Quitting Starbucks

My decision to quit working for Starbucks was a surprise to me. I woke up one morning, got dressed, and then my body just refused to take me to work. I played like an ostrich instead, I pretended I didn’t exist. After a few hours I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me. Between tutoring and performing I was working an average of 25 hours a week at Starbucks for $9 per hour. That’s $225 a week. But, after every shift I was physically and emotionally drained. As a self consciously spoiled and privileged person, just acknowledging that made me feel guilty. Here I was with the cushy cashier job, involving almost no hard physical labor, interacting almost exclusively with people in my native tongue who were nice- most of the time. And yet, I was sick all the time, the knots in my back made my boyfriend (who works in a job with real stress) voice concern for my health.

$225 is not enough money to justify compromising what it is I came here to do.

My fixed monthly costs are about $1,000. That isn’t including food. The stress of the work coupled with the continuous nagging frustration that I didn’t have enough money to exhale made the prospect of continuing to work for subsistence wages….unpalatable. I enjoy the very rare privilege of knowing that I will never experience homelessness or real hunger. I am not estranged from my parents, I have friends and family that love me near the city. Any survival fears that I might have are a figment of my own overactive imagination. But it’s still hard to walk away from guaranteed income and into the wilderness of “selling comedy tickets” and “other things that might make money involving performing.” But I didn’t move to NYC to become a better barista, I came here to get better at comedy. I cannot justify another writing day lost to exhaustion or illness resulting from the strain of working at a job I hate. I have set better bridges on fire on my path toward the stage. Law school, desk jobs, health insurance, a job that doesn’t involve me asking my boyfriend for permission to talk about his bathroom habits.

My body is more intelligent at calculating risk than my rational mind. Let go, just breathe. Everything is already okay.

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The Choice to Pay Comics

TCC has been up and running since November. It feels surreal, but we’ve been doing exactly what we hoped we would do. We put on a consistently good show, TCC members are starting to push and support each other and all that hippie stuff. The comics that come through are impressed with the atmosphere and the crowd, and the real test of a great show- comics are starting to come by, just to hang out.

We started the room before TriBeCa Comedy Club was running a comedy club there, it was just us in this empty theater for two whole months by ourselves. When new management came in and started running a proper (read- for profit) club. The owners were impressed enough with how we were doing things that they let us keep our Friday night 8pm spot. But starting in January the TriBeCa Comedy Club (under new management) has opened and started operating around us crazy kids. They’ve been very nice about the fact that we don’t care about money, which can be very disconcerting.

In the beginning we decided to charge an admission mostly to give the show value. TCC members are free to sell tickets, and they pocket 100% of that money, but folks that come off the street pay for their seat. This serves dual purposes. First, and most importantly, the audience members invest themselves in a show they pay for. Free shows have a reputation for disconnected and easily alienated audiences. I’ve learned that the hard way, many many times. TCC also wanted to generate a source of revenue so that we could continue to invest in the show, print tickets, fliers, recoup some of the start-up costs (like buying a mic) and possibly expand into paid advertisement. The majority of every audience either got a free ticket, or bought a ticket from a TCC member, but after a few months we were able to build up a little nest. But we weren’t paying the comics.

Then we booked a great up and coming comic. Dan St. Germain on one of our shows in early January. He killed. He came in, saw us collecting tickets, and some money at the door, and saw a packed house. Like everyone else on the show he volunteered his time. After the show he sent me this message

“Hey, you can’t take money at the door and not pay professional comics. If u want to produce a show and not pay performers, especially ones who you’re advertising, then produce a free show. Anything else is unethical and will give you a bad rap.”

He was absolutely right.

