As shocking as it may sound, not every comedian joked his or her way straight to stardom. Before they were making you laugh onstage, in movies and on television, they were working regular dead-end jobs– you know, like most of us! From waiting tables to applying makeup to the dead, comedians have done it all. Below, we’ve listed 12 of our favorite before-comedy comedian jobs. (Click each photo for full size images).
Ellen DeGeneres: Her daytime talk show is celebrating 10 years of success this week, but before the former stand-up comedian became a worldwide hit and trail blazer (especially for the gay rights community) she was using her personable demeanor to sell vacuums door-to-door. While it obviously wasn’t her calling, she no doubt slung a few jokes in order to get some sales. Interestingly, she mentioned her former job on her show during an interview with Willie Nelson, who — get this — also used to sell vacuum cleaners!
Dane Cook: One of the highlights of his 2003 debut album Harmful if Swallowed was his bit about working at Burger King — aka The BK Lounge — as a kid, but it seems fast food wasn’t the only thing in Dane’s early work life in suburban Boston. When he was 15, Dane was tossing newspapers on porches in his childhood neighborhood to make some bucks. “The thing that sucked is when I would go collecting everyone acted like they weren’t home,” he once said. Regardless, Cook’s work ethic has paid off.
Jim Carrey: Before he signed on to become the most famous (only?) pet detective, Jim Carrey (Ace Ventura, himself was a teen-ager mopping floors. “I quit school at age 15 to begin working to help support my family as a janitor,” he once told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio. “I’d have a baseball bat on my janitor cart because I was so angry I just wanted to beat the heck out of something.” Lucky for us, he eventually traded in the mop for a microphone and made his stand-up debut in Toronto, which led to opening road gigs for Rodney Dangerfield and a spot on the trailblazing sketch show In Living Color.
Jon Stewart: While The Daily Show’s stand-up bona fides launched him into television success, there were many jobs before that. Most interestingly, Stewart worked as a puppeteer, performing in shows for disabled children. And word has it that when puppets pop up on The Daily Show, Stewart controls them. Interestingly, when Stewart interviewed Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, Sesame Street‘s most famous character, in October of 2011, he never mentioned his puppeteering skills, despite repeatedly doing his own terrible rendition of Elmo.
Louis C.K.: Well he certainly isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Before working as a stand-up comedian on stage, Louis was under cars. “I wanted to be a lawyer and argue cases of civil rights before the supreme court,” C.K. said in April, adding, “Or a car mechanic. I would have sucked at both.”
Zach Galifianakis: Before becoming one of the most well respected stand-up comedians of our time (not to mention a co-star in The Hangover, one of the biggest movie franchises in history) Galifianakis cleaned up after dudes who were watching ladies shake their boobies. “I used to be a busboy in a strip joint in New York and so I hate strip joints,” he told NPR in 2010. “I’m not that kind of person.”
Drew Carey: There’s a good reason comedian and current Price is Right host Drew Carey leaves at least a $100 tip when he eats out– he can relate all too well to the server’s plight. He worked at Denny’s in his native Cleveland as a waiter before taking the plunge into showbiz. It wasn’t all bad, though. Dealing with drunk people ordering cheap flapjacks at 1 a.m. probably payed off when he started performing in front of the dreaded two-drink minimum drunks at comedy clubs.
Kevin Hart: Two years ago, Kevin Hart officially became one of the most successful comedians of all time as his Laugh At My Pain stand-up tour raked in more than $15 million in ticket sales, not to mention the record-breaking concert film that followed. On July 3, Hart will unleash his second concert film in theaters. And it’s all because he quit his job selling shoes when he was 18 years old. “I was a successful shoe salesman, one of the best in the business. I could break down anything about a sneaker: Polyurethane, etc., those are the things that I’m educated on,” Hart said in 2009. “I was going to work for Nike but then said I don’t wanna do it, let me start doing comedy.”
Gabriel Iglesias: Immediately before comedy, Gabriel Iglesias was selling cell phones. Amazingly, it was his cell phone job connections that got him onstage. “I was selling cell phones at Wal-Mart and my buddy was there working with me, and he said he’d seen these comics performing and I should go check it out,” Iglesias said. “And, sure enough, it was a rough place, a lot of bottles being thrown all over the place and comics getting booed off the stage. And I went up there and luckily I survived it and they asked me to come back and that’s when I started meeting other guys and next thing I know, I was on the road, within a month.”
Jim Gaffigan: Unlike most comedians, Jim Gaffigan didn’t move to New York to launch his stand-up career. Having studied finance in college, the Indiana native originally moved to the Big Apple to work in advertising. Luckily for comedy fans, the draw of New York’s stand-up scene got the better of him. Today, Gaffigan is one one of only a handful of comedians who can consistently sell out large theaters all over the country. His first book Dad is Fat also recently landed on the New York Times best sellers list.
Jerry Seinfeld: In his earlier days, long before he starred for nine seasons in his Emmy-winning show, Jerry Seinfeld sold light bulbs– over the phone! “There aren’t a lot of people sitting home in the dark saying ‘I can’t hold out much longer,’” he once told People about his dismal gig.
Whoopi Goldberg: Whoopi Goldberg is one of only 11 people in the history of show business to claim EGOT status– that is, she’s won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and a Tony Award. But the comedian, currently one of five co-hosts on The View, had a lot of odd jobs before she found success in comedy. And perhaps the oddest of them was mortuary cosmetologist. In short, she applied makeup to dead people. To put her mind at ease, her boss once played the part of the deceased and came to life. “[My boss] jumped out and said: ‘That’s the worst thing that could ever happen to you here,” Goldberg said in 2009. “And it won’t. So there’s nothing to be scared of.’ I was fine after that.’”