YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Career Make-Over: Southern Californians Learning How
to Improve Their Careers

Lawyer Has Talent and Desire for Comedy Sideline, but Time Is Against Him


While finishing his studies at Harvard Law School in 1992, Sean Carter did a funny thing: He took to the stages of local comedy clubs to perform stand-up routines.

Carter loved the excitement of telling jokes before a live audience. He enjoyed making people laugh.

But as graduation neared, he turned his attention back to law.

Today the 33-year-old Chino Hills resident is an in-house attorney for an Irvine-based mortgage company, earning more than $100,000 annually. Yet his interest in comedy hasn't waned. Carter wonders whether he's got a chance to make it as a part-time comic.

For advice, he consulted renowned comedian Rita Rudner.

Carter told Rudner that, for the last three years, he's taken steps to get back into comedy. He's penned satiric essays about politics, court cases, business affairs and sports. He's written a book, still unpublished, titled "Your Totally Irreverent Guide to the Law: If It Doesn't Fit, Must You Acquit?" And recently he completed an eight-week stand-up comedy workshop taught by Judy Carter (no relation) that enabled him to perform in a showcase at the Improv in Los Angeles.

Still, Carter said he isn't about to ditch law--or his considerable salary--to pursue a chancy dream of headlining in Las Vegas and landing an HBO special. He has a wife and two sons, ages 4 and 6, to support.

Rudner reviewed a tape of Carter's Improv performance and read several of his satiric columns. She gave him pointers about improving his act, which include making more eye contact with his audience, standing still when delivering a "punch," focusing his gaze on the middle of a room during important moments to maximize audience attention and ending with his strongest joke.

"You're a very funny guy, and smart too," Rudner said. But she expressed some concerns about Carter's comedic career goals.

First, she said, he is tackling two very different aspirations--stand-up comedy and comic writing--that require disparate skills.

Second and more important, she said, Carter needs to be aware that "making it" in stand-up typically requires years of cross-country schlepping to gigs that offer little or no pay.

"Most of us started this when we were unencumbered, young and naive," she said. "We didn't know any better. Sean, I'm worried for you, because you have a wife and children to support."

Here are some tips that Rudner and other comedy experts offered Carter and other aspiring comedians.

* Perform wherever you can: "There are three steps to success in stand-up: Get good, get noticed, get paid," said Judy Carter, comedy workshop instructor and author of "Stand-Up Comedy: The Book" (Dell Books, 1989).


Many beginning comics wrongly believe that after two or three performances they'll be invited to headline at "A-room" clubs, said Jay Sankey, author of "Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy," (Routledge, 1998). They're in for a brutal awakening.

"Overnight stand-up sensations" typically have been plying their trade for a decade or more before landing their big break, industry experts say. They've racked up hundreds of hours onstage, perfected their deliveries and created acts "as tightly scripted as a Shakespearean play," Sankey said.

Carter should continue attending "open mike," or amateur, nights at local comedy clubs to try out jokes, develop a stage presence and build his act. He also should carry a tape recorder and a note pad wherever he goes to record ideas for new material. When he rehearses, even if he's at home, he should deliver his material at the same volume and speed as at a club, Sankey said. He should try to have his material critiqued by more experienced comics.

One problem Carter will encounter is finding "safe" local venues for his burgeoning act. Los Angeles is the capital of stand-up comedy and a great place for pros, but a potential career-killer for novices, industry experts said.

Agents, producers, directors and A-room bookers routinely scout Los Angeles' clubs for rising stars. An unpolished beginner who flops before industry bigwigs might find himself condemned to a lifetime of gigs in places like Bismarck, N.D., and Hungry Horse, Mont.

Carter may wish to regularly scour local event listings to find functions where he might work gratis as a stand-up comic or emcee. Such public appearances can lead to paying gigs.

* Understand the trade's rigors: Stand-up comedy looks fun, but it's one of the toughest trades one can choose. Rising performers sometimes must perform at 3 a.m. before drunk, rowdy crowds--and do so for free or in exchange for hamburgers and soft drinks.

Then there are the "hell gigs"--noontime college shows, bar mitzvahs, children's birthday parties and company picnics--where people eat noisily and sometimes leave during the comic's set.

"People will yell at you. They won't pay attention because they're drunk," said L.A.-based comic Suzanne Westenhoeffer. "They'll talk over you. And you can lose a whole audience because of one heckler."

Los Angeles Times Articles