How to Handle Rejection as a Stand-Up Comedian

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Photo by Ilyass SEDDOUG on Unsplash

Introduction:

When I first started doing comedy, one of the best pieces of advice I got was from an experienced comic who warned me that growing in comedy isn’t just about getting better at being a comedian but getting better at being a person. This wasn’t just fuzzy-huggy feel-good advice; for him it was practical, money-in-your-hands career advice. To be blunt — when you get out of your own way, you stop being the asshole that no one wants to give opportunities to.

A big part of that growing and maturing as a comedian is learning how to handle rejection because it’s just the reality of the job; if you’re a comic, you’re going to get rejected a lot. And the less that rejection weighs you down, the less stress is on you and the more room you have to focus on other stuff.

And when I’m talking about rejection here, I’m not just referring to the immediate, literal things that comes to mind when we think of rejection; being turned down from a club, not getting into a festival, having a writing packet turned down. Instances where you’re told an explicit “no” about a career opportunity.

There’s other rejections in comedy that are just as real and just as impactful but are more subtle and difficult to identify. A lot of times you’ll ask to get on a bar show or submit a packet and never hear back. Sometimes a comic you know will never act friendly to you for no good reason and your brain goes crazy trying to figure out why. Sometimes a clique of comedians make you feel excluded. Sometimes that cool hipster open mic will never, ever be friendly to your jokes no matter how good you get. Sometimes somebody you don’t like will become more successful than you and that makes you feel that the entire universe of comedy has passed you by. Heck, sometimes a comic you like becomes more successful than you and you still feel bitter and left behind.

All these things have real impact and effect how you feel. And these emotions aren’t a bad thing to have — the only thing that is bad about it in this situation is if you act in a way that harms yourself or others.

I’ve been doing stand-up for about 7 years now and I’ve been rejected a lot. I’ve been rejected even in instances where I thought I was a shoo-in, or that I deserved it, or that the other people I was going against weren’t as talented as me. One time within an hour, I was rejected from a club I put a lot of stakes into, got rejection letter for a short story I wrote, and then learned that I was rejected from a comedy festival that I had started. (lol)

Because it’s been a process I’ve been through multiple times, I think I’m pretty good at handling rejection these days — I know the arc of where my feelings will go. Of course, it always hurts. Rejection just doesn’t sting, it stings a lot. It’s like having a foot thrown full force at the chest, all the air leaves your lungs. But over the years, I’ve built for myself a few “safeguards” and little self-tests and reminders to help me stomach that rejection.

They don’t make the hurt go away, they just make the recovery time a little bit faster.

1. Question what a rejection says

There is a huge gap between what someone rejecting a comic is saying and what a comic who is rejected thinks is being said to them.

When you’re rejected, it can feel like you’re being told “you don’t have value,” “you’re not good enough,” “you don’t deserve a career,” “your wants are not valid” and so on.

This is usually not the case, and it’s hard to seperate yourself from that mindset. Something that helps is to put yourself in the shoes of the people doing the rejection; like, think about what the hell their job is anyways. Visualize and walk yourself through the steps these people must go through to make their decisions. If this was your job, and you had to send out a rejection letter to someone, what would you want to convey? What does your rejection letter “say” about the person you rejected?

When you’re rejected that doesn’t mean that the people who are doing the rejection thinks you’re not good.

Sometimes, these people actually love you and think you’re awesome, but you just didn’t fit into the “slot” they were looking for at the moment. Sometimes they’ll think you’re good, but they feel that you’re not quite ready yet and you need some time to mature artistically. That last point means that there’s a benefit to entering into something and being rejected, because it means that the next time you enter they’ll remember you and possibly seen how much you’ve grown.

When a club or festival rejects you, they’re not saying “no, forever”…what they are telling you is“no, not now.”

I’ve been on the other end; I was on a selection committee of a comedy festival and what the experience taught me is that the booker’s jobs are very, very hard and most of the time they aren’t making easy decisions. Sometimes our decisions were decided by a literal coin flip. Or we used the fact that a comic filled out the form wrong as an excuse to exclude them because the competition was so tight — after all, it’s not fair to all those other people who followed the rules.

Most of the time the comics we chose weren’t made based on who we thought was “the best,” but on how we thought all the candidates gel together as a whole. Like, if you already locked-in three really loud comedians for the festival, it would be redundant to add a fourth really loud comedian, no matter how talented they are. Comedy isn’t a meritocracy and anyone who tells you it is is probably lying to get you to do unpaid check spots for a decade. Being ‘the best’ or ‘talented’ or ‘good’ or ‘undeniable’ doesn’t really matter; as you navigate through your comedy career, you run into many situations where being the best at something is not enough to get an opportunity and other times, being short of the best is more than enough.

