Desperation will force your creativity to emerge
The actress smiled in disbelief as she read the letter:
Dear Carol Burnett,
Your TV show is very funny. I watch almost every episode.
I do impressions that make my family laugh. I’m ten years old but I’m ready to work. Times are tough and I need to get a job to help out my family.
I think you need an impressionist for your show, so I’d like to apply.
Please let me know if you will hire me for that, or any other position. I help clean and take out the trash at home, so if you need stuff like that done, I can do it.
Carol Burnett smiled from ear to ear, placed the letter down, and picked up a pen and piece of stationary. She politely declined the boy’s offer, but invited him to keep in touch. The damn labor laws wouldn’t let her hire anyone for her own show, let alone a boy who was ten years old. The press would never let her off the hook for something like that. She signed the letter, handed it to her assistant, and promptly forgot about it.
Days later, the little boy who wrote the letter was on his way home from school. He was on the verge of stopping his impressions all together, because lately, they hadn’t been working.
His mind spun with ideas of how to make his family laugh. As the youngest of four, attention was hard to come by, and he had to go to elaborate lengths to earn it. When his mom had a bad day, he would play the role of her favorite TV characters and get a smile from her. His impressions worked just as well on his brothers and sisters.
When his father got laid off from his job as an accountant, the family went from middle class to on the verge of poverty. Tension in the family was at an all time high. Everyone was afraid to talk about the situation or present any solutions. So, the boy studied the situation, and thought about how to improve it. The boy had seen his dad’s boss yell at his dad once, and he replayed that memory a hundred times in his head. His boss’s ego was out of control and bled onto the pages. The boy went to the mirror and imitated his dad’s boss a hundred times. Afterwards, he took the imitation to his older brothers and sisters. At first, they all begged him to not approach the taboo subject. But eventually, the boy’s impression of his dad’s boss became so good that his brothers and sisters found themselves begging for it. He knew it was time.
During dinner one night, the boy waited until his father finished his second drink. He reached underneath the table and rapped it with his knuckles.
“I wonder who THAT could be?” he said, swinging his head to the door. His siblings started to giggle nervously, and tension mounted. The boy jumped from his chair and raced to the front door.
“I’ll get it!” he yelled as he rushed out the front door. Outside, he shut the door behind him to prepare for his big moment. He threw on his older brother’s suit and hat. He grabbed an old briefcase of his father’s, stuffed a pillow into his shirt for a prosthetic pot belly, then shook himself several times to get into character. He saw all of his father’s boss’s quirks clearly in his mind, and saw his entire family howling in laughter around the dinner table. He was going to end this ongoing tension and fix everything.
With a deep breath, he opened the door and barged his way back into the house. He was his father’s idiotic old boss. The boy launched into his routine, but it fell flat. His siblings giggled, but didn’t laugh loudly. His mother and father chuckled nervously, but the routine wasn’t good enough. The boy bowed out gracefully and then stormed to his bedroom in anger. He was done with impressions. On his bed was a letter addressed to him. Tearing it open, he read it over quickly. The last line sent shivers up his spine.
“Don’t ever stop performing or making people laugh.
He wiped the tears from his eyes and vowed not to stop. Maybe he was funnier than what his family let on. A world famous actor had just told him to keep going.
Things went from bad to worse for his family. To keep money coming in, he managed to get a local job as a janitor, but because he was 11, he got paid under the table. Soon everyone in the family was working odd jobs. Years passed, and when the boy was a teenager, he had two choices: either stay in school and watch his family struggle financially, or drop out to work more. He chose the latter, and found himself on the frontlines of commerce. At first, it crushed him that he wouldn’t be able to practice his impressions any more in school.
His days felt like years, and at night he would escape into TV. He had a type of faustian and quixote hope that bordered on insane. While watching TV, he would see David Letterman, Richard Pryor, or Robin Williams and assert to himself:
That’s easy. I could do that.
He didn’t dare say it out loud. But he repeated it to himself as he went about his workdays. He watched The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and imagined himself appearing on it.
