I am glad that nobody told me that it would take a decade to become a competent stand-up comedian, because I would’ve quit. So I’m grateful that I had no idea. I am glad that people told me “stage time, stage time, stage time” because that’s what I needed. I’m a good writer. I needed more experience performing.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shaun Eli Breidbart.
Stand-up comedian Shaun Eli has rightfully been called one of America’s smartest comics. Whether it’s a story about dining with a vegetarian or successfully fighting a parking ticket, master storyteller Shaun Eli shows you that there’s hilarity in the ordinary if you approach life with a comedic warp. Job interviews? Serving on a NYC criminal jury? How about the Ten Commandments? For just about anything he’s experienced Shaun has a hilarious story at the ready.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I’m a first-generation American, born in Queens, NY. Education was very important to my parents so their dream was for all of their children to go to college and beyond. We all went to Ivy League schools. I’m the only one without a doctorate. But I make my parents laugh, and that’s worth more than a PhD. Spiritually, but apparently not economically.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is better than doing nothing at all.” Really the result is what counts, more than the motive. If you donate to charity just to impress your date, the charity doesn’t care about your motive. They got the money. But I think that in general maintaining a positive attitude is good for you and beneficial for those around you. Unfortunately I don’t have a quote for it.
How would your best friend describe you?
I hope that my best friend would describe me as nice, considerate and compassionate as well as hilarious.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much?
In comedy “stage time, stage time, stage time” is like what “location, location, location” is to real estate. Comedians get better by getting on stage as much as possible. But to take a step back, perseverance has gotten me most of what I’ve accomplished. I got onto two prestigious sports teams (the New York Athletic Club Rowing Team and the U.S. National Dragon Boat Team) after being cut from the teams, because I kept showing up and spots opened for me. I built my business The Ivy League of Comedy into the leading independent producer of stand-up comedy for theatres by cold-calling. I’d estimate that it takes me, on average, five to eight years of calling a theatre before I get to book a show there. Entertainment is pretty much a business of repeated rejection. The benefit to what I do is that, unlike an actor at an audition, the rejection isn’t in-person. But either way you need a very thick skin.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
Before becoming a stand-up comedian I worked on Wall Street. I say that the best trade I ever made was dumping finance for stand-up comedy. I gave up money for happiness, and that’s a good trade to make.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
I was on a date with a woman and she told me that I was funny and should try stand-up. I’d always loved comedy and I’d written jokes but I told her I had no interest in getting on stage. She told me she’d always wanted to try it and had taken a class and started performing. I went to see people from her program in a show. They were funnier than I expected them to be, I signed up for a class, and then started performing at open-mic nights and comedy club new talent nights. Six years later I said adios to the day job.
And then I had to tell them what that meant because they didn’t speak Spanish.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
Hard to say there was one trigger but I realized that I essentially had two full-time jobs and one had to go. I got rid of the lucrative one for the fun one. Maybe one trigger was the lack of appreciation. I worked at a place where nobody said thank you for the excellent job I’d been doing.
Now I stand on a stage in front of an audience and essentially get thanked, with laughter, around three times a minute.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
I always knew I was funny- so many things happening around me seem to just be a set-up to a joke. So I was often making people laugh- whether at lunch with friends or clients, or standing in line at a store. I knew I was good at it. I didn’t know that the more I wrote, the funnier I would get. Or that, well, it seems obvious now, that standing on stage seeing how various jokes worked would also make me better at writing and choosing what to say. Including exactly how to word a joke. Because I can try something six different ways and see which way works best.
How are things going with this new initiative?
The only time I go to a bank now is to take out money from an ATM or deposit a check. I don’t work in one anymore. So I’d say it’s going great.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think it’s more my cultural background. Jews have been story-tellers for five thousand years. Also maybe Jay Leno- I started selling jokes to him a long time before I started performing, and every time he used one of my jokes on The Tonight Show, that let me know that I was good at that. I remember talking to his payroll person on the phone, lamenting that I wasn’t getting that many jokes on the show. She said to me that he had the largest writing staff in television, THE best comedy writers in the country, and that every time I got a joke on the air it was because I wrote something better than what they came up with. That was nice to hear.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Well, interesting doesn’t necessarily mean good, or funny. When I was a new comic I was booked to perform at an arts festival. Not just comedians- I may have been the only one. It was singers, poets, dancers, story-tellers, all sorts of artists. It was crowded backstage so we couldn’t watch the acts before us- they just came and got us from another room when it was our turn.
I was doing a fifteen minute set, and I’d never done a fifteen minute set before. So I was nervous. I thought I started off strong, with the usual material I open with that does well.
Nothing. Not even smiles. I trudged through it- and it’s hard, because when you’re inexperienced every instinct you have when things aren’t going well- all those instincts are wrong.
Maybe ten or eleven minutes in, I got some smiles. Eventually some laughs. But it was awful. Heartbreaking.
This was a Sunday night, and back then I still had the day job in finance. By the most amazing coincidence, at lunchtime the next day I was in a store and a guy came over and said “You were very funny last night.” I said “Last night? Are you sure?” He said yes. I said I am a comedian and I performed last night but it was awful. He said “Do you know what you followed?” I said no, we weren’t allowed backstage until just before we were announced. He told me that the woman before me told the most horrifying story of being forced into an arranged marriage as a child, being beaten and abused daily for years until she escaped and made her way to the U.S.
