Success Isn’t Where You Think It Is

Comedian Julia Scotti, the subject of the new doc Julia Scotti: Funny That Way, wants you to rethink what it means to make it.

On Sunday, May 30, 2021, I will begin my 42nd year as a comedian, as I first stepped onto a stage on May 30, 1980. For those of you counting, 14,934 days will have elapsed. That’s 491 months, approximately 506 full moons and over 21 million minutes that have passed. I was, as my parents and exes continually reminded me, frittering away my life for the pipe dream of someday being a famous comedian. Finally, in the sunset years of my frittered life, I’m not only still a working comedian, but I stand poised for the greatest success of my career. And I’m having the time of my life.

Over the course of my lifetime, and especially over these last 40 years, I’ve thought a lot about success and what it means to me. To borrow from the King James Bible and the good old Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child…” At a very young age, I would imagine myself as being a world-famous entertainer, without any idea as to how to make that dream come true. All I knew was that my definition of success would involve gobs of money, adoring fans begging for my autograph, and a room just to house my many awards.

And then I got into show business.

What I did not know at that time was that I was not a prodigy. I had no innate talent for anything. I dreamed of being a singer, a dancer, a drummer, an actor and a comedian, all rolled up into one little, chubby, Italian ball of talent. No one told me that I was none of those things and no one planned to do so. I understood reality as a child would do so.

Julia Scotti (then Rick Scotti) performing in the 1980s.

In my family, it was foolishness to have aspirations in show business, as that was something one did as a hobby, not to make a living. According to them, no one in show business was ever successful. Of course, this made no sense to me. All I had to do was turn on the old 12-inch RCA black-and-white TV to see an endless supply of people who had managed to be very successful. I would show my family that I was different. I was the exception. I would be in nightclubs, in movies and on television. I was destined to be very successful.

Starting as a young adult, I knocked around the outermost fringes of show business for years. I played drums in lounges and in wedding bands, and was content to stay in the background. I could not read music, so when I was offered the opportunity to become a studio musician, I had to decline. I decided that part-time performing was better than none at all and I would just have to be content with steady work at $50 a gig. Maybe my family was right. Success did not happen to people like us.

I had always secretly harbored a desire to be a comedian, but did not dare say it out loud. I wanted to get out from behind the drums and be down front, this time in front of the microphone and with the spotlight on me – the star! Boy, that was success! The problem, though, was that even though I lived just a 15-minute bus ride from Manhattan and the epicenter of show business, I had no idea how one went about becoming a comedian.

It looked as though success as a comic would elude me forever, until that fateful day in May 1980, when I saw an article in (gasp) a newspaper advertising a comedy show at a Chinese Restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey. There would be professionals from New York City on the show, but they were also looking for local talent to audition. What they were really looking for was not local talent, but audiences. They figured that if they offered a spot for locals, thousands would show up to support their friend(s) live out their showbiz dreams. They were right. Out of about 100 or so wannabe comedy stars, three of us were chosen for the Friday night show. We were to do a three-minute set and then get the hell off the stage so the pros could work.

An animated moment from Julia Scotti: Funny That Way.

When I stepped onto the stage of the Jade Fountain Chinese Restaurant, 14,934 days ago on May 30, something nearly religious happened to me. The Buddhists call it satori. It is a sudden moment of enlightenment and a state of consciousness attained by intuitive illumination. At that very moment, I simply knew where I was, where I should be for the rest of my life and that I should devote every moment toward achieving that goal. Comedy and I had married. We were to walk through the rest of our lives together, leaving no room for anyone or anything else. I was as sure of that fact as I am sure that I am typing this sentence. Comedy became, and remains, my water, my food, and my oxygen. I love it as much, if not more, today than ever.

Now all I had to do was be successful at it.

Twenty years later, I was still knocking around on the road, eating shitty food, staying in shitty condos and hotels, and working in clubs which offered no hope of ever rising up the showbiz food chain. Hollywood and TV were where success and big money lived. Many of the people I had started with had proved it. Yet my success remained a distant dream. I was still languishing and waiting for my turn. Still thinking like a child.

On May 30, 2000, I did my last gig at a Unitarian Church in Westchester, New York. My next gig was college and hopefully a teaching career. At last, my parents would be proud of my success. I would have a steady salary and a real job.

I was a good teacher. I loved the work. I felt semi-fulfilled, but I found that I kept telling people that I used to be a comedian instead of saying, “I am a teacher.”

I lasted seven years, but resigned, still remembering that moment of satori on stage 20 years earlier in Paramus.

