Standing up: finding a “new normal” as a comedian after facing loss in midlife

Gregory Joseph stand-up peformance

Gregory Joseph performing stand-up at Over the Eight comedy club in Brooklyn, New York. Photo courtesy of Gregory Joseph.

You realize that when you lose people you love that life is short — the whole cliché. I was 41. It was like if you’re not going to do it now, you’re not going to do it.

A few years ago, political campaign veteran Gregory Joseph stood on stage at a comedy open mic in Washington, D.C. for the first time and told a handful of jokes to a mostly empty room. He wasn’t expecting this singular event to change his life, but it did.

Gregory’s decision to step on that stage came on the heels of some difficult years.

Ever since he graduated from college in the early 1990s, Gregory had worked in politics and government –- mostly as a democratic campaign operative. His political career took root when he signed up as a campus organizer with the Clinton campaign in 1992. He would later travel around the country to work on congressional, senate, and presidential campaigns.

But by the time Gregory reached his 40s, he’d grown weary of his nomadic life on the campaign trail. “It’s tough to have a job where you have to go away for eight months of the year,” he explains. “It’s tough to establish a relationship. It’s tough to be a part of a community at home. You come back and you feel like a stranger.”

So by the time Gregory landed in Minnesota to work on Mark Dayton’s campaign for governor in 2010, he was contemplating how he could build a more stable existence that was rooted in one place. He was considering a pivot of some kind — “not a new career path per se” he says, but perhaps a regular staff job in worlds he already knew, such as public policy, nonprofits, and government.

Things didn’t exactly turn out that way.

I didn’t know if I was going to like doing it. I was going to give myself a good chance of seeing whether I liked it or not. And so that was the only thing that I was opening myself up to: not to see if I was good at it, but just to see if I liked it.

Gregory’s tenure in Minnesota was short-lived. His mother had been sick with cancer, and less than two months into the Dayton campaign, he received word from his family in New Jersey that her health was declining. He quickly made the decision to leave Minnesota and return home.

“I didn’t have any intentions of coming back,” he says. “I moved to the house I grew up in and spent the next couple of months just coping with the fact that at some point in the near future — month-wise, week-wise — that I was going to be losing my mother.”

He would stay living in his childhood home for nearly two years.

Gregory and I grew up together in New Jersey. We lost touch after high school graduation but reconnected during his short time in Minnesota. His story reminds me how going through loss – whether it’s the loss of a parent, job, or something else — can strangely make us more receptive to trying out new things. Whether by choice or by force, life as we were living it has ended. The sober fact of that reality opens up a space, however uncomfortable, to cast a line in a different direction.

Today, Gregory is proud to call himself a stand-up comedian. Here’s an edited account of how his transition into comedy unfolded, as he shared it with me in a Skype conversation we had last month.

Finding a “new normal” as a comedian: Gregory Joseph’s story

My mother died in August of 2010. It was about two or two-and-a-half months after I came home. I moved into my brother’s room — not my old room. I tried to create a new normal. I didn’t want to leave my father in the house by himself. We all needed to be with each other for support purposes. It didn’t feel right for me to go out on my own. So I started looking for a job — which in 2010 was not very easy to do.

I was looking to do something in government –- but not a campaign — at least not a campaign where I had to go away. That didn’t pan out. We had a Republican governor in New Jersey so there was a little bit of a hiring freeze for people who came from my [democratic] side of the aisle.

I didn’t have a career for the first time since I graduated from college. I just had jobs.

So after that I was really just looking for any job that was going to be able to pay the bills. I went from nonprofit work, I worked in a restaurant, I worked a seasonal job in the stock room in a Williams-Sonoma in Riverside Square Mall in Hackensack, New Jersey.

I loved working at Williams-Sonoma. For the first time I didn’t have to deal with a lot of people. It was one of those jobs where I could put on my music and just work with boxes and not have to communicate and be nice to customers — just something where I was alone. And it was at a time where I had to deal with a lot of family through my mom and insurance companies. It just became where I would really love to be able to just go into a room for eight hours by myself and come out with a paycheck. Also I was really, really good at it.

So here I am living in the house that I grew up in, trying to cobble together an existence. It was definitely a different life. I didn’t have a career for the first time since I graduated from college. I just had jobs.

