From The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Photo: Nicole Rivelli
Do you not like your job? Do you shudder at the idea of spending 40 more years doing something you may not hate, but you certainly don’t love? Are you afraid of never taking a chance? Is working in comedy your dream?
Same. Same. Same. Same.
Never in my life have I been more lost than when I was working at Morgan Stanley, in a career I thought I wanted but wasn’t meant for at all. Staring down the barrel at decades of suits, ties, and spreadsheets sent me into a panic. My co-workers were some of the smartest, kindest people around, but they didn’t feel the same way. They were fundamentally into their jobs and, while there were always grievances about long hours or the monotony of an entry-level gig, it seemed like, by and large, they’d found their thing. That’s when I knew I had to leave.
One teeny, tiny existential crisis later, I decided to quit. I stumbled through a series of opportunities until I set off on a life course much closer to the one I stayed awake at night thinking about. There is absolutely no one path to a career in comedy, but this has been mine: creating, writing, directing, and producing all manner of comedic shorts, commercials, TV shows, and films.
There are some wonderful columns and books offering general entertainment-industry advice and tips. At the risk of sounding prescriptive, I want to offer guidance that’s specific, strategic, and proven, at least in one single case. It can feel hopeless to be stuck in a career that makes you unhappy, especially when you have a desire to get into comedy but don’t know where to begin. There are lots of concrete steps you can take to break into the industry, so don’t feel overwhelmed. This guide is here to help, step by step.
A disclaimer: What follows is entirely personal and, in that respect, anecdotal. I haven’t done any research on what works and what doesn’t, and I’m not a career expert. I also realize that I’m writing from a place of extreme privilege. I had a job that afforded me weekends and nights off. During that down time, I was able to lay the groundwork for a course change in my career. Not everyone is afforded that kind of job or that kind of chance. Nevertheless, many people have reached out over the years, wondering where to find the reset button. I decided to create this guide in the hopes that at least one of those people finds it helpful or empowering after a long day of working a non-comedy job they feel like they need to do for the rest of their lives. The many advocates and advisers I’ve had over the past seven years have empowered me, so it’s time to pay it forward.
Not all sections will apply to every reader, but hopefully many will apply to most.
You’ve got to have original ideas, even if you don’t want to be a writer. The process of creativity, in any medium, is dependent on generating original thoughts, honing the integrity of those thoughts, and then believing in them. Wholeheartedly. Okay, cool, but how do you come up with one worth believing in?
Life experience is probably the best and clearest place to start. Write what you know — it really does work. Even if your life hasn’t been all that unique or interesting, the shared human experience — love, loss, family, friends — will at least provide you with a starting point into which you can begin digging.
Think of your most traumatic experiences. Think about what’s been bothering you most about your surroundings this week or this month. So negative, right? Well, we’re talking comedy here, and much of it is built from the bleakest shit imaginable.
What if you can’t think of anything? What if your whole life has been a sheet of uncorrupted loose-leaf paper? Well, then comedy is going to be rough for you, but you’re still in luck. Maybe.
If your picket-fence-ass, non-traumatized self can still muster the ability to spot a story worth telling, you should look for inspiration in other people’s truths: the news and documentaries. Both expose you to slivers of worlds you may not have seen otherwise and are incredible jumping-off points for further research that begets original scripted work.
Oh, and one last thing: Keep a list of ideas and categorize them. Is that thing you’ve got doing laps in your head a joke, sketch, short story, short film, TV idea, or feature? How are you supposed to know? You’ve never even had a single fucking life experience, loose-leaf person! I know, I know. It’ll all become clear in time. Keep reading.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Creating — the backbone of probably every single industry skill. Except putting a piece of gaff tape over a logo you haven’t cleared through legal. Little production designer joke, sorry.
You should. It’s fun.
First, prepare five minutes of material and rehearse it in the mirror no fewer than ten times. Then, record yourself doing the set. Video is best, but simple phone audio will give you a sense of how you’ll sound to an audience. Listen to the audio, then repeat this whole record/listen process until you like what’s on that recording.
Okay. Feel good? Great. Now, find your first audience of non-friends who will listen … sort of.
