Montreal comedy festival.” This was all news to me. I was thrilled he even knew my name. I almost started crying, because he was the first person of authority to make it clear to me that he felt I had something special.
I had an open-mic show right after at a bar. I stepped outside in the rain to head over and it was like that scene in Fifty Shades of Grey after Anastasia meets Christian. Yes, I saw it, and so did you. Except I wasn’t feeling this way about a hot guy who was going to be dominating me and fucking me in every hole. I was feeling this way about comedy. I don’t remember how that open mic went or if any of my jokes worked that night. I just remember feeling like I was flying, knowing that it didn’t matter how that show went. All twenty people in the audience could have stonewalled me; I wouldn’t have cared. I had major adrenaline running through my veins, and I believed I had a real chance to make it. I didn’t know what that meant, but I could feel something was coming.
Soon after, in 2006, I got a college agent. I’d be paid $100 to open for other comedians at universities—sometimes traveling for eight hours to get to one. My first college show was at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, where I opened for a comic named Kyle Dunnigan. Half the crowd walked out during my set, and the other half walked out during his. Kyle is now, ten years later, one of my very best friends and has been a writer on my TV show for four years. He is one of the funniest people I know.
By the end of 2006 I started headlining colleges. The day I found out I was going to be making $800 for one hour, I was running laps in my Brooklyn apartment, thinking to myself, Would I be this happy if I ever had a baby? I think the answer was no. After that, I got to do a seven-minute special on a Comedy Central show called Live at Gotham. I killed, and blacked out from excitement. I couldn’t believe I was getting to do stand-up on television after only two and a half years.
And then the most unlikely thing of all happened when I auditioned for NBC’s program Last Comic Standing, an American Idol–type reality show for comics that was about to tape its fifth season. I didn’t think I had a chance. I thought if I got lucky they might use my audition footage as part of a montage in the first episode, or that maybe I would at least lay the groundwork to make it on the show a few years down the road. That was my real thinking. The audition consisted of doing stand-up in front of three judges. After this first round, about two hundred were cut and some thirty people were invited to perform in the next round, which was an evening show to take place that same night. I called my mom and my boyfriend and they came to the show. At the end of the night, they stood us all in humiliating rows on risers to announce who would receive the “red envelopes,” which were tickets to Los Angeles to perform in the semifinals. I stood there, knowing I wouldn’t get an envelope and that I would have to stay put while they called all the winners down one by one. My face was turning the color of those envelopes. But then they read my name! My eyes bugged out of my head and I ran forward like a contestant being called down on The Price Is Right. They handed me my envelope and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I felt like Charlie with his golden ticket. I looked at my mom and my boyfriend. We were all screaming with shock and excitement.
The two months leading up to the semifinals in LA, I worked out hard every day at the gym and did stand-up every single night. I was out in LA all by myself, staying at a hotel with comedians from all over the country and some from around the world. I was so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. “The hotel has a pool!” I announced around a lunch table full of comics who had been on the road for as long as I’d been alive. Everyone was very nice to me, despite how annoying I must have been. I was the least experienced of the bunch.
When it came time for the big live taping that would determine which ten comics would compete on the show, I was ready. I wore a V-neck shirt from Express and almost no makeup. Someone told me there would be nine hundred people in the audience. The most I had ever performed for was about two hundred. A producer of the show said, “Amy, eight million people will see this on television.” But for some reason that didn’t matter to me as much as the nine hundred live people who would be sitting in front of me.
I assumed I would be eliminated, so I just promised myself I’d do the best I could and enjoy every second of it—and I did. At the end, when it came time to announce the top ten people who would be competing, my name was read ninth. “Amy Schumer!” I couldn’t fucking believe it! I ran out onstage and waved like I had won a pageant. I cried. All that really happened was I made it onto a reality show, which was pretty much just casting. It’s not that I was funnier than the rest of the comics. I was just a good “character” for the show. But I knew none of that at the time and I’m so glad I didn’t.
Being on that show was so intense and exciting. Each episode consisted of a different challenge, and strangely, I was the most prepped for these challenges. The other comics were seasoned road dogs who were used to relying on their well-crafted jokes and long stories they told doing sixty to ninety minutes headlining sets on the road. But I only had about fifteen minutes of material, and it all worked in little sound bites—so it was perfect for a reality show. I was up for thinking on my feet, and they weren’t.
