I started telling jokes again. Onstage at least. I never really stopped offstage. Nope. Offstage I was a regular ole Patch Adams cracking wise and busting chops and really slinging out the humdingers. Granted, the audience for the majority of my zingers were two adorable, little, pre-verbal babies who just kind of stared up at me like I was a broad-shouldered, fat-faced blur of colors and shapes. But I thought I was staying sharp while I was on paternity leave from the world of stand-up comedy.
I also in this time started unironically watching an awful lot of Duck Dynasty to the point where I found myself, again unironically, saying out loud on more than one occasion, “When are they going to make more of these Duck Dynasties?” Cause you see, in a three month period I had watched every episode and verified via an online episode guide that I had in fact seen every episode with the exception of the one hour Christmas special that only gets aired during the holiday season. So I started doing some research and now instead of enjoying all-new adventures with the Duck Dynasty clan, I had to satisfy myself with following all the behind-the-scenes drama of the Duck Dynasty family renegotiating their contracts so they could begin filming a new season of Duck Dynasty for me to watch at 3am while I sat up feeding one of the set of two babies that now lived in my house.
But by the time the new season of Duck Dynasty rolled around, my new babies had stopped eating at 3am and we all started sleeping more and more and I no longer needed some simple, wholesome family entertainment to distract myself from dropping baby and bottle on the floor.
Guess what show isn’t nearly as entertaining when you’re not completely deprived of sleep?
If my Judas-like betrayal of Duck Dynasty was any indication, I was staying comically sharp. I may have softened for a little bit there but I’m still sharp.
My wife gave birth to twins on April 5, 2013. This was not a surprise. We knew that she was pregnant for the whole entire nine months. I documented the long and difficult process by which the babies got in my wife in a one man show I wrote entitled Inconceivable that you didn’t see and I am about to summarize very quickly.
“His wife wanted to get pregnant. His balls stink. Science! His wife got pregnant. Sean Sullivan: Inconceivable.”
When my wife gave birth, it was absolutely not a surprise. In the nine months I had left of non-fatherhood, I tried to cram in as many sets of comedy as I possibly could knowing that once these babies showed up, I wouldn’t be able to justify an hour and a half drive into another state to do seven minutes of jokes for no money. So I took any gig that was offered with one caveat: I needed to be within one hour of my house at all times.
Sorry, ski lodge in Vermont that was denied by February hahas. My wife isn’t convinced that your state has hospitals and neither am I.
This one hour rule became super important on November 17. It was a Saturday night. I was booked to close a fundraiser for a dance school in Onset, Massachusetts because when you have one four minute television set from the final season of a stand-up showcase show on basic cable and you’re afraid of air travel and not sleeping in your own bed, you pull down some of the sweetest gigs imaginable.
Why yes, I can perform for the Lakeville Lions Club’s eyeglasses for poor people fundraiser for the third year in a row. Of course, I can entertain the Somerset Amvets club twice in one year. Can I do four sets in four different Knights of Columbus halls oh wait two of those bookings are to have me feature and headline the same show? Does a something, something have something, something?
I drive to the show, leaving my three months pregnant wife home alone with our dog to watch shows about wedding dresses. That’s pretty standard. We started dating in 1999 and I started comedy in 2003. As I developed as a comic and became a more in demand host and feature, my wife’s Fridays and Saturdays became less about going to dinner and a movie and more about quickly ordering take-out and watching tv shows about wedding dresses.
I arrive in Onset, which is a small seaside town on the America side of the Cape Cod Canal. I check in. I am closing this show for short money. It’s not terrible but it’s not what it should be. I’ve taken it because in six months, these offers may not exist and the booker has promised to make it up in future work (which absolutely will never ever happen.) I took it because I am stupid but mostly because I want to work.
The show starts. The opener goes up. The opener does fine. The middle goes up. The middle does fine. I go up and the opener and the middle skedaddle. They get out of there quick. This should not have been a surprise. It’s a move I’ve pulled anytime I have done a show anywhere in the last three years. I’m not an exceptionally social person and I generally have no interest in meeting the crowd that just politely laughed at my, pardon the expression, “art.” So if possible, 10 times out of 10, as soon as I’m done, I split. But I just assumed that was me and that I was broken and couldn’t realize in the opening moments of my set why they would leave and then I remembered that we’re all broken and I’m not famous. If I was famous, different story.
