I have the greatest job in the world. I get paid to make people laugh. What could possibly be better than being a stand-up comedian? But as with most things in life, I didn’t get to this point overnight.
After graduating from Wharton, I went to work in finance. I wanted to work in marketing, but I was terrible at job interviews. I guess the marketing people figured if you can’t sell the product you’re most familiar with — yourself — then they shouldn’t hire you to sell their soap.
While working as a banker in New York, I realized that the funny thoughts I had when reading the newspaper were the same types of jokes that Jay Leno was telling on TV. I called the Tonight Show and pitched myself as a freelance comedy writer. When he was interviewed in Fortune magazine, Leno cited one of my jokes as the type of smart joke he liked to include in his opening monologue. I wasn’t interested in being a performer, but a date told me I should try stand-up comedy and invited me to see performers from a course she’d taken. They were funnier than I expected. I took the course and started performing at comedy club new-talent nights, open-mic nights at bars — anywhere I could get onstage to practice.
A couple years later, I went to a networking event at the Princeton Club where we were asked to give a brief explanation of our job. Amidst all the people trying to sound important, I merely said, “My job speaks for itself. I’m a stand-up comedian.” I was asked for more detail: the purpose of my job and what benefit it held for society. I said, “It’s my job to make you forget how much you hate your job.” That was so well-received that I put it on my business card. Now, when people ask for a joke after I tell them what I do for a living, I hand them my card and say my website has several free videos and 50,000 words’ worth of comedy on it. If they’re persistent, I have them turn over the card for a few jokes. (If the back of your business card is blank, you’re wasting 50 percent of its real estate. Yes, I studied marketing at Wharton.) Sample one-liner: “My shampoo promised extra-thick body. Unfortunately, I spilled some on my stomach.”
Stand-up comedy overlapped with my banking job for six years before I finally escaped the day job, and like the jokes on my card, my comedy is clean. Friends, colleagues, and clients would come see me at shows and often had the same reaction: “You’re funny, and I’d like to take clients to see your shows. But the other comedians in the lineup were dirty, so we can’t make it a work event. Where are the clean shows?”
There really weren’t any. But as a comedian seeking stage time, and as a Wharton alumnus, I saw both the demand for a product and that I had the ability to create the supply. I started a company to produce clean shows for comedy clubs, theaters, corporate events, and charities. I wanted an upscale-sounding name, so I called the company Ivy League Comedy. One night, we arrived at a theater where they’d gotten our name wrong on the marquee. It said “The Ivy League of Comedy.” I thought that sounded much better, so I changed our name.
I work with several dozen comics regularly to put on shows all over the country. Sometimes I’m solo or just with an opener, but mostly there are three or four of us on the bill. I also put together themed shows like “Skirmish of the Sexes,” which is especially popular around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. We usually take audience questions at the end of our shows. That gives us the opportunity to be spontaneous and to tell stories that don’t quite fit into a stand-up routine. Our shows are planned to include comedians of different styles, backgrounds, and energy. It’s so much fun working with the funniest people in the country. I was on the road when my father passed away, and sitting in an airport with two super-funny people made the loss easier.
Even after performing for so many years — from stages to Amazon and the Wendy Williams Show — I still love making people laugh for a living. My absolute favorite part of being a stand-up comedian is when I think of a joke on the way to a show and get to try it out while it’s fresh in my mind. Comics are advised never to open or close with a new joke because you don’t know if it’ll work. But even if the wording and timing aren’t perfect, my enthusiasm and energy help sell it.
For most of the past two years, “on the way to a show” meant walking upstairs to my office. I’ve done a ton of shows on the web. Virtual shows took some getting used to, because of the inherent time delays. But I eventually got quite good at the shows, and some of them have been among the most fun I’ve had onstage, if you can call a chair in my office a stage.
People need more fun and positivity in their lives, and laughter can be a big part of that. I’m thrilled that my job description is pretty much “Make people happy.” People work hard, and they deserve entertainment without being made to feel uncomfortable. Regardless of the show or the venue, all that matters is that the audience is having a good time. Thanks to my career switch, I’ve been doing the same for more than a decade.
Shaun Eli Breidbart W83 is founder and executive director of the Ivy League of Comedy.
Published as “Laughing Matters” in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Wharton Magazine.