Bill Stiteler is a comedian living in Queens. So many people move here to try their hand at that starving artist bit, but only a select few persevere. Bill is one of those few. Sarah Salovaara talked to him about how he does money.
Sarah: Hi, Bill Stiteler, please tell us about yourself.
Bill: Okay. I’m a 24-year-old male, comedian, living in Queens.
Sarah: How much money do you make from your stand-up work?
Bill: Currently $30-$100…a year.
Sarah: And how many shows do you average a week?
Sarah: Are you pleased with your earnings?
Bill: From stand-up? Yes.
Sarah: So, when there is a cover charge for a show, where does all that money go? Straight to the club?
Bill: In New York, you sacrifice making money for stage time. Most of the shows I do are free, and not at comedy clubs. The compensation is an audience of actual people. It’s not all without reward, though. I get paid in things like drink tickets and cookies.
Sarah: On what occasions do you make money from stand-up?
Bill: The occasional NYC bar show will charge a cover and give you a little piece of the door ($10-20.) If you’re working comedy clubs in Manhattan, you’ll get paid for a spot, but those gigs go to pro comics. The real money in stand-up is not in NYC, but on the road. I’m doing my first big road gig this Saturday in Philadelphia at Connie’s Ric Rac. I’ll take a percentage of what they make off the door, then split it up between the other comics I’m bringing.
Sarah: So when you do a show out of town, are you expected to pay your way there?
Bill: It all depends on the venue. The clubs are more likely to pay for your lodging and travel, whereas bars will just give you a percentage of the ticket sales. But Connie’s found us a place to sleep, so our only expenses will be food and gas.
Sarah: Why do you live in New York if the money isn’t here?
Bill: This is where stage time is. At my level–two years in–that’s a gazillion times more valuable than money. I’m surrounded by the future of stand-up comedy, and that pushes me to be better/funnier every day.
Sarah: When you moved here in 2011, how did you make a living?
Bill: I had just dropped out of college and got the first job I could find at The Paris Theater. I made $7.50 an hour, working 35-40 hours a week, and lived off that for a year.
Sarah: What did you do at the Paris?
Bill: Usher, concession, box office.
Sarah: How did you budget? What were your day-to-day expenditures?
Bill: My rent was $550 and the unlimited MetroCard was $96. I worked it out so I could spend $7-10 a day, because my only expense at the time was food. I’d make two terrible meals a day at home with items I could buy in bulk. Usually oatmeal with LOTS of peanut butter for breakfast, and whole-wheat pasta with zucchini for dinner. I’d eat one cheap meal out a day for lunch. Typically, a $5 item from a halal cart, or a $5 Subway sandwich.
Sarah: And you didn’t have any loans to pay off, correct?
Bill: Right. My mom was paying for my tuition up to that point. (I love you, mom.)
Sarah: Did you ever splurge on something, or is your self-control that impressive?
Bill: I couldn’t splurge, I would’ve starved! (Not really, my parents would’ve helped me out a little.) I remember I broke my budget one week to buy a $20 subscription to a paid podcast called “Never Not Funny.” But I did the first year here without things like A/C and new clothes, I was living out of suitcase and had a burner cell phone.
Sarah: A burner cellphone?
Sarah: What was your financial situation growing up? Was this lifestyle a huge change for you?
Bill: I grew up lower-middle class in a tiny house in the South Side Flats of Pittsburgh. I had a small room so lack of space doesn’t bother me. If I was making what I make now back home, I’d be very comfortable. $7.50 an hour back in Pittsburgh is fine. The cost of living in New York is insanity, but if you’re in comedy you have to be here.
Sarah: You weren’t running around with mom’s credit card at the mall.
Bill: Good God no. I’d get new clothes at Christmas and Back to School shopping.
Sarah: After a year at the Paris, you got a new job. What was it?
Bill: I got a job as the scoreboard operator for The Newlywed Game.
Sarah: And how much were you making then?
Bill: $125 a day, at 4 days a week.
Sarah: How did your spending patterns change? Were you still as thrifty?
Bill: After the first paycheck came, I immediately went to the movies and bought a FULL PRICE ticket for Moneyball. I almost cried. The Newlywed Game job was only for 2 1/2 months, so I knew the money would eventually run out. I tried to save as much as possible, but I have to admit to getting a new pair of shoes and a new pair of black jeans. Crazy, right??
Sarah: Did you do laundry when you worked at the Paris? Be honest.
Bill: I 100 percent did. I got my laundry costs down to $4.50, I had a system. I’d load up two washers with whites/colors $1.75 each. Then put everything together in the same dryer with a dollar’s worth of time. HIGH heat.
Sarah: Where are you working now?
Bill: I work for a company that lights television shows. It’s a great job, 9-5, salary, benefits, free MetroCard, vacation days.
Sarah: So you have a savings account now?
Bill: No, I still do it all in checking. I now budget my life to $10-20 a day on food, and I have someone wash my laundry. High life.
Sarah: Are you happy with your standing? Do you think your path would be different if you stayed in school?
Bill: 100 percent happy, I’m completely on the right path. If you want to do comedy, I believe you have to have an “all in” attitude; I have given myself no choice but to succeed at it. I have no other options, no other marketable skills. You’re not going to learn to be funny in school: you’re either are or you aren’t. And if you are, you have to come to New York and prove yourself night after night after night.
Sarah: So, for you, it’s better than working a more traditional, high paying 9-to-5, while still devoting nights to stand-up?
Bill: Right. If I leave work, and the focus is still on my job, and not 100 percent on comedy, that’s a loss. More money = more responsibility. Right now, I’m at the very bottom of a company, basically a messenger, and it’s BLISSFUL. It pays for all my expenses, and I get to do the thing I love.
Sarah: Where do you see yourself in five, 10 years? Are you willing to live like this for as long as it takes to get your break?
Bill: In 5-10 years, I see myself making a living creating comedy. Whether it be as a stand-up on the road, or an actor, or working for a company that produces comedy. It takes years and years to develop your craft. Most comedians break in their late 20s, early 30s. It’s just soooo sooo hard, and takes a lifetime of effort. My hard work is already slowly starting to pay off, so I’m excited about the future!
Sarah Salovaara lives in New York.