Voices: Why you shouldn't do your dream career

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YE – Performing in the Pandemic (2020 Invision)

The voice inside my head kept saying: “You love to make people laugh. Be a stand-up comedian.”

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I ignored the voice. I found success at New York Public Radio as the Program Guide Editor, working with producers, interviewing celebrities, and creating a kick-ass monthly guide. I was thrilled. However, my plum position there ended abruptly, along with my engagement to my fiancé, all in the same week. I felt broken. I was 35, single and I feared for my sanity. Then the voice returned: “Do stand-up comedy. Follow your dream!”

And so I decided to do it. I took a four-week class that culminated in a performance at the Stand Up New York comedy club. I was one of eight newcomers to the comedy scene who learned how to write jokes and stay comfortable onstage. On the night of my first performance, my stage fright was out of control, and I almost fled. Instead, I ran to the bathroom and practiced.

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“Coming up next, let’s hear it for comedian Terry Moore!” the emcee roared.

Wait — did he say comedian and Terry Moore in the same sentence? My body was shaking as I ran onstage and grabbed the microphone. My hair was damp from sweat, and my nerves were frayed from anticipation. I did my first joke with some hesitation, but the audience laughed. I was shocked. It became easier: a joke, followed by laughter. Exhilaration!

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The club’s general manager booked me in for the next month. Soon I was working in the club’s basement office with three fellow startup comedians called Drew, Luke* and Dave. We took reservations, helped each other write jokes, took guesses at what the smell was in the basement, and ducked when the hissing pipes spit out hot water. We’d finish the day watching each other perform. I was finally recognized as a comedian. The future held so much promise.

But that joy was short-lived. The pay was terrible, and my savings account dwindled. I filed for bankruptcy and food stamps. My father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. My drinking escalated with the club’s free alcohol. I slept with a fellow stand-up who couldn’t afford a mattress, but gave me an STD. I thought I was a lesbian but realized I was drunk.

My father’s cancer progressed rapidly. During his final days, I wasn’t at his side because I was chasing stage time. After he died, my mother was appalled. She stopped talking to me, but sent a $5,000 check and wrote in the memo section: GET A REAL JOB!

Soon after, my co-worker Luke* had a nervous breakdown on stage and was committed to hospital. I worried, not just because he was losing his mind, but because I’d slept with him the prior week and wondered whether my chlamydia might have infected his brain. While visiting Luke at the psychiatric ward, a famous comedian’s manager asked me to host a show at Bananas, a comedy club in suburban New York where his client was headlining. You couldn’t make it up.

I said yes to the gig at Bananas, and when I arrived, the performance was sold out, with 700 audience members. I was nervous as hell. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome our host for tonight – Terry Moore!” That’s me! I walked to the stage and started my act. Dead silence… except for the lady in the front row who said loudly, “She looks scared to death.” She was right. I bombed.

Later that night, I was a big hit in the famous funny man’s bedroom, even if I couldn’t be onstage. As I lay naked and embarrassed that no one had laughed, he said, “It happens all the time. It’s called the comedy life.” We continued to see each other, and I wanted to marry him — but he was married to comedy. We parted after a few months, and I next spotted him smiling and laughing on a 20-foot digital billboard in Times Square, advertising his Comedy Central Presents special. My heart broke every time I glimpsed his face on subways, taxis, and buses and heard his voice on the WNYC’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Just when my heart was healing, another comic friend was found dead on the hottest night in June, sitting in front of her air-conditioner. I had seen her days before, when she was excited to be auditioning to be a warm-up comedian for a tabloid talk show. People said it was drugs that killed her, but I think it was the comedy life. That life was shaking me down, too.

Months later, at a comedy club in Greenwich Village, I had a great set and was about to head home. Someone from the audience approached me. He told me he enjoyed my humor. He was kind and sweet. He wasn’t a comedian, but he knew how to make me laugh. A year later, he became my husband. We live in New York City, and we don’t have children; we have houseplants. I stopped doing comedy, and now I write for a living.

All of this brings me back to one central piece of advice: Don’t follow your dreams. Or, at the very least, avoid stand-up comedy unless you’re wealthy or willing to fail hard in a pool of dead friends and work in smelly basements. I had good intentions — I just wanted to make people laugh. I was the one making the jokes, but the dream of becoming a stand-up comedian made a joke out of me.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to stay in your comfort zone. As with most mistakes, good things can blossom from them. I found a husband with a job and a mattress, I met comedians I now call friends, and with the help of a very strong antibiotic my chlamydia is cured.

Terry Moore is working on a memoir about the comedy world titled “Crowd Pleaser”

*Luke is a pseudonym

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