Knowing that can be very frustrating, because it forces you to confront the fact that there is a very, very large portion of your success that you have absolutely no control over. But it’s also freeing because it separates rejection from your value as artist and a person. It means you can’t interpret a rejection as saying anything other than saying “no, not now.”

And, to be realistic, there is a very real possibility that they rejected you because they didn’t like your stuff. Maybe your talent is underdeveloped at this point. Or you haven’t found the right outlet of expressing yourself yet. Whoever is telling you “no” could be making the right decision for themselves in not choosing you right now.

And, let’s just follow that line of thought, maybe you’re just not their tastes. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact that’s a pretty realistic expectation to have. Because no matter where you’re at in your career, no matter how good you are, there will still be people who don’t like your stuff. In spite what comics tell each other, there is no such thing as a comic being so amazing that they’re ‘undeniable.’ Look at The Beatles; they were supposedly the greatest band of all time and yet at the height of their fame, you had rednecks burning their albums in a giant bonfire. You can never be so talented or great that you’ll appeal to everyone. Ever. Sometimes you’re just not somebody’s tastes. Sometimes you remind them of their asshole dad or shitty ex and there’s nothing you can do about it.

But, if they rejected you because they didn’t like your stuff — what does that mean? Does it mean you suck? No, of course not; that’s not their value judgement to make. Does it mean that you shouldn’t be doing comedy? No, of course not; that’s not their value judgement to make. You’re the only one who can answer either of those questions.

Challenge and question what you think you’re being told when you find out you’re rejected. If a rejection makes you feel bad about yourself and invalidated, that’s just one assumption or many you can make. Are their other, more positive assumptions you can make? What are ways that rejection letters are a positive thing? How is it validating? What is exciting about it? If a comic always acts stuck-up and doesn’t acknowledge you when you’re in the room, does that mean they don’t like you, or could it mean something else? Is it about you, or is it about them?

I can’t answer any of those questions for you, but I absolutely know that you can answer those questions yourself.

2. Question what rejection means

When I have a huge set-back in comedy, one thing that helps ground me is going through my head and counting all of the blessings that doing stand-up has given me.

These include compliments I’ve gotten from people I respect, all the times won a contest, had a short story published, or got booked on a show I wanted. I like to be thankful of all the times I made something I was proud of, even if it didn’t get the audiences I thought it deserved.

I think of all the projects I completed, or mostly completed, or even half completed, regardless of the quality; because just finishing — or even focusing on for a long time - on one task is an accomplishment that honestly not a lot of people can do.

I like to be thankful of anytime my art lead me to do something I never thought I’d be able to do.

I try to visualize a little box and put all of those “wins” inside of it, and I like to pull out that box and browse through it whenever I feel like shit.

Building up this box, keeping a record of all of these blessings, takes work. It means that, while you’re doing comedy, you need to be looking around and be very present of your surroundings and taking note of all the good things that are happening to you, and being the frame them as acknowledging them as good thing. Because good things are happening to you all the time. But it’s a matter of adjusting your perspective so that you can accept that positive things happen to you; if you get second place in a comedy contest, you can be upset that you didn’t get first place, but you can also celebrate that you did such an incredible job that you got second place.

Because we’re artists, it’s hard to understand the proportion of what you’ve got, but odds are you are underestimating yourself and what you have. For example, social media makes us all insecure monsters, and so it’s easy to look at our ‘clout’ under the context of what other people have, but that blinds us to understanding what we really have. Like, it’s incredibly easy to look at the fact that you only have 100 followers and get bummed out (especially if your peers have 1000, 10,000, 100,000 followers) but if you take a couple of steps back…realistically 100 followers is a lot of people. Imagine a room full of 100 people, that’s the capacity of a pretty generous-sized comedy club. Now imagine that those 100 people are interested in what you have to say, that’s pretty impressive. What reasons are there not to take time to appreciate that accomplishment? It’s about what you have, not what you don’t have.

Same for stuff outside of the online sphere. Just because you didn’t win your idealized big prize doesn’t mean what you have isn’t something to be appreciated. Let’s say you entered into the Big Pine Festival and find out that you’ve been rejected — you didn’t even get a notice, you just started to see everyone else making announcements they got in and you realize you did not.

