How Do You Know If You’re Good?

Photo: NBC

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and produces on her own, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide.

In show business they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

I live in the middle of nowhere, teach full-time, and have three kids. I’ve written one full-length comedy screenplay and have started on several others. I’ve had a few people look at my script (including an acquaintance who was on the Black List). How do I know if my work is actually funny? I’ve already sent it to my friends who are funny, and they like it, but I don’t think I can tell an agent, “My buddy Squeaky Buttons loves it.” These guys aren’t exactly Paul F. Tompkins, so how do I know if I should keep pressing forward, or give up?

–Dave, Somewhere in Canada

You’ve warmed my heart by referring to Paul F. Tompkins as peak funny. It’s a well-deserved compliment to a national treasure.

I had to think about this question for a long time, because this is the pep talk to end all pep talks when you’re in any creative profession, right? “Should I keep doing what I doing, or am I insane?” Does it help to hear that fundamentally, we are all insane? No one goes into entertainment because we value job security. The highs are high, and the lows are low, and it’s enough to drive a disproportionate number of us to drink (etc.). It’s a profession for crazy people, and no poll of your friends is going to make you feel less crazy about it. But it helps to know there is a community out here all interested in the same irrational game. It’s harder to access from the middle of nowhere, but that’s what the internet is for.

So how can you tap into some confidence? First, be nicer about your friends! If they think you’re funny, and you think they’re funny, you’re probably funny. Nobody just starting out has a professional comedian reading every word they write. But there is no sufficient number of opinions that will tip the scales to make you 100% confident in your work. Even when you’ve made ten classic blockbuster movies you will have days where you think you are a genius and days when you want to give it all up. And then you will realize you don’t know how to do anything else, and then you will start typing again.

In addition to the support of your friends, do try to maneuver yourself to get some influential readers, and get going on your online portfolio. Are you on Twitter? Are you writing freelance? Do you have a written body of work, in any medium, that people can read and say “Oh, this person seems funny and smart?” I can’t tell you how often I have to convince journalists, bloggers, and novelists that I can judge the quality of future screenplays on other stuff they’ve written. I know, and so does everyone else. This doesn’t mean getting thirsty on social media all of a sudden. Even if you’re just writing a Tumblr for yourself, be consistent, and people will notice quality over quantity.

To be honest, I can tell from your letter that you should just keep writing, because you seem compelled to. A full-time job plus three kids is four full-time jobs, but you still can’t be stopped. I feel like I hear artists say sometimes, “I do this because I can’t imagine doing anything else.” I think a lot of writers can imagine doing tons of things, because writers tend to be intelligent and are often capable in other areas. But if it’s an itch you can’t scratch unless you’re writing, it looks like you’re going to have to keep doing it until opportunity intersects with your hard work. Do you feel like you won’t be satisfied in your life unless you write? If someone gave you a billion dollars, would you spend your days writing? The best writers would still write, the best directors would still direct, the best agents would still agent. I’ll never be the world’s greatest writer, but I do it (for free, basically) because I have to, or I’ll die of sadness. So the short and sweet answer is, if comedy writing is an uncontrollable urge, keep doing it. If the impulse isn’t as strong, perhaps think about what else you might feel compelled to do.

How Do You Know If Your Comedy Script Is Good?