I got a letter from a guy who is just starting out in the comedy world. And I don’t know much, but I know a few things. He wanted some advice, so I wrote him back. And then I figured I would just put this up for anybody who wants to read it.
So. You graduated from school with a degree in theatre/film with a focus in dramatic writing. Awesome. You’ve undoubtedly got a solid grounding in the classics, probably across genres. And I’m sure you have a ton of passion for your art. But you didn’t ask about passion or the classics — you asked for some advice about the comedy bidness.
I give you this advice with a few caveats:
1.) I’m 31 years old, almost 32. I only became financially solvent/independent as a result of my art/work very recently. And make no mistake — I’ve got me some credit card and student loan debt. In other words: comedy and writing haven’t made me rich beyond my wildest dreams. But they have given me a way to make a living.
2.) I don’t have health insurance. Personally, I think that’s important. And I tend to think that if people can afford health insurance, they are a Real Success (TM). So by that measure, I am not a Real Success (TM). But my therapist says I’m supposed to let go of that. Of course, she doesn’t accept health insurance anyway.
3.) I’m not the most successful person I know, not by a long shot. In other words, I’m not the be-all end-all of advice. I strongly encourage you to write to people who are way more famous and rich than me and ask for their advice, too. Sometimes they are actually willing to share it!
Alright, with that out of the way, here we go.
Be nice. This is the most important rule of all. Say hello. Make eye contact. Make an effort to remember names. These things matter. Yes, you should be nice for the sake of being a good person, but this is also a filthy craven ladder-climbing tip. That intern at UCB who is taking your credit card information down for your Improv 101 class? She’s gonna be the first pair of eyes on your “The Daily Show” packet one day. Or she’s going to be the assistant at the casting agency who determines where your headshot goes in the pile of hopefuls.
I try to be nice to most humans I meet. But right now I’m also remembering a time I was a meanie weenie to someone with whom I ended up working and interacting for years afterwards. I’ve always regretted how I behaved. Thankfully, I got to apologize, but we don’t always get that chance. It’s a small community. Be nice.
Being nice doesn’t mean rolling over and taking it in the butt (unless you’re into that, which is great!) from an “agent” who demands money upfront to look at your work. Speaking of which…
Never pay to play. If an “agent” or “manager” or “talent analyst” or whatever the fuck claims that you need to give them money before they look at your shit, tell them “No, thank you.” I’ve made this mistake in the past. It doesn’t get you shit, no matter how many people they claim they’ve gotten staff jobs on “SNL.” If connections could be bought by anything less than millions of dollars, we would all be super hooked-up. Also, I would be married to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and showrunning a program called “Kitten Time!” (Note: “Kitten Time!” would just be shots of me playing with kittens. It would run on HBO and win 18 Emmys.)
Move to Los Angeles, Chicago or New York if that’s at all possible and connect with a comedy community there. When I was hemming and hawing about moving to Los Angeles from New York in order to more actively pursue TV writing, my brother said, “Sara, coal miners go where the coal is. Move to Los Angeles.” I could tell you that your TV writing career could really take off in Detroit or Austin or Milwaukee, and if you’ve got the connections and the luck and the drive, I guess it’s possible. But that’s not where they make the coal, right? (Note: if you want to write for film or stage, there’s more flexibility. And you can be a book writer any damn place you please. But you want to write comedy, and I believe you’d still benefit from being in one of the three comedy capitals of the United States.)
I took classes at The PIT when I first moved to NYC. You can also try UCB or the Magnet. In Chicago, check out the Annoyance, Improv Olympic, or Second City. In Los Angeles, there’s UCB West, Improv Olympic West, the Groundlings, and much more. It’s how you can network, meet people with similar interests, and in some cases meet the folks who will one day hire you (this is a point my friend Rob Delaney made once, and he’s so right). These places don’t just offer performance classes — in many cases, they offer sketch writing classes or even TV writing classes. And you’ll make friends in a new city. Friends in a new city are a precious and wonderful thing.
Expect to put in years of work, much of it free, before you get a break. Now you may get a break faster than that, in which case, awesome! But be WILLING to put in the years of work. They don’t have to be super-painful years. For example, if you would dig having a well-paying corporate job and are willing to do the work that requires, go for it! It isn’t “selling out” to have health insurance and work in an office in a field unrelated to your dream. I know that may seem obvious to you, but sometimes I think artists get caught up in this idea that they need to have some kinda cool alterna-image to be a success. Not so. Most authors have day jobs. Even some folks with bestsellers still have “real” jobs. You haven’t “failed” if you’re not making a living off your art. You’ve only failed if you’ve given up on your art entirely because it’s not going to make you famous. If you love your art, you’ll do it no matter what. Even if you can only afford to devote an hour to it a week.
Know that your life may look different than your friends’ lives, and be okay with that. I struggle with this sometimes. You’re a lot younger than me, and you’re a dude, which changes things a bit (some of it’s biology and some of it’s society, and I accepted it a long time ago.) For example, you don’t have to worry about your biological clock running out while you throw yourself into your career. That is AWESOME and you should cherish it! Your friends may get married and have kids before you do, but that’s okay. Your kids, if you choose to have them, will be happier with a creatively-fulfilled dad than with a dad who is full of regrets that he never went for his dream. Even if you fall short of your goals, you can still say you went for it, right? Plus, if you are a successful comedy writer, you can probably hook your kids up with cool shit like tickets to the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, which will earn you endless points.
Write fan letters. This kinda goes back to my earlier point. I received endless affirmation and validation when, as a beginning stand-up comic, I wrote to a famous comedy icon and she posted my letter on her blog. Don’t be afraid to tell people you think they are awesome. Don’t be afraid to ask them for tips. Just don’t say to anyone, ever, “How’d you get that?” It’s the most annoying question in the world and it implies that “getting that” (a spot on a house team at UCBT, an Emmy, a book deal, a date with Christina Hendricks) was the easiest thing in the world and that it required zero work. Most great success comes as a result of a combination of things: hard work and luck. I heard someone say once, “The luck doesn’t show up unless the hard work does.” And the tale of the hard work is often really long and winding and sometimes super-boring.
You will meet everybody at least twice. Remember that letter I wrote to that famous comedy icon? Her manager’s assistant read it. A few years later, I wrote her another letter, and guess who read it? The same person — except now the assistant had moved up to be the manager. I included some links to my work, and she watched them and liked them. She was on tour with her client, and she emailed me to ask if I’d like to come see the show at Radio City Music Hall. Of course I said yes. We met up backstage, arranged a time to have brunch, and eventually I became her client, too. You just never know.
Study. One of my most successful friends in comedy also has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of his favorite TV shows and stand-up routines. When I first started doing comedy, I sat down with DVDs of Cosby and Carlin and Bruce and Cho and Silverman and Bamford and Oswalt and Murphy and watched for hours. It helped me figure out what I wanted to do and say.
Remember that sometimes dreams change, and that’s okay. I used to want to be a kickass successful professional stand-up comic. Over time, my dream changed to something I’d wanted to do since I was a little kid — write books. And then that dream expanded to writing and producing for television.
Alright, that’s about all I’ve got. I hope it helps. Congratulations on completing your degree! Now write write write and write some more, and don’t stop writing until you’ll said everything you want to say. Break all your legs!