That discovery is an awesome thing. You took a risk on yourself, you lost and you find out that on the other side you’re still alive. Not only that, but that you’re a brave person who believed that YOU are worthy to be the face of a comedy festival. That means you are an awesome person, no matter if you’re in the festival or not.

The more you take notice of these ‘wins’ that you have, the more of this work you that do for yourself ahead of time, the easier it is to process your feelings when bad things happen. Because when you’re in a dark place, it’s difficult to recall anything other than just the bad things; that’s literally how brain science tells us our brains work. That’s why that having a mnemonic like a little box of your ‘wins’ is important because makes the good things that happen to you easier to remember. You can pull that box out and paw through the memories when you feel like hammered shit.

If you do have trouble finding any positive moments to your comedy career, then I think that’s a very serious warning sign that you should consider not doing comedy anymore, or at the very least slowing down and reappraising your relationship to comedy. It doesn’t make sense for you to do something that is not good for you, something that exclusively brings you harm. It’s like that scene in horror movie where the family sees the walls bleeding, get out of the fucking house. There’s no shame in quitting comedy, and anyone who judges you for doing so is speaking from their own insecurities and is absolutely not qualified to make judgement.

I think comedians build for themselves this culture of being over-dedicated and giving their everything to comedy that I don’t think is good for the quality of comedy or comedians themselves. It’s all about this mythical ‘commitment’ to comedy, it’s ridiculous. It’s a very performative, competitive form of ‘commitment’ that I don’t think comes from a healthy place — I’ve had people in my life say “I would die for comedy” and “if you don’t lose all your normal friends in your first year, you’re doing comedy wrong.”

That’s absurd. That’s how delusional people in cults talk. You…person who’s reading this…I want you to just pause for a second. Breathe. Take a couple of steps back, and then look at comedy. Ask the question, why is comedy important? One of those reasons is that it lightens people’s lives. If comedy does the opposite for you, then it’s your enemy and you need to find space from it, whatever that means quitting or slowing down.

And I think that’s a big part of my argument about handling rejection; to be well-rounded people, we need to confront our shortcomings.

As artists, most of the time when we talk about how to deal with failure, we talk about it as a thing to overcome. We create this story for ourselves where we triumphantly face rejection after rejection until one day, through force of will, it becomes success. An example of this is the story of Stephen King’s success, where he put a large nail into the wall and would drive every rejection letter he got into through that wall until it buckled from the weight. That’s not even a bad thing to do, I do that. On that day I mentioned in the first section where I got three rejections in an hour, I printed them out and put them on my wall and they’re still there to this day. That helped to confront and minimize what was a very heavy day in my life.

But we need to expand the story beyond that, because handling rejection shouldn’t be viewed in the context of future successes, as those future successes might not ever come to you. If you’re a comedian and you work hard and are a good person, you might never, ever be successful. And if that is the case, then handling rejection must be about what happens to you in the present. It must be about what you do and how you react on the day of the rejection. If you treat rejection as just another step in a story that you’ll one day be telling Marc Maron, then you’re not handling your problems, you’re just kicking the can down the block.

Not everyone reading this is going to do comedy forever. Most people reading this aren’t going to make money off of comedy. No one — even if John Mulaney is reading this — is going to achieve all their goals. If you do comedy, you will be failure, no matter what you do.

Your job as a comic isn’t just about getting better on stage, it’s about getting better as a person. Working on yourself and your mental hygiene is something you need to be working on now concurrently with working on your writing and stage time. Because if you don’t, you’ve seen what happens; I know that you can name at least one wildly successful, enviable, famous, ‘undeniable’ comedian who is absolutely miserable and completely uncomfortable with themselves. And that’s the best-case scenario. If you don’t work on mental hygiene now, then every achievement you get in comedy will be a tin prize that means nothing and will dissolve into ash the moment that you die.

3. Rejection doesn’t mean the other people suck

The other people — the ones who were picked — don’t suck. Well, maybe some of them do. Some of them are untalented, got their success through means other than merit, some of them are mean, horrible people who do horrible things like kill puppies and assault women comics.

But a lot of others are people who are just not your tastes. Most of them are just people going through their own journey just like you, and are in their own head and — after they got over the short-term thrill of winning a contest or getting passed at a club — have gone back to being insecure and self-conscious and focusing on the next goal/brass ring in their life. The point is, they’re not the enemy.

Something to keep in mind is that, if you’re competing against other people, you have a lot of stakes in results and such a thing can skew how you view people you consider competition. If you’re rejected, it’s easy and comforting to paint a picture where you’re the unappreciated genius who’s passed over by all these other goons. Which is to say that in this little arena, you probably don’t have the most objective point of view and you’re not looking at your competition with the most accurate lens. If that person who has what you want didn’t get what you want, would they still be an asshole? If so, then does that really make them an asshole?

