Emma Stone in La La Land.
As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, 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’ve written and made a web series which I think is funny, but no one is watching it. Given how tough it can be for lesser-known comedians to get stuff seen these days, is it still worth the time, energy, and money for me to make video content? Or is it better to channel my talent into a live show or some other outlet if I want my work to be noticed?
Congrats on making a web series! And one you actually like. You are already way ahead of the masses of people who talk about making stuff but are making nothing, or making things they hate. But it’s so discouraging to feel like you keep sending your work out into a void, isn’t it?
I would imagine you’re wondering if it’s actually good, because if it were good it would set the internet ablaze, right? That is a lot of pressure to put on your work. Think about everyone who won a Pulitzer or an Emmy, or whatever you’re aiming for, this year. If they were all judged on the strength and popularity of the first thing they put out into the world, no one would have a career! What high-functioning creatives have in common is a large and varied body of work, accumulated over years. While your web series is an incredible first step, it will likely end up being a piece of trivia in your legacy, known only to your most die-hard fans. What I’m saying is: You made it, you like it, now make more stuff.
The operative word in your question is “noticed,” by which you mean represented and hired, I assume. Sadly, you can’t control who notices your work or when. Like most things in our bizarre, mostly freelance business, the hardest part is feeling a complete lack of control over the path of your career. The only part you can control is creation, so yes, making more stuff is absolutely worth your time and energy. After all, if you don’t make anything, what are people going to notice? People will notice when there’s something to notice, so perhaps focus your energy on building your body of work and compiling a portfolio that best showcases your talents. It sounds like you have at least one piece in place already, which is great.
First, choose your next projects wisely. You’re right to observe that it’s getting tougher to make your mark online. In the early days of digital creation, it felt like anyone who made a mildly amusing parody video had an agent overnight. Now that we are drowning in content and the quality of the higher-end content continues to increase, standards for representation are much higher. What I’ve found over the years is that the key to landing good representation (and a sustainable career) is not about eyeballs, it’s about quality. A billion people can watch that parody video, but it’s still a skin tag on the back of someone else’s original idea. A great short or series that only 20 people see might be more utilitarian, in the long run, if it ends up being a great piece in your long-term portfolio. After all, anyone can get noticed, but my guess is you want to build a body of work that makes you proud and gets you jobs, instead of momentary attention and a flameout.
I think the mistake a lot of people make in concocting their ideas is “people want to watch/read/hear XYZ right now, so I’ll make XYZ.” Consumption trends change like the weather, and you can’t rely on them to make your creative decisions. Setting format aside, narrow down five to seven stories you’d like to tell. I’d urge you to look internally, think about your family or friends, something uncomfortable or mortifying or just plain weird that happened to you, or someone you love. Start digging around in your own experience, and the stuff that was transformative, enlightening — the big memories of your life — are the places to investigate for ideas that will resonate on a personal level with people. Those are the stories people will remember and share. I think “write what you know” has been maligned over the years and led to a lot of navel-gazing minutiae we could do without, but it does apply to today’s great content. Fleabag, SMILF, and The Big Sick all have one foot in deeply personal, transformative experiences. And they stay with people.
If you’re looking for inspiration — and this stage will take a lot of brainstorming — check out Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir, which is a master class in the stories you should be telling, the ones you feel in your body (she calls it “carnality”), instead of the stories that only scratch the surface, or stories that are just “good ideas.” No need to be a slave to a zippy log line! Although if you do think of a zippy log line, make sure the story within actually has some heft.
Then decide how you’re going to tell your important stories. You mention a live show or other outlet, and I say yes! Yes to it all. Perhaps you’ve decided your main “thing” is web videos, but I encourage you to diversify, not least of all because other outlets are cheaper. Please create in any ways you find palatable or interesting: Write one story as an essay and post it to your Tumblr. Find an open mic or a storytelling night to share another one. Hijack a friend’s podcast (you definitely have a friend with a podcast, even if no one listens to it) to share another. Do stand-up or a one-person show about another, if you feel compelled to. Make things that reduce the pressure on that one web series’ online stats.
Then, please upload everything you’re doing into an attractive online portfolio of your work. Create a personal website, one that people will eventually be able to find when they Google your name. This is a long-winded way of saying put your name in the URL; this is not the time to be clever. Either figure out how to do it yourself on Wix, Squarespace, Tumblr — all the lovely places with nice idiot-proof templates, or if you have a little cash, pay someone to do it. I recommend Signal Boost, who did mine, because they’re very comedy-friendly.
Having a polished, organized personal website with links to your work makes a massive difference to anyone you meet or reach out to. Put the link to the website at the bottom of your email signature so any time you correspond with anyone, even a random stranger who might not email you back, you are selling yourself without actually having to talk about yourself. Because people click! Even the ones who ignore you. You have to be your own agent until you have one you pay. Keep thinking of more stories to tell and how to tell them until that site is bursting with great content. It will all fall into place. Once you’ve built that site and continue adding to it, the message you are sending to the world (and the industry) is: “This assortment of amazing stuff is being created with or without you, but I am open to discussing representation, if it is mutually beneficial.”
A footnote: If, like many people who write me, you’re asking me how to get noticed on Twitter, etc., that’s a question for social-media experts. I definitely think you should post each piece of work to your various social-media channels, but that’s the extent of my knowledge. I have no idea how to cultivate a following or what best practices are for YouTube or Vimeo. I know they exist and are out there, but those are a bunch of internet-specific tricks and an entirely different set of goals. Unless you are a bona fide miraculous joke machine, which is a specific skill some people definitely have, an audience will have to find you on Twitter when they think your stuff is good. There are no shortcuts. There are people who take shortcuts, for sure, but I find that they tend not to stick around for long.