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I’m a Hustla Baby: Making Luck in Stand-Up Part 1

January 31, 2011

Story Time.

Later, TV  would achieve this same level of parenting with only half the smiling.

After I finished school, my girl and I planned a 7 month trip to Melbourne, Australia.  In the year leading up to our departure, my plan was to make enough dough to fund the whole trip.  What a stupid idiot.  What I did instead was slack off, and barely earned enough to cover a one-way ticket there, much less rent, food, etc.

“No problem,” I thought. “I’ll hustle when I get to Melbourne, we’ll find a place to live, I’ll get a job, and then pet a koala or two.”

Or a wombat, if that’s your game…

Shortly after we arrived, several aspects of reality slapped me in the face, HARD.

1) We had strict living requirements: living together, in a specific location, and within a narrow price range.  Hard to satisfy all three.  And every day we spent at hostels and motels meant more money on the old credit card.
2) Try finding a decent, full-time job when your VISA limits you to working only three months at a time. Unless you’re willing to get into seasonal labour like fruit-picking (not an option as I was tethered to the city), you’re kind of up the creek.
3) We had no resources or friends to help us network. Even using the internet cost $2 for a half hour.  I was hemhorraging money just trying to get on my feet.

Suffice to say, I learned some tough lessons about hustling.  I could not slink back to Canada a failure, broke and defeated.  It was a pride thing, one of those pivotal moments where you say “Okay, quitting is not an option, it’s time to hustle the shit out of my life.”

Step by step, we made forward progress.  The apartment we found was listed as single tenancy, but we charmed our way past the rule. I picked up a job in an alpaca wool warehouse doing manual labour, and eventually became a Texas Hold ‘Em Poker dealer (learning the rules 12 hours before the interview).  We acquired friends, developed resources, and made it work.  We even managed to get certified in scuba diving, where I realized my life goal of petting a sea turtle. (So I like to pet wild animals.  Deal with it.)

The lessons were expensive, but looking like a fool was free.

I look back on that trip as one of the best times of my life – to have that purpose, to be building something and making a tough situation work.  Plus I learned how to hustle.  Like… I’m talking make it rain in a hotel room kinda hustle.

Hustling for survival is a bit different than hustling for career, but the fundamentals are the same. It takes determination, confidence, humility, and, most importantly, a positive attitude. This week we’re going to look at hustling in stand-up comedy, and why this part of the game is just as important (and in some ways, much harder) as developing craft.

Let’s start off by looking at some notable hustlers in comedy history.  It was no surprise to me that a lot of these examples are comics I admire so much that I’ve dedicated Shout-Outs to them on this blog.

1) Jay Leno

Leno has a some great stories swirling around him, and here are a few:

He used to drive six hours down from Boston to do a late-night set at The Improv, sleep in his car, then drive home the next day.

Another story he tells in his autobiography “Leading with my Chin,” is about a hell gig he did at a study hall.  Everyone just wanted to work, and he had to perform the same hour of material to the same angry students three days in a row.

He was famous for this stunt as well: he would approach managers at clubs with a fifty dollar bill.  He’d say, “Put me on, and if I don’t kill it, you keep the money.”  He always got his money back (regardless of performance quality), won the respect of the club staff, and booked gigs.  DAMN, HUSTLA!

Respect for Leno, ’cause he was a guy with his eye on the prize.  Wonder how he became the host of America’s most beloved talk show?  He pointed at it took it.  Leno still hustles to this day, performing stand-up comedy on weekends for “pocket change.”

2) Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow, director of smash hit comedies such as “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Funny People,” seems like he just appeared one day, but the guy has been studying comedy and hustling since before his voice changed.

I was really inspired when I listened toApatow’s interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, where they dug out old tapes of interviews he had arranged with famous comedians like Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld. When he was a sixteen year old kid, he got ahold of these guys, and made up some B.S. about an assignment for his school paper.  They agreed to be interviewed, and Apatow simply asked specific questions about stand-up comedy that he wanted answered.  He tricked them into giving him free advice.

Later, he would work as a busboy in a comedy club, where he would absorb some of the best stand-up in North America as a regular part of his job. You want to know what hustle looks like? Apatow IS hustle.

3) Jerry Seinfeld

Dressing up like a giant bee to promote a movie when

you’re already a kajillionaire?  That’s hustle.

A lot of stand-up comedy how-to books refer to Seinfeld’s work ethic regarding comedy writing, which was very structured.  He would set aside at least an hour to write comedy every day.

This systematic approach is fairly painful, as creativity isn’t something you can set a clock to.  He acknowledged this, saying that during the hour he wouldn’t necessarily create comedy gold.  But over time, the sheer quantity of material guaranteed some killer bits that otherwise would never have made it to the page.

The result is there for anyone to see.  His polished material is flawless, not a syllable wasted.  He makes it look effortless, but the truth is there’s a lot of hustle behind his act.

4) Paul F. Thompkins

Thompkins has developed an interesting economic model for organizing shows.  Bob Kerr, one of Toronto’s funniest writers and comedians, asked him to come perform in in Toronto.  Thompkins said sure, as long as Kerr could generate an audience of at least 300 people.  Kerr started a Facebook group and made it happen.  He essentially summoned one of his favourite comics to the city by guaranteeing a profitable venture.  After its success, Thompkns made a policy:  if you care enough about booking him, he’ll come.  He’s outsourced the hustling.  And what’s more hustla than that?

5) Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy is pretty famous for getting onstage as much as humanly possible when he was young. As a result, he developed much faster than his contemporaries, which added to his mystique of being such a polished comic at such a young age. But the guy merely hustled – he found as many ways to perform as possible. I cover his particular type of hustle in more detail in the Time Travel and Stage Time article.

6) Rodney Dangerfield

Dangerfield took a long time to become a household name. He was at comedy so long he actually quit, then came back to it with about a decade in between. He was a brilliant comic, one of my favourites, and struggled with depression all through his life.

It’s important to remember, that sometimes it’s a hustle just to keep banging your head against the wall when nothing’s going your way.  Whenever I get frustrated at the speed of my career progression, I think about how Dangerfield didn’t make it until he was more than halfway done his life.  Today, his beloved character that gets no respect has earned mine eternally for his amazing hustle.


There ya go. These people might seem like they come out of nowhere to achieve great success, but the truth is, a lot of the time they’ve been hustling and hustling, just waiting for their break.  Lucky for us, most of them have written autobiographies, which expand greatly on what I’ve covered here.

Come on back tomorrow where we’ll look at the practical side of hustling – what comics today can do to hustle, and when too much hustle might be a bad thing.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean O'Dwyer permalink
    January 31, 2011 9:59 am

    Enjoy your blog, but Apatow didn’t direct “The Hangover”. That was Todd Phillips.


  1. I’m a Hustla Baby: Making Luck in Stand-Up Part 2 « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog
  2. Keep On Keepin’ On: Motivation in Stand-Up Comedy Part 1 « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog

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