Ari shaffir, the Comedy Store, and the Perils of Being Picked

A recent episode of Ari Shaffir’s excellent podcast got me thinking: when is it okay to Be Picked? Ari spent four years trying to impress the owner of the comedy store, Mitzi Shore, before she finally made him a “paid regular.”

Being Picked worked for Ari. His efforts to outgrow, outwit, and outlast his obstacles paid off.

Context: the Comedy Store in LA launched the careers of robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Andrew Dice Clay, Damon wayans, and Jim Carey, and Ari Shaffir (now a successful touring comic with specials on Comedy Central) got a job manning the phones there in 1999. Mitzi Shore viewed the Store as a talent factory. If there was no possibility you’d succeed as a standup comic, she didn’t want you there, even to collect tickets at the door. (She routinely fired people from non-performance jobs after they bombed at open-mics.) She organized the store into a hierarchy. At the bottom were employees, who could perform at open mics. One level up were “unpaid regulars”, who had more performance opportunities, but as the name implies were not paid to perform, and at the top were “paid regulars”, who were.

In the podcast episode I link to, Ari describes “showcasing” for four years before getting “passed” to be a Paid Regular. (Showcases were Mitzi’s auditions.) You’d have to listen to the episode to understand the depth of Ari’s anguish over Mitzi’s continued refusal to “pass” him, as 34, 35, then 36 showcases came and went. “You were great. You’re an upaid regular!”

“I’m already an unpaid regular.”

“Well you’ll be comfortable there then, since you’re used to it.”

Was Mitzi torturing Ari? Why? Other comics began to advise Ari to perform outside the Comedy store, in order to get deeper and broader experience. Four years after he began, after performing almost 40 showcases and watching many of his friends “get passed” before he did, Ari was finally made a Paid Regular, an event he still describes as the greatest accomplishment of his life.

The ordeal prompted Ari to consider the true meaning of “faith”. Real faith, he decided, is when you continue to believe something despite zero evidence. Any rational person in his position should have given up, he says.

But I submit that Ari’s perseverance was not an act of blind faith, but rather a response to well-honed instincts, and that to attempt to transplant his story onto other experiences without a much greater understanding of context is risky. It’s tempting to view Ari’s story as an affirmation that if we persist long enough, we too will Be Picked.

There’s another side to this, though. Consider the story of Duke Fightmaster, hero of a 2010 This American Life epidose called Last Man Standing. Fightmaster decided he wanted to replace Conan O’Brien when Conan left late night to take over the Tonight Show. The shortest path, he decided, was to launch his own talk show, complete with brick-and-mortar set, camera-people, and guests. The show got some recognition on local news and had a small “bloomlet” of popularity, but as the months wore on, its audience dwindled, and people helping out with the production started to move on. I’ll have to re-listen to the episode, but I remember that Fightmaster persisted even after Jimmy Fallon took over Conan’s spot on Late Night.

So everyone wants to be Ari Shaffir, and nobody, I’d wager, wants to be Duke Fightmaster, still “fighting” when it’s clearly wasted effort, while friends and family whisper “do you want to be the one to tell him?” But how do you tell whether you’re Ari (whose family, by the way, told him the same thing Duke’s told Duke), or Duke?

Now we’re asking the right question.

I’ve covered The Dip and the Persist-or-Cut-Bait conundrum on this blog before, in the context of whether an entrepreneurial venture is worth sticking with. But Ari’s story illuminates a slightly different facet – when should you persist in trying Be Picked, and when is it time to move on? It’s especially prescient for me, because jazz has a Comedy Store too (musician readers will know what/whom I’m talking about – there’s no need to go into further detail) and I’ve long-since made the decision not to spend any effort trying to Be Picked by them. So I have some need to believe that my situation was different than Ari’s – that quitting was the wise move for me. But I’ll still try to call it straight.

I would submit that success or failure being Picked is not a pure roll-of-the-dice. I think we can look at Ari’s story and find some evidence that he was going to succeed – that his faith was not misplaced. Moreover, he was doing some key things right that we can learn from:

1. He was working on his craft in a non-“burndown” situation. Entrepreneurs would say he had a “long runway.” All-the-while Ari was continuing to go up in front of Mitzi and test the waters, he was continuing to perform and get better. He was also living sustainably, at least financially – working two jobs and keeping his living expenses low. He wasn’t burning through savings and/or other people’s favors/patience. There’s a takeaway – can you become/are you becomming better at this thing you’re hoping to be Picked at? Have you structured your life so you can afford to put in tremendous time to build up the craft and relationships necessary to succeed?

2. He had a direct relationship with the person in the position to Pick him, and there was evidence that being Picked by Mitzi Shore (a) was possible, and (b) would portend a degree of success beyond the Comedy Store. The fact that Ari’s friends were getting “passed” was not reason to Fret – on the contrary, it meant that Mitzi would pass people when she felt they were ready. Mitzi could have fired Ari (and threatened to on numerous occasions), but she didn’t. She made him an Unpaid Regular, and continued to give him encouragement. It’s impossible to know what she was thinking, but it’s possible she felt a greater responsibility for Ari’s success than that of some of his colleagues, because she knew being passed was so important to him.