How do you do that? They’re called open mics. You may hate them. You will find them on Google by typing in “open mic” and the name of your city.
Open mics see a bunch of comedians gathering to test their burgeoning sets in a low-stakes room. Very seldom does anyone at an open mic listen to another human besides themselves, and you shouldn’t expect constructive feedback. It’s dog-eat-dog out there! That’s okay.
The process of getting up in a setting akin to the one in which you’ll be performing when there are drunken regulars is valuable. Do no fewer than five open mics in five different venues. By appearance No. 5 (yes, you’ve got to actually go up onstage five times, and simply attending an open mic doesn’t always mean you’ll get stage time; many operate like lotteries), you should have a general sense of whether or not you ever want to try stand-up comedy again. If you do, it’s time to think about trying your hand at a “bringer show.”
Most comedy clubs have nights where they give self-proclaimed “new talent” the chance to perform in front of a real, live, non-comedian audience. In order to get stage time at these, the club will ask that you bring (hence “bringer” show) your closest 5 to 15 friends, each of whom must show up and agree to buy at least two drinks.
Some people think bringers are a scam, and they kind of are. They’re a cash grab for club owners, but what do you care? They’re also a chance for you to do your thing in front of a crowd partially populated by friends and family and totally populated by people who are expecting to hang on through some bumbles and trip-ups. Do five of these shows, if possible, and tape every single performance. (Often the club will do this for you, but it’s always good to make sure.)
Watch the tapes when you go home. Between bringer shows, work on your set by going to more open mics.
Once you have a five-minute set tape you like, you can start sharing it with club bookers (start at smaller, less-known clubs) in hopes that they’ll give you a dog shit time slot. Once you book one of those, you’ll be paid to perform (it’ll be $10 or $20 per gig, if you’re lucky), and you’re on your way up the stand-up ladder, chasing those coveted weekend night slots.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Joke writing, performing, pitching.
You’ve seen Who’s Line Is It Anyway?, and you think “I’m funnier than Drew Carey.” You’re not. But you could be. You probably won’t be, but it doesn’t matter. Taking an introductory improv class is a must for anyone who wants to work in comedy, because it introduces you to the science of the form (what elicits a laugh and when, how to set a scene, etc.) and, maybe more importantly, it provides you with tools to write excellent dialogue and to break story (fancy talk for coming up with a narrative). Most of the best comedic performers are excellent improvisers, yes, but most of the best comedic writers and directors are, too. To understand the rudiments of improv is to be that much better at turning a bad premise or a first-thought idea, writing prompt, or script into something workable and maybe even funny. It’s like stretching for your brain.
While there are probably more improv programs on this planet than algae in the ocean, the most celebrated schools in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are the Upright Citizens Brigade, iO, the Annoyance, the PIT, the Second City, and the Groundlings. All have classes at night and on weekends.
After an introductory class, you’ll either love improv and want to keep going or you won’t. It doesn’t matter. The lessons you’ve soaked up will be forever valuable, and so will the people you meet. Some of my closest friends and collaborators are people I met while taking classes at UCB in New York as a 22-year-old. If there were a shortcut for “breaking in to the scene,” this would be it.
Okay, but what if you don’t live in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago? Does that mean you’re destined to file TPS reports until the end of time as you watch your dream comedy job slip through your fingers like the Purell glob you just dropped into your pants-suited lap? No. It does mean you’ll need to fire up Google to find the comedy club nearest you. Major metropolitan areas will have the greatest concentration of spots, like the ColdTowne Theatre in Austin or the Comedy Spot in Sacramento. If you’ve exhausted all search engine options and it’s becoming clear you’re not near anything, well then, you’re flat out of luck.
Kidding! Take an acting class, and let the teacher know you want to focus on comedy. Then, take a sketch-writing class … online! Or, take one of those online MasterClasses you’ve probably seen on Instagram or Facebook. Judd Apatow teaches one. So does Steve Martin. They’re actually not a bad way to dip your toes in.
