Wissot: Did you become what you hoped to become?
I knew what I wanted to be for the first time when I was 10. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my first sports hero, Willie Mays, and replace him as the center fielder of the New York Giants. I didn’t succeed for two reasons. One, the Giants moved to San Francisco three years later, and two, I sucked at baseball. I couldn’t possibly have predicted the former, but I should have had a better inkling about the latter.
My ambitions moved in a different direction when I was 20. I graduated from college in three years so I could begin my quest to write the great American novel by taking classes at the prestigious University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. Among its illustrious alumni was Tennessee Willams. And on its distinguished faculty when I arrived was Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
You will not find any mention of me in books about the Writer’s Workshop. I lasted less than a year. The decisive turning point was when an instructor in a short story class wrote the following in the margins of an assignment I submitted: “Have you considered writing menus or greeting cards?” I didn’t stick around long enough to be humiliated by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Then there was my foray into entertainment, first as a talk show host on Denver’s KNUS radio in the late ’80s, and then as a stand-up comic in the
But as I soon discovered being a good talk show host required more than a glib tongue and a bucket full of opinions. The best of Denver’s talent at the time, like the legendary Peter Boyles and the late Alan Berg (murdered by white supremacists in 1984), were fearless. They didn’t care if people liked them, agreed with them, or in the case of Berg, threatened to kill them.
They spoke their minds and let the chips fall as they may.
I wasn’t built that way. I did care what people thought of me. I wanted their approval. I needed to be liked. I hedged my bets. I equivocated. Cowards do not a good talk show host make.
I needed three years to reach that conclusion.
The decade I spent in comedy provided me with more valuable insights. My first professional road gig was in Madison, Wisconsin, opening for Drew Carey. This was before Carey made his mark on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, went on to be the star of his own sitcom, and became Bob Barker’s replacement on “ The Price Is Right.” He was an unknown but not for very long, unlike me, who has succeeded at remaining unknown my entire life.
I learned from him, and many of the other comics I met, that there is a difference between being “funny “ and “ being funny for money. “Being funny” is something you choose to be or not depending on your mood. Professional comics don’t have that luxury. They are being paid to make strangers laugh whether they feel like it or not.
I discovered that I was more like the life of the party who made people laugh until he got tired or bored and went home. A poor recipe for success as a comic.
I guess I am a really slow learner because it took me 10 years to realize that I didn’t have a future in comedy.
The takeaway from my career adventures was that I never became what I hoped to become.
Does that sadden me? At the time it did. In retrospect, I wasn’t cut out to be a ballplayer, talk show host or comic. I possessed the desire to try but not the talent and temperament to succeed. As for writing the great American novel, you, dear readers, know better than anybody why that never happened.
I don’t regret following my bliss. It taught me a great deal about myself which I have used to my advantage teaching high school, college and adult learners, as well as in running my own consulting business.
In the best selling book, “Tuesdays with Morrie, “ the dying Morrie tells the author, Mitch Albom, that the secret to life is: “Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hold on too long.”
His advice begs the question: How do you know when it is time to do one or the other? The experiences I shared with you in this column are evidence of my struggle to know when that time is.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.