Every time I navigate through comedy and I have a negative thought about another comic, I second guess that thought. I don’t fully trust my assumption that I don’t like someone. Sometimes I’m right about my first assumption and that person is a jerk/untalented/garbage pile. A lot of times they turn out to be great and I feel miserable for all the energy and time I wasted on them instead of getting to know them. But, after I second guess — no matter what the answer is — my next question is how much intellectual space I want them to occupy. Usually the answer is none, or very little; instead of fretting about them in the shower, I could think of my new stand-up bit, or an idea about new Byte or how I can hide the fact from my girlfriend that I broke her favorite coffee cup.

4. It’s Fine to Be Rejected

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Here’s a question I ask myself a lot; how would I behave if I knew that I would never be successful in what I do? A wizard came in and cast a spell that made it so that everything I want for a career could never happen, what would I do? After I get over the hurt, would I still do stand-up comedy/YouTube/make Bytes? This question is important to me, because it reminds me about what’s important about doing art. Sure, material successes are awesome and the sugar on top of the ice cream, but it’s important not to lose site of the fact that making art is inherently good.

Art lets you know yourself. Art is therapeutic. It lets you know others. Doing stand-up, you have the privilege to expose yourself an endless font of interesting, diverse, unique, talented people. You forget the names of more illuminating, life-affirming people than some people have the privilege to ever know.

Art gives you political power and makes your voice louder than society wants it to be. Art is fun on its own.

Beyond the tease of material rewards like money, attention, validation and status, making art brings you a shower of spiritual rewards. That’s not a fuzzy-wuzzy feel-good thing, what I’m talking about is a chance to relax and feel comfortable about yourself.

Honestly, when you let go of your material focuses like that, you open yourself up a little and a small, small stream of material success starts coming in. I can’t promise the world, but when you relax a little it comes off on the art and audiences respond to that, because you’re coming from an organic place.

Comedians are often combative, insecure monsters and I’ve had instances in my life where very, very condescending comics have tried to cut me down by throwing in my face “what are your successes?” or “what have you done?” I always throw back into their faces that I’m successful because I have a strong network of friends and a community where I get to express myself and grow every night and seven years of incredible memories…and, honestly, I’m in the position where I’ve had a couple of impressive achievements and could throw out material successes but flexing on those aren’t as important as the spiritual successes.

Doing comedy is a gift. If you’re reading this, you’re already successful.

Because you’re doing stand-up. You can do a thing that 99% of the people in the world are terrified of doing. You’re expressing yourself on stage and making awesome experiences around awesome people who like you. If you’re a stand-up comedian in your first week, you’re already successful — and anyone telling you otherwise is a failure.

The stunning and emotionally resonate climax

Now, as I write this — I’m not some sort of self-esteem superhero. I still get caught up in just as much dumb insecure crap as the first day I did comedy.

This year I was at a funeral for a close friend, and when I was there, I saw a comedian who I spent a ridiculous amount of time building up as an antagonist. She is my Lex Luthor, by a mile. No. Actually, that doesn’t accurately describe my hate, because Superman doesn’t hate Luthor. You know how much Lex Luthor hates Superman? That’s how much I hate her. She was wildly more successful than me, and early in both of our careers we were friends but we drifted apart and afterwards she committed a couple of petty, small meaningless sins in my direction that I used as an excuse to spend five years resenting her.

So, there I was in a funeral home and a cheap suit and I was choosing to spend my emotional energy fretting over this while someone I loved was 5 feet away in a casket.

This stuff happens because emotions are emotions and you don’t have a lot of control over when they come to you, you can only control how you react to them. In terms of the funeral, I could grind my teeth and text my group chat about how she is here and how much I hate her…but what I did do was sigh, walk up to her, then we hugged and talked about how much we’ll miss Steve.

If you let your art help you grow, help you explore yourself emotionally, you can achieve incredible things and are always impressing yourself.

Your job as a comedian is to grow as a person.

Thank you for reading this. I’m John Field and I’m a stand-up comedian. I would love if you followed me, my twitter is twitter.com/americascomic

I also have a YouTube channel where I alternate between sketches and pop-culture essays. My most recent video is an essay about the aesthetics of pet death and you can watch it here;

Written by

I’m a stand-up comic, I’m White, and a practicing Quaker and I go by He/him pronouns. My credits are; MTV, Vice & College Humor. My Twitter is: @AmericasComic

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