A lot of what Mike Baldwin has faced while trying to make it as a comedian is not funny: being told “no,” being broke, wondering how to pay the bills.
“As recently as a year ago I seriously considered selling Kirby vacuums door-to-door,” the Kansas City comic said. “And I’ve never been shy about asking people for money.”
Baldwin has asked people for money on Facebook, begged for change at the end of cafeteria lines and called friends for cash when his car broke down.
But a funny thing happened on his way to protracted poverty — he recently won the prestigious Seattle International Comedy Competition.
Yes it is. It’s the competition that helped launch the career of the late Mitch Hedburg. Along with contests in San Francisco and Montreal, it’s one of the three biggest in North America.
And, oh yeah. First place came with a $5,000 check.
It was Baldwin’s second win in a year, having earlier won $1,000 in Comcast’s Trial by Laughter competition in Indianapolis.
While he didn’t get into comedy to get rich, money is nice.
“It’s already spent,” he said. “My manager got his cut, I paid my rent up, and my insurance and my cell phone, and paid off my vehicle.”
Now he’s dreaming of bigger things.
“I’m really hoping that some sort of TV will come from this,” he said. “My manager is setting up meetings with different networks. But the first thing that’s happening is I get to work at the Comedy Underground in Seattle again, and they’reflying me up there!
This is the first time that a club is paying for my flight.”
Up until now, Baldwin, 30, has spent much of his time driving himself, often in cheap, unreliable transportation.
“When I was 18 or 19 I drove to Chicago on a whim,” he said. “On the way back the drive shaft on my truck literally fell off and got crushed under my car.”
He could have called his parents. Instead he tried to hitchhike home.
“I ended up with three Mexican guys in a van in Coleman, Alabama,” he said. “They didn’t speak much English.
After four days driving around the South, the driver asked Baldwin if he wanted to go home.
“Yeah,” he said. “But I don’t have any money.”
“We got you,” they said. “Then they took me to a Greyhound bus station and bought me a ticket (back to Kansas City.) They were really nice.”
When he told that story on the bus ride home, everyone turned around to listen. He loved the feeling of performing and capturing an audience’s attention.
“If I’m driving in my car and a cop pulls me over and searches my car and finds drugs in it, why does he always talk to me the same way that I talk to my dog if I get home and see that he pooped on the floor? “ ‘Come’ere! Come over here. What is this? This is NO!’ Then I’m like, ‘Rub my nose in it.’
Baldwin began doing comedy in 2001, shortly after graduating from Truman High School in Independence. He cut his comedic teeth at open mic night at Stanford Sons comedy club.
Later he hit the road, where often the pay of a gig covered only the cost of getting there.
For six years he lived with his parents, a fact that found its way into his routine.
“I live with my parents, but it’s not a big deal because one day they’ll die … and thenI’m movin’ upstairs!
” he says.
He has since moved out, but he doesn’t regret losing the bit.
“At 23, that joke’s funny,” he said. “At 30, it’s just depressing.”
Since winning in Seattle, he’s been optimistic. But winning wasn’t easy.
“I did 17 shows over 20 days,” he said. “Very stressful.”
Each year, the Seattle contest draws hundreds of entrants from around the world. After each night of comedy — in different venues over a month’s time — judges chose a winner based on criteria including the amount of material, stage presence and audience response. Some comics run out of material.
“They start talking to the audience,” Baldwin said. “What’s your name? What do you do? That’s a nice shirt.”
Not Baldwin. He took first place 13 out of 17 times.
It’s no surprise to Baldwin that a comic from Kansas City won.
“Kansas City is one of the funniest towns there are,” he said. “Anytime I’m on the road and I tell another comic I’m from Kansas City their eyes light up and (they) say ‘Oh, well, you know A.J. Finney, Conrad Courtney, Justin Leon, Dustin Kaufman or Nikki Glaser?’” he said. “A.J. did very well in the San Francisco competition this year. I think he got fourth of fifth. And he just had an album come out, so there’s a lot of heat on him right now.”
Glaser, a University of Kansas grad, and another local, Chris Porter of Shawnee, were contestants on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.”
Baldwin has a comedy album, too, called “Bees Can Taste With Their Feet.” That album and free videos of Baldwin’s comedy are available on his website,comedianmikebaldwin.com
You might like him. Or not.
“Comedy is subjective, like judging art, or love,” he said.
“People either think that I’m funny because I act dumb, or they simply think I am dumb,” he said. “I just try to be myself. Whenever somebody asks what kind of comedy I do, I say the funny kind — I hope.”
Today things are looking up for Baldwin. Since winning he’s gotten more orders for his comedy album and for T-shirts, one of which reads “Ninjas hate crunchy leaves.” (Think about it.)
Jeff Gase, general manager of the Kansas City Improv at Zona Rosa, said he knew Baldwin would win something big someday, “because he’s committed to the craft.
“He’s done more work than most guys I’ve seen in getting his material polished and presentable,” he said. “I think he will just keep moving forward and upward in the industry.”
Craig Glazer, owner of Stanford’s Comedy Club at The Legends, said he was happy to give Baldwin his start.
“I believe in Mike Baldwin,” he said. “I’m a fan. Because I think Mike gets it. You have to have talent and you have to keep pounding on the door and pounding on the door. I’m genuinely proud of Mike.”
More important, Baldwin is proud of himself.
“Some people are good at basketball and other people are good at telling poop jokes,” he said. “Hopefully (winning the Seattle comedy competition) is a giant step forward toward something, but you just never know. Comedy is a long road of small steps up. It’s a lot of disappointment and hearing ‘no’ and being broke.
“But I think it was Seinfeld who said, ‘This is a job. If you work at it eight hours a day, eventually it will make you money.’ ”