It Happened To Me: I Quit My Job As A Lobbyist To Move To LA And Become A Comedian
“What’s a lobbyist?” I asked Angela in the food court at Willowbrook Mall. It was the first week of summer after we graduated from high school.
Angela, No. #3 in our class, was headed to Johns Hopkins to study biomedical engineering so she could design artificial limbs for veterans or something. I, too, knew exactly what I wanted to do. I loved television and film and, in particular, the way what I watched influenced my worldview. With no siblings, I had spent so much of my childhood in front of a TV screen that I knew I wanted to crawl inside of it and make it crank out more of what I wanted to see.
I had recently told my dad that I wanted to major in Radio-Television-Film because I wanted to “make sitcoms and movies.”
Remember the pilot episode of “The Cosby Show” where Theo told Cliff he wasn’t going to college? Instead, he was going to finish high school and get a job like “regular people,” e.g., a bus driver or gas station attendant. Then Cliff, in a game-changing moment in family sitcom history, replied, “That’s the DUMBEST thing I’ve ever heard IN MY LIFE!” (Cliff also added my favorite pearl, “The government comes for the regular people FIRST.”)
The conversation with my dad about wanting to do something that I’m sure sounded to him like I want to be a “waitrist” (a waitress-slash-artist) who lives at home and plays with a video camera went something like that, except instead of ending with a Cosby Show hug, my dad began and ended our conversation with “@#$*&!”
So it was back to the drawing board to come up with a career plan that my dad would be willing to finance -– something prestigious with a guaranteed path to success like a doctor, lawyer, or “businessperson.” Basically, something that would limit the likelihood that I’d be moving back in with my parents at any point, which, as my dad made clear, I was always “welcome to do…” But if I did, it would be a sure sign that I had failed at life.
So right there in front of Corn Dog 7, Angela and I went into the cypher like the two tiger kids that we were. Angela confidently assessed the situation, “Based on your strengths, what you like to do, and where you want to live, you should become either an agent in Hollywood or a lobbyist in D.C. You’d be great at either of them.”
She then explained what a lobbyist was. (“It’s kind of like an agent in Hollywood.”) I have no idea how she knew what a lobbyist was, but I was interested in politics, and I absolutely loved the summers I spent in D.C. visiting my cousins.
So I graduated from undergrad, took the LSAT, went to law school, got an offer for a job in the policy group of a major law firm, passed the bar, moved to D.C., and became a lobbyist. Boom. I had the kind of job that wouldn’t cause my parents to be embarrassed when Cousin Larry Earl at the family reunion with a mouthful of Sock-It-To-Me cake asked, “What’s Akilah doing these days?”
By all accounts, I had a great life. I lived in the nation’s capital during the first administration of America’s first black President and enjoyed the company of all of the enterprising, ambitious young minds that it attracted –- not to mention the chi-chi restaurant and bar scene that was built to cater to them.
It was an amazing time to live in D.C. I had scores of friends, awesome apartments in newly-gentrified neighborhoods, an overwhelming social life, disposable income, and no real obligations other than to show up to work appropriately clothed and make a contribution between the respectable hours of 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.
I knew what I was doing. I was good at it. I got paid a lot for it. I even had time to do standup comedy on the side.
But at a time when I should have been ramping up -– becoming a real subject matter expert on housing finance and secondary mortgage market policy; networking at more receptions, fundraisers, and galas; having drinks with another staffer; giving an elevator pitch to another Member of Congress; going on another date with a politico who went on and on about which of the amendments that he drafted made it into the WERTA bill –- I just couldn’t get it up (if you will).
Here’s the thing. It’s not that I didn’t like what I was doing. It’s that I didn’t LOVE what I was doing. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. It’s that it was becoming more and more clear that it’s not what I was SUPPOSED to be doing.
Case in point. The day of the swearing in of the 113th Congress was one of those days for which lobbyists live. Lobbyists pull out their list of old Members to get in front of and freshmen Members to meet. Excel sheets, highlighters, maps, schedules. Blueprints and battle plans. Then they swirl around the Hill moving, shaking, glad-handing, small-talking, and throwing their access and influence all around. But I REEAALLY didn’t want to go.
I had been dreading it since I had gotten out of bed that morning because the swearing-in of a new Congress symbolized the beginning of yet another trip around the merry-go-round.
I sat at my desk for hours trying to talk myself into it. Alas, I couldn’t be the only lobbyist in the District who stayed at the office. So I grabbed my blazer from the hook behind my door, tossed my “Hill shoes” and business cards in my bag, and threw myself out of my building.
As I was putting my face on in the back of the cab, I grew more and more nauseous with every minute that I got closer to the Hill to the point that I was literally ill when I stumbled out of the cab onto the steps of the Longworth building.
I had going-through-the-motions sickness. It’s not that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I literally couldn’t.
My decision would have been easier to explain to my parents, colleagues, and friends if my job sucked. Then I could have kicked over a trash can and crip walked out of the office with a stolen fax machine under my arm.
But that wasn’t the case. Things were good. Better than good, actually. But I knew at 17 what I wanted to do with my life. And what I was doing was not it.
So I packed my things and moved across the country to the City of Angels to become yet another “self-“employed blogger/standup comic/”Snarky Single Sidekick” in a low budget web series/aspiring sitcom writer.
My dad's first response was, "I didn't realize that you thought you were funny." (Thanks, Dad!) But he knows I've inherited his adventurous spirt and fearlessness. (He also knows that he doesn't have any say because, this time, he doesn't pay any of my bills.)
So twice a week or so, he emails or texts me asking how things are going. I respond with the latest updates about my network meetings, gigs, mentors, and deadlines.
Without fail, he responds, "Great news all around! Remember, accept no wooden nickels."
That's shorthand for, "Be careful because people out there are selling dreams." Or, "Be wary of the 'casting couch.'" But, I appreciate his tact.
I'm loving starting over. I moved to LA with no friends and no family. And I'm thoroughly enjoying exploring my new city and all of its offerings. Figuring out where to get my clothes dry cleaned, my nails done, and a solid whiskey gimlet. Making new friends. Breaking into the comedy scene. Navigating the industry. And being constantly surrounded by funny, creative people who are on a similar grind.
Yesterday, as I was capping a long day of writing at a coffee shop in Silver Lake with a drive down Crenshaw Boulevard at sunset, I thought to myself, "I like my life here."
This feels right.
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