Not Everybody Has Talent

And not everybody can make it.

My old friend Barney Kugel invited me to celebrate his 70th birthday at the Comedy Chateau in North Hollywood. After decades in the music business, and haunting the rock clubs after sacrificing his last industry job, Barney has shifted his focus to comedy, he says that’s where the action is. Furthermore, so many of the rock clubs he frequented closed during Covid and never reopened.

So of course I’m gonna go. Barney and his wife were very good to me after my wife moved out. We share history.

Now the Comedy Chateau would be considered a house on the east coast, not that anybody ever lived in it. But it’s got that feel, wooden beams, high ceiling…this is not unusual in Los Angeles. So, you get this homey feeling.

And there was a two-drink minimum. This is what they used to have at all the music clubs in the sixties and seventies. The admission fee only got them so far, they needed to pay the bills, and clubs have never been a good business.


After sitting down and being greeted by Barney, he started introducing me to his friends. There was a whole scene. Akin to the rock scene of yore. But in this case no one was in their twenties. As a matter of fact, a lot of these people were in their fifties or even older. But there was a sense of belonging, I could see why this appealed to Barney.

And then the standup began.

It was Sunday night, New Faces night, i.e. amateur night.

There’s a long history of this in both music and comedy. One night when you sign up and you get to strut your stuff. And I expected everybody to be just that, an amateur, a new face, but this was not the case at all. Nobody was a newbie, everybody had done it before, much more than once, most had a relatively well-honed act, they did not look at their notes, they gave it their all for five minutes and then the red light came on…and most stretched another minute or two.

Meanwhile, Barney told me that there was a lot of politics involved. Just getting on the bill, never mind your placement. There was a host, a la Richard Belzer back in the days of Catch a Rising Star, not only introducing, but insulting, making jokes, keeping the night going.

And even though Barney and his minions ultimately left early, I stayed until the very end. First and foremost because of the lure of live entertainment, in a club you’re right there. So different from being at home in front of the flat screen. And second because I was fascinated by the talent, the experience, what was going on.

Lenny Clarke was the king of Boston comedy. Hosted an evening of comedy. And he got a representative from “The Tonight Show” to come one evening. This was his big chance. As well as that of the rest of his buddies, they’d been doing this for years, their acts were honed, they were on the way to the big time.

But the “Tonight Show” man was only interested in one person, almost a newbie, he ignored Lenny and his friends, he was only interested in Steven Wright.

Steven Wright? That guy just started, he hadn’t paid his dues, he was not one of the kingpins, this was patently unfair.

But Wright went to the west coast, was on “The Tonight Show” and became an instant star, in the mid-eighties, before the comedy boom really took hold.

You may be aware of Steven Wright. You may even know some of his jokes by heart. I certainly do, I employ them on a regular basis. I don’t steal them, I credit Wright, because the insight is so good and the jokes so bizarre…

My favorite is the night Wright came home and put his key into the front door and his house started up. And since it was going, he decided to take it around the block for a spin. And he’s stopped by a cop, who asks Steven where he lives, and Wright says “Right here.”

And then the one liner, saying “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.”

I can watch an entire one hour comedy special and not remember a single joke. But these from Steven Wright, are embedded in my brain.


Sunday night there were about fifteen comics. One said she went on the road, Barney could not confirm this, and it was hard to believe. And another was a special guest in from Vegas, and I’m not sure exactly what that meant, but he was better than most, not that I’d pay to see just him.

However, there was this one woman. In her thirties. Not beautiful and not dressed to the nines. She looked like someone you went to high school with, sans makeup, like a complete amateur. But this woman…

She had an identity. An affect. She wasn’t just telling jokes. She had a persona. It was odd her in an odd world. But small, talking about her individual life, situations we’d all been in and could identify with, but personalized to her.

She could make it.

And she was the only one.

Everybody else told jokes. Some of them funny. You can get jokes anywhere. But you can’t get stars almost anywhere.

On the way out she was sitting at the bar with her buddies and I told her she was the best one. She didn’t react. I’m not sure if she’s going for the brass ring. Doesn’t matter how talented you are, you’ve got to want it, badly.

So my point is you can do this on a pretty high level, even write your own reasonable songs, but that does not mean you can make it. Odds are you won’t. We are looking for stars, people with that je ne sais quoi.

Think about it. Was Freddie Mercury struck from a mold? David Bowie? You saw them and realized these people were different. And it wasn’t only about the visage, it was the whole package, the music was there, the look, the performance.

And Bowie had been kicking around for years before “Ziggy Stardust.” He meant nothing in the States, nothing, and not a whole hell of a lot more in the U.K. either. “Space Oddity” had already been released, but sans context. It was a song, a record, not part of a whole milieu.

It was a bit faster for Freddie, but not that fast. Although I love the initial Queen album from ’73, at the time I didn’t know a single other person who owned it and I never heard it on the radio. “Queen II” was different, you started to hear it on the radio in Los Angeles. The breakthrough was the third LP, “Sheer Heart Attack,” with “Killer Queen” and “Stone Cold Crazy.” Queen didn’t sound like anything else, it stuck out. And then came “A Night at the Opera.”

And you can’t fake it and you can’t learn it. Either you’re a star or you’re not. This is after the music. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. Sure, you might start off wet behind the ears, but you learn stagecraft over time, you improve, in your songwriting too. But to have a long career you can’t fake it, that’s who you’ve really got to be, and you’ve got to be all-in.

Come on, you remember high school. There was always a kid or two, a girl or a boy, who was different. Who wore different clothes and didn’t care what you thought. They did not need to be popular. And they were usually not denigrated, because they didn’t count, they were not even part of the scene. Oftentimes they were into art, in their own private backwater with their buddies. These are the people who became stars in the days of yore, and these are still the people who triumph today. Sure, you’ve got to need it, but you’ve got to be it.

Now chances are this is not you. And that’s perfectly fine. But don’t plan on being a music star. Most musicians are bad at hanging, making friends, having conversations, especially when it’s not people from their scene. You might be great at that. You can be a salesman, and there are salespeople who make millions a year, believe me. And in Silicon Valley, billions! Everybody’s got a skill. Don’t try to push yours into a hole in which it does not fit. Sure, you love music. As a matter of fact, the music business is overrun with people who tried to make it as musicians but found they just weren’t good enough, and got into the business side to stay close to the music.

So I always tell people to stay out of music. Yes, I try to scare them away. Encouragement is for the birds. Either you know this is your path or you don’t. And if you think it is… Go to an amateur night, hang with your competitors, see how you measure up. Maybe you’ll be inspired and get better. But chances are you’ll find you’re just not good enough. And that’s fine. But don’t expect spamming tastemakers about your tracks on Spotify and your social media numbers will make a difference, because it won’t. Because the expertise in the music business is recognizing stars and helping them with their careers, to get bigger, to break them. And it’s very hard work. The shortcuts of yore are gone. Used to be if you got a record deal you were way ahead of everybody else, and if you got on the radio you’d nearly made it. Today no media outlet equals that of the past. You’ve got to make it on your own. Which means you’ve got to be so good, so different, so special, that when people encounter you they never forget it.

Is this you?

Probably not.

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