Why We Do What We Do by Sarah Shockey

I'm writing this from an office chair of disappointment. Surely, if I were really successful, I wouldn't be getting paid hourly to be a temp who I'm pretty sure my bosses forget about two or three times a week. I work tirelessly in the evening hours to pursue a dream. The dream started huge and vague, and over the years has been chiseled into something a bit clearer, but no less huge. I remember sitting on the swings when I was about six, pretending to answer interview questions amid flashing bulbs and screaming crowds. 

"Sarah, did you have any idea as a child that you would ever become THIS famous?" I would humbly shake my head, "No, I really didn't. I just worked hard, and-" 

But here is where my fantasy got stuck in a Catch-22. I did think, exactly in that moment, that I would be that famous. And so by imagining that scenario, I forever darkened my chances of humbly smiling into the camera and saying I never expected this much of a reward. I did. I still do. But there are days where it's much much harder than others. 

The easy days are usually when we're out of town, my comedy band and me. Some city that's newer and cooler than Chicago, I am specifically thinking of Austin. The whole weekend is a comedy festival, and we are treated like full-time comedians. Fans approach us after the show, wanting pictures, the album, a moment to be heard. I've been a fan of comedy all my life. I've similarly gushed to performers I love. When it happens to me, I feel that I must have accomplished something enormous to prompt this stranger tell me one of their dreams. The power to unlock an exchange of hope and experiences between me and someone I've never met is one of the most inspiring feelings I've ever had. If you talk to them long enough, they are often surprised to find out that the trip is out of pocket and we aren't getting paid. 

"Oh, it's just a vacation for us," we laugh. "Honestly." 

But under that, lurking, is a beast who wants all the money, all the fame, all the interviews. The regular, rational part of ourselves knows that we are pursuing a lifelong dream of creating comedy that others can relate to and appreciate. But the greedy beast behind good intentions wants everything on top of that. I should just call it an ego, but "slinking fat beast" seems more apt. Especially the way I enjoy going on about myself at the slightest hint of interest from anyone else. The beast holds an empty bucket with a hole in it, labeled "Complimints Plese!!" 

Coming back to the real world after a great festival is a special challenge every time. We all deal with it differently. Sometimes I call in sick. Sometimes I resentfully spend most of the day Googling more festivals, new agencies, someone who can recognize from the internet the special thing that everyone just saw two days ago. But time moves forward, like driving on a highway, and there's only so long you can see that wonderful show before it fades into the rearview mirror. 

The gap between now and then widens, and there are little wins and little losses. Optimistically, I like to think they balance each other out. A show full of frowny-faced young people, the type of folks I never thought would look young but now they do, smiling openly and cheering after we won them over in five songs. Two songs, even better. Getting the chance to close for comedians that make you jealous they're so funny. The guy at the movie theater recognizing you and mentioning a song he liked. Little wins.

On the other side, there's the waking up at 5am to do a news segment that gets canceled after a few hours of sitting around, then going to work and pretending you didn't want to be on TV that much anyway. Canceling a festival trip because you just don't have the money right now. Hearing no from an agency that had considered you for several months. Having them call you an improv troupe. 

Yes, it is hard to sit at this desk and think about all the things that could have been. Just a few more views and the video could have gone viral. If we had gone to that festival and an agent saw us. Where's our one moment that pushes us over the edge? Or, terrifyingly, is it never a single moment, just a lifetime of different-sized (usually little) wins and losses? 

There are some people who get sick of that gamble. They move to Chicago after college, or during, or before. They take all the comedy classes, knowing in some vague way that improv is where the good people started. Chicago will give you a chance. And it does, but it's not consistent. The same people who booked you every month for a year may cease to e-mail you one day. Or someone will book you for a show, and forget that you agreed to do it and suddenly you see their poster and your name isn't on it. Or someone will see you do what you thought was a terrible show and then co-write and direct an entire pilot with you. It's never consistent. A lot of people cut their losses and invest the rest of their time in other pursuits. It is often a smart move for them.

But the people who keep showing up, who take in but don't take too seriously the losses, are the people who move forward through the sludge of past failures. It's not easy. I don't think it's ever going to be. But the moments where all the hard work, the hours of rehearsal, the stupid dinners you made in the microwave, the sleep you don't really get all magically culminate in a moment where your head feels dizzy because the audience is screaming so loud. Or you see your own album on iTunes next to comedians you grew up listening to. You get a gig that includes a free hotel stay. These are the moments where you realize why we do what we do, and why we can't let the losses of any size, stop us.

-Sarah Shockey