For young, ambitious comedians in 2015, what is a comedy dream job?
If we had asked this question 20 years ago, the answer probably would have been simple. If you were of the performing bent, you’d dream of being “a Leno” or “a Letterman,” or maybe having a long stint on SNL before transitioning into movies. The writers among us would have fantasized about sitting in the writers’ room at one of these famous comedy shows – or, more likely, working on The Simpsons.
But the comedy landscape is rapidly changing. Young comedians no longer have to decide whether they want to be a Leno or a Letterman; they can also dream about being a Colbert, a Stewart, a Fallon, a Corden, an O’Brien, a Kimmel, a Meyers, a Wilmore, or an Oliver – and those are just the late-night shows.
Today’s comedians can also dream about starting their own YouTube channels before transitioning into their own television series, the way Grace Helbig made daily YouTube videos for years before hosting the The Grace Helbig Project on E! (while still making three YouTube videos a week). Or, they can dream about writing or starring in online comedy videos for CollegeHumor, Above Average, BuzzFeed, and other sites known for their hilarious – and viral – comedy shorts.
It is even still possible to write for The Simpsons – although today’s comedians are more likely to dream about writing for Bob’s Burgers, Broad City, or any new project developed by Tina Fey or Amy Poehler.
We are living in comedy boom times, where an explosion of opportunities on ever-expanding cable networks gives us the opportunity to experience a panoply of shows and sitcoms reflecting a diversity of comic voices. Add in the internet and the options to both create and consume comedy form an infinite plane, where browser tabs include everything from Amy Schumer’s videos to Brandon Bowen’s Vines.
What is life like in the comedy boom, and what does this mean for the comedy dream job? Has it changed since the 1990s, when people were, as Above Average’s head writer Celeste Ballard put it, “fighting for the same staff-writing job on Friends?” Are there more dream jobs to go around, or are comedians still chasing the Leno/Letterman apex – and which comedian is currently filling that top spot?
Comedy Structures and the Cable Expansion
Comedy has always been a huge part of the television experience; in the early 1970s, for example, prime time television was dominated by comedy shows such as CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Show, NBC’s Laugh-In, and ABC’s That Girl – and, of course, NBC’s The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.
The sitcom, the variety show (which gradually shifted towards what we now call the “talk show”), and the sketch show are the three load-bearing structures holding up TV comedy; these structures have been present since CBS’s I Love Lucy in 1951 and NBC’s The Steve Allen Hour in 1956. In the 60 years since television became a ubiquitous cultural medium, comedy still manages to fit itself into the sitcom/talk/variety/sketch models, with one significant evolution: when Saturday Night Live first aired in 1975, it began running “Weekend Update,” pouring the foundation for what would eventually become the fourth big pillar of television comedy: the news show.
If the structure of comedy remains roughly similar, what has changed is the breadth. As standup comedian and Fresh Off the Boat writer Ali Wong explained: “There are so many more networks now. I feel like there are five MTVs and it just seems like every network has a kid sister network. There are a million talking head shows and panel shows.”
In 1970, there were about 37 primetime comedy shows on the three available television networks. Most were sitcoms – it was the age of The Brady Bunch and Mary Tyler Moore – but there were many famous variety shows as well, along with the first sketch comedy show of them all, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
Today, there are a little over 50 primetime comedy shows on the 89 basic cable channels listed in TV Guide – and who knows how many other shows on the vast satellite network. The majority of these shows are sitcoms, but the number of late-night comedy talk shows has also significantly increased, and a lot of us now prefer our nightly news to come from comedians as well.
This cable network expansion means more opportunities for comedic voices, including new voices. As Broad City writer Achilles Stamatelaky told me: “You see smaller channels like TruTV and Fusion taking chances with comedy shows (Friends of The People, The Chris Gethard Show, etc.) to help establish their network brands. Often these channels are part of a larger mother company, so they’re smaller and can take chances on comedy programming that wouldn’t fit on the “bigger,” more recognizable channels. There’s a lot of potential to get comedy on TV at those places.”
