The Business of Being a Young Woman in the Business

Photo: Frank Hoensch/Redferns

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 just graduated from college and moved to LA because I’ve always wanted to write for TV, but I’ve been hearing some not-great things about comedians whose work I love. And now this disgusting Harvey Weinstein business. As a woman, it all makes me so sad and uncomfortable, and scared I’m doing the wrong thing. Should I move home and retreat to the safety of, I don’t know, law school? Is it possible to be successful and maintain morals in this industry when you feel like “the bad guys” are winning?

- Anjali S., Los Angeles

Oh man. What a week we’ve had! I’ve been scraping myself out of bed and wondering what the point is, too. Well, there are a lot of points. Please don’t let a handful of jerks and monsters run you out of town, that’s exactly what they want. Also, the bad guys are definitely NOT winning this week. The bad guys are going to end up losing everything.

Point one! Although it’s obviously part of the fame machine that keeps us all employed, I have a knee-jerk reaction once a celebrity becomes an object of worship. Please do not worship anyone you don’t know. Worship your mom or dad (if they’re nice) or favorite teacher if you like, but conflating the work someone has created with who they are as people is bananas. Do you think all horror movie directors are sociopaths? I mean, maybe. Famous people are as complicated and varied as you and the populace they have been magically anointed to represent. They’re people, for better or worse. And, like people, some are awesome, and some are jerks.

Now let’s get to the meat of it: Don’t go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer. You want to be a TV writer, so stay and be a TV writer. Also I met some reeeeeeeallllllllll specimens in law school. Damaged people are everywhere, whether you’re a doctor, teacher, or train conductor. This isn’t making you feel better, is it? Well, the industry’s damaged people are a lot more visible. Nobody’s multi-part-reporting on nice, reasonable showrunners or agents or producers, because it’s not exactly thrilling content. Thousands and thousands of people at all levels in entertainment go to work every day, do their jobs well, without terrorizing anyone, and go home to happy, emotionally healthy families. 90% of everyone I have worked in this industry with is a good human being.

That said, career paths in entertainment can be objectively bizarre. Most start as apprenticeships, whether in a mailroom, or on set, or in a writers’ room. Professional and personal lines are often blurred, in conversation and in action, and the industry attracts perhaps an… exciting and eccentric or attention-seeking sort of person at times. So your first jobs, in your 20s, can be very confusing. Do you go along to the afterparty at that important guy’s house because it’s good for your career and you don’t want to be lame, or…? I have no advice here other than do whatever feels comfortable and safe for you. “Hanging out” is not a job requirement. If you are in a work setting and someone or something is creeping you out, run away and go home, and TELL someone. The greatest tragedy, we have learned, is when women don’t share their horror stories, it’s because they’re afraid of being blamed or shut down. Thankfully, I have never been harassed in such a bald and sickening way as the women whose tales have been brought to light, but I sure have brushed off and repressed a bunch of weird little things. I don’t want anyone else to have to. So PLEASE. Tell me, even. Just like, DM me. I’m serious. We’ll figure it out.

So, it’s hard being a woman in the entire world, and monsters and jerks are everywhere. I’m sorry! You’re so young! I wish I didn’t have to say this. There is nothing you, individually, can do about damaged people. But you can actively seek out good ones, the ones who share your values, the ones who operate from a baseline of human decency. This should affect every decision you make, from friends and romantic partners to representation to bosses. Also – and I can not stress this enough – when you find a job, seek out a more seasoned woman in your workplace (in ANY workplace) and ask for advice. You need someone you can talk to when you’re scared or nervous or having a hard time on a macro- and micro- scale. A generation of women before me endured unimaginable horrors in order to allow me the leeway to be a more kind and reasonable worker. And hopefully my kindness and reasonableness (aspirational, I’m sure someone out there thinks I’m horrible) will hopefully influence the young women I work with to be kind and reasonable, and stand up for what they need and want.

The good news is I already see things changing. Larger organizations like agencies and production companies have proper HR departments to deal with issues that may arise, instead of one person who serves as den mother herding nutty cats, which is how it shook out in the ‘90s and early naughts. Workplace behavior is being modulated as more women enter these rooms and register their displeasure, and I hope all of these people who are in positions of power and speaking publicly against Weinstein investigate their own organizations and think carefully what the work culture is for their female employees. I don’t think there will be any more giggling or checking phones during their annual sex harassment seminars, for one. And I think men with any influence are being brought to task in a way we’ve never seen.

I also notice that the younger women I encounter in the industry are less afraid to speak up and ask for more, that more women are in positions of power, and that power is less consolidated. Think about it. It was one thing to come of age during a time when movies and movie stars reigned supreme, and when the nine or ten people (men, of course) with greenlight power could wield their influence in toxic ways. But we live in peak TV, thank goodness. There are a hundred more buyers, many jobs, many more women in influential positions, and more and more people speaking out about abuses of power. We just want to do our jobs, be treated like humans instead of sexual prospects, and be paid fairly. And we are getting there. I think right now, an overripe boil is being lanced, and it’s going to have to be thoroughly cleaned out before we can move on and heal. We will.  

The Business of Being a Young Woman in the Business