As a young comic I beg for stage time. I stand out in the cold and yell at strangers for it, I drive long distances for it, and I start really ambitious and hard headed projects all to facilitate more of it. TCC was never intended as a money making venture. We only wanted to come together and produce a show we were proud to promote. We wanted to give ourselves and other comics quality stage time, in front an audience who wanted to be there. But that’s not what it looks like. It looks like we’re a comedy club, we’re charging people to come to the show, and we’re not paying comics. And at the end of the day, perception is reality. And “unethical” is the nicest word Dan could have used for what it looked like we were doing.

Nobody gets into comedy for the money, except maybe club owners or bookers, but even then there are easier ways to make a buck. But love of the craft isn’t an excuse not to fairly compensate artists for their work. So starting January 20th TCC is proud to pay guest comics and headliners for their time.

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Writer’s Block

To write is a presumptions thing. These written words declare that what I think matters enough to justify the time you generous people take to read my words. I shame myself with my own audacity and narcissistic insistence “my voice matters.” The pressure to be relevant, to be unique, to connect, to make sense, to not be crazy. That is a lot of pressure. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes the absurdity of making that declaration overwhelms my impulse to write, or edit for public consumption, or expose my thoughts. Thank you for your patience. Luckily, I am a presumptions person. With enough time my doubt is always overwhelmed by this compulsion to tell my story.

me and my significant other, being adorable

Kaytlin and this amazing Irishman she picked up one day.

Also, I’ve been really busy. Falling in love.

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Starting my Own Room, TriBeCa Comedy Collective

I didn’t want to start my own room. I really didn’t. I came to NYC with a very specific plan that included “don’t start anything, and don’t seek out any major clubs until you’ve done nothing but prioritize stage time for a year. Build an hour, then make it tighter..for a whole year.” The point was not to be seen too early, not to develop a reputation as an open micer with a business card. Etc. etc. Good plan Kaytlin.

But then I kept seeing things I wanted to do differently. I’m a natural born narcissist with the gratuitous fortune to be born an only child. Any casual acquaintance will tell you that I have a very high opinion of my own opinion, naturally. Despite that qualification, I have a background in community organizing. I am an expert at two things. Bringing people together for a project, and standing on street corners talking to strangers. After six months of barking I can tell you with some amount of authority that most up and coming comics, including those that run their own rooms, seem to have no idea how to either bring people together, or talk to strangers. Nothing is creepier to a pedestrian than a group of socially awkward men refusing to make eye contact but aggressively mumbling “free comedy show” into thin air! The other consistent problem was that I wasn’t proud to share the stage with some of these comics. They’re nice people really, but I felt like a fraud emphatically assuring suspicious tourists “yes, everyone is VERY funny!” I found the source of the problem quickly. Bookers couldn’t get “established” comics to bark because it was “beneath” them. So they hired green comics to bark, and nobody seemed to care whether those comics walked 60% of the audience. They also traded spots with other comics without any regard to the integrity of their show. Frankly, I think this is an unsustainable model. But you know what, do whatever you want. I started my own fucking room.

I didn’t want to bring any of the energy from that exploitative toxic situation, so I didn’t invite any of the people that played there. Even though there were good hard working comics also stuck in that quagmire.

I reached out to some friends at open mic’s and I spent one four minute open mic set giving a speech about my vision. A Jerry Maguire moment. I didn’t get any laughs. I didn’t start with a lot of solid idea’s, but I knew I didn’t want to share the stage with comics I didn’t believe in. I knew that I didn’t want anyone on stage who thought self promotion was beneath them, and I knew I wanted to hang out with comics who had more to say to each other than “good set” or the alternative which is avoiding eye contact.