The final challenge determined the top five comics, who got to go on a national tour together—which would have been great for anyone’s career, mine especially. It was explained to all of us that the challenge was going to consist of making models laugh. We would go room to room, one at a time, and do a joke or two for them. I remember saying, “Aren’t you guys tired of only being appreciated for your brains?” They laughed. A bell went off to indicate that I was supposed to go to the next room. In that next room sat a clown. There were no more models to entertain. The production had of course tricked us, and the next rooms consisted of a drill sergeant, a transvestite, and a nun. I told my Jesus/bad news joke to the nun and she laughed! I did my best but assumed I was going home.
The people from each room voted on their favorite comic, and when we all lined up for the results I was shocked to hear I had won. Thanks to the clown, the nun, the models, and the transvestite, I was going on the tour! I was thrilled for about ten seconds, until one of the comics who also wound up in the top five leaned over to me and said, “You don’t deserve it.” I ran into the bathroom and cried, because at the time, I believed him. I was paranoid that I hadn’t actually been the funniest, that maybe the producers rigged the results in order to keep me on the show, since I was the young female comic who was good for their ratings. They wanted to film me while I cried, but I wouldn’t come out of the stall. I refused to be a girl on reality TV sobbing and being a victim. I wanted to be strong. Later, when I watched the episode air, I saw that without question, I’d performed the best. One of the producers, Page Hurwitz, said, “Amy, it wasn’t even close. You won.” Nothing bad to say about that comic who told me I didn’t deserve it, but FUCK THAT GUY, RIGHT?!
I ended up getting eliminated on the next episode, earning myself fourth place on the show, along with the opportunity to tour the country on a giant rock star tour bus with four men in their forties. We performed in forty-two theaters to crowds of about two to four thousand people—the kind of places I’d never performed in before in my life. I bombed pretty much every single night. Forty-two cities, and I think I ate it in about forty of them. I wasn’t ready; I didn’t have the road work under my belt. You can fake it for seven minutes—even fifteen if you’re charismatic enough—but when you’re doing nearly a half hour, people are going to see what you’re made of, and at that point I was made of less than three years. Not only was I short on material, I wasn’t confident about my jokes yet, because I shouldn’t have been. I didn’t have the experience to sell it up there.
I’d cry in my bunk on the bus. One of the comics said he thought I was talented but wouldn’t ever make it as a stand-up. It hurt. Looking back now, I can see clearly how experienced comics can get bitter. It’s a tough business, and often things don’t work out the way you think they will. But the rage and jealousy comics can feel for others’ success is a highly toxic waste of time. I want to go back to those days knowing what I know now and say to that comic, “Focus on your own goals and how to achieve them. No one took your spot, there’s room for all of us.”
Anyway, the bus and hotel life on that tour was hard for me. I was lonely and not doing well. One night, after a show, I got on an elevator and a little old woman said, “Which floor?” and I didn’t know. I started crying because I couldn’t remember where I was. This sad moment is something most road comics, and I’m assuming musicians, can relate to. I had no idea how frequently this would happen to me over the years. It happens all the time.
But even though it was difficult, that tour was also my personal comedy boot camp. I’d logged enough hours bombing and sweating onstage that my molecules were permanently altered. Stand-up recalibrates your fear sensors. It thickens your skin in ways that come in handy all the time. Clocking so many hours under all those lights, while people in the crowd are viewing every expression and hearing every inflection, hanging on every word, just waiting to be moved by you (or to boo you) . . . This experience over and over again can only make you stronger. I think for anyone to become good at something, they have to fail a lot too. And they have to be completely unafraid to fail or they’ll never make it to the next level. I did so bad for so long in front of so many people on that tour that I stopped caring. I got desensitized to crowds not liking my jokes. I lost the protective shell that holds so many of us back, and I just started going for it. This, in turn, made me own the crowd. Once you own your jokes and stand by them, you can relax. Being tentative sours the crowd. They see your fear and then they can’t laugh. They want to have fun, not worry about your next move. If they have to cringe or feel bad for you, their experience is ruined and they are taken completely out of the moment. Like when you fart during sex: sure, you can finish and go through the motions, but something has been lost. Once I figured this all out and wasn’t seeking the audience’s approval anymore, they were free to have a good time, relax, and enjoy.
