Written by DAVID HT ROSEN
Right before the turn of the New Year, I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of Atlanta’s own, AK Bjorn. We sat at the grand piano at Café Nineteen (though AK refused to call it a baby grand, preferring to refer to it as “The Fetus Piano”!). We spent time talking about comedy, both from his own personal perspective as well as thoughts about the comedy scene in general. AK is a rising star on the national comedy circuit and one of the hardest working men in comedy, who had set a goal for himself in 2012 to perform 200 sets around the county. He set this goal for himself in order to both get himself into a more serious mindset about his comedy, and to set an example for the upcoming struggling comics in the Atlanta scene, to show them that hard work really can pay off . He feels that every comic should “do something big as a comic” and that “we should push the envelope, have direction and a plan, and not be complacent.” More importantly he offers the advice to younger comics to “set a big goal, and finish what you start.”
Although there was a lot of ground I wanted to cover with him, I started our conversation with a simple question: “Knowing that you had planned to do 200 comedy sets in 2012…where was the 200th set performed at?” AK told me that it was at Tim Gonzalez’s room in fabulous Portersdale, Georgia, and that it went very well. I went on to inquire about AK’s favorite set of the 200 in 2012 and he replied that “hands down”, it was at one of the comedy nights at Tavern 99, hosted by Lue Lue Sutton. He went on to discuss the most shocking and awkward gig of 2012, which was at The Candy Shoppe in Hapeville, GA, a strip club, where the strippers–or exotic dancers as they like to be referred to–were actually judging the comedy competition. AK claimed the set that where he was best received was at Julie Osbourne’s rooms in East Atlanta. I asked what makes Julie Osbourne’s rooms so cool? His simple and quick answer: “Julie Osbourne make’s Julie Osbourne’s room so cool.” AK has written his own account of his crazy journey and I have included it here for your enjoyment.
Mid-December 2011, I was casually hanging out after a show, I overheard a fellow comic, Odinaka comment on how many sets he had cleared that year. By then it had been a little over 200, which amazed me. I had no clue how many I had cleared that year and getting even close to that number seemed like such a daunting task. Weeks later I ran into Jake Head, another comic who had recently moved to Atlanta from Florida. I knew Jake did a lot of traveling and that he performed regularly. When asked, “How many sets do you do a year,” his response damn near stopped me in my tracks. 250 was the answer he gave. That was a turning point for me and laid the groundwork for what my focus would be in 2012.
I guess if you are really dedicated to being a standup comic–at least when you are still in your first five years–you are never really happy with your set, or at least you shouldn’t be. I was unhappy. I wanted to “get good,” as Josh Homer of Connected Comedy podcast would say. I had been in a few showcases, a slew of open mics, and an assortment of other local shows, but still felt like I was coming up short. Being part of a stand up group still didn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t as good as I could be. I grew up diagnosed with ADD (not ADHD) and the idea of becoming more methodical in my approach to stand up appealed to me. My mom bought me the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell a few years ago and one of the chapters that stuck with me was the 10,000 hour rule. Basically, clear 10k hours and you are likely to be considered a success or expert at something, piano, painting, standup comic, whatever. 10k hours converts to about 10 years of working at something. Put up the numbers and be focused when you do, that was my take away. What if I did 100 sets in 2012? Too easy. That’s about twice a week and in Atlanta that’s no stretch. 150? How about 200? That many sets means that I have to average 3-4 sets every week. That was more of a challenge. That was going to take some actual work on my part. So, I went to work, getting to every open mic, taking hosting gigs and entering competitions. Welp, I learned a few things in my pursuit of 200 sets in 2012 like:
Working clean doesn’t make you the sellout that it’s perpetuated to be.
“Fuck clean” tends to be the mantra for more than a handful of comics. I suppose they feel like it’s some sort of attack on free speech, like there is some sort of 1st Amendment ninja lurking around comedy clubs. Seriously, it’s not that big of a deal and while now I sit somewhere leaning more towards being clean and not, I had to get there the hard way. In April, I lost out on two local competitions plus a stand up audition because I wasn’t clean enough. Ouch. That is the gleaming example of being your own worst enemy. I couldn’t blame anyone but myself. I made a decision to perform the entire month of May squeaky clean. That meant throwing out a lot of material and starting from scratch. I had to change the way I thought about my material and the way I wrote. Since this was all new, I enlisted the help of Rubyn Warren II, being that he performs exclusively clean. I would heck in with a “Is this clean?” to which several times I got a “Oh hell no!” or in best case scenarios “It’s dark…but technically clean.” Those were the ones I considered winners. Let me say this about clean vs. not: dirty is WAY more fun, but clean will get you WAY more work.
Several times I was asked to do shows because the promoter knew I could do clean or I was at least perceived to be “clean enough.”
You can be strictly a stand up comic, but it helps if you can display an additional talent. Some people refer to them as side projects, but really in 2012 everything you do goes on your public resume whether you like it or not. Every Facebook post, every tweet, all of it. Why not give those creative juices some direction? Some comics–A LOT OF COMICS–do podcasts.
Sweet baby Jesus! You would think that we had some sort of meeting and decided that’s where we all should go to get noticed. Grab your recording devices and let’s get famous!
We’re comics, so everything that falls out of our mouths is a gem at least most of the time, so why not capture it all right? Even I attempted to podcast, for two weeks, and I sucked at it, and I wasn’t interested in getting better. But like Jarrod Harris had Action Figure Therapy, maybe I could do something outside of the box too. Do you know what the best thing about the internet is? Everything is free, and everyone is giving something away, especially knowledge. Good thing, because I had never filmed a documentary before. That was the thing I wanted to do but it really could have been anything. If all goes well, I’ll be talking about how I went about filming and finishing a feature length documentary this time next year. The point is just pick something and don’t be afraid of the unknown.