I miraculously pulled together a team including an experienced booker Andrew Schwartztol, a PR natural Lauren Vino, an enthusiastic natural born charmer/salesman Joe Cozzello, and a comic who I had admired on the open mic scene who seemed to be philosophically “with me on these issues” Bryson Turner. They were all funny type A personalities up for a challenge. We formed the “TriBeCa Comedy Collective” and we committed to producing a weekly show at the TriBeCa Comedy Club (very creative name, right guys. BTW, It’s in TriBeCa) We also committed to having a monthly brainstorming/socializing event. We all pitched in $50, and we agreed to use the revenue from the first two shows to supplement our start up capital. We used that money to buy a microphone, pay for tickets, and fliers, and stuff we hadn’t yet thought of. Then we made each other a promise, no trading spots, no bringing on barkers who were better at barking then they were on stage, and no undermining each other. We believe in each other’s comedy, and we’re friends. We put a value on the tickets of $10, and I gave an unlimited number to the comics involved in the show, they could give them away, sell them, trade them for Tupperware…I didn’t care. But if they did sell them, they got to keep 100% of the money. I have some faith in the free market (It’s a great idea, it just doesn’t work in the real world on a national scale.) I wanted to create a space for talented young comics to support each other, I wanted to create a space where up and coming comics wanted to hang out, I wanted to create a show I felt good about promoting. I wanted to build a place a community could grow. I wanted a show that didn’t tolerate mediocrity on any level.

The afternoon of our first show I ate a whole pint of pistachio Häagen-Dazs ice cream, like you do. I distracted my stoic boyfriend, while he was at work making the economy grow, or whatever it is he does. And I played a long game of “what is the absolutely worst thing that could happen. And what can I do to stop it?”

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The Problem with Barkers

I love barking. I know, I’m a freak of nature. But standing on street corners talking to strangers about something I love is one of my favorite things. I used to run field campaigns inspiring and training other young activists to “own the street” reclaim public space, and inspire people to donate to causes right then and there. I was pretty good at my job. I know what works on both a theoretical and practical level. I know that people are like babies, if you smile and wave at them, they will smile back. Fact.

I also know that groups of anxious socially awkward young men with nothing to do (comics) standing around intermittently staring down strangers, talking about how terrible the show is, or interrupting someone who might have been interested in the show, doesn’t work. I don’t appreciate being set up for failure.

I believe that if you set high expectations people will jump to meet them, whereas they will trip over low ones. I also believe that expecting things to go well is an important step to making things go well. You set yourself, your team, your fellow performers up for failure if you have low expectations.

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On Course, On Glide Path

Last night, I spent three hours waiting around a friendly open mic, Lucky Jacks, with comics I recognize. I got 8 minutes onstage in-between music acts. My new material went better than I expected since I was just trying to phrase things in a unique and unexpected way. The next morning I listened to my set enough times to transcribe it. I marked the laughs and cut words I didn’t need, I also did some free form writing when I saw unexplored concepts or comparisons. I tried to ask “could you make that stronger with an act out? A stronger attitude? A longer pause?” I’m supposed to do that with every set I record, but I don’t. About once a month I sit down with all the sets I’ve recorded, it’s tedious but enlightening. I like being able to articulate why a joke worked one night, when the same bit didn’t work the night before. I’m forcing into consciousness an ethereal process.

I’m also supposed to join a gym, supposed to be continuously keeping my “instrument” healthy enough for this schedule I keep. I gave up alcohol for endurance. But too often I’m tired and lethargic because I fill my body with cheap food and I’m not moving enough. I let the stress of my day jobs, and the running around, distract me from what I came here to do. Too often I succumb to the ceaseless temptation to stay at home curled up in a blanket with Nutella and a good book.

A normal day for me would be 8am-2pm at Starbucks, meet with a comic about the “The Pink Collar Comedy Tour” from 2:15-3pm. Jump on a train and go to a tutoring assignment from 4pm-6:30pm, jump on a train to go to a show 7:30, then….either go home to build a relationship with the man I’ve fallen in love with, or go to a mic. The open mics are the only place for me to work out new material, and I do my best writing on stage. But it’s hard to justify hours of sitting around listening to other young comics work out new (read- mostly bad) material in front a bored and jaded crowd. When my five minutes come, I’m equal parts terrified, and irritated. I stay, on principle to give the other comics the benefit of my warm body and ear, if I hear something funny, I laugh. I have to make hard choices about how I spend my time, do I spend 4 hours sitting in a basement for 5 minutes of questionably effective time with a microphone? Or do I stay at home and bond with this amazing man who materialized in my life suddenly?

