This story is over 5 years old.


How to Be a Touring Stand-Up Comic

A journey through America's Midwest to a show where they paid me in beer.

Photos by the author

Stand-up comedy is not an artistic pursuit, nor is it an altruistic one, in spite of what that thought-provoking meme of Louis C.K. you just shared on your Facebook wall might imply. It is performed for utterly self-serving purposes: to attain desperately craved validation. It is a solitary, narcissistic enterprise. If you’re unfortunate enough to feel the pathetic desire to do it, and you are not Louis C.K., your narcissism is punished by its lack of monetary worth.


Granted, if you’re inoffensive-looking enough to get cast in an advert as a fun-loving nerd who feels positively about a useless prodyct, or as the fun-loving nerd sidekick on a pilot for a show that’s cancelled before the first episode even airs, you might make a little money. Chances are, however, you will not do either, and you will either give up, get pregnant or move back to the hometown you foolishly thought you’d be able to escape. Whatever you choose, your dreams are likely going to die before you do.

I am but one of the doomed souls who performs the “craft” of which I speak, to incense variations of validation. Virtually every time I do, I operate at a financial and emotional loss. If I am paid in one drink, one solitary fucking drink, I consider the show a windfall.

Still, day after day, I continue to plug away. Sometimes, I get the chance to do comedy festivals, which are ego-gratifying ways to hemorrhage money. I recently drove to one in Omaha from my home in (where else?) Los Angeles. And, as a stand-up, I am narcissistic enough to assume you’d like to read all about it. Which is why I’m writing this. That, and I lost one metric fuck ton of money on the trip, and I’ll recoup some of my losses if I write this. See what I mean? Self-serving.

Mesquite, NV

We stayed on the state border, in an Indian casino. We smoked silently, mashed slot machine buttons and interacted very little. Afterward, we all concurred that we had a great time. I lost $110 (€80) on a Sex and the City slot machine, which I played ironically for validation, even though I played it to a party of zero.


Rural UT

Driving through Utah, I, a person who normally could give less than a shit about the majesty of scenery, couldn’t help but feel eye-fucked by nature’s beauty. At one point I felt as though I needed to see a strip mall ASAP, lest I start to believe in a latter-day higher power. Thankfully, my wish was granted within the hour.

Denver, CO

We drove through a tunnel carved out of the centre of a mountain and emerged on the other side to an impenetrable, sight-ruining wall of slush and snow. I, behind the wheel, repeated the words “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t” as a mantra as I thought about the fact that this wasn’t the way I wanted to die: on the way to a show to perform in front of a painting of deer fucking. I wanted to die doing something cool, like smoking a cigarette or giving birth (to a boy, natch). We eventually got to Denver, still reeling from the experience, still electric. We drank whiskey to calm our nerves. We did very well, performed in front of a painting of deer fucking and left immediately afterward, with the intent of driving out of town to procure a cheap motel room.

Who Gives a Fuck, CO

After hours behind the wheel, struggling to find some room at the inn for our group of chain-smoking degenerates, we eventually shelled out $77 (€56) for a motel room in the middle of goddamned nowhere at 3:30 AM. I, of course, balked at the price. “The Super 8 is more expensive,” the tired looking woman in track pants behind the counter informed me. “If you can believe it.” Multiple holes punched in the wall of our room had been poorly patched up. “Who was the previous guest? My father?” I quipped. I am very funny. Presumably because I grew up in a hostile household.


Fort Cody, NE

Fort Cody, a Buffalo Bill-themed tourist trap, was a wealth of offensive tchotchkes, made in China to look like they were made in the United States by Native Americans. Pelts were everywhere. It was next to an Applebee’s. We spent an unreasonable amount of time there, taking photo ops with weathered signs and in mock jail cells.

Lincoln, NE

We were pulled over, because I committed the heinous act of driving nine kilometres above the speed limit. The cop asked a litany of questions, up to and including “are there drugs in the car?” My response wasn’t exactly honest. “You have any knives, weapons, bombs?” he inquired. “Just our jokes,” I replied. Stone-faced, he nodded. “That’s very funny,” he replied robotically.

Omaha, NE

As we stared out at the vast, green, flawless lawns and the concrete lions outside the house's door, I told my friend Amber, "the Midwest is like Xanadu for the middle class". "The Midwest has a middle class?" she said, wide eyed. The parents of my friend Jeff, who housed us for the weekend, put out a constant spread of snacks and beverages during our stay. This is what an intact family unit must be like, I marvelled.

The guy at the Jiffy Lube, gesticulating toward my Mudhoney bumper sticker, asked if I liked Mudhoney. I nodded. “LOVE Mudhoney,” he said. “I used to live in Washington in the 80s.” After doing a hell of a job fixing the shambling mess that is my car, he asked, “You like Mother Love Bone?” “Yeah,” I replied. “Me too,” he smiled. “Probably like ‘em even more than Mudhoney. Used to see those guys all the time. Get coffee with ‘em.” I could tell he had been waiting years to relate this anecdote to someone, anyone. I was glad it was me.


Before a show, we ate somewhere with a name I initially thought was a combination of pasta and the passage of time (Old Spaghetti, Ancient Linguini, Dark Ages Fettuccine, etc.) but actually was called Spaghetti Works. Said spaghetti was, of course, bottomless, and, of course, flavourless. The salad bar was in a hollowed-out Model T. The Midwest had me completely under its spell.

I told Twitter I would give $500 (€366) to anyone who could find me Alexander Payne’s address, and an additional $500 to whoever could convince him to fuck me. A stranger replied, told me to hit up the health food place where Payne’s mother’s friend works and didn’t even ask for money. God is good. And by God, I mean the internet, our new, modern God. I wrote something to this effect on Facebook afterward. My mother “liked” it.

I performed in a cape and kid gloves, and felt like an idiot, and did not care. A drunk guy approached me afterward and gave me a backhanded compliment: “You went up there, and you’re a girl, but you opened hard. You didn’t even say anything about how you were a girl or nothin’. You just gave ‘em the truth.” I accepted the compliment graciously, even though it rankled me to no end.

One night, our payment was via a trough of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life cans, presented in the context of an after party. Every drink previous to the ones in that night’s trough, however, was ours to buy. Sure, we got a dollar off, but the fact that they cost more than a dollar still made it a losing proposition.


Drinking, however, was compulsory. We drank a little before the show, our rewards afterward being the purchase of more drinks. We got fucked up, we slept until one and we started again. When we withdrew money out of the bar ATM to buy our next drinks, we said yes to the $2.95 (€2.10) fee but said no to the offer to check our account balances. For obvious reasons.

Follow Megan Koester on Twitter.

More 'How to Be' guides:

A Girl's Guide to Not Being a Dick This Summer

How to Never Look Bad in a Photo Again

A Boy's Guide to Not Being a Dick This Summer

How to Be a 'Perfect Bitch'