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To Make It In Comedy You Have To Bet On Yourself

Stephen Agyei (left) and Roy Wood Jr. talk about what it takes to make it in comedy.
Jeffrey Nicholson/Courtesy of Stephen Agyei; Mindy Tucker
Courtesy of Roy Wood Jr.
Stephen Agyei (left) and Roy Wood Jr. talk about what it takes to make it in comedy.

When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who's already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

Midway through college, Stephen Agyei quit the track and field team, signed up for a stand-up competition, got on stage and did his first set. He knew immediately that he was going to do whatever it takes to make it in comedy.

"I would watch my stand-up in comparison to other comics," he says. "I would go do a five-minute set one night, I would put it on the TV and right next I'd put a DVD of Chris Rock in. And I'd watch a minute of mine and then 10, 15 minutes of his. I'm like, 'How did he get all them damn laughs, and I got one laugh?' "

Today, Stephen is a fixture on the comedy scene in Denver, where he lives. He's opened for well-known comics like Roseanne Barr and Dave Chappelle, and he's thinking about the next step. He still has a day job, and he's worried about giving up that security to do comedy full time.

To help figure out his next move, he spoke with Roy Wood Jr., a veteran comic probably best known as one of the fake news correspondents on The Daily Show.

Roy encouraged Stephen to take the plunge and move to Los Angeles or New York.

"You gotta keep living in an uncomfortable zone," Roy says.

Lessons From Roy Wood Jr.

On giving up the day job

In my experience, once you're the king of the city, once you can just show up and go up in any comedy club in your region, it's probably time to leave. ... You can't just work to pay bills and "hopefully this club will move me up to headliner and I'll make a little more money."

How is this helping you sell a script or shoot a sketch? Also, who are you surrounded by? The advantage that you have on the coast is when it's time to cast your Web series or find someone with a camera who will shoot your Web series. You meet so many other dreamers in these cities. This is where dreams converge.

On taking comedy seriously

You know, you see the comics that record their sets, and I was like, maybe I should start doing that. These people paid money, got dressed, got a babysitter. They deserve a good show, so I need to make sure this new joke I'm working on, I can remember when I get onstage.

On betting on yourself

The one thing I wish I'd of done sooner was get the hell out of Birmingham [Wood's hometown in Alabama]. I love my home, but that's not where I needed to be comedically. For me, I wanted more. I wanted to try and do more.

So at some point you have to take a gamble and go to the coast and really start betting on yourself. For me, the South, it was fun, but it was all I knew as well.

But for me, in my head I was always a full-time comic. You couldn't tell me I wasn't a full-time comic. I had two gigs a month, and I was like "Yeah, it's slow right now but it's gonna speed up." I never chose work over a gig in my career.

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