However, this increased comedy potential comes with some necessary fracturing. Many of us reading this grew up with “Must-See TV” and evenings where the entire family watched Seinfeld and Friends; even if you were too young to get all the jokes, everyone went back to school or work the next morning saying “yadda yadda yadda.” Now, I have to do a mental check before making a “yas kween” reference; even among friends and peers, it’s hard to gauge who has and hasn’t seen Broad City.
It’s also worth noting that this comedic diversity isn’t necessarily all that diverse. Although representation in comedy is growing, today’s comedy talk shows are overwhelmingly hosted by white men, and ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat is the first prime time sitcom about an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl in 1994.
But what do you do if you want someone to hear Ilana Glazer say “yas kween,” or help them understand why they need to both watch Fresh Off the Boat and read Eddie Huang’s memoir? You go online and share video clips, of course – and that brings us to the secondary charge in our comedic explosion.
The Internet Changes Everything
“The biggest change is that the internet has become the way people consume and share comedy. It’s not just about TV, movies, or live shows any more, which has opened up an almost infinite number of ways for comedians to get their stuff out there.” When I asked Stamatelaky to share his thoughts on the changing comedy landscape, this was his (not unexpected) response.
Stamatelaky, as mentioned earlier, writes for Broad City, a show which spent two seasons as a web series before Amy Poehler took on the executive producer role and helped the show transition to Comedy Central. Without the internet, Broad City might never have happened.
Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a show like @midnight without the internet, which uses audience interaction on Twitter to drive engagement and incorporates the best audience responses into its comedic segments. That means one fewer job for Ali Wong, who regularly performs on the show.
Wong also performs on Inside Amy Schumer, a show which was not specifically created for the internet but lives a second life online as people watch and share its most popular segments. Schumer’s “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup” has been watched on YouTube over 3 million times since it was uploaded on April 29, 2015.
And then there are the opportunities provided by online-only comedy video networks like Above Average, as well as comedy and culture sites like BuzzFeed. Standup comedian Cameron Esposito did a series of BuzzFeed videos in 2014 – her “Ask a Lesbian With Cameron Esposito” has more than 2 million YouTube views – and new writers have the opportunity to both hone their voices and showcase their work online.
“The thing is, the job of the comedian has changed because of online videos.” Keith Habersberger, an Unscripted producer at BuzzFeed (and a former classmate of mine), told me that his work involves not only writing and performing comedy, but also doing production work on BuzzFeed videos. “I think I am successful not only because I can write and be funny, but because I can also shoot, light, capture sound, edit, etc. everything I make. Because of that, there are more jobs for comedians and well-rounded video producers like me.”
It makes sense that the comedy boom would encompass both television and the internet, including comedy-specific sites like CollegeHumor as well as general culture sites like BuzzFeed. After all, good comedy requires engagement – we hear the joke, we laugh, we share the joke with someone else – and so websites that thrive on engagement and social sharing often go looking for comedians.
“This is a dream job,” Habersberger told me. “It is absolutely the best place I could have found myself, but it certainly wasn’t how I originally thought I’d be working. That said, I’m not sure I ever had a clear vision of how on earth I was gonna make money being funny. It was a lot of guessing, and it took a lot of time to get here.”
With Enormous Opportunity Comes Enormous Competition
The idea that it takes a lot of time to build your skills and land a producer job at BuzzFeed, or that it takes a few years of making an original webseries to get noticed by Comedy Central, is important. It’s easy for young comedians to make the assumption that the vast number of comedy jobs out there means there is more opportunity for everyone to find dream gigs. What they don’t see is you still have to pay your dues – and that the competition has increased alongside the opportunity.
“The number of jobs has definitely diversified and increased,” Ballard explained, “but there are also more people competing for those jobs thanks to our friend the internet.”
