Stand-up is to the comedy industry as PornHub is to the pornography industry: You need to sift through a lot of shit to get to the good stuff and it’s mostly watched and performed by straight, white men. Like porn, if you want to get into the industry, you have to learn from the best. And in my foolish and curious eyes, I got the Playboy of comedy internships. I would be working at the best comedy club in New York City (which, for the sake of this article, I will just call “The Club”). My internship at The Club was unpaid, of course, but the opportunity of a lifetime. The red-carpeted halls were filled with signed portraits of some of the biggest names in comedy, from Ellen DeGeneres to Dave Chappelle to Jimmy Fallon. I was in comedy heaven. My first day on the job, I arrived at The Club in my Gilda Radner T-Shirt ready to take on the world and start my plot for comedic domination. I was now working at The Club. I could hang out with famous comedians every night. I could live marvelously like Midge Maisel. I could get free drinks and have running bits with the bartender Kenny.
I snapped out of my daydream with a call from my boss, Randy. I told him I was waiting at The Club eagerly. He kind of chuckled when he said, “I’m not there, I’m in Washington Heights, that’s where I work. Come here to Washington Heights, a full hour subway away from The Club.” So, I trekked to Washington Heights to what I presumed would be a cheap office building filled to the brim with comedians throwing jokes at each other and playing mini basketball with crumpled paper balls.
Alas, when Randy opened the door I discovered that his “office” was a closet-like room in his tiny apartment. His office looked more like a serial killer’s hideout than a comedy club director. The walls were covered in post-its scribbled with odd things like “money ideas” and “funny one-liners.” A small IKEA desk was shoved in the corner by the radiator, topped with an outdated Dell computer that hummed like my grandmother’s washing machine. The floor was covered with cardboard boxes overflowing with papers and stacks of books on everything from comedy to bitcoin. In a swivel chair lined with an orthotics insert sat Randy, an overweight, washed-up, failed comedian in black sweatpants, a striped polo and Costco slippers. He resembled what Jerry Seinfeld might look like if he let himself go or a Jewish Louis C.K. He didn’t look me in the eye, only motioned me to join him in the un-air-conditioned “office.”
The only place to sit was a small foot stool next to his desk. I sat below him, like a shoe-shine at a train station. In a long-winded speech that included two poor Christopher Walken impressions, four D-list celebrity name drops, three uncomfortable Harvey Weinstein jokes and six digressions involving soup, Randy instructed me on my extensive intern responsibilities. I would craft, respond and forward emails all goddamn day. Randy firmly believed that the more emails he sent, the more likely people would attend shows and stand-up classes. Through the emails I sent while Randy was loudly meditating in his bedroom just three feet away, I discovered there were more people like me, more interns. There was actually a group of five boys gathered at a Marriott downtown doing work for Randy. They were working in the hotel lobby because Randy didn’t allow boys in his house for the sake of his eight-year-old daughter. Therefore, he only allowed the six female interns to work in his office, where we performed all the secretarial duties expected of comedy interns. Meanwhile, the boys at the Marriott were writing and pitching jokes to Randy to be used in comedy roasts and classes. And they said misogyny was dead, or was it chivalry?
You’d think, Dear Reader, at this point I’d haul my ass far away from this sexist abuser of free labor. Alas, for weeks I continued to stick it out thinking that this is what comedy was. This was my ticket to success. This was how I would finally get to hug Tina Fey.
We would get into The Club on Thursday nights for free if we brought enough people. Randy was always asking us to bring people to shows, sending us email after email to bring our lovers, friends and family with the promise of one day performing ourselves in front a crowd at The Club. I brought every friend I had in New York, of which there were few, in hopes of getting a spot on The Club stage. Every Thursday, I sat in the same spot with the other interns and Randy, drinking mediocre beer watching mediocre comics tell mediocre jokes. The same scrawny white guys, usually named Paul or John or Joe, got up every week making the same jokes about their penises and the women who didn’t want to have sex with them. They all mocked “kids these days” and how political correctness has made this generation weak, reminding the audience that maybe it wasn’t all that bad to beat your kids in the first place. They were racist and homophobic and Islamophobic and sexist and, naturally, not funny. I went back, every week, hoping maybe one female comedian would get up and remind me why I wanted to do this in the first place.
That female comedian was Gina Yashere (“The Stand Ups”). It was the first time I genuinely laughed all summer. Her routine was honest and hilarious. She shared everything from her mother’s anxieties to her struggles as a gay woman of color in comedy. After Gina, there was Taylor Tomlinson (“The Comedy Lineup”) whose self-deprecating humor and hilarious anecdotes about being a young female comedian resonated deeply with me and my struggles in comedy. Gina and Taylor and the dream of performing in front of a paying audience at a place as prestigious as The Club kept me going, reminding me why I wanted this internship in the first place. Still, as the summer droned on, Randy’s empty promises proved fruitless. And the Pauls and Johns and Joes kept coming back, leaving the Ginas and Taylors quite literally in the dark. It was then I decided to jump ship, leave Randy’s dingy-ass apartment and never look back. While the internship was not exactly what I expected or hoped it would be, it taught me the importance of getting out of something that doesn’t feel right. Whether it’s an icky feeling in the pit of your stomach or just a hunch that something isn’t right, that feeling is valid and important.
I certainly learned some things about comedy while working at The Club. Firstly, straight, white men will always think they are funny, even if a silent crowd and 10 years of failure prove otherwise. Secondly, stand-up comedy is a science. After seeing the same comedians experiment with the same material night after night, I noticed the ways they tailored and altered their performances based on responses from the crowd. Stand-up is also an art, and like any art, it takes time and practice and loads of repetition. Thirdly, the representation of women and people of color in the world of stand-up comedy, both on stage and in the crowd, is abysmal. We have to do better.
Still, Dear Reader, after all that, I’m committed to trying to make it in the wild, wild west of the comedy industry, no matter how many Pauls, Johns, Joes or Randys try to stand in my way.