But what if you don’t have the resources to take expensive classes? Money’s tight as it is, and you don’t have an extra $400-plus burning a hole in your pocket for an eight-week course. Hell, you’ve barely got bus fare. Don’t worry, I got you. Contact the theater and film department at the university closest to you (colleges usually don’t have quite as many resources for working folks, but they’re also cool to try), and ask them if you could speak with them about improv or sketch classes you might be able to audit.
Any of these options will get you into the comedy ecosystem and learning the craft, which is the ultimate goal.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Performing, original idea generation, story development.
Want to be a comedy writer? Your career starts here. Most late-night jobs, from Saturday Night Live to The Daily Show to Late Night With Seth Meyers, will require you to submit a packet of sketches in order to be in contention for a staff writing job. Your sketch-writing classes will allow you to build your first packet (usually consisting of three sketches) under the supervision of a teacher who knows what they’re doing.
“But I have no interest in writing sketch!”
You should. Just like how improv introduced you to crucial components of a general comedic equation, sketch writing helps you translate onto the page what you may have learned in a less structured performance space. It teaches you the difference between a character piece and a parody, a peas-in-a-pod structure and a blackout. Whether you go through multiple levels in each improv and sketch school’s program (see the improv list above for which ones I recommend; most schools do both sketch and improv) or decide short form just isn’t your thing, the tenets of using your keyboard to set a scene, introduce a funny premise quickly, build upon that premise, and get out with a bang will teach you how to write things people laugh at. That’s the goal, and sketch is a crucial building block, whether it’s your main event or the first in a series of steps toward TV or feature writing.
Oh, and buy Final Draft if you can. Sure, there are other options, but Final Draft is what the pros use.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Original idea generation, joke writing, story development.
A treatment for what? Ah, that’s the question. Also, what the hell is a treatment?
One of the most challenging parts about creating (as a writer, director, or producer in any genre, really) is identifying what shape the seed of an idea might take. If it’s a self-funded art project, it can take whatever shape you’d like. If you expect someone else to foot the bill for your idea, then you’d better get to deciding where it has the best chance of success, and fast.
Now’s the time to head back to your idea list and look at how many jokes you’ve written down versus how many sketches, essays, short film ideas, TV pitches, and feature takes. Oh, you didn’t really categorize anything properly? Don’t worry. Here’s how I do it:
• JOKE: A setup and a punch line. Use it at cocktail parties, funerals (to lighten the mood, okay?), and your stand-up set. Ditch it for anything else.
• ESSAY/ARTICLE: A collection of jokes and funny observations best structured in text. Maybe they’re not totally visual. Maybe they’re funniest in list form. Maybe they could be a sketch, but you don’t really have the money to produce one right now, or maybe you’re writing in the voice of someone you definitely can’t impersonate in any other form than prose.
• SKETCH: A premise that is singular in its focus and has a clear “funny” element that is expanded upon or heightened over the duration of the piece’s two to three minutes.
• SHORT FILM: A mini-narrative. These don’t have to heighten like sketches. Also distinct from the sketch form, short films owe their audience true character development. Our protagonist(s) should undergo some change from beginning to end, and the story should focus on a key message, just as a feature would.
• TV SHOW: What’s episode 100 of this show? If you can answer that question, maybe you’ve got a TV pitch. If not, keep working.
• FEATURE: How does our hero change over the course of the story, and why? Unlike TV shows, features provide a glimpse into a moment in time. Why are you exploring that moment, and how will you make it count for the audience? Why will they care? What’s the message?
Once you’ve categorized your idea, you’ll know if a treatment is in order. If it’s a short film, TV show, or feature, then it is. Anything else, and you don’t need a treatment. Just write it.
All treatments boil down to a couple of key ingredients:
• LOG LINE: Explain your project in one compelling sentence.
• SYNOPSIS: Explain it in four or five compelling sentences.
• INSPIRATION: Why are you uniquely qualified to tell this story?
• LOOK AND TONE: How does this project feel to the viewer once produced? Is it like anything we’ve seen before? How?
• CHARACTERS: For each, we need to know: Who were they, who are they, and who do they want to become?
In addition to these, a TV show will ask you for:
• PILOT EPISODE: What happens in the first episode? Give a brief overview of three acts.
