Advertisement

Can this LA comic's seminar help stand-ups rewrite the rules to their success?

On Dec. 23, the day the comedy community learned 34-year-old L.A. performer Neel Nanda had died, Mike Lawrence took to social media. “There’s more opportunities to succeed in comedy which means there’s more opportunities to fail,” he wrote. “Rejected packets, videos with low counts, struggling podcasts … be kind to yourself. Celebrate the wins and personal milestones. Chase real happiness, not algorithms.”

It was the moment the veteran performer on "Conan" decided to offer comedians without insurance free Zoom seminars in scriptwriting and packet submissions. Following a pair of two-hour sessions in early January, a third is slated for Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. (with attendance capped at 150), the same night Lawrence appears in the Pasadena Ice House’s 8 p.m. show in the Legendary Room.

“What people charge and what they promise is criminal,” he posted after the initial session on Jan. 4. “I charge nothing, but that’s also what I promise!” He planned more, refusing to charge a fee or collect donations.

Lawrence reappeared onscreen Jan. 9 in a black X-Men tee, burgeoning Letterman beard and thick albeit stylish glasses. Advice to “have a plan” and “know who you are” were right up top. “Follow the rules” was another biggie. “Except when you need to break them!” References included Jo Koy’s Golden Globes bomb and Marvel movies.

“The impetus of why I wanted to do this,” Lawrence says of his Zoom sessions, “is the amount of comedians that are passing away, dealing with health issues, all kinds of things. You can be touring the country and still not be covered. It’s a rough existence. It sucks that it’s a luxury.”

Lawrence’s parents divorced early. He lived with his dad in the Paradise Village trailer park in Davie, Fla. His mother, Alice Colin, had been a SoFlo comedian at Uncle Funny’s and Coconuts alongside Todd Barry and Dan “Larry the Cable Guy” Whitney.

“No one wants to do what their mom does when they’re 15,” Lawrence says, “but I still needed attention and validation from strangers.”

Read more: How comedy photographers capture the energy of L.A.’s post-pandemic stand-up scene

At first, he went with slam poetry. His parents supported his hobby, driving him around South Florida for seven years to the library’s teen readings (until he got kicked out at 18), Borders Books’ senior-citizen audiences, and the Chocolate Moose cafe. In 2005, the first time he tried comedy at the latter, Lawrence says, “It was like Dylan going electric.”

Fourteen months later, he moved to New York City with $2,000 and nothing but McDonald’s on his resume. There, Lawrence worked at Pinkberry, hit the alt open mics on the Lower East Side and slowly found his community at Long Island City’s the Creek and the Cave.

Socializing wasn’t easy. Lawrence was quick and hard-hitting, yet had trouble connecting onstage. He was perceived as unfriendly, with difficulty maintaining relationships. Comic books and wrestling were all-consuming. There was his lifelong difficulty with math but uncanny aptitude for memorizing details; constant anxiety — a fear of being watched or judged. It still feels impossible to shop if he’s the only customer. Returning professional emails gives him panic attacks. He doesn’t drive to this day.

In 2008, as Barack Obama was elected president, Lawrence was bedridden with Crohn’s disease. It caused a severe rectal abscess. There was the chronic depression, too, and feeling like something else was different mentally. With no health insurance, he said, “I literally couldn’t take care of any of it.”

A writing job on a 2012 pilot for comedian and radio host Tom Papa and two for E! came and went. Lawrence recorded his 2013 Comedy Central Records album, “Sadamantium,” at Sunset Boulevard’s now-razed Meltdown Comics. It wasn’t until becoming a writer on “Inside Amy Schumer” in 2015 — when he was in his mid 30s — that he became eligible to join the Writers Guild, complete with insurance.

“I could finally afford to have all this stuff addressed,” he remembers. “I basically bought my diagnoses.”

After 10 years in New York City and several high-profile appearances on Comedy Central’s original “@Midnight,” in 2017, Lawrence moved to Los Angeles. @Midnight was canceled six months later, but Comedy Central brought him aboard “The Comedy Jam” and kept him in rotation as a writer for roast specials. Recurring gigs included “Drop the Mic” on TBS, Jimmy Carr’s “The Fix,” co-producing on “Crashing,” the Independent Spirit Awards, reality fare and more. He has won a Writers Guild Award for “Triumph’s Election Watch” and earned three Primetime Emmy nominations.

Lawrence and producer Adina Pliskin (“Sesame Street,” “Mission Unstoppable With Miranda Cosgrove”) married in 2014. He started antidepressants in 2019 and began appreciating the importance of self-care. Lawrence’s low sperm count initiated the process of adoption in the summer of 2020.

“It was really, really important to me to get a handle on exactly who I was,” he says of the time.

As Lawrence and Pliskin made colorful profiles containing photos and letters, took parenting and CPR classes, and passed a home study from Child Protective Services, his therapist recommended a specialist. A lengthy, three-part process diagnosed him with autism, bringing with it a transformative clarity.

Giving Pliskin the results “was like RuPaul telling his friends he’s gay: ‘Well, I'm glad "you" can say it now!’ She always knew. And she said, ‘I love you for who you are.’ Watching 'Love on the Spectrum' together was eye-opening.”

Their adoption process took two years and three months, with two matches falling through. Son Logan — named for Lawrence’s favorite superhero — arrived in November 2022. Lawrence’s father died three months later.

“He could have just told me he didn’t want to be a grandfather,” Lawrence began joking onstage. It bothered him that his dad worked full-time to the end.

“It’s a testimony to my parents that they really supported whatever dumb thing I did,” he says of their influence. “It’s the template of how I want to be with Logan. Even if we think he’s wrong, whatever he’s into is fine.”

Read more: L.A. stand-up specials stand out in a year of DIY comedy

During the 2023 strikes, Lawrence heard from Pete Davidson, who originally sought his comic-book expertise for a DC project. He opened for Davidson’s theater dates for six months, entertaining the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member with stories of uneasy fatherhood. Lawrence was an "SNL" guest writer the October week Davidson returned to host.

It was the delayed season premiere following the strikes. No new writers were aboard. The Gaza Strip bombings had begun two days before. Lawrence was intimidated.

“It’s an institution. Can I hang? Am I good enough?” he asked himself. Though discouraged when a pitched sketch failed, his punch-up jokes successfully made it to air.

“I don’t have to feel like a fraud,” Lawrence realized. “Having imposter syndrome — the ‘Am I worthy? Can I say I’m a dad in the same way that person says they’re a dad?’ — it’s the stuff that gets into your head.”

Lawrence left Twitter in 2020. His professional focus rests on series writing, though he’s continued performing live “a few times a month.” Recent spots include at Blind Barber as well as evenings at Largo comedy club with Sarah Silverman, Pete Holmes and comedy hero Patton Oswalt.

“Because I don't drive,” he insists, “it’s still that New York mentality that it costs me 60 to 80 bucks to do a show!”

Along with the writing seminar on Jan. 20 and the Ice House set, Lawrence returned to work this week on Season 2 of Davidson’s Peacock series, “Bupkis.”

“I’m still horribly depressed a lot of the time,” he admits. “But now I have a kid, so I can’t think about killing myself anymore.”

With a revitalized career and fatherhood on his plate, Lawrence's perspective on success has notably shifted.

“The key to success is lowering your expectations of it,” he said. “It’s healthier to do [your passion] because you like it, and not be obsessed to the point of letting it define you,” Lawrence says. “I’ve never felt the fulfillment that I have in this.”

Sign up for L.A. Goes Out, a weekly newsletter about exploring and experiencing Los Angeles from the L.A. Times.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.