The truth is that the five minutes I spend on stage isn’t the whole, or even the primary value young comics get out of these mics. Stage time at this level comes from relationships with other comics. Friendships and professional contacts are borne out of frequently being trapped in the same room listening to the same people many times a week for months in a row. Comics talk about comedy and you learn things; like who’s booking what, what the difference between a premise and set-up is, where to get the cheapest [insert anything], etc. Comedy buddies are like work out buddies, you tell someone you’re going to be there, and that gives you the extra motivation you need to put your scarf and mittens on and trek out in the cold for more of the same. And much like going to the gym- it hurts. And no matter how many crunches you do, you can’t get rid of a pot belly in one work out. But over time, if you keep going, keep trying, keep pushing yourself, you get better you discover you can do things you didn’t know you could do….and that’s when the magic happens.

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I Got a Job!

After many unpaid training periods, unreturned phone calls, and awkward interviews I finally found an artist friendly day job. (Applause break) I am working at Starbucks, and if I pass the SAT I will start tutoring students through a community conscious tutoring company called Revolution Prep. So at 25 years old I am working at a coffee shop and studying hard for the SAT. I say that on stage with a lot of self deprecating sarcasm. But the truth is, I’ve never been happier.

I am reliving my adolescence in NYC, with no curfew, liberated from my anxious adolescent self, and pursuing a career doing something I love. I’ve chosen this. I am surrounded by people that believe in me. I am lucky by any measure.

The choices I’m making are coming from a place of privilege. I am privileged to live in a country where microphones can be found in public spaces, and I’m allowed to use them to say whatever I want(offer not available in all clubs, conditions subject to change without notice). I am privileged to be single, childless, and unburdened by debt. Privileged to be healthy and young enough that no one seems upset when they find out my bedroom is also my living room/kitchen/other roommates bed room. My parents support what I’m doing, and they are in a financial position to offer some assistance (for like emergencies, or special occasions, or if Dad answers the phone)

I want to try to articulate my feeling about social status and what I’m not giving up. It’s taken me a long time to find work. Part of the reason is that I was reluctant to apply to jobs if I could imagine my mother saying “that kind of work isn’t for you.” Part of the motivation behind her advice is that she knows I’ve been summarily fired from every restaurant job I’ve ever had. She also paid for my education with the explicit intention of qualifying me to work at the kind of job that require grown up clothes. I have the wardrobe due to several years playing dress up on the debate team, and mock trial.

Of course, my mother is not the only proud Bailey woman. When I decided not to go to law school I stepped off of a lateral career track, but my ego is still very much caught up in all the trappings of upper middle class privilege. I catch myself frequently, and unnecessarily, informing people that “I used to work on campaigns all over the country” and that “I was good at my job.” I still want people to look at me as the kind of person who “could” or maybe even “should” go to law school. It’s hard to get over all that nonsense. But, I’m working on it.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Something I thought I learned working on campaigns is that when you pursue any goal you have to respect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s hard to create art, or meet your campaign goals, when you aren’t sure whether or not you’ll be able to make rent this month. Being unemployed seems like a writers blessing, except that it becomes increasingly difficult to justify waking up before noon, and my “working” time is spent half heartedly job searching, not writing. I feel like I am floating, but not drowning, drifting, but not yet lost.

Before I made the move I already had a physically and emotionally safe place to live lined up. Brandy took the time to show me where to do laundry, grocery shopping, and I found a place to go when I’m vibrating with post performance energy . I had enough savings to get me by for a few months, and I had faith that my friends in NY would not allow me to go homeless or hungry. So when I arrived in NY my first priority was to find a source of reliable income.

