07/12/2012 11:25 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

Dying for a Laugh: The Painful Birth of a Star

Vinny was loud and caustic, a stand-up comic who, as he boasted, "put his balls on the line" every night in front of total strangers. I would never have pegged him for an avoider, but in his first session I quickly realized he'd elevated it to a new level. Vinny strenuously avoided doing anything that would help his career.

There was the time his manager got him invited to an A-list Hollywood party, full of film and TV executives who hire comics. Vinny showed up drunk and dishevelled and managed to insult half the guests. And in a more recent incident, his manager had lined up an introduction to a powerful club owner, the kind who can make or break careers, and Vinny hadn't bothered to show up for the meeting.

Vinny didn't think he was doing anything wrong. "I'm not a morning person, and my manager should know that by now," he groused. Worse, he rationalized his behavior as virtuous. In his mind, he was defending a proud comedy tradition of not selling out. "You kiss someone's ass at a party, it seems harmless. Maybe they do you a favor. Next thing you know, you're hosting The New Hollywood Squares."

At first, all I was able to do was get him to admit that he didn't like being stuck on the small-club circuit after 10 years. After a while, he admitted that maybe this wasn't his manager's fault. Finally, he admitted that he was tired of being a bitter, limited version of himself, spending his nights in cheesy clubs or hanging out with the same tight-knit group of loser friends he'd known since high school, smoking dope and playing video games. That was where he felt safe, but he knew it was killing his career.

We uncovered the reason he'd alienated everyone who could help him. He hated needing help -- asking for it felt humiliating to him. This started early on. "I came out of the womb in a clown suit," Vinny told me. "As a kid, I was always trying out new material on my father's customers." Unfortunately, his father ran a business that wasn't exactly compatible with stand-up comedy: He was an undertaker. Furious, his father would regularly beat Vinny and call him names when he would cry. Little wonder that when he left home, Vinny vowed he'd never give anyone the chance to cause him pain.

Anyone can empathize with how uncomfortable it would be for someone with Vinny's background to ask for help. But by avoiding this vulnerability, Vinny had effectively dead-ended his career. The only solution was for him to learn to move through the pain so that he could do the things that less-talented comics did routinely -- asking for help from club owners, sitcom producers, casting directors, etc.

I taught him a tool called the reversal of desire (see the previous blog post to learn how it works). I explained that in his case, the tool would propel him through the pain of asking people for help. He had to be willing to face this pain or his career would never have a chance. I practiced the tool with him many times in my office. At first, I instructed him to use it on less-daunting types of pain -- forcing himself to go to bed earlier, eat better, be nicer to his girlfriend. After several weeks, Vinny was ready to tackle something bigger.

Part of cleaning up his life required a call to the powerful club owner he'd blown off. It was intimidating enough asking him for a job, but now he also had to ask his forgiveness. Vinny's assignment was to use the reversal of desire every time he thought "No way, I can't do it." After two weeks of doing this, he shocked himself and made the call. The guy didn't get back to him for five days, which gave Vinny a chance to use the tool hundreds of more times.

Finally, the dreaded return call came. The owner chewed Vinny out. "It was the longest five fucking minutes of my life," Vinny said. Then the owner got another incoming call and put Vinny on hold "for another five fucking minutes." Vinny used the reversal of desire for dear life, expecting more abuse -- but the other call was a cancellation by a comic for that very night. The club owner offered the slot to Vinny -- who "killed." A star was born.

For more by Barry Michels, click here.

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