Would You Do It For Free (In A Sandwich Shop in St George, Utah)?
How much do you really love the things you do?
A few months ago, while on a road trip with a few other Struckers through southern Utah’s wildest wilderness, we stopped for sandwiches in St. George at Even Stevens. If you’re not familiar with Even Stevens, it’s a regional chain that donates one sandwich to local non-profits for every sandwich sold in its restaurants. The food is good and the locations are appropriately quirky—often featuring local artists on the walls and opening their doors for live music performances throughout the week.
All that exposition is necessary only so that you’ll believe me when I say that we walked into the St. George location and found ourselves in the middle of a comedy night. At a sandwich shop. (There’s a joke in there, for sure, but I won’t chase that rabbit.) We arrived just as an improv troupe was wrapping up. The host attempted a little crowd work, failed, and then quickly turned the mic over to the first comic (participant? person on the list?).
To say that the first comic wasn’t funny isn’t really the point. But you should know that he wasn’t funny. Most of the jokes fell flat or ended with him yelling in a way that made everyone in the restaurant uncomfortable. He shared too much personal information about his ex-girlfriend (there may have been a phone number involved) and finally did the thing that no one should ever do—whether on stage at Madison Square Garden or working your local open mic night—he begged the crowd for their laughter.
I just made it sound like a complete disaster, but we weren’t nearly that fortunate. A complete disaster is a spectacle, something to be experienced and then remembered with some emotional attachment. This set was just an uneven run of jokes that never landed. The fact that I can’t remember a single punchline is the clearest indication that things did not go well.
My first reaction to scene like this is the same that nearly any insecure, creative, sarcastic jerk might have:
This comic is a loser. I can’t believe he’s still trying to figure out comedy even though the only gig he can get is an open mic night at a sandwich shop in St. George.
(I said I was an insecure, sarcastic jerk and I really meant it. You should have believed me.)
As we listened to him slowly and painfully close out his set, however, a different thought wound its way through my feeble brain (and down to my dark heart)…
How much do you have to love something to keep doing it even when the only place that will have you is a sandwich shop in St. George?
There are things that I think I love doing—throwing a baseball, playing a guitar poorly (and singing even more poorly), bowling, dreaming about llama farms, talking about music, writing, making ads, naming things, creating lists of stuff that matters to me, inspiring renegade creatives toward a common goal, grilling a nice tri-tip, baking chocolate chip cookies, collecting vinyl records, reading Nick Hornby books, reading George Saunders books, listening to Phoebe Bridgers, picking marionberries, staring at the ocean, watching movies all by myself, playing games with my wife and kids, etc. etc.
But I don’t know that I love doing anything as much as that comic loves stand-up comedy.
The more I think about it, the more I admire his passion and his stubbornness. Those two things often go hand-in-hand, don’t they? Would I still write if the only place that would let me write was the equivalent of a St. George sandwich shop—and I’d be writing for free? Would I write if I knew that anyone who reads my work was really just there for the Turkey Dip and a side of tater tots? Would I make things and put them out into the world if it meant signing up to follow an improv troupe filled with high-school juniors and their well-intentioned-but-super-weird drama teachers? Do I have the kind of courage it takes to show up at 5:30 on a Thursday afternoon, ready to work out new material—in exchange for a coupon worth 10% off my next sandwich?
I hope so. But I’m not always sure.
That comic was terrible.
That comic was the only truth-teller in a room full of cowards.
That comic should quit telling jokes.
That comic is just one break away from stardom.
That comic is the worst.
That comic is everything I wish I could become.