Julia Scotti, after her return to comedy.

I bounced around to a couple of jobs and in 2011, an old friend from comedy asked me this simple question: So, when are you coming back to comedy?

The time was right to even consider what had been off the table for 10 years. Could I do it again?

I honestly didn’t think so. I was in my early sixties, I was transgender, and almost all of my contacts from my previous incarnation had either retired or gone to the great comedy club in the sky. Besides, comedy was a young person’s game and, to be honest, the business had changed so much since I had left it, I had no idea of how to maneuver my way through it.

The one thing that I did have was a belief in myself. I didn’t get back in with the idea of chasing fame again. I returned to comedy because I thought that having successfully survived my transition and with my newfound true sense of self, I was empowered — maybe for the first time in my life. Whatever I brought to the stage going forward had to meet only three criteria. It had to be funny, it had to be fearless, and it had to be truthful.

Well, that was 10 years ago, and since then I have not only come back to comedy, but I have lived out those dreams I had as a child so many years ago. I have had three appearances on America’s Got Talent; a hit CD, Hello Boys, I’m Back!; I have been featured on Showtime’s More Funny Women of a Certain Age; just filmed a Dry Bar Comedy special due out in the next year; and am planning to record my second album in November. On top of that, a documentary on my life, Julia Scotti: Funny That Way, will be released on June 1, 2021.

By all metrics, I have been successful beyond my wildest dreams. But I do not think like a child anymore. That is not what success means when you achieve it late in life.

I have had a lot of time to ponder the whole success thing. A couple of years ago, I was laid up for a few months after having an emergency quadruple bypass and valve replacement. I very nearly died.

The surgery could not have come at a worse or better time. It all took place when things were just starting to break. I had done America’s Got Talent and suddenly doors were opening all over the place. I was on the verge of being where I had wanted to be for my whole life, and now it was in real danger of disappearing. All my success was going down the drain and I was sure that I’d never work again. I had a lot of time to think, particularly about success, and here is what I came up with.

That moment of satori in 1980 was the most successful of my life. For those brief seconds, I was one with some kind of universal energy. I saw everything with a clarity I had never known before. Over the years, instead of focusing on that beautiful truth and attempting to relive it, I came to believe that success was money and television and fame and all the stupid bullshit that goes along with it. All of that stuff is nice, but it is not success. It’s never enough and you keep working for more of it because you think it makes you more successful.

Julia Scotti at the Gotham Comedy Club.

What lasts and gives me joy and peace is this: I give people happiness and make them laugh. Sometimes, when the world is kicking their ass, I can even help them forget their pain. How many people can look back at their life and say they did that for a living?

I have been blessed to have a voice onstage where I can share my thoughts and hope that others want to enjoy that experience. My art continues to grow as I continue to grow as a human being. I love what I do and I love the people who come to my shows.

When I take my last breath, I know that I will have lived a quality life. Not a perfect one, but a quality one. I will have no regrets, except that I wish I could have more time to enjoy all of this.

Finally, I can say that I am glad for all that has happened this late in my life. Had it happened earlier, I do not think I would have appreciated it and instead, looked at money and fame as measures of successes. How sad would that have been?

There is no timetable for success if all you believe it to be is money and fame. Look inward. Ask yourself, How would I feel if every material thing in my life suddenly disappeared? If you can’t imagine life without those things, you still have a lot of work to do. But if you have love, enough to eat and a modest roof over your head, you are blessed. If you are able do the work you love and make a living at it, you are successful. It doesn’t matter how late in life it happens if you enjoy the journey. The journey, not the fame and money, is the real success.

Comedian Julia Scotti is the subject of the new documentary Julia Scotti: Funny That Way, which is available on digital platforms on June 1. Since 1980, Julia has been honing her craft in clubs and theaters throughout the United States and Canada, performing for the first 20 years as Rick Scotti, and now, after a life-changing hiatus, returning as Julia Scotti. Since coming back to comedy in 2011, she has been named one of the Top Five Transgender Comedians in the Country by The Advocate, has performed at LGBTQ events across the country, and was one of the winners of the Laughlin Laugh Festival in Nevada. Simon Cowell said, “You genuinely made me laugh,” as she introduced herself to a national audience on Season 11 of America’s Got Talent. She was the first transgender comedian to appear on national television and was a quarter-finalist on the show. In 2017, Julia released her first, best-selling comedy CD, Hello Boys I’m Back!, and is gearing up to record her second one. In 2020, she was featured on the Showtime special More Funny Women of a Certain Age.