I’m onstage 25 minutes into my 40 minute set and I’m doing great. It’s a fundraiser for some suburban dance school which has become a specialty of mine given my background in theater and being mostly not a man so I’m pulling out all my best Dance Moms references and busting the dance teacher’s chops and everything is going great. I look down at my phone to see how much time I have left and that is when I notice the 10 missed calls from my wife and the “I need you right now!” text messages which is generally not a great thing when your wife is pregnant with twins.
Twin pregnancies by their very nature are labeled as “high risk” because the chances of something going horribly wrong are doubled because there are two babies. From the first ultrasound, we’ve been bombarded with extra doctor’s appointments and twice as much monitoring and everything that’s happening to us says, “High risk! High risk!” It puts you into a particular state of mind. So for instance when a woman pregnant with twins goes to the bathroom and finds when she’s wiping up, a handful of toilet paper covered in blood, she calls her husband 10 times and sends a series of increasingly panicked text messages in hope that said husband will look at his phone in the middle of his stand-up comedy set and promptly wrap things up and say goodnight and goodbye before jetting to the emergency room one hour away to sit with his wife till 2am to find out nothing is wrong and that this just happens.
That is why I only travelled within one hour of my house.
I maintained this philosophy until March 9, 2013 which was the cut off date I gave myself before going into comedy hibernation. This was roughly one month before our scheduled cesarean section and the last month of my wife’s pregnancy when it became increasingly difficult for her to do anything because she has two goddamn human beings inside of her.
On that night, I did what was supposed to be two short sets. The first was at the Comedy Studio in Cambridge where I recorded yet another audition tape for the Montreal Comedy Festival that they again, did not care for. The second was the final spot on a showcase at Grandma’s Basement in Boston, a small room run by a couple of comics where a few months back I did my one man show that you couldn’t be bothered to go see. God. Damn. It. I was supposed to do 10 minutes but they let me stretch to 25 because as I said onstage that night and fully believed at the time, this could absolutely be the last set of comedy I ever do.
After the show I sat with some friends and talked and laughed and then solemnly left, believing that there was a better than good chance that I had just performed for the very last time.
And then the day before my babies were born, I got an offer to open for Lenny Clarke in a theater 30 minutes from my house in June and I said, “I’ll take it!”
The cliché that everything changes when you have children is absolutely true. I’ll make that general statement and speak for everyone that ever had kids. For better or worse, everything is different. Your entire life is reprioritized first into keeping this baby alive and then later into making sure this baby is always happy. With twins, it’s just double the effort to keep them alive and double the effort to keep them happy. I have known plenty of comedians who have had children. I’ve even known some comedians who have had twins. The role and amount of effort that they put into their children’s lives varies on a case by case basis. Some drop out of comedy completely and are never heard from again. Some go on the road immediately because that is the only way they know how to make money and money is never more important than when you have a new baby. Some comics redouble their efforts in the pursuit of fame and fortune and some comics accept their new circumstances and pull back a little.
I think I fall into that last category. I’ve always been very realistic with myself about the type of life I could expect with a full-time pursuit of comedy versus the life I could expect when comedy is just a part-time job supplementing my full-time, regular person job. When I was offered a spot on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham, I was driving my best man and myself to pick up the tuxes for my wedding in three days. What should have been the most exciting moment of my comedy career was instantaneously thrown on the back burner because at that moment, my wedding was more important.
In 2010, a year after I got married and appeared on television, I took a solo vacation to Los Angeles where I was able to through connections made through my TV credit and friendships fostered in seven years of being a comic, I was able to perform on some of the coolest, hippest, and most prestigious stages in the city and I was pretty miserable the whole time.
In 2011, I traded my shitty day job for a better paying day job and started booking more and more comedy shows, boosting my combined income to just shy of respectable. I was also invited to the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Nebraska where I was flown out for free, put up in a hotel for free, driven around town for free, showered in free food and free beer and I was still pretty miserable the whole time.
