When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who's already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.
Midway through college, Stephen Agyei quit the track and field team, signed up for a stand-up competition, got on stage and did his first set. He knew immediately that he was going to do whatever it takes to make it in comedy.
"I would watch my stand-up in comparison to other comics," he says. "I would go do a five-minute set one night, I would put it on the TV and right next I'd put a DVD of Chris Rock in. And I'd watch a minute of mine and then 10, 15 minutes of his. I'm like, 'How did he get all them damn laughs, and I got one laugh?' "
Today, Stephen is a fixture on the comedy scene in Denver, where he lives. He's opened for well-known comics like Roseanne Barr and Dave Chappelle, and he's thinking about the next step. He still has a day job, and he's worried about giving up that security to do comedy full time.
To help figure out his next move, he spoke with Roy Wood Jr., a veteran comic probably best known as one of the fake news correspondents on The Daily Show.
Roy encouraged Stephen to take the plunge and move to Los Angeles or New York.
"You gotta keep living in an uncomfortable zone," Roy says.
Lessons From Roy Wood Jr.
On giving up the day job
In my experience, once you're the king of the city, once you can just show up and go up in any comedy club in your region, it's probably time to leave. ... You can't just work to pay bills and "hopefully this club will move me up to headliner and I'll make a little more money."
How is this helping you sell a script or shoot a sketch? Also, who are you surrounded by? The advantage that you have on the coast is when it's time to cast your Web series or find someone with a camera who will shoot your Web series. You meet so many other dreamers in these cities. This is where dreams converge.
On taking comedy seriously
You know, you see the comics that record their sets, and I was like, maybe I should start doing that. These people paid money, got dressed, got a babysitter. They deserve a good show, so I need to make sure this new joke I'm working on, I can remember when I get onstage.
On betting on yourself
The one thing I wish I'd of done sooner was get the hell out of Birmingham [Wood's hometown in Alabama]. I love my home, but that's not where I needed to be comedically. For me, I wanted more. I wanted to try and do more.
So at some point you have to take a gamble and go to the coast and really start betting on yourself. For me, the South, it was fun, but it was all I knew as well.
But for me, in my head I was always a full-time comic. You couldn't tell me I wasn't a full-time comic. I had two gigs a month, and I was like "Yeah, it's slow right now but it's gonna speed up." I never chose work over a gig in my career.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
When Stephen Agyei started doing standup comedy, he wanted to be the guy, the one everyone knew was one of the funniest people alive. And he worked on it.
STEPHEN AGYEI: I would watch my standup in comparison to other comics. Like, I would go do a five-minute set one night, I would put it on the TV and right next I'd put a DVD of Chris Rock in. And I'll watch, like, a minute of mine and then, like, 10, 15 minutes of his. I'm like, how did he get all them damn laughs and I got one laugh?
MCEVERS: Now Stephen gets a lot more laughs than he used to. He does standup regularly in Denver, where he lives. But he still has a day job, so he's trying to decide - is it time to make the leap and do comedy full time? To help him answer that question, we connected Stephen with one of his idols.
ROY WOOD: Steve.
AGYEI: Roy, what's going on?
WOOD: What's going on, man? How you feeling, sir?
AGYEI: I'm not too bad. How are you doing?
WOOD: Another day in these trenches, sir.
MCEVERS: That's Roy Wood Jr. You might know him from "The Daily Show," where he's a fake news correspondent. But before that, Roy was hustling from gig to gig just like Stephen. And he had some advice for Stephen on how to turn those gigs into a full-time career. They talked about it for our series Been There, connecting someone about to take a big step with someone who's already taken it.
AGYEI: What inspired you to get into comedy? Like, what - when did you know you wanted to be a comic?
WOOD: So I was a waiter at Golden Corral. And I figured out if I could make a table laugh, I generally got a better tip from them. And so by the end of the month, I was like, that's technically comedy. I just performed a joke individually for each table. So if you put all those people in the same room, then maybe I could do comedy. And I had always had an itch. I had always had an inkling to do it. So I started doing open mics.
But, you know, for me it was a little different because I had to travel a lot because at that time, where there's only one open mic a month - so if you want to get up every week, you've got to get on the Greyhound. I didn't have a car. I'd call it hopping the dog. I'd hop on the dog and go to Atlanta, Charlotte or Tampa or wherever and just keep doing open mics. And that's kind of where my growth came.
So where you are now, how do you feel? Because comics, we tend to always feel behind, like, but I should've got that last year or I should've gotten that. Like, what's happened to our career? Am I in a tailspin?
AGYEI: Yeah, I feel like we've arrived to this point now where I'm pretty established here. But I'm still working this day job. I'm, like, thinking, like, do I save up to a number and then just bounce and, you know, go to the coast? Because I want to do some TV stuff, you know, a "Daily Show" type thing, whether it's sitcom, whether it's movies. I want to do all of that. But I'm on that tipping point. You know, I'm 27 right now and still got a lot of energy. I could still, you know, hit the ground hard in another city, you know, late nights and early mornings or whatever.
WOOD: Do you like the job that you work? Does the job relate to comedy in any way, or is it...
AGYEI: You know what? It's human services. So I do, like, food stamps and Medicaid and stuff for people.
WOOD: OK. So then that becomes life experience.
WOOD: If there's something in that world that's funny, you know, and it's - you'll look up and you'll realize everything you'd been doing up until that point had been simply preparing you for wherever you land. And in my experience and in my opinions, you know, once you're the king of the city, once you can just show up and go up in any comedy club in your region, it's probably time to leave.
AGYEI: Ultimately, you're saying you know - once you know you want more, just get out and gamble for it and...
WOOD: You've got to keep living in an uncomfortable zone.
WOOD: You can't just work to pay bills and hopefully this club will move me up to headline or now I'll make a little more money. How is this helping you sell a script or shoot a sketch? Also, who are you surrounded by? The advantage that you have on the coast is when it's time to cast your web series or find someone with a camera who'll shoot your web series - like, you meet so many other dreamers...
WOOD: ...In these cities. This is where dreams converge. Man, I did so many gigs with vets that just didn't give a damn anymore, haven't written a new joke in 10 years. And that stuff is corrosive and it rubs off on you. And some of that stuff rubbed off on me.
AGYEI: Also, because I was thinking back, you know, how you were saying you were a server and stuff - how long did you, you know, work as a server and then - you know, doing standup until you made that decision to just go full standup?
WOOD: For me, in my head, I was always a full-time comic. Like, you couldn't tell me I wasn't no full-time comic. I had two gigs a month. I'm, like, yeah, man. You know, it's going - it's slow right now, but that thing's going to speed up.
WOOD: I still never officially quit Golden Corral, if you want to be technical about it.
AGYEI: (Laughter) You're still employed, just absent?
WOOD: Yeah. I told Ms. Darlene in, like, 2000. And I said, hey, look, just don't put me on the schedule this week and I'll pick up some call-in shifts. And she said, no problem, baby. Just let me know.
WOOD: And that was the last time I was in Golden Corral. I still have my apron and my name tag.
AGYEI: You should just show up one day and say, hey, I'm back.
WOOD: You know, I...
WOOD: Just show up in my uniform and get an employee discount.
MCEVERS: That was Roy Wood Jr., most notably of "The Daily Show," talking to up-and-coming comedian Stephen Agyei for our series Been There. You can be part of it, too. If you're starting something life-changing and you want advice, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Put Been There in the subject line. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.