Orny Adams on Failure
Orny Adams on failure.
Posted June 29, 2009
It must be odd to be famous mainly for not being famous. But that's the case with Orny Adams, a standup who's best known not for his own work but for his appearance in The Comedian, a documentary about the frustrations of trying to break into comedy. In that movie, Adams was presented as a foil to Jerry Seinfeld—an example of a man struggling to achieve the success Seinfeld takes for granted. I spoke to him about the long and bumpy road he's walked trying to achieve his dream.
I know there was a long road for you. I'd like to hear from you about your tough times and what allowed you get through it.
I always felt like I was doing this for a reason. I graduated from college in '93, from Emory in Atlanta and could not get a job because of the economy. I sent out hundreds of cover letters with a typo, that said, "thank you for you consideration" at the end. That's like the family joke—whenever I screw up, my dad will say "thank you for you consideration."
In 1996, Disney was scouting for talent in Boston—comedians for television shows—and they picked me, they flew me to Los Angeles for a meeting. We had these meetings, and I had one more meeting with the highest person in that group. They said, "You're going to meet with her, then you're going to sit outside her office and we're going to decide whether you're going back on a plane in three hours, or whether we're going to keep you here to meet with another person." I was back on the plane in three hours. It was the longest, loneliest plane ride I'd ever been on.
How did you feel at that moment?
I felt about as empty as you could feel. I knew I didn't nail it, I knew it wasn't right. I was weeping inside. I was emotionally frozen. I knew this was the pinnacle and I did not deliver. I didn't have the ability to process what had gone wrong, but I knew it wasn't right. It felt low.
I felt that on the plane coming back from the Disney meeting. I also felt it one time when I was in Atlanta trying to get booked at the comedy clubs and one of the bookers said, "You're just not funny enough."
I felt, "I suck, I suck." Now, with maturity, I've realized comedy is subjective and she may not have thought I was funny enough, but other people will. And maybe there are other issues involved! Sometimes when you don't get the job, it has nothing to do with you. Nothing!
When a plane goes down, it's never one thing that causes the crash. It's always three things went wrong and it was the perfect storm. That's what it's like in so much of life. You never can say it's just one thing.
You mean there's never one thing that makes you succeed or one thing that makes you fail?
Absolutely. It's one minor event that causes an avalanche. Just put your head down, do the hardest work possible, and wait for your hard work to intersect with luck.
In almost every successful story, there's luck involved. You have to stay in the game long enough to intersect with luck. And when luck happens, you'd better be prepared. Because how often do we see people not prepared when they get their shot? Which is what's going on now—everybody's getting their chance with reality television. What's the next step? Failure, because they are not ready. So, in my mind, it's open doors quicker than they can slam them, and when you get through, be ready.
In your lowest moments, what was it that pulled you back up? How did you get through that?
When I don't believe in myself, friends and family remind me of why I should believe in myself. As a performer, I'm very fortunate I get to get up on stage almost any time I want. To have that relationship with the audience, and to have that immediacy of telling a joke or a story and getting the validation. I don't know how an actor does it. I wouldn't know how to wait tables until I get that job. And then wait six months for the television show or movie to come out and then see if people like it. Standup comics get to have that release. That has really kept me in the game. I love writing, I love being meticulous and crafting and making a joke as precise and laconic as possible. The other night, I wrote a bit, and said, "This is it! The next big one." I planted it right in the middle of a fat part of the act. And nothing! I got nothing! I was shocked. I would have never guessed that that was going to get nothing.
Do you want to tell me what it was?
God, no, because then that's going to be the only joke you put in there and they're going to say, "My God, he's not funny."
As an example of learning from your mistakes.
Well, I had to rebound from it. I had to take a breath and then rebound. I can tell you what I have written on the page. I like to say things and get reactions:
I'm pretty sure if I was a woman, I'd tell every guy I slept with a month later I was pregnant. Call him up and say, "I'm late and I went to the doctor, and there's a fifty percent chance the baby's yours. Do you still want to go out tonight?"
Because I like to get reactions, and it's interesting that women have this hold over men, and I was just exploring that. And it got nothing. Does that mean the joke's a failure? Not at all. Usually it means it's not placed properly in the act, or I dipped my voice because I wasn't confident maybe. I would have to review the tape and figure it out.
Let's talk more about little failures, mistakes.
They're every day. Do you understand? I wake up every day with such hope and I watch it chiseled away as the day goes on. By 5 PM, I'm in the fetal position. This is a quote from my DVD liner notes: "Hope is what carries us from one disappointment to another."
I'm by nature optimistic. You know how people say, "I live every day like it's my last." Those people are pessimistic. I live every day like I have 50 more miserable years on this planet. I'm not going anywhere. I just keep going forward and going forward. I'm up for 10 different jobs right now. Nine out of 10 of those jobs—probably 10 out of 10—will not happen. Every day, I'm checking e-mails. I'm always waiting to hear back from people. I will know I'm successful when there are people actually waiting to hear back from me.
How do you keep it from getting from you? You have a joke you think is going to be a hit. You go on stage and nobody laughs. When that happens, do you think, "I'm awesome, I just need to rewrite the joke"? Or do you think, "Wow, I suck. I'm not funny"?
