Hi! I'm Matt "Breakpoint" Heck. You may know me as "Theodore" from the web series "Aperture R&D" (in which case I assume that's the point in the credits at which YouTube had to pause to re-buffer). Presuming nothing falls victim to arson during post-production, In a little under a year, you might see me in a film and a few other odd detours. If you lived on the Central Coast around, oh, 2001-2003, you might know me for doing stand-up comedy. If you've been to Burning Man over the last few years, you might have seen a 15,000 cubic foot helium airship I helped stick 200 feet over the Nevada desert with a Tesla coil concert under it. It's even VAGUELY possible you know me from my (cough) "music" with The Braindead Monkeys, featuring such classic tracks, god help me, as, "Terrorism!". And, if you clicked on the wrong link somewhere, there's a very outside chance you might even have read some of my short science fiction, in which case I'm very sorry, I didn't mean it, and they all lived happily ever after right after a thorough memory wipe, which I would offer you if I could.
However, in as much as I am ever actually cited or referred to anywhere, it's always from something I wrote (essays or code) in my professional capacity as (primarily) a software engineer. Far more people have used the touchscreen jukeboxes I did for Ecast, or the MPEG decoders I helped write for Xing (or, certainly, the DeCSS keys that were apparently lifted from them), or even the video games beta release I worked on, then are probably ever going to recognize my face or my voice, let alone my name. But even then, what DO people remember my name from? A few off-hand emails about Qt vs wxWindows (now wxWidgets) I wrote a long, long time ago, but which apparently had a larger effect than I had any right to expect. In other words, I am remembered for writing something that was really merely a step or so above a private message.
So, now that you know where I'm coming from, let me give you my take on a few things-- because "Silicon Valley" and "Hollywood" are going to overlap more and more, not less, and the overlap is cultural as much as it is technical. I spend some of my social time with other engineers, actors, writers, stand-up comics science fiction anthology editors, and makers (I helped run TechShop for a year or so). They all have one thing in common: burnout is a problem.
I would propose that practically everything you do in this world for love or money will fall somewhere on an equilateral triangle that we might label "Compensation", with these three vertices:
Somewhere on that triangle is a very specific spot where YOU would be happiest, and it probably isn't dead-center. Likewise, somewhere on that triangle is a spot where YOU are RIGHT NOW, and that is the sum of everything you are currently doing, and everything you have done.
Now, I'm not talking about your whole life, here-- hopefully your marriage isn't done for fame or money-- but I am talking about your (supposedly) 9-5 job, plus the "consulting" work that may or may not really reimburse you for the time you put into it but is damn cool, plus the hobbies and projects you participate in because you really, really want to.
The simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the time, the things we would like to do for pay, fame, and satisfaction do not do all three of those things. Often, they only do one of them. Worse, sometimes you go negative in a category. But the thing to realize-- and this can be maddeningly frustrating to try to explain to people who are more comfortable in (or more easily satisfied with, moo) their lives-- is that those things you do that you can't figure out why in the hell you bother? Those things that you still do even though it seems like they're just not worth it? We do a lot of those things to make the sum of EVERYTHING we do a little closer to where we'd like to be on that triangle.
Or at least, we SHOULD.
Now, I will readily assure you that when I was doing stand-up comedy, I was paid, on a good day, in beer. The day I got a raise was when they started giving me stuff that was still carbonated. I did not do stand-up for money, clearly. I was doing it in San Luis Obispo (and, very occasionally, L.A.), so there was some "fame" in as much as the pond was small. But it was VERY satisfying, at a time where my job was paying me very well, but driving me absolutely nuts.
Likewise, my part in Aperture R&D was indeed a paid part. But I was driving down from Oakland and staying in hotels to do it, which quickly cancelled that out. Would I have skipped doing it? Are you kidding?
The Braindead Monkeys not only has never paid me anything, I'm pretty sure it never can: the only plausible legal defense for that stuff is, uh, "art". Nonetheless, we are (SLOWLY) working our way through post-production on another album.