It was during an eight hour layover in Milwaukee on my way home from Nebraska that I realized that the only aspects of stand-up comedy that I enjoy are the ones about being onstage telling jokes and hanging out with other comedians offstage. I do not like to travel. I do not like staying in hotels or condos. I do not like jumping through all the hoops you need to jump through to get a college agent and showcase at NACA (which I also did and also hated). I don’t like feeling like I have to hang out at bar and drink with a guy I genuinely don’t like in order to trick him into giving me money to tell jokes on his stage. I only like the comedy parts and my day job gives me enough money that I can start taking shows that I want and working for people that I like, who liked me.
When I found out my wife was pregnant, I sent out an email to all the bookers I work for, asking for work within the next nine months, subtly hinting that after that, I don’t know when I’d be available again. Some people responded and some people didn’t. I feel no resentment toward those that didn’t and I sure hope someday I’ll work with them again but what was really great was what came from the people who did help. From every booker who used me in that time, I received some variation on the following, “When you’re ready to come back, let us know and we’ll put you back in rotation.” That really set me at ease as I went into hibernation.
I maintained complete comedy silence for the first two months. These are the months when babies need to eat every three hours regardless of whether the sun or the moon is up. When you have one baby, it’s hard because you trade off with your partner and only get a certain amount of sleep while they’re feeding. When you have twins, it’s all hands on deck at all times. You feed for an hour, you sleep for an hour, and you prep the next feeding for an hour. That’s your life, 24 hours a day.
In June I did my show opening for Lenny Clarke and maybe it was the excitement of being back onstage or maybe it was Lenny’s amazing ability to give everyone around him a contact high of confidence but I did ok. I was able to get by on the novelty of being completely overtired cause of the two month babies at home and I didn’t forget too much of my act. I definitely forgot some but it was a very forgiving crowd.
Then right before the Fourth of July (let’s say the third of July), I did a quick set on a sold out Saturday night at the Comedy Studio in Cambridge and did great. Am I the comedian that’s completely immune to joke rust? Here I haven’t told but 20 minutes of jokes in four months and I’m killing. I think I must be the greatest living comedian. I collect my self-congratulations up in my arms and carry them home to feed the babies for the last time that day. This is going to be easier than I thought.
Then I did nothing for the rest of July and most of August, until the last Friday of the month when I booked a showcase at Grandma’s Basement, the little room I had done my last pre-fatherhood set of comedy. I put together a murderers’ row of all my favorite comics and friends and promoted the show hard and pumped myself up all day and as soon as I hit the stage to start the show, it was like I was washed over with pneumonia. I had switched the schedule of my day job to work four 10 hour days so I could stay home with my kids once a week to save on daycare costs and this was my first 10 hour Friday. So after working 7:30-5:30 and then being a dad from 5:30-8:30, the last thing I was physically capable of doing was playing competent comedy host from 9:30-11:30.
That night, all the rust I worried was building up reared its rusty rust. This was my third show in six months and it did not go well. People were kind and my friends were supportive but I was truly awful. The one big laugh I got came when I couldn’t figure out how to put the microphone back into the mic stand so I threw the stand at a table and yelled, “I just want to go to sleep!”
Four years ago, I had been on television because I was so good at this.
People said, “You’re taking it too personal. You’re tired. It’s ok. You have two babies at home.” No. I don’t get to suck because I have two babies at home. I have two babies at home, which means in order for me to justify leaving them at home, I can’t suck. The work of putting two babies to bed is really hard and if I’m going to put that on my wife, I better come home smelling like success and not flop sweat. I don’t like not being with my kids. Everyday when I leave to go to work, I’m counting down the minutes till I can go home. If I go to do a comedy show, it has to be because I’m so good at comedy, that denying the world my humor should and someday will be a capital offense.
Or so I thought.
There’s a danger in thinking you don’t need to practice a particular set of skills in order to maintain them. There’s a danger in thinking you’re so naturally talented, that you can take six months off and then jump back into it with sky high confidence because the hurt from the fall is going to be exponentially more painful. They say that you never forget how to ride a bike and it’s true. You never intellectually lose the understanding of the fundamental mechanics of riding a bike. But if you don’t ride a bike for 10 years, the next time you get on a bike, you’ll notice its changed. The bike may be the same but the rider is 10 years older and maybe your knee clicks weird and maybe your center of gravity has shifted and maybe you’re going to fall flat on your face and embarrass yourself in front of all the fellow bike riders you respect and admire.
