This is a part of our Making It & Staying True to Yourself interview series with young people making their dreams a reality.
Under the spotlight at a major comedy club one night and local show the next is a young comedienne with a mic in hand and a hustle unlike any other. Erica Spera is a New York City comic and an almost-dentist (it’s in the family) who fell in love with comedy at an early age watching Ray Romano and Jerry Seinfeld. Comedy may be fun and games for the audience, but for Spera, it’s a practice of dedication, grit, and hunger for one day headlining a show.
Here, she tells us about her journey, what it means to be a comic in the age of social media, and why she just couldn’t become a dentist. This is her story of how she is making it and staying true to herself.
That moment you’re by yourself behind the curtain, waiting to go on stage is why you went to an open mic in the first place.
What got you interested in comedy?
My father loves to laugh, and would always watch funny TV shows and movies with us. Ray Romano and Jerry Seinfeld were the first comedians I knew because we would watch their TV shows and then listen to their stand-up CDs until we had them memorized. I always loved comedy but as I got older I realized I loved to make people laugh. I remember wanting to host our middle school “Variety Show.” They held auditions and I did Bill Engvall’s stand-up routine about airports. The committee laughed and I got the gig — mainly because I was the only one that showed up to audition. Getting laughs is an addictive feeling. From then on, I dreamed of being a comedian and my dad would tell me, “You really would be a great dentist, you’re funny, smart, and you’ve got strong, steady hands. You can do that during the day and do comedy on the side, like a hobby.”
So, I’m assuming dental school just wasn’t in your future?
It feels like I will never escape it since my father is a dentist and my older brother graduated from dental school this year. My brother and I are only a year apart. When we were in college and I was about to finish my credits for dental school, he announced he wanted to apply as well, so I felt like I had an easy out. I watched him study for the DATs (Dental Admissions Test) all summer and get into the 98th percentile. That’s when I folded. Most people have the fear of, “What if I don’t get in?” and I had the fear of getting in and not having the guts to turn it down. I told my parents I didn’t want to do it. I cried — and I never cry. My parents were so supportive and immediately said “Erica, you’re not a quitter. You need to do what makes you happy. This is a decision about the rest of your life.”
You work in an office during the day and do stand-up at night. What is it like to transition from an office setting to going on-stage?
Transitioning from any day job to comedy at night is pretty exhausting. You have two full-time jobs, but I weirdly prefer that. I’m a workaholic and I’m more productive when I’m on a schedule. The office life keeps me grounded in reality. It helps me understand what people who are not entertainers care about and provides another environment to work into a routine. If you’re only around comedians it puts you in a bubble and you find it harder to connect to “real people.”
How has the comedy landscape changed thanks to social media?
TV and Movies used to be the end all be all of comedy. If you weren’t on a sitcom, late-night show, or in a funny movie, it was nearly impossible to become a household name. Now with so many different social media options, there’s this pressure to constantly put out content in every way: YouTube videos, Instagrams, Tweets, Facebook posts, Snapchats. Podcasts seem to be the most popular with comedians to build a following. But, with every medium it seems like you have to be one of the first to quickly gain a following or have a hook. Dane Cook partly became famous because he was one of the first comics to have a website. Now everyone has one.
As great as social media is, you spend more time focusing on things that aren’t your act. So, you have to make sure you’re still getting better and improving on stage. It’s funny how you can be famous in all these ways [on social media], but to headline or get into some NYC clubs, you still need that TV credit to your name.
My advice to anyone that wants to do comedy is that it has to become your entire world to really do it. You need to write and perform as much as you can.
What does it mean to be a young woman in comedy in New York?
It means I get my period more than men doing comedy in New York. Comedy is hard for everyone for different reasons. Every gender, race, and class will have their sets of challenges and advantages. Are there things that I have to put up with just because I’m a woman that I wish I could change? Absolutely. But I’m not going to get anywhere complaining. Sure, I’m funny, but I have no power, no pull, just my jokes. If I quit tomorrow, nobody would try to convince me otherwise because they know how tough this job is. They’d say, “Good for you! Good for me! One less person to compete with!” So, I will keep focusing on getting better.
My advice to anyone that wants to do comedy is that it has to become your entire world to really do it. You need to write and perform as much as you can. Also if you say, “So how do I get a manager?” or, “When do I start making money?” when you’ve done only a handful of open mics, quit. You don’t start playing sports or taking piano lessons to make money. You do it because you like it. You keep doing it because you love it, and maybe, if you’re lucky, someone will think you’re good enough to get paid.
What has been your favorite set? Where was it?
My favorite set was my first set because that was when I got a taste for what it was like to be a comedian, and knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. My first show was actually at Gotham Comedy Club. I took a standup comedy class through Manhattan Comedy School, and your “graduation” is a performance at the club. It was a nice way to show my family what I wanted to do at a professional place like that. It helped them understand and be more supportive. If I took them to one of my shows in a dirty bar basement they would tell me to reconsider dental school or any other career path.
It’s also the only set my Nana Anna saw me perform before she passed away. She once tried to get me to do stand up at a graduation party for her table of friends and I told her no, because I knew it wouldn’t go well. Now I wish I did because it would have made her happy. She was really proud of me. After my Nana’s passing, I was at my Uncle Vito’s house in Florida with relatives and they asked me to perform. I’d say out of the jokes, 20 percent they laughed, 20 percent they’d nod and say, “That’s true,” 20 percent they talked to one another during to explain the joke, 10 percent were about my Nana and everyone cried, 10 percent my Aunt Grace defended me, 10 percent my mom told me I at least looked good up there, and my Papa Cosmo fell asleep during 10 percent. I’m 100 percent sure my Nana was watching from heaven laughing her ass off at me trying to keep the attention of 40 loud, opinionated Italians.
It’s no secret this is a tough industry. How do you handle it?
Comedy is supposed to be fun. It makes people laugh. And it is, but behind the curtain it’s tough. I have this one journal that is patterned and bright. I started keeping a log of things in comedy I felt like were accomplishments. You don’t get much in this business for a very long time, so the smallest things feel like an accomplishment. For example, a comic I really respect telling me “good set,” hearing someone who doesn’t laugh often laugh at your joke, or getting booked for a good show for the first time. As the dates go on, the accomplishments get bigger, but there are still those little things like compliments from your peers and getting booked for a hot bar show.
You don’t get excited to do ‘The Tonight Show’ because you’re getting a check. It’s because it was something you wanted but didn’t know if you’d ever get it.
In order to achieve big goals, you have to achieve small ones. I write those accomplishments in my journal when they come because when I feel down and question myself, I open it and remember how excited I once was to perform in a basement in front of eight people. Celebrate the tiny victories because it’s often all you have. It will keep you going. That’s why if money is your focus you won’t get anywhere. You don’t get excited to do ‘The Tonight Show’ because you’re getting a check. It’s because it was something you wanted but didn’t know if you’d ever get. It’s an opportunity to take your career to the next level and a huge accomplishment. That moment you’re by yourself behind the curtain, waiting to go on stage is why you went to an open mic in the first place.
Get Spera’s full list of upcoming shows, Podcasts, video clips, and more at EricaSpera.com. And, be sure to check her out on Instagram and Twitter.