One night after a show, I had the idea to create a separate Google calendar that just had the open mics so that I wouldn’t get it mixed up with my personal calendar when I looked at my phone. Halfway through adding locations and contacts and dates I realized I could make it public, as in searchable on the internet. Why not? Everybody was having the same issue, it required no more work for me to do it, so I did it. I made it live, shared the link in the Atlanta comics Facebook page and asked for help in keeping it current. Thus, Atlanta Comedy Open Mic Calendar was born. What did I get back? A free beer and grate full comics. Good enough for me.
After two years, it doesn’t make a difference how long you’ve been doing standup comedy.
I’m sure tons of people will disagree but it seems very obvious and true. I USED to think that just given a certain amount of time, opportunities would just open up. I was frustrated when I saw people who had started long after I did get better than me and get better stage time.
It drove me nuts. Well it took two close friends and listening to a podcast for me to get over it. I just wasn’t as good because I hadn’t put the work in. I wasn’t writing as much and I wasn’t performing as much as they were. I started looking around me and realized time in, made no difference. It was all work ethic and networking. This was easy to see. I know two local comics that had started doing standup the exact same year and had about five years in when it came up in conversation. One travels the country, wins competitions, and is respected mainly because he’s funny and a nice guy. Another comic struggles every time.
The bitterness is almost palpable. Sure five years isn’t that big of a deal when you look at comics with a twenty years career, but my guess is that’s the case at every stage. Somebody is out there who has been at it for 15 years and can’t get beyond the local club and can’t figure out why.
It gets harder, it gets easier.
Deny it or abide by it, but it’s not easy being a standup comic and having a relationship. I’m not saying it’s impossible but damned if isn’t trickier than for other people. You keep odd hours, you keep odd friends, you travel to odd places. It’s hard for someone outside of the community (civilians) to understand and I don’t know if we always put the effort in to help them understand when we date them. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
From what I’ve seen and heard, it tends to lean towards not working out. Sometimes comics date other comics, either openly or in secret. That presents its own issues too, as the break ups tend to be messy and public whether it’s supposed to be or not. I’ve been broken up with twice in the past year. Each time I always felt like it was a career or them choice and well clearly I had made my choice. While dating gets harder, getting stage time three to four times a week gets easier. Being organized helped but being consistent, and challenging myself to write more was the real work that needed to be done. The temptation is to try and do all of this on your own. Having a writing partner helps but what made the difference for me was enlisting the help of an “outsider”. I reached out to Christina Deans, who is a PR person and image consultant. Many days were spent practicing refining my on and off stage presences. She was able to spot the times when material wasn’t working any more, well before I figured it out, and other problems that I was having in my sets. One of the best things that happened to me was right around July I lost all of my material. After the panic, I just wrote down what I could remember figuring that if I could remember it on my own, it was probably worth keeping. Then, I spent a few weeks trying to write enough material to fill in what was missing. Thank God it was an election year. Right around this time, I noticed something. I didn’t have to chase down as much stage time. People started coming to me and asking if I wanted spots. Not just for the open mic or a showcase, but for hosting, featuring and headlining. Seven or eight months before, I struggled to get on stage just three times a week and now five or six times seemed to be the norm.
You will get screwed. It at least feels like it when it comes to stage time and opportunity and sometimes it’s just because people don’t like you, your material, because you’re tall, wear glasses, went to college, didn’t go to college, because you are a girl, because gas went up ten cents…
Sometimes you get screwed over and it’s just in your mind. You can have great set after great set and still not be the name on the tip of people’s tongues when they are promoting a show or putting a group together or need a MC or a feature. I have literally been in situations where it was known that I wanted a spot and standing next to someone who didn’t care about getting a spot and got passed over. The temptation is to get all angry and bitter and bent out of shape.
You may even want to vent and go on some long tirade about how it’s not fair. Don’t. I’ve been there and felt those things and it does no good except prolong your bad mood. A close friend got fed up with hearing me gripe and moan and put me on a 24 hour cut off. That’s it. 24 hours to feel bad about a situation or a set or a missed anything, then back to work.
Now that my 200 sets are completed, so what? What difference does it make? Am I a better comic because I went up three or four times a week and sometimes more? Maybe. In the end, I didn’t clear 200 sets just to say I did it, I went up 200 times to be the kind of person you become when you spend that much time pursuing what you love.
AK felt his comedy career changed in July of 2012, when he became more comfortable with performing a wider range of material. People started to respond more positively to the act, with clubs starting to request him, instead of having to struggle to find rooms, sets and stage time. He has clearly separated himself from all the Atlanta comedy cliques, claiming “cliques are a way of finding like minded comics and hoping one or all take off and carry the rest with them.” He tends to stay away from any negative or counterproductive vibes. AK keeps a realistic attitude about his upcoming comedy calendar and knows although he will be chosen for many positive and career advancing opportunities; that there are so many good comics out there that he also knows he’s not going be chosen for every job, but keeps a positive vibe going and continues to hustle and work the business end of things as hard as he can. When AK and A Jew and a Black Guy started in the Atlanta comedy scene, over two years ago now, we knew we had the talent and the skills to move upwards in the big sea of comedy acts. Acceptance in comedy is earned, and AK went from doing a select number of local rooms to broadening his scope and playing bigger venues during his pursuit of his “200 sets in 2012” goal.
AK’s star is certainly rising and it was an honor to be able to sit down and talk with him about his career and insights into the comedy world.