• SEASON ONE ARC: What happens over the course of the first season? Even episodic shows — where there’s not much of a narrative through line from episode to episode — require this kind of thought. Characters may not change, but their circumstances do. How?
• EPISODE IDEAS: What are some examples of episodes? Think about A, B, and C story lines.
Different from TV, a short film or feature might require you to think about:
• HERO’S JOURNEY: How does our hero change, and why?
• ACT STRUCTURE: What happens in Act I, II, and III?
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Idea generation, story development, pitching.
Okay, so you’ve gone through improv and sketch programs, put together a sketch packet, written some funny articles, and even cobbled together production on a few of your own sketches. Now you’ve got an idea for a great TV show, and you feel ready for the next step. So, how do you write a pilot?
First, read ten of them — pilots for your favorite shows, pilots for shows you can’t stand, it doesn’t matter. Any show that’s made it to TV for at least one episode offers something from which you can learn, even if it’s what not to do. The internet is your friend. Go on a hunt, and read read read.
Second, write a spec for a show you watch all the time. No, it probably won’t help you get a staff writing job, but it will teach you how to write in the style of a show you already know and love. Download an actual shooting script from the show you want to spec and take a look at where the show’s writers placed act breaks, how they structured dialogue, and how they broke the episode’s overall story. Then, write your episode idea just like that. It’s paint-by-numbers pilot writing, but it’s a crucial first step to cracking an original pilot.
Now, go back to that original idea you had. Write a treatment for that idea. Lay out the nuts and bolts of your world, its characters, and where both are headed. Done? Great. Write a pilot draft. Walk away from it for a full week.
Week’s up? Rewrite the parts you can’t believe you ever deigned to put on a page.
With one rewrite done, it’s time to go hunting for the rest. Show your piece to friends you met in improv and sketch class (or anyone who writes comedy you respect) and collect all the notes you can. Rewrite it for a third time implementing the notes you agree with, and show it to one of your sketch teachers. Trust me, they’re versed in pilot writing.
If you’re an aspiring TV writer, you’ll need two original pilots (not specs) when it comes time to get TV Lit representation.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Idea generation, story development, writing.
Awesome. This is like writing three pilots, except each script is an act. Think about the way that writing sketches helped you write a pilot. The bones are the same here, but with an added focus on the development of your lead character: your story’s hero. That hero must undergo a change over the course of the movie. What is that change, and how will you use a three-act structure to shape it? Answer that in treatment form, plotting out the crucial moments in each of your three acts. Then, get to writing.
You’ll need at least one original feature if you want to be repped in what agencies call the motion picture literature division, or MP Lit. More on that later.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Idea generation, story development, writing.
The only way to learn how to pitch is to do it — a lot. There’s no real secret, except for these two very real secrets:
• Writing a thorough treatment for an idea that is properly identified and placed (essay versus TV show versus feature, etc., remember?) is paramount in organizing your thoughts, determining why this idea you’re about to pitch needs to be told, and why you’re the person to tell it.
• Distilling your written treatment into a compelling verbal pitch that consists of what I call the three Ws: Why this project? Why you? Why now?
After that, pitching just comes down to practice. No pitch should ever take longer than 15 minutes for a TV show, and 30 for a feature. Go longer and whatever you’re saying — no matter how goddamn brilliant it is — will fall on deaf ears. I promise.
In terms of pitching articles, essays, and sketches, it’s very idea dependent. The best short-form ideas are funny, or at least intriguing, after a single sentence. Pitch using that sentence. No treatments necessary.
For TV shows, a pitch should talk about your inspiration and personal tie to the idea, then introduce the idea’s synopsis, its pilot concept (where you’ll talk about your key characters), and some episode ideas. Season arcs and look and feel, though crucial to the treatment, can be addressed in the remaining Q&A time you’ll leave yourself if you do your job right and pitch the idea in 15 minutes. (TV pitches usually last a half hour, and feature pitches are usually an hour; always use the second half for Q&A.)
For shorts and feature films, you want to talk about your inspiration and personal tie to the idea, your hero’s journey, and an overview of what happens, act by act. This isn’t a recitation of the movie, mind you — it’s a summary of the major plot points and story turns in a piece, and an exploration of your hero’s journey.