I think the purest example is writing, to tell you the truth. The bottom has COMPLETELY fallen out of the short science fiction market. Anthologies often fail to sell enough copies to pay the flat fees for their submissions. Any serious writer who needs to make rent better damn well start studying screenwriting. I've studied screenwriting, but I love character-driven short science fiction-- so, guess what I write.
There are a couple of ways to look at all this.
First, one could argue that I've scattered my time all over the place, and that as a result, I'm wasting my time, because none of them is going to get anywhere.
Second, one could argue that there are areas where I've opted to stay true to my particular perception of what makes "proper art" in a given area.
Third, one could argue that there are clearly things that I've just done for the fuck of it.
Each of these is partially true, but mostly false.
The first one any modern software engineer will immediately recognize as a load of horseshit. "Specialization" is recursive, and you can fall as far down the rabbit hole as you'd like. Computer Engineer? That's crazy, you should be a Software Engineer, a Computer Scientist, or an Electrical Engineer, you can't do all three. Software Engineer? Yeah, but in what? C++ AND Java? You must not be taking your career seriously, pick one! C++? Which version? You're not using the STL, are you serious? OK, which version of the STL are you using? Wait, did you specialize in last Tuesday's draft, or last *Wednesday's* draft...? Yes, you have to decide, at a coarse/course level, what you're going to focus on. But focus is not myopia, and anyone who gets fixated on anything will become a very narrow expert indeed. You have to decide where your time goes, clearly. Spending your time on your craft will pay off handsomely. But the idea that you will never be able to leverage time spent outside a handful of narrow topics is just wrong, for two reasons: time you enjoy wasting isn't wasted time, and it's hard to do anything you love often and not get better at it. These are things that are firmly anchored at the Satisfaction edge of the triangle. Overspecialization tends to be anchored firmly at the Pay edge-- when you can find work in it-- which is not a bad thing, but you will need something else to balance out your life. And Fame in overspecialization is simply a matter of fashion: if your trade is in vogue, you may be on a magazine cover; if it's not, you may be stuck in obscurity. It's important to decide whether or not either of those outcomes would bother you before you commit to the huge amount of time overspecialization inevitably demands.
The second one I can only lay claim to in engineering, though I'm trying to for writing, and I aspire to one day reach this in acting, and that is to have a strong and serious opinion of how the Art is done as Craft. I absolutely have some strong opinions about how software engineering should be done. Likewise, I have some very deep hunches as to how writing fiction and acting should be approached, that will hopefully mature into proper styles with some more practice and training. These are things I am doing to do them well. I want to learn to do them well for their own sake. I don't expect them to pay the bills. I find the act of doing them immensely enjoyable, but much more so when I know I'm improving.
The third one, believe it or not, is where stand-up comedy entered for me. Believe it or not, I do not have strong opinions about how comedy should be written and performed. I have some common suggestions: that you should never waste anyone's attention (this applies to your audience, your auditions, and even the chump in the coffee shop during the free open mic); that you need to write one hell of a lot of it, because Sturgeon's Law applies, and you can count on throwing 95% of it out; that you must have a tight three minutes ready on tap at all times (I no longer do). Not taking it too seriously is actually what enabled me to do it, and it's also why I didn't tour as a road comic, like my troupe-mate Scot Shields (who did rather well). My sets were mostly based on current events. The research, writing, editing, and rehearsal process was a hell of a lot of work, and if I had been counting on it to pay the rent, I'd have burned out. As it was, I tried very hard, but the truth is, I enjoyed the hell out of it whether or not I was making any progress. If my set went over well, hooray! Did I try anything new and edgy? Was I growing as a comic? Very likely, I didn't give quite enough of a shit about that, at least from my producer's point of view.
So, looking back on it all, and forward to more, here is my advice to you:
Do stand-up. It sounds like you are good at it. But do it for the right reasons.
Since you have decided you are not happy with the balance you currently have, decide which ONE of those points you are most looking for more of (Pay, Fame, or Satisfaction). Then, decide how much of the other two you are willing to lose.
If, for example, you want more Pay, and will happily yield Fame and Satisfaction, then the most straightforward solution is to start doing corporate functions and "issue skits" for public service announcements. These typically involve topics which are either incredibly bland or incredibly awkward, respectively, but they can pay well, and they will (eventually) yield a few new communications tools for audiences that don't react well. Work in these areas is often readily available because so many people just refuse to do it. You can leverage that.