There was a time in my life when I believed being Passed at the Comedy Store of Jazz would mean I’d Arrived. That’s a dangerous mindset for an artist. You don’t want to be results-oriented. Mitzi may on some level have felt that withholding the Paid Regular status was the most effective way to motivate Ari – to give him the Killer Instinct. But again, he didn’t just want his dream. He was working every day to make himself up to the task. I’ve long since shifted my mindset from being picked – as if somebody Choosing Me would on its own make me better – to being the equal of the Gig.

3. Ari was getting feedback from his colleagues and his audiences that he was good, or on his way to being good. And whether he knew it or not, Being Good was his asset. As long as people are still tuning into Comedy Central and paying money to download Louis CK specials, there’s a market for Comedy.  Ari was situated to succeed, with the Comedy Store or without it – ironically probably the main criterion for being Passed. Ari also did at least one major thing Right that a lot of artists and entrepreneurs get Wrong: he went up in front of Tough Crowds, not just Friendly ones. If you’re trying to decide whether you have Potential or if you’d better find another career field, don’t just seek feedback from friends and family. Put yourself in front of some tough crowds. The entrepreneurial equivalent is not simply sharing your Great Idea with a few friends, but seeing if Complete Strangers will pay you for it before you sink any money into it.

So, what should the person applying for a job or school program, or hoping to land a Gig, take away from this? In my limited experience it’s a combination of indefatigable persistence – often against the advice of concerned friends or relatives – with fine-tuned sensitivity to both the long-term viability of your path and how much it’s doing for you spiritually. Are you good? Is there a market for what you do? (And I’d add “can you create one”, if we were dealing with entrepreneurship.) Does it make you happy? (And one extra credit one: are the existing gatekeepers worthy of the respect their arbitrage affords them, or are there equally valid end-runs you can experiment with?)

Not sure this is a completely coherent distillation, but Real Life rarely is. Till Next Time, folks!

Travel, Identity Resets, and Action in the Absence of Fear

If it’s Monday morning and I’m on the way to work, it’s time for a breaking ferriss post. More by happenstance than by design, these posts have alternated between tactical things about business and “ethos posts” about what it “feels like” to be living this life, and things I’m thinking about. Today’s post will be the latter variety.

I’m lucky to have had to opportunity to get out of New York for at least a week twice annually for the last two years, and in every case these trips have been important “identity resets”. I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but for me travel removes both the daily routine and the geography component. An American in Paris. A New Yorker in… So if I’m not defined by my daily routines or my geography, who am I? That’s the beginning of a really productive question. (Actually I think I am the only one I know who thinks this way about travel. For most people it’s no big deal.)

I need at least a week away, and if it’s going to be a “vacation” instead of a “work trip”, I need no access to the drums, and no requirement that I produce any business related content. The idea being to wake up in a fresh environment with no “work” to fill mental space. It can actually be depressing for the first couple of days. Workaholic Withdrawal Symptoms. Then there’s a gear-shift, and the “what am I going to do today” question starts to feel good. “From the endless list of possibilities, how will I fill my time today?”

Then the ideas start to come. You have space to think of them and time to execute them. I tested two new business ideas while in San Francisco.

The Time Abundance framework my wife calls Vacation Mode is also an important baseline. What it Should feel like to be a human being. That stress you feel at home, that expectation, that regret that you’re not living up to this or that arbitrary benchmark that’s almost certainly beyond your control, is the anomaly. That low-grade fight-or-flight feeling you’re ignoring day-to-day isn’t supposed to be there, and it’s eventually going to kill you. We think we’ll die if we don’t have as much furniture as the Williamses. We’ll actually die from worrying about it.

But there Are important things to worry about. Am I living up to my potential, or is fear or vanity or disdain for hard work keeping me in a rut? (“Hard work”, meaning work requiring stepping out of our comfort zone e.g. cold calling a client or putting our ego on the line to hustle a better job, as distinct from “busy work” that we all do to feel busy and stave off those identity questions.) What unproductive patterns do I keep repeating (key distinction – that are Within my ability to control) even though I always say I want to change them? What social relationships should I prioritize more highly? Which are unproductive?

And here’s the crux. I’ll often come up with great ideas to change and evolve my life when the “panic” seizes me on the flight back home, and as soon as I’m on the ground, in the cab, sitting on my own couch, and that panic melts away, and the gauzy comfort of routine returns, will I actually act on them? And here was the answer to my fundamental question from earlier in the summer – what mindset did I not share with “successful” people? What about my thinking needed to evolve? Once you know the steps you need to change your life (not in a destination-focused way, but in a break-out-of-unproductive-patterns way), do you still follow them when the fear of dying without conquering your fears and realizing your potential abates?

Train’s pulling in. Good time to leave it.