If it hadn’t been for a trip to New York to visit friends, Dave Hill might still be transporting a tub of eyeballs on the floor of his car around rural Ohio. That was one of the many odd jobs Hill had during a prolonged finding-himself phase that lasted from after college through his 20s until he finally stumbled into some TV writing gigs, stand up shows and an eventual full-fledged comedy career both in front and behind the camera. That phase included moving back in with his parents in Cleveland, who also hired (and paid for) a life coach, getting a record contract, then having to take a blue-collar job when that ride ended. He eventually found himself in New York having beers with authors David Rakoff and Malcolm Gladwell.
“I think I’m a great example of just moving to New York or L.A. or somewhere where things are happening and there’s a lot of activity and you just see what happens,” Hill, who lives in the West Village, told Brokelyn. “I came here for the weekend with zero plans and now I have this career that I never would have expected.”
Now you might know him from any number of places: He’s a regular on @Midnight and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, a contributor to This American Life, a regular on the New York standup scene and his band Valley Lodge wrote the theme song for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. He’s also an author, whose second book of essays, Dave Hill Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, came out Tuesday. This is all the jobs he’s ever had:
1. Bagboy, Giunta’s grocery market, Cleveland, circa sophomore year of high school
As soon as I came home after my freshman year in high school, my dad and I got in the car and he took me to the street in the suburbs that had all of these fast food restaurants. He made me apply to every one. But my social skills were so bad, and still are, that I knew even me putting my best foot forward and applying to work at KFC, no one was going to hire me. Just talking to me for one second they were like, “Fuck no, I’m not going to hire this guy.”
My first job proper job where I got a check was bagboy at Giunta’s, the grocery store up the street from my house that everyone in town went to. I worked after school and on weekends and stuff. I played hockey in high school; we would get up at 4:30 in the morning to go practice before school. So after school I was so exhausted I eventually was like, I can’t go to work! And so I started working Saturdays, I cut my shifts down to four hours a week. The manager was like, “C’mon, I can’t keep you on for four hours a week.” So he fired me. That was honestly probably the only on-the-level job I ever had for years.
2. Sidewalk address painter, Cleveland suburbs
It’s a total scam. I heard the Van Halen brothers did this too. I learned this after the fact so I think it’s extra cool now. You just pull up in a suburban neighborhood and one guy paints a white block on the curb and the other guy stencils the address. You put a flyer in the door that says, “Hey we’re trying to pay for our college, give us some money. We painted your curb, if you feel this is a valuable service, donate some money.” On average people would pay for it, with a dollar, $5 or more. So it was kind of like the monks that walk around New York where they give you the card and you’re like, “Oh man that’s so cool, this guy’s got it all figured out,” and then they’re like, “Give me $10.” It’s kind of the suburban equivalent of that, guilting people. ”
I did that for all through college. I guess technically I did use [the money] for college. I paid for books and beer, I paid for everything with it. It was a racket for sure. It was like a mobster kind of job to have. Other guys had proper jobs over the summer; my buddies and I had jobs where we just kinda rolled up in cars that would have paint spilled all over them. We didn’t have to answer to the grocery store manager.
I tried to temp for a while. That was a fucking nightmare. That was kind of good in a way because it made me realize that I never want to be a guy working in an office. I’m not knocking it at all I just knew that wasn’t who I was. I knew I could never show up for work somewhere every day and be like, “Casual Fridays, great!”
4. Program aide, Valley Lodge shelter, Upper West Side, circa college
I quit temping after a few months and I started working at a homeless shelter. I loved that, it was so great. There was food I could eat. I was broke still. So when the homeless would eat, I would eat. I did everything: Technically I was called a program aide, the lowest rung job there. You just do whatever they ask you to do. I would serve meals. It’s called Valley Lodge which is what my band is called. That’s the secret.
It’s a homeless shelter for people over the age of 55. It’s funny it’s called “Valley Lodge” because it sounds like it’s this idyllic place where you would hang out in a sweater and drink hot chocolate. But really it was recovering crackheads. But I loved working there, it was really great. I loved the people. The only thing we had in common was just being human. I was this white guy from Cleveland with long hair, everyone else was native New Yorkers, mostly black and hispanic and people from other countries, so I was like a martian to these people. We could only relate on the very basic things: “What’s for dinner tonight?” “Meatloaf.” “Oh I fucking hate the meatloaf!” “Me too!”
I worked there for three years; I actually went back and started working there again a few years ago. I didn’t need the job, but I missed that feeling of not talking about anything except for what’s right in front of us. It’s kind of a nice feeling to relate on that level. [Note: Hill’s first contribution to This American Life is about working there and accidentally helping a crackhead steal 300 pounds of meat.-Ed.]
5. Record deal and touring with Valley Lodge
Then my band got a record deal. By then I had moved back to Cleveland, living with my parents. So we made enough money with the band that I was just living the full rock star life of a guy in his early 20s living with his parents. So basically I made enough money from music to go buy chicken wings and drink beer.
6. House painter, Cleveland
After a couple years that ran its course and I started painting houses. I’d paint walls with faux finish, make it look like it was made out of marble, you make a restaurant look like it’s been there for 100 years when it just opened six months ago. I knew how to draw and paint and stuff, that came naturally to me. I would drive around in my band’s van that the record label bought us. The poetic justice of it was apparent to me. I was so young that I naturally thought we were on the path to become the next Led Zeppelin. I honestly couldn’t fathom that I would have to do anything else but rock.
One of the houses, this girl was away at summer camp, I got hired to paint her room with butterflies and flowers all over the wall. The mother was like, “Do you want to listen to some music?” She brought in a boombox and on the side of it was as sticker for my band. I bet this girl would actually be really psyched I was painting her bedroom, but I never mentioned it to the mother. Now I certainly would have because I would have admitted how funny it was. But at the time I was like, “Oh man, bummer.”