I had to work because I had to survive. But I had a father who provided me with a support system and a net in case I fell. I didn’t feel that kind of crushing burden of, ‘Man, how am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to buy groceries?’ But after you’ve worked on a presidential campaign and for senate races and governor’s races, to go back to waiting tables is a little humbling — especially doing it near where you grew up. I just might run into someone I went to high school with, or their parents.

Gregory Joseph Bill Bradley

Gregory Joseph poses with Sen. Bill Bradley (left) and former New York Knicks player Charles Smith (right). Gregory served as a senior researcher for Bradley’s presidential campaign in 1999-2000. Photo courtesy of Gregory Joseph.

After living at home in New Jersey for nearly two years, Gregory decided to move to Washington, D.C. in early 2012 with the hopes of finding a job there.

I needed to get a job. And Washington was a place where I could probably find a job a lot easier than other places since my background is government and nonprofits.

My father was easing into a transition where he was comfortable. We were in a process of selling the house. He was going to move in with my brother into another location that was more manageable.

I wanted some joy and happiness in my life. It had been a rough couple of months of going through losing a parent. It was a rough couple of months of trying to find a job that was worthy of your worth and skill and talent and education and coming up short.

I left home in 1989 and came back for holidays but I’d never lived in the house since I was 18. So as a 40 year-old man moving back home, how do you look at yourself in the mirror and think about all of the success and things that you’ve done and not look like, ‘Wow, I might be a little bit of a failure.’ So I wanted some joy. And I wanted a challenge. I’d been working in a stock room. It was hard work but it wasn’t exactly challenging.

I didn’t go down to D.C. thinking I was going to become a comedian. It was something in the back of my mind. I decided to go check out an open mic one night and I was like, ‘Oh, I could do that [laughs]. I could do that right now.’

A couple of weeks after seeing that first open mic, I wrote a few jokes. I went back the next week and at about 11:15 pm after being there since 8 o’clock, I stood up in front of three people and did five minutes of jokes.

I was automatically critiquing myself as soon as I was done. ‘That could have been funnier, you could have said this, you could have paused between that.’ But I thought that the material was solid. There were only three people there, but I was happy with it — so happy that I did it the next day. And that became a routine of mine.

I didn’t know if I was going to like doing it. I was going to give myself a good chance of seeing whether I liked it or not. And so that was the only thing that I was opening myself up to: not to see if I was good at it, but just to see if I liked it.

As a 40 year-old man moving back home, how do you look at yourself in the mirror and think about all of the success and things that you’ve done and not look like, ‘Wow, I might be a little bit of a failure.’ I wanted some joy. And I wanted a challenge.

I don’t mean to sound like some kind of great comedian — but I discovered that I was good at it. It came naturally for me to tell stories, to communicate, to connect with people, and to make people laugh. And I was like, ‘Well if I’m good at this I should keep on doing this.’ I did so well in D.C. that five weeks later I did a show at New York comedy club in New York City. I did eight minutes.

I pretty much stopped looking for a job and just took a job working a restaurant because I was focused on stand-up. It was like, ‘Let me just earn some money that I can pay my rent and survive and have my nights free so I can go and troll the comedy clubs.’

It wasn’t until I started really performing in New York that I got real full appreciation of exactly how hard and impossible it is to become an actual stand-up comedian who makes a living.

I do now get paid gigs. I’m still not making 100% of a living off of it. Comedy Central’s not knocking down my door. I still need to have something else that brings in income. But I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time. I do see that there’s a future in me to do this. This is not a profession that after two years, you reap any rewards. People do this for ten years before anyone knows their name. I’m prepared to go the distance. There’s no end date. I know there are dues to pay.

I tell people that I’m a comedian. And you’ll have to twist my arm for me to tell you anything about my political role. I do comedy more than I do anything else.

Gregory’s career change advice

I think you have to know what you’re getting into:

You have to be true to the fact that you’re switching gears. And I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew I was not going to earn a dime doing comedy. It was probably going to cost me more money than I was going to make. I knew that I was going to have to find a job that I was going to be able to survive on but also be able to carve out some time to do what I wanted to do.

And then you have to be able to set realistic goals:

My goals were very, very modest. They were like: I want five minutes of material by the first six weeks. I want to be able to play New York once within the first six months. I want 50 followers on Twitter. I didn’t want an HBO special after a month. I didn’t want to be earning ten thousand dollars for an appearance after a month. I knew those things weren’t going to happen.

