A Pep Talk for the Hopeless Aspiring Comedy Writer

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. Photo: NBC

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!

For the longest time, I’ve wanted to be a comedy actor and writer, but I’ve never had the resources or materials. I’ve written multiple comedy scripts and submitted them to contests and diversity programs, but to no avail. Other than this, there is no way for me to submit scripts to agents or production companies. Finding someone with Hollywood connections isn’t exactly easy in a school full of future physics and stats majors. Many people I’ve turned to have told me to wait, but this is not an option for me. As soon as I get out of college I will have to get a well-paying job to get my student loans paid back.

I am totally, totally lost. I’ve written a script, but I have no idea how to move forward, or if I even can. I completely fit the student stereotype: I’m broke, stressed, and I’ve eaten nothing but Oreos this past month (and I never thought I’d say this, but I’m getting sick of them). I cannot afford to get script coverage or submit scripts to high-end, coveted contests. What’s your advice on seemingly hopeless situations like these? Geeta M., New York

Poor Geeta! I so remember how helpless it feels to get to the end of school and not know what the next step is. And to be in crushing debt. And to realize you want to do something different, but not being able to think of one single person you might ask for advice about doing that different thing. Confession: I hesitated in answering this letter because it felt so self-indulgent to write to my 22-year-old self. But it also made me realize that maybe more readers are my 22-year-old self, and maybe I can help. Let’s address your fears one by one.

First, please do not be discouraged by the Deafening Silence of Contests and Diversity Programs. It seems like every week a studio or network (or some sham financier) announces a new diversity initiative or open call for scripts from a hopeful public. This totally works out for some people. I don’t want to diminish the impact of diversity initiatives, but a lot of them are just that – PR announcements with very little follow-through, and very little outreach outside of existing networks in New York and L.A. It’s difficult to tell which are the good programs and if anyone is really interested in turning over far-flung, promising young stones. What I’m trying to say is, yes, some people win those contests, but most people do not find their first Hollywood jobs via open call.

Also, I personally find it a little discouraging to send my work into a void, because it feels like negative feedback even though it’s only a lack of response. You talk about paying for coverage, but is that necessary? If you want to share your work, share it with someone you know who likes to write, read, and watch TV. Even if they’re not screenwriters, you’ll at least know if it’s funny and/or compelling to a member of the general public, and maybe that will give you the confidence to share it with a few more people.

What gives me hope is that you say you will “have to get a well-paying job,” which sounds like you actually have access to one, so congrats. Being able to pay your bills and cover your loan payments will alleviate a solid chunk of young-person stress as you explore what you really want to end up doing. In your hurry to get your one script to agents or production companies, you seem to think it’s some kind of race to land your dream job, and it’s so not! There are no prizes for carving out the quickest path to acting or writing, and frankly, a lot of prodigies suffer from never having had the life experience that could make them better writers or performers. There are prizes for being the best at those jobs, and you get there when you get there, maybe with some detours along the way.

I’m 38 and just sold my first TV show, which I get to write and direct. I also spent a large chunk of my first years in L.A. paying off $120K in loans for a law degree I’ve never used. And none of my jobs have ever required me to write. I really, really, really get it. Right now, your real options are either to go find one of those well-paying jobs in a city that has a comedy scene and shoehorn your way into that comedy scene (New York and L.A., yes, but also Chicago, Austin, really anywhere now), or try to find a not-too-crappy job (agency, law firm, business-side studio gig, advertising?) in or adjacent to the entertainment industry — any job that allows you a series of lateral moves down the line to writing and performing.

As for starting to build Hollywood connections, I’ve said this before, but if you’re anywhere near an academic campus, seek out a creative department. Are there screenwriting or filmmaking courses at your school? Creative writing, even? Even if you don’t take a class, you can stop by office hours of one of the senior professors and ask for their advice — they may not be currently working filmmakers, but you never know. My first industry contact, recommended by a friend in the film department, was a professor at Michigan named Jim Burnstein, whose agent happened to be Peter Benedek, who co-founded UTA, who hired me into the mail room and was ultimately essential in my promotion to agent. Teachers like to help students, it turns out.

Finally, and I don’t think I’m projecting (although sorry if I am!), you say you’re surrounded by scientists, so let’s go ahead and discuss your cultural burden! I am going to make an assumption here, and that is that your (Indian) family does not have a large network of comedy writers or actors. Since before you could read, it’s probably been drilled into you that the only careers worth pursuing are financially stable and will keep you employed forever: medicine, engineering, finance, maybe law if your parents are chill. This stuff is not easy to deprogram! It generally comes from a place of love, and it’s not the worst advice in the world to seek out job security. The problem is the itch to create, which is an ailment they could never have predicted when emigrating.

If your family consists of recent immigrants, chasing a dream like writing or performing can feel like turning your back on the sacrifices they’ve made to get you here. And their argument that writing and performing are “nice hobbies!” sounds almost reasonable as you put on your lady suit for another corporate recruiting event. I’m not sure if you’re ready absorb this, because it took me ten more years, but the truth is that your parents aren’t stopping you from anything. You are an adult with bodily autonomy, but you’re probably weighing their opinion of your actions ten times more than your own desires. They’re not stopping you, they’re weighing in (heavily), and you’re stopping yourself, because their disapproval would devastate you. I have been there. It is a terrible feeling.

Ultimately, you’re the person who has to go in to work every day, and if work is making you miserable, your parents, despite your suspicions, will be sad as well. I promise. Over the years (and over so many pep-talk coffees) I’ve had countless conversations with immigrant parents just to say “I can tell from his/her creative work that your child is going to be financially solvent,” and weirdly that seems to help. But you’ve created a future in your head where you either go into default on your loans and write sketches in a basement until you’re discovered, or take some horrible job you hate, forever, and give up on everything creative. These are extreme options! You can have a job that you’re not 100 percent obsessed with that pays your bills and pursue your dreams at the same time.

If you want to be a writer, no one can stop you from writing. Maybe you think your parents can, but in my experience, Indian parents are more worried about their children trying to be creatives than actually becoming creatives. When it happens, they’re very proud! It’s the process that scares them, because they want with every cell in their bodies to protect you from disappointment. So, get a day job. Then, whether it’s Tumblr or Twitter or Medium or a letter to the newspaper, write as much as you can, in whatever form, so people have an idea of your voice. If you’re scared to put your work out there, know that right now, it’s definitely the worst it will ever be. But you won’t get better unless you do it, at whatever pace you can manage, process feedback, and write more. When you slide into a position to snag your first writing or acting job, your portfolio will be ready to share with the world.

Submitted questions are sometimes edited for length, clarity, or to preserve anonymity. Need some advice from Priyanka? Shoot her a line at

A Pep Talk for the Hopeless Aspiring Comedy Writer