After the tour, I started headlining on my own for about a year, which is what doing well on a reality show will buy you. And then I went back to featuring, which is the middle spot after the emcee and before the headliner. I was on the road for years with Jim Norton and Dave Attell, two of my all-time favorite comics. And the answer is no, neither of them ever even tried anything with me. I should be insulted, but I’m not. It’s the ultimate compliment to have someone take you on the road with them. They’re saying, “I think you’re funny, and I also can stand to hang out and travel with you.” Jimmy and his bodyguard, Club Soda Kenny, and I had a blast on the road. They lived to embarrass me, shouting my name across stores and hotel lobbies, inviting stares from everyone around us—something they knew I hated when I was offstage. They loved making me blush, which I actually did a lot more of in those days. I am such a loud little sassafras onstage, but in real life I like to keep a very low profile, and those guys took every opportunity to destroy any hope I had of blending in.
In 2012, I went back to headlining on my own in small clubs with under two hundred seats. I would get paid about $2,000 for seven shows. The weekends would go like this:
• Arrive on a Thursday and have an eight p.m. show.
• Get picked up at five thirty a.m. on Friday to do morning radio. Someone affiliated with the club (sometimes a crackhead) drives you from radio station to radio station. Sometimes there are local news shows to do on camera. If you’re lucky it’s just two of each. But some clubs fuck you in the ass and you have to do so many. And they say it’s to get more tickets sold but it doesn’t usually translate to that and is really just promotion for the shitty club.
• Arrive back in your hotel room by eleven a.m. (hopefully, if you’re strong enough to refuse going out to breakfast or lunch with the crackhead driver or attention-hungry club owner who snuck on the radio appearance with you).
• Grab an apple and peanut butter from the depressing all-day buffet in the lobby, because you’ve missed breakfast.
• Desperately try to go back to sleep, but this is impossible because your hotel is in a gross, dangerous neighborhood so the club owner could save $75.
• Use the rusty hotel gym where the chlorine from the neighboring pool burns your eyes.
• Walk to a Red Robin and try to eat healthy even though they have not heard of vegetables in most of the country. So you get a grilled chicken something that comes with garlic bread and ice cream and you realize why Americans are dying.
• Go back to your room and feel utterly alone.
• Text an ex.
• Watch some movie made for TV about a woman who murdered her husband.
• Shower and get ready for your two Friday evening shows. And yes, I know you probably noticed I didn’t shower right after the gym but waited ’til evening instead. You do you and I’ll do me.
• Do two, sometimes three shows.
• Wake up Saturday morning and repeat a lot of Friday, including working out in the rusty-ass gym again, and hope the red itchy new thing on your knee is a rash from said gym and not from a bedbug.
• Sometimes during the day on Saturday, to pass the time, you go to whatever local attraction there is—a museum, a place where someone famous was shot, or maybe a fort.
• Eat whatever food is local to that city because it is your duty to do so. If you’re in Philly, you eat a cheesesteak; if you’re in Brooklyn, a cheesecake. If you’re in Cincinnati, Skyline Chili; if you’re in Tulsa, they don’t really have a thing but someone may tell you, “You have to try our pork fried hamburger,” or some weird shit. You gotta eat it. Show them some goddamn respect and then tweet them pictures of you on the toilet as a way to say thank you!
• Get ready for your Saturday night shows.
• Do two, sometimes three shows.
• Because you’re a girl, you don’t hook up after the show. Maybe you have a drink with the staff or maybe you go back to the hotel and get room service if they’re still serving it. But usually the hotel you’re at doesn’t have room service at all.
• Lie awake in bed regretting that you just smoked pot because it’s making you think about what you do for a living. Am I a clown? What do I do? I tell jokes to strangers while they eat nachos. It weirds you out and you vow not to smoke pot alone on the road anymore.
• The club owner pays you after your last show. It feels like it takes forever for them to total up your share of the money (because it does) and they act like they are doing you a favor. They tell you you didn’t make your hundred-dollar bonus even though you could see every seat was filled. Sometimes they hand you a bill and you realize you thought you were eating and drinking for free but you only got 25 percent off the usual tab.
• Fly home early Monday morning and feel good about yourself because you developed fifteen new seconds of your act that weekend.
Even though the road can be brutal, it’s the only way to become a stand-up. In order to get good at it, you must get as much stage time as humanly possible. Sure, you can learn how to kill on a shorter set. Maybe you even have a great fifteen minutes. Or maybe you’re good at local references in your city and can do really well there. But you have to go out on the road and do every different type of show there is: the one for thirty drunk Harley-Davidson guys at a VFW, the ladies’ lunch at the Carlyle, the Christmas party for firemen, the ferry that circles Manhattan, and the comedy festival in Staten Island. You have to do all of it or you will plateau and go nowhere—which is fine if that is what you want to do.