Applying for jobs online feels like I’m sending my resume directly into a digital identity shredder. Who are the people on the other end of this process reading my answers to hypothetical “personality” questions? Such as “On a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree how would you respond to this statement. I am well liked.” Or the endless “are you sure you are legally allowed to work here in the U.S. questions?” Physically walking into an office to inquire about positions, and then being redirected to their website (which doesn’t work) is humiliating and disheartening. This process is absurd.
I thought I hit bottom when I walked into Outback Steak House to apply for a waitressing position. The manager seemed impressed with me, and I had already accepted that I was becoming “someone who works at Outback Steakhouse who is not also currently enrolled in a grad school program.” Unfortunately, the manager (who had seemed so impressed with me in person) called to tell me I had failed their personality/intelligence test. Yes, you read that correctly. He couldn’t tell me why, he had simply sent my multiple choice test to their central Scantron office and received a report back that read “Failed. Do not hire.”

What is especially infuriating about unskilled job hunting is the feelings of helplessness. Knowledge might be power, but knowing that a potential employer is breaking some important labor laws through “unpaid training” that just happens to result in you doing real work that produces real profit, doesn’t make you more powerful. Unless you count walking away muttering to yourself “this is SO ILLEGAL” as a powerful act. Note to unskilled laborers, pointing out to potential employers that they are breaking labor laws usually results in you not getting the job. I worked for three days at a burger joint doing “training” that involved sweeping real floors, taking out real trash cans, filling up real ice buckets, taking real orders. I was doing real work. I was informed after my “trial period” that my schedule was not flexible enough to accommodate…a schedule I provided at the first interview. I was never paid for this work.

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Blaming the Audience

Dying on stage hurts. There is a cultish and irrational claim by some comics that “it’s never the audience” “don’t blame the audience.” And as frustrating as it is, they’re right. There are audiences populated exclusively by confused tourists who don’t understand English, or jaded and self absorbed comedians who seem to only look up from their own notebook when it’s their turn on stage. But honestly…even in those situations you can’t blame the audience. You can’t blame the audience, because if you do, you won’t get any better.

I experienced a similar mindset with canvassing for political campaigns. I was told, and I drilled into my staff “turf doesn’t matter” “don’t blame the turf.”  Never blame the geographic location to which you were assigned. There is a way to meet your goals, because where there is a will there is a way. We believed this not because it’s true, but because there is no alternative. If you can blame turf, or the audience, or what kind of socks you wore-you will. You will do anything to combat the scarier proposition that you need to be better, funnier, possibly more talented.

I played a room with only three comics in the “audience,” I died. I was shocked by the silence and I panicked. I had to ask another comic to bring me my notebook because I blanked after four minutes of a generous ten minute set. It was absolutely a shitty room and I could have blamed my performance on the audience, and for a few minutes I did. Except then another comic went on stage, and had most of us chuckling the whole time. He made his own energy and it was just too damned infectious to ignore. His name is Mark Buenning and he wouldn’t take no for an answer and he made magic happen. That was pretty inspiring.

Make Magic Happen

“Each indecision brings its own delays and days are lost lamenting over lost days. . . . What you can do or think you can do, begin it. For boldness has magic, power, and genius in it.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Dying on stage is always hard, I almost always want to eat ice cream and then throw up. Blaming the audience can take a little bit of the sting out of it. But you have to believe you can do well under any circumstances and then work to make that belief true. You can’t control the MC, or whether the mic works, or the age/race/first language of the audience. You can only control what you bring on stage. So, what went wrong? Something fixable went wrong and I better figure out to fix it or I should get the hell out of the way.

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Stage time! Bring em’, Bark at em’, or Pay Up!

