It’s been a year since COVID put live entertainment on a forced hiatus. For some comics, it’s been a year since they’ve performed on a live show, while others never stopped. To call a side effect of a global pandemic a silver lining seems like an insult to actual silver linings, but any forced moment of pause can lead to much-needed reflection. During that fleeting minute where it seemed like we’d be facing merely a two to four week nationwide shutdown (oh how naive), there was a small sigh of relief. Suddenly you could do the thing you’re never supposed to do in comedy: take a damn break. Whether a few days or a week or two, taking a breather is so frowned upon. You’re expected to hold your breath indefinitely, turning blue in the face is the only path towards Conan/salvation. Of all the toxic mentalities embedded in the comedy industry, hustle culture is taught the earliest.
Hustle culture, aka the billionaire mindset, tells you to never get more than three hours of sleep, never stop networking, never say no. The less you take care of yourself, the more worth you have. Regardless of the industry, an obsession with “hustling” is a surefire path to burnout, yet it is hardly ever acknowledged in stand-up despite its high prevalence. No, you have to get up every day, do multiple shows a night, say yes to every gig, do every room. A too literal interpretation of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule, it’s perpetuated everywhere, from the club owner that requires two late night credits for a booking, to the indie booker that demands performers are getting up at least three times a week to do their basement showcase. Somewhere along the way, comedy became just a numbers game.
The hustle is less about accumulating a vast library of quality jokes and more of a mad dash to being the most booked and busiest in town, a continuance of the sort of influencer culture where the appearance of doing things is more important than how you actually do them. It’s not about being the funniest, it’s about being viewed as a real comedian—the most valid comedian.
The brain poisoning brought on by hustle culture was on full display this last year. While some comics pivoted to safe, digital shows, others wasted no time working around COVID precautions rather than with them to preserve their access to physical stage time. And while some comedians on these line-ups do indeed rely on stand-up to pay their bills, just as many can only rely on stand-up to pay for their Hulu subscription (with ads). Even when they were given an out, a perfect excuse to take a beat, so many could not. But if we’ve built a culture that validates your status as an artist around time clocked in, how could anybody feel comfortable sitting still?
Taking care of yourself is a guilty pleasure in comedy rather than a basic necessity. Comedians are terrified to slow down as if they were sharks and would die if they stopped moving. It’s not just about the performance you give on stage, it’s the one you do for your peers. From alerting Facebook to every mic you’re doing on a weekly basis, to making a boomerang of every single comedian at the show you’re attending for your Instagram stories (everyone “killing it,” naturally, as is the only possible outcome), keeping up with appearances holds just as much weight as honing your craft. Afterall, you can kick off the rust from taking a week off, but you can never get back those lost posting windows.
Other than Gladwell and the first guy who insisted on giving you unsolicited advice after your first open mic, there is no validity to this quantity over quality method of success. Even those who self-impose a quota onto themselves do not judge another’s stand-up set by the number of jokes that can be crammed into it, but rather by the quality of said jokes. So what are we doing here? If time accrued was the leading factor in becoming funny, nobody under 30 would ever step foot on a late night stage. Regardless of where you live, for every Eddie Pepitone there’s a vet who’s been doing this for two decades and hasn’t improved one iota since year one. And for every Kevin Hart, there’s a “workhorse” who has more sets a night than they have punchlines. Sometimes being consistently put on a million shows doesn’t mean you’re bookable but rather just very available.
Hustle culture not only leads to burnout but contributes to keeping bad shows and gatekeepers in power as they benefit the most from the “never say no” mantra. Again, just like corporate America, toxic work environments do not need to exist. Challenging gigs can be useful, but some are insurmountable and anybody escaping with their limbs intact is an outlier. It is more likely that you’ve improved as a comedian not because you’ve thrown yourself into a tough environment but in spite of it. Carrying around the badge of the comic who does bad rooms is just another casualty from the glorification of the tortured artist archetype, a notion that often stops people from going to therapy, getting medicated, or divorcing themselves from destructive vices. Burning the candle at both ends in order to impress people that care far, far less about your gig count is more likely to be the thing that tanks your career than what catapults it.
Even in the arts—hell, especially in the arts—a healthy work-life balance is the actual thing that’ll keep you going. You are allowed to work at a slower pace. You do not need to do every show. You can limit yourself to what’s reasonably manageable on a given night and work the places and with the people you respect. What good is getting up three times a week if you haven’t written a new closer in two years? What good is getting up three times a night if you’re going to half-ass your set, running jokes on autopilot? The amount of effort you put in is what’s most important and the time you spend off stage is just as valuable. If you truly eat, sleep, and breathe comedy what on earth do you have to talk about? How can any audience member relate to someone whose only hobbies include listening to podcasts and yelling at strangers on Twitter about said podcasts in between recording episodes of their own podcast?
Saying no to bad gigs and refusing to work with exploitative people are net goods regardless of how it affects your calendar. You should have a life outside of this. Your friends, family, significant others, and your mental and physical health should not automatically take a backseat to bar shows and post mic karaoke. A real comic knows when to step back and say no to hustle culture.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.