It’s not unusual for me to receive a couple of requests each week for speaking engagements or to perform stand-up for charitable events. My pet cause is our local chapter of Mobile Meals but last year, alone, I was shaking the tin can for domestic abuse shelters, animal shelters, the forgotten elderly in nursing homes, education, our veterans ... and it was my pleasure in so doing.
But this past week I received an invitation that was, in my eyes, quite flattering, if not considerably inappropriate (for the audience):
I was asked to speak during “Career Day!” at a local, respected academy.
“Academy,” in itself, sounds awfully serious, doesn’t it?
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“You were asked to speak during a career day?” Paul nearly did a spit-take with his pinot noir, “Why, is there a burning desire to pursue the marketing of horse manure?”
“Evidently, the kids at this school are showing a strong interest in writing and acting. And I write and have acted ... at least, that’s what they called it,” I amended.
“Did you tell them you dropped out of college?” asked Paul.
“Just so you know, I did drop out of college,” I reminded the pleasant woman on the other end of the phone, after telling her my fee (and before you frown at my charging to speak for such a worthy cause, keep in mind that those benefits I performed for last year, I performed for free, and, at some point, a gal’s gotta make a living, particularly when she has 11 mouths to feed, most of whom have hooves), to which she replied, “That’s fine.”
As of this moment, I have no idea if they even have a budget for speakers, so the whole thing may not even happen, but it has made me think very hard what I, a person who dropped out of college to become a stand-up comic, would say to the bright complected faces of our future (before the mic would be promptly cut off)?
Because they’re going to want to know where I got my English degree and probably what acting school I attended ... Julliard? Yale drama? And how does one go about getting an agent so that one can be submitted for auditions? Is it important to have a manager as well? What sort of advance should you expect on your first book? What syndication company is the best to approach for a newspaper column?
Well, I don’t know ...
Because the truth is, I don’t think my own story is average. I got my first actual writing gig and I didn’t particularly want to write for television, I just knew a guy who knew a guy who was producing a network game show and they were looking for 10 joke writers. In the initial meeting, nobody asked if I had a degree, they just wanted to know if I was funny. I made them laugh, they offered me the job and the next thing I knew, I was 26 and in a writer’s meeting with Betty White, who was one of our first celebrities to be booked, and she had brought us all homemade cookies. I stayed with that gig for 10 months – long enough to get me into the writer’s union with a small pension for the future and left it because I couldn’t stand working in an office and I went home with a headache every day. Free now to do my stand up nightly at The Improv and to return to touring, there just happened to be a couple of producers in the audience on a night that I was killing the room, that just happened to be looking for a giant, southern, funny chick to play a woman’s basketball coach opposite Craig T. Nelson on a fledgling sitcom for ABC.
“Oh, crap,” I thought, as soon as the deal was inked, “I gotta learn to act!” which, really, wasn’t that overwhelming as my best friend was a truly talented actor so I just hired him to privately coach me, which he did, even though I would become supremely annoyed when he would force me to repeat a scene over and over, ad nauseam, when I thought it was already good enough.
“I’m not an actor,” I reminded him, “I’m just a comic who happens to act.”
“And you will just happen to become unemployed if you don’t pull this off,” he rebuked me. “Do you know how many people would kill for the opportunity you’ve just been given? People live in Los Angeles for years without ever getting a break and you just waltz in from Goobertown, and land a sitcom.”
“All I want to do is make enough money to buy a little farm and ride my horses,” I shot back. “I don’t care about being an ‘artiste,’ I just want to be able to pull off this scene without looking like a complete idiot.”
Carey cradled his head in his hands and moaned, “You’re killing me. If you put half the effort into this as you do with your stupid horses, you could really have an amazing career.”
“I don’t want an amazing career,” I said. “I just to want to do a good job, grab the cash and get outta here. I miss looking out my window and seeing green. I miss boiled peanuts. I even miss kudzu.”
And then, of course, when I did get out of there and settle on the farm I’d found in 1993, a radio station in Charlotte just happened to be changing formats and wanted to know if I wanted to host a two-hour talk show each day.
“From my farm?” I asked, “Because, you know, I gotta be able to ride.”
“From your farm,” they promised.
And then the publisher of our local newspaper just happened to ask if I wanted to write a regular column.
“Only if you want,” he said. “I wouldn’t embarrass you with offering you how little we could pay.”
“Whatever,” I said, “but I’m taking the money.”
And then other papers began to run the column, too.
So there you have it, boys and girls. If there’s one thing I will tell you, it’s this: Be professional. If someone gives you a shot, make them happy they did. I guess you don’t have to go to college, and in my case, that was a good thing because, had I had something to fall back on, I might have given up the idea of showbiz funding my horse training dreams after having a drunk heckler lean over and throw up on the stage at a late show in Tampa.
But I also would have missed working with Bob Hope and being invited by Sammy Davis Jr. to join him and his wife at their table in Vegas ... I would have missed galloping a horse down the beach in Spain after doing a show for our military at one of the naval bases. I would have missed having a lovely chat with Jimmy Stewart as he came out of church on a bright Sunday morning and, most importantly of all, I would have missed unknowingly helping a woman who, after trying for years to conceive, suffered the stillbirth of twins, recover from her depression after she saw my stand-up on TV and wrote to tell me it was the first time she’d laughed in a year.
It doesn’t really matter, boys and girls, what you decide to do with your life. Just do it with your whole heart.
Because you never know who might be watching.