There is nothing more important to a young comic than getting more stage time. Getting on stage often enough to dull the fear of trying new things is the only way to get better. Open mics often charge money for stage time, usually $5 for five minutes. “Bringer shows,” insist that comics bring a certain number of people in order to get stage time. “Barker” comics earn their stage time by putting in a few hours standing outside the venue calling out to people “hey do you like comedy?” or “free comedy show!” Right now I don’t have the luxury to whine about being exploited, robbed, or whatever. My objective is to get as much quality stage time as possible, and if that means standing on street corners waving at people, or harassing my friends to spend money to see me perform, I have done more for less.

There is a qualitative difference between quality stage time (in front of an audience) and work out rooms. Work out rooms are explicitly open mic’s and are populated exclusively by other comics, and possibly their soon to be disenchanted girlfriend. No civilians. These are rooms meant to relieve some “performance” pressure to give comics an opportunity to talk around their new material, try different things. Or just to show off for each other. My favorite room so far is a free open mic hosted at the PIT, People’s Improve Theatre. Every Monday and Tuesday at 11pm forty comedians are drawn out of a bucket they each get two minutes on stage. It’s intense and I love it. I’ve paid for stage time at NY Comedy Club, Broadway Comedy Club, Charley O’s, more than a few bars, and one random church.

Kaytlin lugging laundry across town

My goal here was to save $15 by doing laundry at my Aunts house in New Jersey. Result = I lugged my laundry across town and spent $14 on round trip train fare.

Bringer shows and barker shows offer the good stuff- warm bodies that have been made aware that there is a comedy showing happing. Bringer shows outsource most of the publicity work onto young comics who still have friends. My first Saturday in the city  I went out to support two friends of mine Kumail and JM (from Raleigh) and help fill their bringer quota at New York Comedy Club. I paid $10 for admission and then $12 for (mandatory 2) luke warm Diet Cokes. Rent is expensive, I get it.

Barker shows are possibly the most humiliating, but also a pretty fair, way to get new comics to earn their stage time. Having logged a lot of hours standing on street corners trying to get strangers to talk to me, I consider myself  an expert. I’ve fallen in with a rag tag crew at Charley O’s and I’ve committed to barking for them every Friday in exchange for stage time for the next six months, and a couple of introductions around town to other bookers who run barker shows. Standing on street corners, smiling and waving at strangers, trying to get them to donate two hours of their time (and at least $10 on food or alcohol!) is a challenge. Not quite as challenging as getting those same strangers to give you their credit card information so they can donate to “hope for a better future.” But still a challenge.

Flying Squirrel

Flying squirrel "Hope" I met while barking for stage time. Yeah...a flying squirrel.

Spending money is annoying, and harassing my friends is also annoying. But not as annoying as performing to an empty room or not performing at all. I know more seasoned comics who claim “bringer shows are scams” and they’re right. But I don’t have the privilege of that attitude yet. And from the clubs perspective, I get it. I am a young, unproven talent, and frankly there are a lot of self proclaimed comics out there that suck and make audiences feel awkward. I myself am not a consistent performer-yet. So I’m buying the privilege of performing. I think it’s better than the alternative. Like never getting on stage, having to suck up to the right people and beg, or lying about your experience level.

This is just another step. I’ll be past it soon enough. When I am, I’m sure I will be able to confidently declare “bringer shows are scams!” But for right now, I’ll do anything to get on stage, and bringing four people is the least I can do for a club who’s willing to take a  chance on a brand new comedian. Hell, if I’m willing to drive seven hours for five minutes on stage…come on now. Plus it’s an exercise in self promotion. Everything is about perspective. I could rationally choose to resent clubs that force me to bring them money, not unlike a pimp…but then can I work any job? Working for anybody creates surplus capital…bringing customers is not more exploitative than waitressing, working in sales, or doing anything for money. So let us be nicer to comedy clubs…yes of course they are raping and pillaging the newbies. That’s the system, it’s not unique to comedy. The dedicated either figure out an alternative, or deal with it…and eventually earn the privilege to complain. The weak drop out, and complain anyway.

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