How to make it as a comedian in four not-so-easy steps

By Marc Snetiker
October 24, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

When it comes to comedy, there’s no one path to the land of Twitter followers and namesake TV shows (curse you, Mulaney!), though nearly every comic has traveled down Hustle Highway at one time or another. ”You’d feel like a fraud if you didn’t have ‘the story,”’ says Jamie Lee. ”It’s like, I have proof — these are the ways I suffered for comedy.” Here, the host of the series Polished — a self-described ”very young 70” — recalls her weird, winding trip.

Learning Curve
Lee’s foray into improv — at just 16 — was in a continuing-education class. ”It was basically Whose Line Is It Anyway? but in a class with 40-year-olds,” Lee recalls. ”I didn’t think I was a hotshot at all.” She found more confidence at the University of Texas at Austin, studying theater before a chat with her grandmother about realistic job expectations led her to switch majors…to screenwriting. ”I always saw alternative career paths as a possibility because my parents have the most alternative career: They own a concert-promoting business, and they’re both photographers.”

The Odd Jobs
After college Lee moved to New York City and landed a job in Comedy Central’s publicity department but ultimately decided to leave. ”I felt like my interest in comedy was a conflict of interest,” she says. Lee struggled, landing small stand-up gigs that ”elevate your status but don’t mean you’re making money” — and even took on a money-losing endeavor when she flew to L.A. to appear on a VH1 special. She started nannying to get by. ”It was in the job description to cook for the kid, and I’m thinking, ‘Microwave some mac and cheese,’ but they had me preparing nice meals,” says Lee. ”I learned how to bread chicken!”

Next Comic Standing
Lee’s nannying days were done when she found a job as a writer’s assistant for Jerry Seinfeld’s reality series The Marriage Ref. But her biggest break came courtesy of a spot in season 7 of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, where she made it to the semifinals. ”I needed it more than a lot of people did,” she says. ”A lot had been comics for 20 years and had a career outside. I had nothing, so everything was riding on it.”

At Home in Hollywood
Last Comic gave Lee the bump to book college tours, a slot on Conan O’Brien’s show, and an occasional place at Chelsea Handler’s roundtable, in addition to a job writing for MTV’s Ridiculousness. ”It hits the point where you have opportunities coming in, and you’re not constantly sitting with a pit in your stomach wondering how you’re going to pay rent,” says Lee. At the moment she can be seen gabbing on MTV’s Girl Code (Wednesdays, 11 p.m.) and on, and she’ll keep the laughs going until she reaches her Holy Grail: writing and starring on her own series. ”I’m starting to admit that I enjoy acting,” she says, adding with a laugh, ”There definitely were times when I wondered, ‘Why didn’t my parents just make me become a CPA?”’