7. Freelance writer, Cleveland
I was sort of drifting between my parents house and my sister’s house the next town over. Whatever bar I was drinking at, whatever house was closer, I would go sleep there. My sister is a journalist, so she had a computer. This was when the internet was a hot new thing, late 90s-early 2000s. We loaded it up with that AOL software and got an AOL account. We didn’t understand that everyone would have their own email address. We thought it was like a landline, you would just have an email address for your house. We would read each other’s emails. She was reading my emails I was sending to people, it was just goofy stuff. These were simple times. She was like, “You should become a writer, your emails are really funny.”
She was a writer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She brought me in there and I started freelancing.
Around the same time, one of my best friends worked at Warner Music Group, working for all these record labels. They had websites which was this crazy new thing and they needed all this writing on them, so he got me all this work writing for websites. So I would be like, “AC/DC’s new album is their best album yet, it’s better than Back in Black!”
I wrote for anyone who would let me. I wrote articles for XXL, the rap magazine. I don’t know shit [about rap], I know late 80s early 90s hip hop. I wrote for Salon’s sex section. A buddy of mine was telling me about furries and plushies. I was like, you got to be kidding me, so I tracked down a guy who was into this and I wrote a story about him. It was the first mainstream media piece on the subject. That article went all over the place, as you can imagine. Six months later George Gurley wrote a piece for Vanity Fair, ripped me off basically. Good for him.
8. Slaughterhouse eyeball courier, rural Ohio
A the same time, my other sister worked for a lasik eye surgeon. I had a job picking up eyeballs from the slaughterhouse. I’d drive out to the country in Ohio to the slaughterhouse and you’d pick up all these cow and pig eyeballs that the doctors would practice on. They’ve probably got it down by now but, again, simpler times, so they would practice on cow and pig eyeballs to get it right. So I would show up at the slaughterhouse and they would give me just like a tub, literally just like an open tub just of eyeballs in ice and I would put them on the floor of a car and you would have to drive carefully enough so the water and ice and eyeballs wouldn’t slosh up. You couldn’t brake too hard or you’d have eyeballs all over your car.
9. Writer, Spike TV, circa 2002
My buddy was doing music for show on Spike TV called Crash Test. It was a horrible show, it was like a prank show
But they would bring in writers for the writers’ meetings once a week. He was like, “Hey, you should come in for this meeting, and submit jokes.” I did that while living in Cleveland. I never told them; I think they assumed I lived in Brooklyn or wherever. I flew up, went to the meeting, and went immediately back to Cleveland. I was in New York for like two hours.
I knew this was my chance to do something different and so I just kind of followed it. At the time I was freelancing a lot, hanging out with friends. I came to New York in February 2003 for the weekend. The show called and were like, “Hey, would you ever want to work here full time? You can start on Wednesday.” I was like “Yeah, I’ll do it!” I was in New York with a duffel bag and never left.
I would write these jokes and the talent on the show, they wouldn’t want to do the jokes because it wasn’t in their voice. So that’s when I learned, oh, you have to write for someone’s voice. If you think something’s funny and they don’t, maybe you should go do it. They submitted me to the network. Their words were: “He’s too strange and volatile.” Which I think is probably what people still say right now after I go on an audition. I didn’t get the job, it sort of made me go, “Oh, maybe I can be a performer.”
11. Correspondent, Court TV’s Smoking Gun TV, 2004
It was kinda like The Daily Show. They brought me in as a writer and I was making videos on the same time.
This is ancient times, 2005 or something. I brought in a VHS tape, if you can imagine that happening. I was like, “This is me, why don’t you check it out?” It was the first stuff I’ve ever done, just me being an idiot in my apartment. From that they hired me as a correspondent, and I did a couple of pieces. And even the Court TV was like, “He’s too weird.” They were going to have me do a million pieces and they were like, “Just have him do a couple.”
12. Bartender, Bar Nine, Hell’s Kitchen, circa 2005
My cousin who now runs Bowery Ballroom at the time he was managing bars. He graciously gave me the Sunday night shift when no one was there. I worked there every Sunday for a year and a half. I was the worst bartender ever. I could only make drinks that had the ingredients in the name: gin and tonic, vodka cranberry. I learned the power of being a bartender. You have the thing everyone wants so you can be a jerk to people.
10. Standup comedian, writer and performer, circa 2006-present
From that job, I went to write on some shows on VH1, when they were doing top 100 whatever it was. My officemate was this guy Tony Carnevale. He had a show in the back of the Parkside Lounge on Houston Street. He was like, “Do you want to do something on this show?” I did it and it went fine and people laughed. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh this is what I’m going to do now. It kind of grew from there.Then from that point, I started doing stand up regularly.
Right now, I’m on Sam Bee, @midnight, The Jim Gaffigan Show. [At Full Frontal], they’ve got a lot of great people who worked at The Daily Show who are over there now. Her and John Oliver I think are really picking up the slack of Jon Stewart leaving. They’re really killing it, those two. I wrote the theme song for John Oliver. As a fan and as a guy who wrote the theme song, I hope he’s on for 30 years.
Follow Dave on Twitter at @MrDaveHill and catch him talking about his book at these upcoming appearances:
-Saturday, Highline Ballroom, Thor with Dave Hill
-Sunday, QED (Queens), Book Signing & Comedy Show w/Jo Firestone, Aparna Nancherla
-Wednesday, Bryant Park Reading Series, with Mike Albo,12:30pm
Catch up on previous installments of All the Jobs I Ever Had here.