I WOULD DO anything for stage time. Actually, let me rephrase that: I have never hooked up with anyone to get ahead in the business. If anything, some people I’ve dated have set me back. One time my sister overheard one of the bouncers that I’ve known since I started stand-up say, “Amy’s gotten so much work. Wonder how she got it . . .” Then he mimed a dick going into his mouth. I guess I should be angry about this kind of thing, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve never gotten anything from anyone I’ve hooked up with, not even a Starbucks gift card—which would have been nice.
During the week between road gigs, when I was home in New York, I began performing at the Comedy Cellar. That’s the club you see on the show Louie and in lots of documentaries about comics. I was “passed there” in 2007, which means I got to audition for the booker. I don’t know the origin of this terminology, but only in the comedy world would people use such a morbid verb to signify the best thing that could happen to your career. Anyway, if the booker likes you, they then ask you to provide your availability for doing shows. If they don’t like you, they say no thanks. I auditioned at the Cellar on my birthday, and Estee, who’s been the booker there forever, gave me the phone number to “call in my avails,” and I lost my mind I was so excited. I remember celebrating that night and getting so drunk that I got a piggyback ride from the bouncer at the bar and spent most of the night riding around back and forth, laughing and singing.
There is a restaurant upstairs from the Comedy Cellar called the Olive Tree Cafe and there is a booth in the back reserved for comedians. I was hesitant to sit there for years. Once I did, I’d stay quiet. Eventually, over time, I got more and more comfortable, and now it’s the place I feel most at home in the whole world—sitting around the table with my best friends. I’m happiest when the table consists of Jimmy Norton, Keith Robinson, Colin Quinn, Rachel Feinstein, and Bobby Kelly. And sometimes we can convince Bridget Everett to stop by. We all trash each other, eat wings, and laugh. When someone dies or gets hurt we cry and laugh again. Doing stand-up and being with comics is home for me. Yes, it was completely thrilling to get my own TV show and to write and star in a movie. But getting onstage to do live comedy will always be what I chase harder than anything else.
Eventually, all my work on the road landed me some specials for TV. I had a half-hour special on Comedy Central in 2010 and then an hour special (Mostly Sex Stuff) in 2012. Through all of this, I stayed on the road, always touring, always writing more jokes. This is the only way to get better. I started selling more tickets in the clubs, and then small theaters, and then large theaters that seated about nine hundred people, just like in the semifinals of Last Comic Standing.
The skills I developed from doing so much stand-up are the same ones I needed to write a movie and play a lead character who was based on myself. My having been onstage all these years with so many eyes on me as I degrade myself nightly is the reason my pulse doesn’t change when Internet trolls try to ruin my day, every other day. One of the things I’m still most proud of is my one-hour HBO special (Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo) and the fact that I got to work with Chris Rock as the director. I never would have been able to work with him if I hadn’t been brave enough to ask. We’d been friendly for years, seeing each other at the Comedy Cellar, but I never wanted to bother him—because he is Chris Rock. Then one night we talked after we’d both performed on Night of Too Many Stars, an event to raise money for autism. My set had been strong, and Chris stopped by the greenroom and offered to help me if I ever needed it. Which sounds creepy, but it’s not. He said exactly what he meant. When you have the disease of being a comic, and you see someone else with some talent and respect for comedy, you want to help. It’s in his veins. It’s in my veins. A little later, I called his bluff, which was anything but. He started riding around and going to clubs with me to watch my set, give me notes, and help me get better.
One day I just bit the bullet and texted him, “Will you direct my HBO special?” Again, this is the kind of confidence you can only get after years of making a clown of yourself onstage and being met with crickets. When Chris said yes, I couldn’t believe it. He came on the road with me and made my set a thousand times better. Getting to work on jokes with him felt like my Make-A-Wish. I know that’s not a kind comparison to make. But there is nothing else I can think of that would communicate how significant this time was to me.
One of the greatest moments of my career was hosting Saturday Night Live. I’m sure a lot of stand-ups dream of doing that opening SNL monologue. I know I have since I was a little girl. You write, rehearse, and perform the show in one week. That’s all you get. One surreal, supercharged week to live your dream. One week to rush around the crowded hallways in that historic building. Nothing in my career has felt more exciting. But I won’t lie, it was a grueling seven days—one that can definitely be described as athletic. You barely sleep, you constantly eat (well, I did), and you do nothing all week but write, rewrite, rehearse, try on wigs, get sewn into costumes, film promos, pose for photo shoots, rewrite, consider showering, choose sleep over showering, do table reads, rehearse, and repeat. And on the night of the show itself, you are literally running or rushing for the entire hour and a half. Stand-up comedy is live performance, sure, but SNL is live performance on meth.