If, on the other hand, you want Fame, and will yield everything else, you can always pull an Andrew Dice Clay or Robert "Bobcat" Goldthwait-- but beware that you will be stuck with that for a long, long time: quite possibly, much longer than comedy will be paying you for. (Bobcat produces movies now, apparently-- the next one is about Bigfoot.)
If you want Satisfaction, though, I would caution you that you may have already found it: you've found material you present well to an audience who adores you. I can assure you that if you want to move "beyond" what you're doing, you will be leaving some of that behind, at least for a while.
The one way to improve all of this is training and practice. Like any job, a large audition list gets whittled down to a smaller audition list partly by two things: resume and education. Better Paying gigs, even more so. Formal training is, at the very least, a sign of "taking it seriously", and being more reliable. This will result in a modicum of Fame among other comics you're working with who haven't bothered, and they will start to ask you questions. This means your name will come up a lot, even when you're working less, and that can be a big goddamned deal. The biggest benefit, though, is your own Satisfaction, as you realize you do, in fact, know what the hell you're doing. (Not so much from drinking the Kool-Aid as at least learning how it's mixed.)
Formally honing your craft, along with a good demo reel (which you should already have by now), will also make it easier for you to present yourself to an agent or manager. If they agree to represent you, you will start getting gigs and auditions thrown your way, *and you will be expected to accept them*. How do you get the gigs you want? Simple: you need to make it clear to your agent how those three priorities balance out for you, and they have to take that seriously. If they don't, get another one. The alternative-- changing your priorities-- is known as "lying to yourself", and is quite often accompanied by varying amounts of drug use and suicidal behaviour.
People like to talk about "going pro". What does it mean to "go pro"? I've decided there's actually a very, very simple answer to this.
You started doing comedy, most likely, for the same reason I did: your overall life was out of balance and you had a job that Paid but did not Satisfy. So you tried stand-up, and found it Satisfying, maybe had some fun with the Fame, and didn't care that it Paid jack shit. As such, even a small amount of it met your needs for Satisfaction and Fame-- something else Paid.
"Going pro" means flipping those two roles. Suddenly, comedy will have to Pay, which pretty much guarantees that it will do less of the other two. You will now have to hold a "day job" with flexible hours (for example, I consult, generally) so that you can bolt for an audition at the drop of a hat. I can pretty much guarantee you that your lifestyle will radically change, and you will become familiar with much, much cheaper bars for your off hours.
Since the entertainment business always involves trading on your name, you cannot completely forsake Fame while trying to "go pro"-- you will have to self-promote, yes, but more and more you will have to do things that get you "out there", and that can be where the Satisfaction falls off. You will have to drive to a few dozen shitholes three states away to perform for a few dozen people just so your agent knows you will, in fact, do so. After that, you will hopefully get invited back. At each of these, you will have to temper your act with your audience to ensure that you leave a positive impression with the club owners. This is very different from the open mic circuit, where you may rant as you please. Club managers don't usually throw out open-mic comics, they just consider throwing out the entire show. However, when you're doing something more serious, there are indeed lists you don't want to wind up on, and you can't do offensive material everywhere. If you have gone pro, and are serious about your craft, you will be expected to make comedy from arguments you want to make and points you need to convey, not a cesspool of foul language and eye-bleaching imagery; this can be a problem for some comics.
If you're "going pro", realize that Satisfaction comes much later: only when you can turn down jobs and still live comfortably will you have the flexibility to really do the material you want the way you want to do it-- to a point. However, it may be that you will derive substantial Satisfaction from the fact that you are doing it all. Getting paid to drive around seeing the country and telling jobs is indeed something to be a bit smug about. But it can be a rough ladder to climb, and for a long time, Satisfaction may elude you.
So, with all that said, what's the solution? Well, the solution is the same reason you started in the first place: your life is out of balance; find something to balance it out. In your off hours in those shitty motel rooms, do something just for the sheer satisfaction of it. Something that doesn't pay. Something that won't make you famous. Something you just like.
After all-- didn't you ever wonder why so many comics play guitar?