Chrystal Houston, July 2nd, 2010
Fear and excitement battle within his chest as he waves to the crowd and reaches for the microphone. This moment is his dream come true. A dream he’s dreamed for years: his first stand-up performance. HIs wife and four friends cheer him on. Their attendance is part of the reason this day has arrived. It’s a “bringer” showâ€”he had to bring five paying customers who will meet the two-drink minimum to pay for his chance for a few minutes at the mic.
He starts strong. “In the fall of ’85 I went to Harvard. (pause) And stayed most of the afternoon. I bought that shirt that says ‘Harvard Lacrosse’ so I could misrepresent both my intellect and athletic capability.” People laugh. Yes! Their response loosens him up a bit. Too soon. He bombs.
“The first time I performed was at a club called Stand-Up New York, on Broadway. I had a five-minute set. I got maybe two-and-a-half minutes into it when I completely forgot where I was. I was too green to know that you need to have a set listâ€”you write down “the wife, the parachute, and your father’â€”the key words for the story you’re going to tell, instead of trying to memorize the set like I did. I stuttered a bit, then started improvising with the audience, and then I figured out where I was and finished up. My wife felt so bad for me. I’ve had jokes bomb but that, for sure, was my biggest failure.”
Abysmal? Perhaps. Still, the adrenaline surge from being on stage drove him on. There was no giving up.
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Tim had always been funny, but it wasn’t until 1998 that he took a leap of faith to do it for a living. He felt a calling. “There was a moment of realization that I needed to pursue comedy. I needed to quit being afraid of it.” His day job was as vice president at Interpublic Group, a global marketing firm. He enrolled in an improv comedy class taught by comedienne and actress Amy Poehler (of Saturday Night Live) to hone his comedic chops.
“The first day I came very close to running out of the class,” he reminisces when recalling the introductory exercise, “hotbox.” A word is provided, and the would-be comic creates a song about that word on the spot. “I was on stage with 10 strangers. It scared the heck out of meâ€¦Once I got past my fear of that class, it got a lot easier.”
What was it like working with someone as famously funny as Poehler? “Amy is a very encouraging person and a great teacher.” She was intimidating at first, though. “She’s so incredibly funny as an improviser. She’s obviously very funny on T.V., but I think she’s even funnier as an improviser.”
Sticking in that class led to more of the stuff of dreams. Tim performed with Poehler on the Comedy Central series Upright Citizens Brigade and went on to appear regularly on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He submitted material for The Late Show with David Letterman, celebrating when his jokes made their way into the opening monologue. He starred in the commercial “Filibuster” for Cablevision, winning a best in class award from the Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing.
Three years from that wobbly start at the bringer show, he quit his day job to focus on his comedy career and an idea he had for a screenplay. Fear and excitement battled again. Fear won for a while. Tim struggled with depression, filled with anxiety about his work. Unless you’re Jerry Seinfeld, the life of a comedian is no laughing matter.
“I learned pretty quickly that working the New York City clubs wasn’t going to pay the bills and wasn’t the best use of my time. Even an experienced comic typically only makes a hundred bucks a night unless he is a celebrity. It’s a rotten life and it doesn’t pay any money. When I was performing with a lot of other new comics, my wife wasn’t enjoying it as they often rely on sex and profanity for laughs. I’ve always worked clean. I quit doing the clubs.”
Finding out he was going to be a father motivated Tim to look for a better paycheck and more security than fickle audiences could provide. He had an MBA, experience in sales and technology, and a desperate need for an outlet for humor. A career coach redirected him to event hosting and speech writing.
Tim took a job as a speechwriter for IBM but he felt like a failure that first day on the job. This time fear was of long, dreary days not using his real talents. Was this giving up? Had he copped out? He did go back the second day at IBM and he’s glad he did. Day two on the job, he answered the phone and heard a VP say, “I heard you’re funny. Can you write a joke for me?”
“Here I am on at IBM thinking I may have to give up on comedy when a door opens for me to be funny at IBMâ€¦that’s how my job evolved.” While learning the ropes and pushing for more humor at IBM, he also built a side career, emceeing events evenings and weekends. He’s hosted a range of events honoring the rich and famous, from George H.W. Bush to Oscar winners, to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He also starred in a few more commercials, for T-Mobile and Budweiser, plus two segments on The Onion Sports Network.
What’s been his favorite gig? Working with Catherine Zeta-Jones on the T-Mobile commercial (he’s the guy with the line “I like it when you say things.”), and the bits for The Onion, where he did a mock-doping piece about genie-use in professional baseball (“Until we have hard evidence that Overstreet knowingly benefitted from a wish granting phantasm, he’s an innocent man.”).
While at IBM, he wrote, produced and starred in a series of films called Art of the Sale. Originally intended for in-house use, this set of six short clips went viral (it’s worth your time to watch it on YouTube). It was selected by the cable channel Comedy Central as a “Staff Favorite” and was cited in Forbes.com in January 2007 as the example of the “Jon Stewartizing” of corporate communications.
Today he is the senior manager of social media at technology firm Cisco Systems, where he’s using comedy to reach out to wider audiences.
“As we move into an environment where social media is more mainstream, there is going to be much more humor in corporate communications. You can reach out to a technical audience with a very specific message, and that’s part of what we do. Some of our large service providers are interested in the geeky details about a router. But if we want to reach a broader audience, it certainly helps your message if it’s entertaining.”
Tim predicts there will be more jobs like his in the future, as social media revolutionizes company interactions with clients and as customers come to expect a certain amount of entertainment. Large corporations are realizing the need to stand out in the social media landscape.
He warns other funny people that there is a danger in letting your true colors show at work. A professor once told him with grave earnestness, “no one will take you seriously in the office once you start telling jokes.” Tim agrees, to a degree. People do label you as “the funny guy.” Yet, as his ambition is not the corner office, he doesn’t care much. His dream job? Writing for Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. In the meantime, he’s satisfied with pursuing comedy outside of the confines of traditional venues.
In his spare time, he now performs customized sets at corporate events such as sales meetings and professional conferences. He’s still tinkering with his screenplay (the details of which are hilariousâ€”and confidential until it’s purchased), and beginning a series of podcasts where he’ll interview influential people in entertainment. He’s also using his comedic gifts in church and at church conferences.
I asked him to tell me the secret of to how he’s overcome his fears to pursue his dreams. He said he’d get back to me someday when he figured that out.
“Fear is always with you. I think it’s a constant struggle. As you gain experience over time, you get a little better at suppressing the fear. I imagine many artists in all fields struggle with thisâ€¦In comedy, you get immediate feedback. If you tell a joke and nobody laughs, you know right away that you’ve failed. You’ve got to be ready for that. But how you judge failure is important. For me, even when the audience doesn’t laugh, I know that I am doing what I am called to do. That’s what counts. All I can do is obediently follow the path that is before me.”
For more on Tim Washer, including contact information, visit his website at timwasher.com.