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The Restaurant Industry Is Hard. Comedy Somehow Harder.

July 29, 2012

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a lot of people tell me, “Well, you know the restaurant industry is pretty tough.” Worse, I’ve heard people say things like, “Well, I know the restaurant industry is really tough but…” They then use this as a lead-in to some sort of standard ‘Hang in there, buddy,’ phrase.

There’s nothing I can do to explain to you how difficult the restaurant industry is. We can only begin to list facts that most restaurants fail within their first year, regardless of whether or not they’re good or bad. That the restaurant is a place where money is constantly going in and out, employees are often just as frequently coming and going, and in the modern age your hands can be in the fate of somebody on Yelp, not just a local critic but anybody on the street.

Of course, that’s part of it, you’re always in the hands of someone on the street. Yelp just further removed the illusion that your livelihood is in the hands of people liking what you do.

It reminds me of creative industries; writing, music, comedy, and so on. You’re at the mercy of your audience. If you talk over their heads, or pander too much to the common denominator, or just fall out of vogue because you said something stupid, you could ruin everything. It is just a life of continuously trying.

That’s the other thing that is hard to grasp about owning a restaurant. If you’ve worked in restaurants, you know how tiring it is. You work a double shift and your day off the next day turns into oversleeping and barely enough time to run the errands you need to do to stay functional. Now remember, if you’re an owner/operator of the restaurant, you’re always working double shifts, and you have to appease the customers, the employees, the investors (if you have them), all while trying to make enough money to keep your head above water. And for some owner/operators, there is no day off.

My father and I were talking about his regular early morning trips to a restaurant supply store. He mentioned that no one looks happy. Everyone there at those hours are other people who own and operate their own restaurants. They’re all tired, they all have the same sort of apathetic look on their faces as they load things into their cart. None of them are dancing around being like, “Hazzuh, I am the small business owner, and thus the backbone of our economy.” They all just sort of shuffle their feet and grumble.

Because they’re tired.

When a lot of people imagine the owner of a restaurant, they imagine posh guys in tailored suits who own multiple high-end Manhattan restaurants where people are spending a couple hundred dollars a plate. These are people that aren’t running their restaurants, they’re hiring chefs that get discussed in magazines to do that for them. Those chefs, have the same look in their eyes as the owner/operators at the restaurant supply store.

Chefs are generally dead tired, and yeah they’re not dead tired all the time. When they’re in the kitchen, and orders are coming in, they’re alive because they wouldn’t choose that life if they didn’t love what they do. When the night’s done and they’re heading home, or just wrapping things up, it takes a toll on them.

Ultimately, in the restaurant industry, you meet a lot of people who are selling you things or providing you with some sort of service, and they all used to be executive chefs or own their own restaurants. Even people that love it, get burnt out by it because it’s not an easy life.

All of that being said, stand up comedy is somehow worse.

I was thinking about this the other day, comparing the restaurant to my own experiences in various creative endeavors. I’ve been in a band, and I know lots of musicians, and that’s a very tough industry. With music you’re constantly trying to get noticed, and you could reach the highest point of fame and still screw everything up. If you miss your one big break, you could regret it forever. If you get signed to a major label and become at odds with them, you might not get those big tours you thought you’d finally be on. I’m reminded of The Gatsby’s American Dream songs, “Badd Beat,” and “My Name Is Ozymandias,” where they lament the fact that they need to make songs that fit a certain mold, sound, and time length. Yet, there is a life in music, whether you tour heavily, or end up as a studio musician, or whatever. You can end up building fans, and becoming parts of tours and festivals you didn’t know existed. It’s a life of working wages, but it can easily be enough money if you love it and are dedicated enough.

I’m trying to get things published as an author, and that is insanity. You just keep sending things out, and getting rejections, and you just send ’em back out to the next guy. You do this over and over again. Sometimes the rejections aren’t even because your work is bad but because it’s just not something that will sell right now. That’s just on the short story circuit, trying to get a literary agent can be one of the most difficult quests someone undertakes. Yet, as many people are still surprised to discover, once you sell one book, people start to ask you, “So, what’s your next book going to be?”

Comedy is a completely different beast than all of these things.

I don’t even know how to begin to explain it, especially because my experience of two years is so limited. I’ve barely felt the tragedies and false hopes of success that fuel the tragedies that people have felt continuously throughout their careers. Comedy is a path of continuously small steps. Incrementally small steps.

You first have to overcome the most common fear, to speak in public. Then you have to get used to being on stage, and building material, and learning how to write more material, and finding your voice, and how to compose yourself on stage. All of this of course, will turn out to be for naught because you’re going to find out that you’re not fucking funny yet.

You just keep fucking working at it, and going before club owners, who are like literary agents or food critics or music label reps but 10,000 times more scrutinizing.

Did I mention that there’s an audience for every single one of these continuous humiliations?

This audience will be composed, in your earliest years, of other comics who just don’t give a fuck. When there is a real audience, and you’re not funny, they can start yelling at you, and it’s considered part of the show, part of the atmosphere, and most importantly part of being a comedian. You have to think quick, and know how to disable these people before they can consume your entire act.

Let’s say you finally get your perfect five minutes, and you get passed at a club. Getting passed doesn’t mean you made it, it means that you now have the opportunity to show your ability to grow as a comedian. That’s what every step is as a comedian, it’s about growth, and showing that you’ve grown as a comedian.

The prime example in the business right now is Louie CK. He’s into the third season of his second sitcom, all while continuing to build new material. All while trying to show us what he can do with a camera. All while trying to show us he’s grown since Pootie Tang, which was to show us how he’d advanced since The Chris Rock Show, past his time on Letterman, and past his time as some guy who moved to New York City from Boston.
You’re constantly trying to improve and that’s what’s difficult. All this improvement is done without much, if any, monetary compensation. Much like being a chef, it’s a life you choose because you love it, and because you’re ready to experience that heartbreak. You’re ready to take the risk of getting passed at a club and screwing up your opportunities, only to try and go before those same people that already liked you and show how you’ve gotten better.

Restaurants are slightly easier than that. Not much though.

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