By Saturday night, I was definitely the walking wounded, but I’d never been happier. My very favorite scene was one that Vanessa Bayer and Mikey Day wrote about two overly chipper flight attendants (played by me and Vanessa) who sing the in-flight service announcements before they are suddenly sucked out of the plane—one at a time. Live television doesn’t allow for stunt doubles, so Vanessa and I had to actually hurl ourselves out of this plane door in order to make the scene work. I am a clown at heart, and my competitive-volleyball past didn’t hurt, so I had no problem going for it. But Vanessa was a little more tentative. I wanted nothing more than to open the entire show with this sketch, so I grabbed her by the shoulders and I said, “Vaness! We are going to have to hurt ourselves, okay?!”
After rehearsing several times, we both felt pretty confident about the stunt. But then on Friday, the set builders moved the airplane onto a platform, which in turn lowered the clearance of the door we were jumping through by a full eight inches. No problem, I thought, stupidly confident. Vanessa was up first to try jumping through the new door, and she did, perfectly. But when it was my turn, I bricked my head right into the door. Everyone gasped as I lay on the mat, unmoving. My first thought was, I will have to do this show with scabs all over my face and a bump on my forehead. My second thought was, Let’s do this fucking thing again. We have to get it right! By this point in my career, I had become a pro at falling face-first and getting up stronger. They iced my face and gave me some Advil, and we rehearsed it a dozen more times. I went harder every time I flew through that door and smashed into the mat. And it was worth it. My shoulder hurt for four months after, but that scene is my favorite sketch I’ve ever put on tape.
After being on one of the most historic stages and having the best night a comic could have in front of a live audience of millions, I woke up the next morning, ready to get back on the road. My episode of Saturday Night Live and my HBO special aired within seven days of each other, so getting back on the road was more important than ever. I’d burned all my jokes on those two events—meaning they’d aired on TV to massive audiences, so I couldn’t use them anymore because people would know them now. Unlike musicians, comedians are expected to always bring new shit. No one wants to hear the greatest hits, so I was back to square one. This requirement of comedy is exhausting and challenging, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s exciting and humbling to have to start over—and the payoff is even better. You feel so accomplished when you’ve accumulated enough material—one joke at a time—for an entire special. And when you’re back to zero, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re starting the fuck over. It’s the scariest, emptiest feeling in the world. Even the greatest, most seasoned comics are afraid they’ll never write a great joke again. But you do the work.
And that means hitting the road and getting onstage. I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s my number one piece of advice to comics who are just starting out when they ask me how to become successful. Get onstage! If there isn’t a comedy room in your town, produce one! Find a place with a stage and a mic and stand in front of people as much as possible. Log as many hours as you can. I still do this. I’m not bullshitting you: the money is good now, but even on my nights off, I am still onstage in shitty little rooms, rock clubs, jazz halls, wherever. Always working hard to get better. I became obsessed a long time ago, and it has never dulled.
No matter how hard you work or how sharp you keep yourself, your popularity and ticket sales will ebb and flow, but I’m very proud to say that right now, as I write this in 2016, I’m touring arenas, doing stand-up for crowds of ten to fifteen thousand people. I’m telling jokes where NBA and NHL games are played. I sold out Madison Square Garden! (I can’t believe I just typed that.) For these arena shows, I have the same opening comic, Mark Normand, with whom I’ve worked with the past seven years. My brother, Jason, also opens the show with his jazz trio, which means I get to hang out on the road with his wife, Cayce, who is one of my best friends and helped edit this book. Their daughter, my niece, hangs out backstage with us. Sometimes my sister, Kim, and her husband, Vinny, are there too. I get to stay in nice hotels and have a tour bus or fly first class or sometimes even travel via private jet. I feel extremely lucky, and I know better than to get too comfortable or think it will last forever. But I love every minute of it right now. It feels so great to walk out onstage after Mark says my name, to hug him and look at the crowd and give them everything I’ve got. I vow every night before I go on to do the best show I’ve ever done. I still bomb, I still kill. Either way, the crowd will let you know the truth. It’s masochistic and it’s noble. And I never want to stop.