And then prepare for the worst:

Prepare for it to be a struggle. If you have an opportunity to save money so you can live off of that money while you’re pursuing your dream before you start, I highly recommend it. Not so much dipping into all of your savings, which I did. If that’s what you have to do, be prepared for that. And have a good support system. I had friends in Washington. I had friends up here in New Jersey — people who supported me and supported what I was doing. They came to see my shows. They bought me dinner when I didn’t have a lot of money. A good support system is always important in any endeavor — especially when you’re changing your life.

Gregory Joseph performs stand-up at Comic Strip Live

Gregory Joseph performing at the famed Comic Strip Live! club in New York City. Photo courtesy of Gregory Joseph.

Gregory’s life in comedy now

I put on my own show once a week at the East Village’s Giggle Pit and I have about 12-13 comics who come down and they perform. I’ve been able to build a little community. It’s really rewarding that when I go out to another club and I see people who met doing my show and now they’re friends.

I do feel some pressure sometimes because it’s not a very income-generating profession. But I can’t wait to get back on stage. When you’re able to stand in front of a room of people and make them laugh — it’s a great feeling. You’re bringing some joy to someone else’s life. I get to hang out with a lot of funny people.

I tell people that I’m a comedian. And you’ll have to twist my arm for me to tell you anything about my political role. I do comedy more than I do anything else. I try to be on stage about four to five nights a week. I now have 20 minutes of actual material and not just me playing around with the audience. So that’s also a mark that I cross off as well. We talk about it in terms of minutes: ‘How many minutes can you do, how many minutes do you have?’ So I’ve got a good solid 20 minutes. That’s a good step in the right direction.

When I tell people that I’m a stand-up comedian — people who’ve known me all of my life or total strangers — it’s not the most bizarre thing. I think it’s more bizarre to tell people that I used to work on presidential campaigns. I had one friend of mine who asked me if I was going through a mid-life crisis. And I said, no actually. I told her, ‘If you’re ever able to stand on stage and make people laugh you realize that it’s something that you love to do.’ My father, my brother, cousins: nobody says ‘What are you doing with your life?’ I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback.

You realize that when you lose people you love that life is short — the whole cliché. I was 41. It was like if you’re not going to do it now, you’re not going to do it. Go do it. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. I really enjoy every aspect of it: the writing, the performing, the camaraderie. It’s been a lot of fun.

I believe that I’ve found the place where I wanted to be. I live in a great part of New Jersey. I am a part of this community. And I don’t have to leave to go work on another campaign. I’ve lived in this apartment now for a year-and-a-half. This is probably the longest I’ve been in one place since the late ‘90s when I lived in New York. So this is an unusual feeling.

I would never in a million years have been able to plan this out in 2010 because I had no idea of what the possibilities were. I just knew there was something I wanted to do. But I wouldn’t choose it any other way. I think I’m exactly where I need to be in term of my comedic development. I think my life is at a good place right now where I’m no longer ashamed to tell people what I do. I’m not waiting tables anymore. I’m not lugging boxes around a storeroom. I’m not living in my old house. I’m a comedian. I live in Montclair, New Jersey. And I tell everyone that. And it’s a good thing to tell people.

 

Gregory Joseph stand-up About Gregory Joseph: You can check out some of Gregory Joseph’s stand-up on You Tube here. He performs 4-5 nights a week and produces a weekly show featuring up-and-coming comics at The East Village’s Giggle Pit in New York City. In 2014, he plans to take his comedy on the road beyond the Tri-State and DC areas. Follow his unfolding career in comedy on Twitter here.

4 Comments on Standing up: finding a “new normal” as a comedian after facing loss in midlife

  1. diane
    March 7, 2014 at 9:39 pm (5 years ago)

    This a great story! I have met Gregory and had no idea this is what his backstory is. Thank you for posting!

  2. Efrain
    March 8, 2014 at 12:27 pm (5 years ago)

    Great story Gregory!! It has been a fun time playing softball with you on the NATIONals softball team in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. You are truly an inspiration. Keeping living your dream!!!

  3. David
    March 8, 2014 at 3:43 pm (5 years ago)

    Wow. Just….WOW.

  4. Jessica Stern
    March 10, 2014 at 9:42 am (5 years ago)

    This is one of the most honest and heart wrenching articles I’ve ever read about comedy and I’m very proud it’s about you my friend! I teared up a tiny bit! Amazing!! xoxo