He said they were all crying when I took the stage, but I eventually managed to cheer them up and make them laugh. He said they were grateful for me.
I didn’t know any of this at the time.
And the lesson is- do everything you can to watch whoever’s on stage before you. In my case I do that because I can often make a joke on the same topic they were talking about, and it would get a big laugh. Of course not in that specific case. But usually. And the other lesson is, if you have someone telling a story like that, don’t stick on a comedian after them. Put on music or something in between.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
Every new comic has bad shows, because nobody starts out being good at something. The difference is, most people start new things as kids- so if you’re a six year old baseball player the other players are also six. Nobody expects you to hit a 300 foot home run. If you’re a six year old learning the violin people expect you to be squeaky. And your parents encourage you. But starting at stand-up comedy, which people do as an adult, it’s different. They expect you to be as funny as professionals. And nobody starts out that way. Telling jokes to your friends is vastly different from being on stage at a comedy club.
But I started later in life, and with age comes some wisdom. I realized I wasn’t going to be as funny as the pros when I was new. I knew my material was good but that my performing needed work. I had confidence in my material. My only worry was forgetting my jokes. I used to carry a set list- a list of my jokes- in case I forgot. One night I did. I ad-libbed “Let’s all go to the pocket of funny” and I pulled out the piece of paper. That got a laugh, I looked at the list and was able to continue.
I may still have a set list with me but I never have to look at it when I’m in front of an audience.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
As the courtroom lawyers might say, “Objection. Assuming facts not in evidence.” I didn’t have a strong emotional support system. My parents didn’t think comedy was a good idea. They wanted me to concentrate on earning money- because they lived through the Depression and financial security was their number one concern. Being from a different generation, I took financial security for granted and was more focused on happiness. That’s a nice luxury.
But my friends and clients in banking did support me by coming to shows when I needed an audience to be there. For that I’m grateful.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
Oh, just standing on stage in front of people expecting you to make them laugh is far from a comfort zone. I mean, I’m comfortable with it now, but in the beginning? Terrified. There were nights I would seriously hope that the show got cancelled so I wouldn’t have to go on stage.
That terror subsided with time. And even a bad night wasn’t terrible. The difference between being 20 and having a bad show, and being 40 and having a bad show, is vast. When you’re 20 you’re miserable for a week. When you’re 40 you think “Okay, what did I do wrong that I can avoid or fix next time? And I have a show in a few days, so look forward, not backward.”
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
First, I am glad that nobody told me that it would take a decade to become a competent stand-up comedian, because I would’ve quit. So I’m grateful that I had no idea. I am glad that people told me “stage time, stage time, stage time” because that’s what I needed. I’m a good writer. I needed more experience performing.
Second, I wish someone had told me that the parable of the better mousetrap is nonsense. Plenty of people have built better mousetraps- there are tons of them available and even more that have been patented but not sold. Still, people are buying the old snap-traps. You can build a better mousetrap but nobody’s beating a path to your door. You have to make them believe it’s a better product. THAT’S the hard part. Not the invention, the marketing. My shows are beloved and I can prove it, but if someone’s had a bad comedy show previously, they’re still hesitant to try again.
I say “If someone got food poisoning at your event would you never serve food again, or would you just find a different caterer?” People don’t know what they’re doing and they hire a bad comedian and they think it’s comedy’s fault.
Third, I wish someone had told me to spend the money to outsource what I could. Comedians are rugged individualists- we’re the writer and performer. We’re also the wardrobe person, the stage manager, the marketing team, the bookkeeper, often also the sound and lighting person. Plus the web designer- and that’s a big deal these days. I should’ve had someone do all my web work, because that took a ton of time away from writing and rehearsing.
Fourth, I wish someone had told me to rehearse at home. Everyone says you need to be in front of an audience to get better, but that’s not everything. It’s of the utmost importance, but rehearsing at home has its benefits. I’m a much stronger performer since I started walking around my house telling jokes to the walls and furniture. I’d say at least once a week I think of a tag (an additional punchline to fit into a joke) just from talking to myself.
And fifth, I wish someone had told me that the real secret to success in stand-up comedy- Well, I say it’s one third writing, one third performing and one third marketing. And you have to be good at at least two of them. If you’re good at all three you’re golden. But two is enough. But the real secret to success, at least starting out in NYC, is that you have to get good really fast. Because when people see you get good fast they notice and you get talked-about. And you get opportunities. If you get good slowly people just remember you back when you weren’t that good. They don’t see the progress. But also starting out young is a very big deal. I wish someone had pushed me into stand-up comedy when I was 22. Although I probably was too timid, so who knows how that would’ve worked out.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Have a positive attitude. I’m a big believer in the science of positive psychology. There are a lot of things you can do to increase your own happiness. And it spreads- if you’re happy you make those around you happy, and they make you happier in return.
What do you want to be remembered for the most?
I’d love to be remembered as the greatest comedian of all time, but I’ll settle for “He was so funny, he made so many people laugh, and he was also such a great guy. And he lived to 100 with all his mental and physical abilities intact.”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Ah, they very much can. My website www.BrainChampagne.com not only has some stand-up videos, it also has a TON of jokes. There’s over 50,000 words worth of jokes on my website. To give you an idea how much that is, a typical novel is only 100,000 words.
And you can also sign up for my monthly emails- you’ll get original comedy and stories from the world of stand-up. And I don’t share the email addresses with anybody.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
And to you and your readers!