Chapter 3: The New Beginning
Although I was still working for the most evil man who ever lived, I was suddenly enjoying life a LOT more. I was up late and up early in order to do comics while working a stressful 10 hour a day job, but I felt like I had a real sense of purpose. I figured, if I worked hard, within 3 years I could be doing this for a living.
I also had a tight group of awesome friends with similar goals. I still remember staying up late on weekday nights talking on skype about comics. Dani, Chris, Phil, James, and I would get on skype and prank call people from around the world, then improv a situation. One of my favorites was when we pretended we represented a religious organization called the Ultrachurch of Ultrachrist. Basically, we were the Catholic church, but everything was ultra. We took ultra-Eucharist while ultra-worshipping the ultra-father, ultra-son, and the ultra-ghost.
At the same time, and pay attention because this is crucial, I resolved to make myself very well educated. Yeah, I had a literature degree, but I realized then that I knew almost nothing. I’d read very few of the great books, knew little philosophy, knew very little math or science, and was pretty much blank on history. So, as a humble beginning, I started listening to lots of lectures series. The Teaching Company puts out a lot of awesome survey courses, which I would play constantly whenever I had a spare moment. I started reading a lot of books and taking walks to think about what I had learned. Once you start acting this way, you can’t help but start learning at a faster rate, because the more you learn the more you realize how little you know.
The combination of new determination and self education was what finally did it. I finally had the drive to win at any cost and the intellectual rigorousness needed to have enough personal depth to write every day.
I worked for about a year and saw my fortunes steadily rise. I don’t remember specific dates, but I do remember things that changed. Of course there was the obvious – thanks to the comic, I made a little money, met more interesting people, and had more fun. But, there were more intangible but equally important results: Bad things in my personal life stopped bothering me. I became less needy and more self reliant. I woke up with a smile every day. In short, I had control over my life again. It is hard to overstate the importance of this. You will meet people about whom you say “wow, that dude was lucky.” And sometime in your life you may say “wow, I am so lucky.” This may be true as far as it goes, but it’s been my experience that when you’re really driving hard and doing what you love, opportunities seem to appear out of nowhere.
What happened next is a good example.
In 2006, I was living in the aforementioned crummy apartment near Hollywood and Vine. Some builders recently bought the place and had decided to tear it down. This was bad news for the longtime residents, but great news for me. In California, if you get booted out of your house, they have to pay you off. I got paid around $6,000 to leave, which was a fortune to me at the time.
Now, before you get mad, no this opportunity didn’t arise because I was working hard. It was random dumb luck. However, fortune favors the prepared mind. If I hadn’t had the kind of drive I had then, I might very well have spent it on a more expensive place, or on a vacation, or a computer. Instead, I did something that seems a little crazy in retrospect – I quit my job.
Here was my reasoning: Through my old job, I’d recently met and become friends with my manager, Mark Saffian. He’d also worked for the evilest man ever, and so we readily got along, perhaps in the same way young and old soldiers do. By that time, thanks to my hard work, my comic had a few thousand readers (I think I claimed 4500 a day when talking to Mark). So, by leaving that job I would not be giving up on the entertainment business.
Furthermore, the site was drawing a little money – maybe 500 or so in a good month. If I stretched, my savings might last me six months. With the extra money from the comic, I might stretch that to 8 or 9 months. And, if income kept growing, hell, maybe I could achieve the dream!
So, I quit. I practically danced home that day, I was so happy. Then began what Marty jokingly referred to as “The Summer of Zach.”
I started doing things just as I had planned – I spent every day reading, writing, or drawing every waking moment. My apartment became a dense mess of books and papers. I learned to eat on cheap cents a day (God bless you, lentils), and to focus on my work.
EDIT: Lest I seem too bohemian and overstate my situation (or lead someone astray), I always had my parents as a safety net. I’m sure I could’ve used their card at any point for any reason, but I wanted as much as possible to succeed on my own. And, of course, there’s pride.
But, once again, I failed. Within 8 months, I was looking for work. Here’s why I think I failed:
In essence, life got too easy. I had no girlfriend, no job, no school, no anything. I was left alone to read and write. And suddenly my daily jokes weren’t as good. It took longer to write them, and once they were written, I over-edited them. My impression of that time is that the average jokes got worse, though the real gems were better. But, you can’t grow an audience off occasional hits. I suspect my audience grew a bit then, but the terrible irony was that it probably would’ve grown faster if I’d stayed in my miserable job. Back then, I was writing jokes on my lunch break or mentally on the drive home. And, they were fairly good – maybe a little silly, but they were funny. The post-job comics were too cerebral, too over-worked, too fake.
This is something important, and I mentioned it in an earlier post on productivity. Having more time to produce doesn’t necessarily equate to producing more or better content. It is far more important to be in the right condition to produce. If your life is too cushy, how can you expect to make comedy?
When Jim Carrey became rich and famous, he transitioned away from standup comedy toward movies. One of his last bits had a joke that went like this: “I’ve made some humorous observations. Don’t you hate when you’re having sex with 3 women at the same time, and one of them says ‘save some for me?’”
Now, I wasn’t having foursomes at the time (though I had quite a few onesomes), but the principle is the same: Comedy is essentially either complaining about real crap in life or pointing out absurdity. If you’re life is ordered and delightful, it’s much harder to do either of those.
To summarize: I failed because I didn’t understand how I work mentally. I don’t like strife, but I write better in her company. I suspect that’s the same for others.
So, eight months later, I was applying for work again. After a month or so of searching (and just baaaarely paying rent), I got a freelance job transcribing soap opera scripts. This was a big stroke of luck. I could control my hours, the pay was good (I think I got 150 or 200 per script, which took me 6-8 hours), and soap opera scripts are hilarious. It was a perfect setup. I had the strife of working again, but I was making more money, and it was actually fun.
I used to get on the phone with my Internet friends to read these scripts in dramatic voices. This was great because we had a lot of fun while proofreading scripts. At this point, my writing improved once again. A few months later, the company brought me in house to do closed-captioning. This helped even more – steadier work, health benefits, and I got to watch a lot of weiiiiiird media. In fact, a few of the jokes from that time are almost directly from the obscure TV stuff I had to caption. For example, I did a joke about a duck who couldn’t stop laughing due to an allergic reaction. This was based on “laughing duck,” who was a character in an Australian kids’ show who could not stop laughing.
Because of the better writing, my comic started growing again. Soon, thanks to project wonderful, I was making an amount of money that was perilously close to a living (read: starving) wage. I got to where I was pulling in around 800-1500 dollars a month. Awesome!
Now I had a conundrum. I wanted to quit my job to work on comics again (it was a good job, but still a job), BUT I remembered what happened last time. Then, I got another crazy idea.
Next Chapter: SCIENCE!