In and out of the spotlight
Roy Criss logged thousands of miles on the road, lived out of the trunk of his car and was booed by audiences of hundreds. But he also became a national headliner, made dozens of television appearances and “knocked down some serious jack” during his 10 years as a professional stand-up comedian.
And he can go on in life without that nagging question in the back of his mind: “What if …?”
A troublemaker in school, Criss says he wasn’t particularly good looking, smart or athletically talented, “so making people laugh was my gig.”
The Indiana native graduated from high school and, forgoing college, went to work for Pfizer Inc. as a forklift operator. He was later transferred to Lee’s Summit, Mo., and held three management positions during his 12-year career with Pfizer.
It was St. Patrick’s Day in 1982 that Criss sneaked down to the newly opened Stanford and Sons comedy club in Kansas City to take his first crack at stand-up comedy during an open-mic night.
“I’m sure that I wouldn’t have bit it off as a profession for 10 years if it hadn’t gone well the first time, because I’m not much for rejection,” said Criss, now a marketing consultant and spokesman for Des Moines International Airport.
He continued to perform at open-mic nights before he started to land some paid gigs, which meant driving 100 miles to make $25. In March 1984, he resigned from Pfizer and hit the road.
“I don’t know that I had an inkling of how successful I’d be,” he said. “But it was more in my heart. I just needed to know if I was good enough to do it.”
Criss was living out of the trunk of his car as he traveled from one comedy club to the next, unsure of how he was going to pay his bills. He couldn’t make the mortgage payments on his house in Kansas City, so he moved out and opened it up to renters.
He couldn’t land enough shows to make money and keep himself busy. Criss landed a job as a ring announcer and later as a television announcer for the National Wrestling Alliance.
Criss began to headline more comedy shows. In 1986, he made 42 appearances on Showtime, which allowed more club owners and agents to see his act.
In 1987, Criss worked 47 weeks, 42 of them on the road. In 1988, he was featured in a story in USA Today that labeled him and other comedians as “road warriors.”
It was in 1988 that Criss said he hit his stride, as he began to headline major clubs in Seattle, Boston, Atlanta and Houston, and opened for Air Supply, comedian Dana Carvey and singer Lou Rawls. He opened for Chicago in front of 8,000 people.
“It was obvious to me that I just did not have the chemical makeup to do what a Louie Anderson or Jerry Seinfeld or Drew Carey did,” Criss said. “It’s pretty tough to go to L.A. and live in an apartment with three other guys and eat macaroni and cheese again and wait for your card to get to the top of the deck.”
He didn’t have time to spend another 10 years working his way up another ladder, and was perfectly happy doing stand-up and corporate shows until he was ready to retire – that is, until he met his future wife in November 1992 while headlining at a club in Tuscon, Ariz. A year later, Criss moved to Fargo, N.D., to be near her and tried to get “a legitimate job,” but ended up working at a food manufacturing company and cleaning air ducts on the side.
“People in business and industry didn’t view a comic as a business person,” Criss said. “They view you as a buffoon. They’d look at my resume and see this 10-year gap where, in their minds, I ran away with the circus.”
He eventually landed a job as a training officer with the state of Iowa and later became the marketing manager for the Iowa Department of Transportation’s office of aviation before landing his current position.
Criss still does stand-up at some comedy clubs and performed a half-dozen corporate holiday parties in December and January. He would like to do 15 to 20 corporate shows a year.
But does he regret his decision to leave the profession?
“It still eats at me,” he said. “I want to do stand-up every day. But I don’t want to be on the road 42 weeks a year, live in cheap hotels and get stiffed by renegade agents and sleazy club owners.”