As Stamatelaky put it: “Speaking from my personal experience teaching at UCB (which has been at the forefront of the comedy boom), a change I noticed was that while the student population has largely stayed the same in terms of personality, there are more people who come in knowing that they are going to do comedy as their career and less people ‘doing it for fun.’ So the ambition level from the beginning is much higher.”
When Stamatelaky started taking UCB classes in 2005, he wasn’t even thinking about a career in comedy; he just wanted to have fun and develop some skills in comedic improv. “And I think that was true of most of my classmates, at least in the beginning.” Now, people enroll in UCB because they view it as an incubator for their future career.
Part of this career incubator process includes making connections within UCB’s wide and talented network – Broad City, for example, is well-populated with UCB members. Getting a job in the comedy industry, like anywhere else, often hinges on who you know.
Wong’s Fresh Off the Boat gig illustrates why both talent and networking are key parts of a comedy dream job: “Randall Park is one of my closest friends, I’ve known him for 10 years now. From the moment he got cast [as Louis Huang], he started talking to me about potentially writing for the show. So I met with Nahnatchka Khan, the creator and showrunner, after she had seen some of my standup clips.”
In that sense, a comedy dream job is like any other dream job: it often requires a combination of talent, hard work, and industry connections. And, although the comedy boom has created many opportunities for new comedic voices, today’s aspiring comedians should also be prepared for this comedy boom to eventually slow down.
“In general, [these new opportunities are] good for everyone,” Stamatelaky added. “But at some point, you have to figure that supply is going to catch up with demand and the comedy industry will contract… although here’s hoping this is the new normal.”
From Dream Job to Dream Life
With all of this expansion and growth, what is the new definition of the comedy dream job? Is there still a comedic model towards whom today’s comedians aspire?
“I know I’m not alone,” Wong told me, “when I say that Louis CK has the ultimate comedy dream job. He has his own show that he writes and directs, with no network or studio notes. He still manages to do standup and is his own boss.”
“To me, the ultimate ‘dream job’ was to write for a late night TV show like SNL or Conan,” Stamatelaky told me. Now he thinks less in terms of dream job and more in terms of dream life. “The ‘dream job’ is less about ‘I want to work for X show’ and more about ‘I want to have a long, successful career writing and creating comedy I give a shit about.’”
This is his advice to aspiring comedians as well. “Do comedy based around what you think is funny.” Work hard, find your collaborators, learn new skills, and continue pursuing the art you, for lack of a better term, give a shit about. “Comedians also don’t need to appeal to mainstream audiences any more to have a career. Alternative and ‘niche’ comedians now have strong careers and devoted audiences that keep them competitive. Again, it’s a product of all the outlets that are out there now.”
But if you’re still dreaming about making it big on TV, there’s nothing wrong with that. As Habersberger put it: “Would I want to be on SNL someday? Of course! Who wouldn’t?” “All I wanted to do was write on Friends,” Ballard joked, noting that she is now “a different person than I was in high school.” Wong, meanwhile, called Fresh Off the Boat “the best creative experience of my life.”
And maybe today’s online comedians will end up writing for TV in the future, or TV writers will turn to online video – or, more likely, the next evolution of the comedy dream job will encompass both. As comedy variety shows like @midnight bring Twitter into television, and late-night news shows like Last Week Tonight With John Oliver are deliberately designed to be watched on YouTube as well as on HBO, we might be looking at the growth of the next big comedic pillar: a combination TV/online show designed to be watched and participated in and discussed and shared.
“The barriers between traditional and non-traditional entertainment (both content and delivery) are dissolving, if they haven’t already,” Stamatelaky explained.
That sounds like exactly the kind of thing that should happen during a comedy boom.
Photo by Jason Carden.
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer, essayist, and occasional nerd musician. She writes the “How A Freelance Writer Makes A Living” column for The Billfold, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, Boing Boing, and The Freelancer. Nicole keeps a running weekly log of her freelance income at her Tumblr.