I basically took six months off from stand-up comedy. I remember the fundamentals of telling a joke. I remember how to take the mic out of the stand. I remember how to move the stand out of your way. I remember which end of the microphone to talk into. On paper, I could describe being a comedian to the finest detail but in application, I got on a bike, wobbled into traffic, and couldn’t get out of the way of a bus.
My expectations for what I could do were not tempered by the six month lapse in practice and they weren’t tempered by everything that had happened to me in that time. I came out trying to be the Sean Sullivan of six months prior that didn’t have two babies and I crashed hard because that’s not who I am anymore. I’m a different person. It may not look like it to the audience but I tried to ride my younger self (a dream that I’m sure we all share) and I fell off the bike.
The fall should have been expected. I’d seen it before and I shouldn’t have been so arrogant as to think it wouldn’t happen to me. The fall happens but the fall isn’t important. What’s important is what happens after. What you choose to do next. I could get back up on the bike and try again or I could never get on the bike again because I’m afraid I’ll never ride a bike as well as I did in 2012.
Enough of this bike bullshit.
I am currently in the midst of a run of four sets of stand-up comedy in four weeks. Yes. There’s been discussion of getting tour t-shirts printed. For the uninformed, four sets in four weeks is not impressive at all. There were nights not too long ago that I was able to do four sets in one night and get paid for two of them. I am doing four sets in four weeks because I’m trying to get ready for a contest that quite honestly, I probably shouldn’t have entered (unless I win, which I won’t.) The first show did not go well. I was supposed to 30 minutes on a Friday night for a good amount of money and I delivered for 75% of the time. For three quarters of my set, I could feel the rust shaking off. I could feel glimmers of my confidence coming back. It felt good for 75% of my show.
For the other 25% of my show, I wanted to burst through the wall like the Hulk and run into the ocean with rocks in my pocket. At one point, I started to tell a joke that on one thousand set lists has been called, “Dog Racing.” It’s the joke that has advanced me into the next rounds of contests. It’s the joke that I’ve had strangers quote back to me in some weird Pig Latin bastard version where the punchline comes before the setup. It’s the joke that opened my set on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham. It is a joke that I know backwards and forwards and could tell in my sleep and if only I had been sleeping on this particular Friday night, I would not have said out loud into a microphone, “They banned dog racing in the state of Massachusetts… and I do not remember how that joke goes. Let’s move on.”
At some point in my return to telling jokes, I lost sight of why I’m doing this. For a moment, I thought I was doing it because I needed the money. I thought I was doing it because I wanted to be one of the best. I thought I was doing it because I needed to not be defined as a dad. At no point did I think I need to be doing this because its fun or because it’s what I like or because it’s what I’m good at. I don’t need the money though it helps. I don’t need to be the best though it would be nice.
And I am a dad. That’s who I am now. I’m not 2012 Sean Sullivan. I’m 2013 Sean Sullivan and I need to relearn a lot of stuff because I don’t remember anything about 2012 Sean Sullivan. My kids are six months old and honestly, I don’t remember ever not having them around. That part of my brain has been packed up and put into mothballs. My brain has been re-wired. I’m not going to try and launch a career rehashing Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood but I also don’t need to be an overprotective parent trying to shield his little baby comedy act from who I am as a father. Boy, I hope that sentence wins me an award.
It’s going to be a long time before I feel I am as good as I once was at being a comedian (and some people will argue that I was never very good.) I’m going to have rough sets and its not going to be easy, but I’ve always had rough sets and comedy has never been easy. The biggest difference is now when I have a bad set, I’m going home to two babies and a wife who don’t care if I forget jokes in front of the Chelmsford Rotary Club’s whatever the hell they do fundraiser. They don’t care at all and that’s a huge relief.
Also at all times, I seem to have six all-new episodes of Duck Dynasty waiting for me on my DVR to cheer me up when I suck.