Column: You Work So Hard

by flaunt

Photo by Kelly Reopelle Dwyer

Photo by Kelly Reopelle Dwyer

Sometimes people tell me they admire me because I’m hard-working. “Dude, Paige grinds!” “Hardest working comic I know, at least that I can think of right now.” “Damn, that bitch keeps trying, huh?” They’re not wrong. I do work really hard. And I appreciate the compliment, but deep down, I think we all would rather hear, “You are effortlessly brilliant. I envy your natural talents. You are a god.”

But that’s silly. Working hard is the whole thing. It’s good. You can’t do the thing if you’re not doing the thing.

My thing is stand-up. I’ve been doing stand-up in Los Angeles for seven years and I’ve been lucky enough that the longer I stick around, the more I get to do it. And the more I get to do it, the more often I’m booked for a set that feels important. That I have to prepare for. That I have to – get this – work hard on.

When a set feels important, that’s stressful. No way around it. People are going to be looking at you! They’re going to hear what you say into that microphone. So every time I get an email that says I’m doing one of these sets, my mind starts racing. Oh no, I get to headline somewhere? Ugh, I’m going to be on some really cool show I’ve always wanted to do? Oh god, please don’t say I’m being asked to participate in an industry showcase that could lead to even more of these terrible, horrible, wonderful, all-I-ever-wanted opportunities. And I gotta slow my mind down somehow. Because this is important. It’s the whole thing.

Some people alleviate stress by trying to relax. They grab a drink with friends, they go see a movie, they go to a Korean Spa for the first time and then won’t shut up about it for a week. You know, people stuff. That’s not what I do. When I’m stressed or anxious about something, I fix it by over-preparing. I try super hard. I study. I do the homework and then I do the extra credit too. Embarrassing, right? Please don’t tell anyone. I am not a nerd.

But man, I love to prepare. I love to open my shows spreadsheet and send emails and facebook messages and texts. I love to say, “hey can I run my set for X on Monday at Y?” I love to run my set for X on Monday at Y! I love to listen back to the voice memo of my set that I ran for X at Y so I can write down what I said and cut out the parts that stink! I love to puzzle over whether I should say “Yogurtland” or “Coffee Bean.” (It’s Yogurtland.)

That’s one thing I love about comedy, by the way. I’m always absolutely seriously considering the most ridiculous things. I’m talking to a friend with a totally straight face, asking if my joke about hand towels is relatable. “Do you think people care about towels?? This is a real question.”

I love preparing and puzzling over these dumb, real questions because it’s only once I’m prepared for the important thing that I realize: it’s not that important. Sure, it would be cool if it went well, it would be good to do good, but nothing is that important. And if you studied super hard, you did all you could, right?

This time of year in Los Angeles, there are a ton of industry showcases. Gobs of ‘em. These shows feature a handful of comics who each get a few minutes to prove that they’re worthy of work in some theoretical part of this business. It’s a lot to pack into a short set, in such a pressure-filled situation. The last showcase I did, I ran the set four or five times over the course of a couple of weeks and I felt good about it. The set, and the running of it.

The night of the showcase, a couple hours beforehand, I was sitting at home watching my mom’s HBO Go and eating spoonfuls of almond butter. You know, getting centered. A comic friend texted me from another show, “Oh wow [weird old open mic-er] is here,” then seconds later, “Oh wait maybe it’s just a guy who looks exactly like him. I’ll keep you updated.” It made me laugh real hard, partially because it was funny, but also because I needed it. I needed something goofy and unimportant to release the tension I was holding in. I texted back and we chatted for a little bit before my friend stopped to say, “Sorry to bother you with this, on tonight of all nights.” I said, “No, please, distract me. What other weirdos may or may not be there?” I knew I wasn’t going to suddenly get more ready in these final hours. I wanted silly texts about inconsequential stuff. I wanted to eat more spoonfuls of alternative butters.

When I got to the show, I went back into prep mode. Right before a set, when I’m realizing it’s not that big and I’m good who cares, I always write it down a couple times, to prove just how ready I am. Sometimes I write it on my hand, or if a good skin-writing pen isn’t available, a piece of paper to put in my pocket. A little emergency kit in case my brain fails me. Sometimes when I’m extra sure I’ve got it, I put it way away in a note on my phone. This time I went with the phone note. I know a lot of comics who do this – bring a set list up with no intention of ever looking at it. It’s just comforting to know it’s there.

I also like to listen to the comics before me, if there are any. (Sometimes when you’re headlining at a college show, it’s just you. Which is great because everything is still on the table, but bad because you gotta go up cold. NOTE: Everything is a mixed bag, forever.) I like listening to the comics before me not only to see if anyone covers any similar ground I was planning to, but so I can go up with the same experience as the audience. I can never fully put into words how it changes my set to know the vibe of the room, but it does. You want to feel like you’re coming from the same place as the audience. Why do they care what you have to say if you’re some random stranger who just got here?

Watching the comics before me that night turned, as it always does, into my own private guessing game of who did what to get ready for their set. You can project whatever you want onto anyone, turns out. “Oh, this person is that mythical effortless god I wish I could be. They probably came up with their set right before the show and now they’re destroying.” “Dude, I can tell this comic prepared too much, for sure. He is coming off so scripted.” “Whoa, check this out, I think this comic prepared as much as I did and she’s doing great. Wow, I knew it.” None of this is true, I’m sure. That’s kind of the beauty of the process, right? You can’t see it as an outside observer. The process is about feeling good as the performer. When the show is happening, everyone is the same. (Oops, here I am talking very seriously about something ridiculous again.)

Then you do the set. It happens! It’s happening. You did it and are doing it. You crush, you do well but not great, you have a good set for that audience, you have fun but you don’t get to that one bit you were planning on because you ran out of time, yeah, it was alright but there was this one woman in the front row who never cracked a single smile, does she hate you, etc, etc. This part isn’t that interesting. What’s interesting is how ready you were. You did the homework and that feels great. Good for you. You work so hard.

Then it’s over, and all your feelings about it are extraneous. You walk off stage, done. Where does all that energy go? Into preparing for the next thing, of course.

Are you ready?

Paige Weldon is a writer, actor and comedian based in LA. You may have heard her stand-up on WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens or seen her act on Comedy Central's Corporate. She was recently named one of Time Out LA’s top 10 comedians to watch in 2018. Her debut stand-up album Girlfriend at the Time is available from or on iTunes.