He practiced imaginary conversations between him and Johnny, and the compliments he was going to receive about what a great impressionist he was!
He slowly rebuilt the courage he needed to make people laugh again. Now that he was out of school and in the real world, he found a completely different opportunity. The people surrounding him were unlike his peers in school. They weren’t isolated from the harsh realities of life. In fact, they faced them with dread each day. Like him, almost all of them were on the verge of giving up. They weren’t just interested in laughing… they craved it insatiably.
They had been beaten down by life, and at first, it was nearly impossible to make them laugh. They all spoke a different language. When he started speaking their language, they opened up.
During one of his mini-standup routines at work, a customer noticed him. The man’s eyes lit up and he handed the boy a card.
“I’m Charlie from Charlie’s. We have stand up every Tuesday and Thursday. Why don’t you come out?”
The boy took the card and flashed his trademark idiotic grin. “Charlie… I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Donning a bright yellow suit, the 15-year-old took the stage at Charlie’s, and afterwards… every club he could find. The audience was relentless and didn’t give him any extra laughs for being young. He found that they were even harder to make laugh than his co-workers, family, and peers from school… but he liked the challenge. Some nights it left him crying without hope, and other nights he was sure he was on top of the world.
He got better at taking the average person’s mood of despair and ennui and transforming it into optimism. He would need this practice, because without warning, his mother fell deathly ill.
The rest of the family fought to make ends meet while she laid in bed. At that point the entire family was on the verge of unraveling into poverty and despair. With his mom and father ready to give up, the weight of adult responsibilities had pushed the boy to the edge of the cliff. He had to fly on his own, or fall to his death.
Meanwhile, the educating forces of life and nature were working their magic. Despair, anxiety, anger, and desperation pulsed through the boy’s body. He had to make his mother, father, and siblings laugh… otherwise the worried that they might give up. He had the most powerful imagination of anyone in the family, and perhaps he was the only one who could see what was going to happen if he didn’t perform. He was standing on the shores of an unknown land and the boats he’d came with burned brightly behind him. There was no escape. Either revitalize the family, or everything would fall apart.
So he performed. When he ran out of ideas, impressions, and routines, he pretended to be a praying mantis and threw himself down the stairs. The boy’s family watched him hurt and marginalize himself in order to keep everyone laughing…
The armchair psychologist would have a field day analyzing this boy and his family. But armchair psychologists aren’t the ones that make large numbers of people’s lives better or give them a reason to keep going.
The boy took on everyone’s negative emotions, and transmuted them to higher states.
He went back to work, and at nights haunted the crappy comedy clubs. In the after show banter, he heard a few starry-eyed, wannabe comedians talk about THE Comedy Store. But it was in Los Angeles and he was in Toronto. He heard everyone talking about it, but none of them seemed to have the courage to actually do anything about it or go there. What a bunch of idiots, thought the boy… why didn’t they go there if this place was so great!? He brought up his crazy idea of actually going to The Comedy Store, and saw how quickly everyone was to talk him out of it.
By this point in his late teens, the boy knew that when everyone tries to talk you out of something, it could be a surefire sign that you’re onto something. His parents’ finances were nearly nonexistent, and the boy knew he was costing his parents more money than he was bringing in. At 17, he packed his bags and moved to LA.
He found a job and rented someone’s walk-in closet to sleep in. After harassing the owners, he became a regular at the Comedy Store auditions. He landed a slot to perform, and showed up every single night. Practice, sacrifice, and his talent were in the proximity of opportunity. Years passed.
Some nights he was on top of the world, and some nights he was despondent. On one night he felt a mixture of both, and drove himself to the top of a hill overlooking the city. His mother’s sickness had gotten worse and she was dying, and he didn’t have the money for his family to come see him. The rage against the reality he was confronted with mixed with his Don Quixote-like certainty. He took a check out of his wallet and wrote himself a ten million dollar check for, “acting services rendered.” He dated it 1995 (seven years in the future), and went back to work.