So many times I'm really down, and I'm thinking, "Why am I struggling to get back on the Tonight Show or why am I struggling to get my next deal? Why am I not getting offers for different clubs to perform at? And then I get up on stage, and I do an hour, and I have this audience enjoying what I do, applauding laughing screaming, having this visceral reaction right before me.
And I get off stage and I think they're wrong. The people who aren't giving me work are wrong, and I'm just going to stick in the game long enough until either I go insane or they recognize that. And it is so wrenching to go through—because it's a personal affront, it's rejection every single time.
And there's no closure in show business. People don't ever call and say you didn't get the job. Silence is the new no. People just don't tell you. So I'm living with all these dangling, unanswered job prospects. I don't know what makes me persevere. Now that you're bringing this up, I'm thinking I should quit.
So what do you think it is about your personality that keeps you from quitting?
I have a tremendous need to be accepted and I don't always feel like I am accepted or have been accepted. I always feel like I'm on the outside. Like, maybe in high school I was hanging out with the cool kids, but I wasn't really cool, I was sort of a fraud and they didn't accept me a hundred percent. So I'm just fighting to be heard and accepted.
When you're connecting with the audience in that way, is it similar to connecting one on one, the same way as if you told me a story right now and I laughed? Or is it different? Is it more intimate, in a way, with the audience?
One-on-one is more awkward for me. I can get up on stage in front of a thousand people, and be this persona, and tell the jokes and have control, and craft this whole journey. But once I get off stage, it's hard for me sometimes to make eye contact or shake hands or meet people.
One time I was playing a theater in Mill Valley, California, and I'm in the green room and the door opens and it's Robin Williams. I'm flooded with thoughts about how he's going to want to go up on stage, and who cares about me. And let's be honest, even I'd rather see Robin Williams than me. This guy won an Academy Award, so I don't want to fawn and I don't know quite how to handle it.
I said, "Would you like to go on?" He suggested it might be better if he goes on after me. I went up there and did an hour. I could hear him laughing off to the side. And it was really hot in there. This is an old theater where Chaplin played, and they have fans on me. That's the ventilation. So I unbutton my top button and I hear women screaming—not like with Elvis, but maybe there was one. So I do another one and I do another one, just to the point where it's still concealing the fat around my belt. I do the rest of my routine with my shirt half open.
When I say goodnight, the MC comes out and he unbuttons his shirt and does another button. So then I take my belt off. So he takes a shoe off, I take a shoe off, he takes his pants off. We're doing this strip thing. The crowd's going nuts.
Out of nowhere, Robin Williams walks out in just his boxers. The audience doesn't even know that Robin Williams is there! Imagine this moment. I'd never heard a room get louder than that. I mean, they were already standing for me, clapping, then we're doing this thing and they're laughing, and now Robin Williams. I turn around and go, "That is why that guy is famous!" He's bigger than me, he's hairier than me. I'm up there going, "I don't want to take too much off because what if someone captures a picture of me and I'm there with a bit of fat around my stomach." Robin doesn't care! Guy won an Academy Award, walks out half naked. That's why he's famous. Because he's more human in that moment. And has less fear. And I learned from that.
So what you take from that is the way to be human is to be vulnerable, to show yourself for who you are.
You've got to show your softer side. How can you show that on stage? It isn't necessarily about being funny. But people connect to you. What I like to do is study other people, whether it's like Bob Dylan—I have studied that guy—or, recently, Bruce Springsteen. You just look at them and go, wow. One night where I couldn't stop watching Sandler's Channukah song on Saturday Night Live. I watched it maybe twenty times, and he walked on, and I thought, "Son of a bitch, I like him already." Hasn't even hit the microphone. Is that something innate? He's hugely accessible. He doesn't talk above. Look at David Boies, the lawyer. Every time he speaks, I can understand him. That's what makes him brilliant and successful. He's stacked with words he could use, but he's smart enough to be accessible to every person.
Was there ever a moment when you felt like giving up?
I don't think there's another option for me. This is really what I'm best at. If I'm best at this and failing, I can't go into something else I'm inferior at? Seinfeld said to me, "You're the real deal, promise me you'll never quit doing standup." As you go on further, there's a certain cloth that some of us are cut from. And I'm not putting myself on Seinfeld's level. But this is what I do, and this is what I do best. I'm not exalting standup, art, expression. I have more respect for the guy who opens a guy's chest and does work on their heart. I'm fascinated by that, and to have that confidence to cut somebody open. That's the hero, to me. This is just what I do. I believe we all have a purpose. If I'm only connecting with a few people because I never break through, at least I'm connecting with those people, and bringing a little bit of happiness.
Any other insights about how to get through tough times?
I believe in the journey. My DVD is called The Path of Most Resistance, and I believe in struggling. Struggling has made me a better person, more aware of how my actions affect people. I'm grateful that in 2001 when things started to really happen for me, they didn't happen. Because now I feel more prepared. It sounds so corny and spiritual, but I feel like I'm a better person. And that's more important than being a successful person. I feel more ready for it now. I embrace the struggle, and struggle drives me probably as much as success. So when things are really happening, I write a lot, and when things really aren't happening, I write a lot. It's in the middle that it's boring. So I embrace struggle.
For other comedian interviews, see also:
George Carlin's Last Interview
The Psychology Today Humor Round Table