Soon at The Comedy Store, a real wise guy in the audience noticed him. Rodney Dangerfield approached the kid after one of his routines and invited him to open for him in Vegas. The boy couldn’t believe it, but said yes, and showed up in Vegas. The routine went well, but no major leads came afterwards.
He kept performing at The Comedy Store, but this time didn’t wait for the next opportunity to present itself. If he saw someone after the show, he jumped up to meet them and make them laugh. Once, he jumped up so fast to meet David Letterman that the blood rushed from his head and he almost passed out. Looking back, he said he didn’t even remember their conversation because he could barely stand up.
Finally, after years of living in LA, offers started to come in to act in low-budget movies. He took every role he could. When he arrived in LA, he was renting out someone’s closet, and now he had his own place. Eventually the “low-budget” movies he was starring in paid more money in a month than his entire family made in a year. With his newfound cash, he paid to move his entire family out to LA.
At night, he continued to dream of appearing on Johnny Carson. His childhood dream was the single break that up-and-coming comedians needed to go from B to A roles in movies. In 1983, he landed his childhood dream he’d been preparing for… an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Sure enough, his Tonight Show appearance landed him a role on a breakthrough sketch show called In Living Color.
He got married and had a daughter, and suddenly knew what his father and mother had been going through. A year after he landed his steady gig on In Living Color, his mother died. He was crushed, and threw himself back into his work.
In 1994, he was given the star role in an obscure but slightly larger budget movie called The Mask. Then came an offer to co-star in a movie about two dumb guys. The pay check? Ten million dollars. The timeline? Less than seven years from the day that he made a promise (and wrote a check) to himself on top of that hill. He was holding a real check for ten million dollars within the timeline he set.
The boy who struggled to make his family laugh at first was now being paid to make the world laugh. In awe, the man pulled out the battered and ripped check he’d written himself seven years ago. His signature was barely visible:
Jim Carrey had dropped out, went to work before he was legally allowed to do so, started doing standup at 15, shouldered the responsibilities of helping to support a family as a teen, moved to LA by himself at 17, lived in a closet, and now stood triumphant.
Later that year, Jim Carrey made his first appearance on David Letterman. If you listen carefully, he pours his soul and effort into every question. He oscillates between being wildly sure of himself, to a self-deprecating maniac to diffuse the grandiose tension. He goes from comparing himself with Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to poking fun at the fact that he’s so exhausted with putting on a mask and terrified that if he shows his real face and actions, he won’t have any fans or career. It’s a mixture of truth, wild triumph, and mastery over circumstance and chance. When Letterman tries to get Carrey to say that Dumb and Dumber is just a movie about two dumb guys, Carrey’s response is funny, but deep:
“Well I think that’s really over simplifying it. I think of it as a departure film for me. A morality play. Two men… on a journey to look for a woman but to also find themselves, set across a backdrop of post-Gulf War America.”
That year of massive public and professional success was also a year of private hell. Carrey’s marriage fell apart, and he was still struggling with his mother’s death and feeling like he could’ve done more to save her. Later, he would say that:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
Jim Carrey embodies what can happen if instead of running from desperation, you embrace it:
“Desperation is a necessary ingredient to learning anything, or creating anything. Period. If you ain’t desperate at some point, you ain’t interesting.”
Put yourself in a position where the only option is success. Take the base emotions of yourself and those around you and transform them into something higher. Revel in the anger, anxiety, desperation, and rage, and force them into your service. Never surrender:
“It is better to risk starving to death than surrender. If you give up on your dreams, what’s left?”
When you join others in their battles in life, and fight to reduce suffering… good things will happen. Sometimes you might be desperate. Sometimes you might make faustian bargains and have to wear a mask for years. Along the way, people might think you’re delusional. Listen to them, and learn when you’re being an idiot and when you’re onto something.
You might have to live in a closet. Your first attempts might fall short. You might embarrass yourself in front of everyone you know. You might have to engineer situations for yourself where you can’t back out.
So what? Do it anyways. It’ll be worth it.
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