“But, where do I pitch?” you may be wondering.
Pitch editors for articles, sketch groups or theater artistic directors for sketches, and ad agencies for copywriting gigs (more on that in a moment). None of these require you to be represented by an agent or manager.
Once you do have representation, you can begin pitching your ideas (either verbally or in treatment or script form) to production companies who make TV shows and films. You need reps at this stage, because most production companies won’t accept unsolicited pitches. Basically, they need someone they trust to vouch for you. Then, if those production companies like your ideas, they’ll develop them (usually that means improve) with you, package them with big stars and fancy directors, and take them to networks and studios so you can get your big fat paycheck.
Can you still approach production companies without representatives? Yes. You can send inquiries asking if they’ll take unsolicited pitches, but don’t get too hung up on all that yet. Focus on writing funny articles, making sketches and shorts, and copywriting as much as you can. The rest will come.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Idea generation, story development, writing.
You just couldn’t wait, could you? You got hung up on it!
Okay, listen. Getting representation will happen if you work hard enough on your written and filmed materials and develop authentic relationships with kind and talented people. Getting a manager and a lawyer will, too. My fellow columnist Priyanka Mattoo’s got some great advice on the strange and winding path of securing representation. Hang in there.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Patience.
Sketch class has been fun, right? You’ve maybe even got one or two you’d like to make, I’ll bet. Problem is, you haven’t got a clue in the world about how things make it from the page to the screen.
There are two ways to learn how to make the things you write: working on other people’s projects or producing your own. Hopefully you’ll do both in equal measure, because it’s really helpful to get a sense for how others work while developing your own style.
Let’s say you decide you want to produce your own project. First, that’s a great idea. Second, be prepared to spend some of your own money and ask a lot of favors from people who know what they’re doing. At bare minimum, you’ll need a director, a cinematographer (a.k.a. director of photography, a.k.a. DP), a sound person, a gaffer/grip swing, and a production assistant or two. On larger sets, you’ll have assistant directors, assistant camera professionals, camera operators, hair and makeup artists, stylists, location managers, gaffers, grips, art directors, and production assistants a mile deep, yeah, but start small — and be willing to do a bunch of jobs, like securing locations, doing your talent’s hair and makeup, borrowing props, and raiding friends’ closets for wardrobe.
Hire your small crew. You’ll find them at whatever school you took sketch and improv (if you can’t, ask the theater’s artistic director to point you in the right direction). Either offer them $50 to $100 a pop or offer them your help on one of their shoots (everyone needs PAs and extras, always). Now, this part’s tough, but you’ve got to be honest with them about the fact that you have zero experience producing and you’d love any insight they’ve got. Let them know you’re prepared to do whatever it takes. Once on set, watch what each department does, from how the director interacts with their DP to how long it takes gaffers and grips to light a new scene to how your sound person needs to get something called “room tone” before you can wrap.
Once your first shoot is over, take a moment to celebrate the extreme rush of doing a very difficult thing. Okay, moment over. There’s a long and exciting road ahead.
I recommend leading production on a project ten more times, whether it’s your own or someone else’s. Then, work as a PA on at least ten larger sets, and you’ll start to understand each role, director and beyond. Hell, you may decide you’ve got an appetite for a job you didn’t know existed.
Oh. One thing you really cannot do is take a crack at directing before you know how a film set works. Well, what am I saying? You certainly can, but the whole enterprise will likely just be a shitshow. You’ve usually got to put in a little work understanding how a production’s ship sails before you can hope to steer it. Bootstrapping production is a great way to learn.
Here’s a quick bootstrapper’s production list of must-remembers:
• If you’re not shooting in your house or a friend’s house, you must have location releases for each location in which you’ll be filming.
• You must have talent releases for anyone who’s appearing on camera.
• You must never show logos on clothing or any other item without permission from the brand. You probably won’t get that permission, so use gaff tape to “greek” them out.
• Any music that’s not your own needs to be licensed.
• Always have a backup hard drive where you keep all the footage, and keep those drives in two separate locations for safety.
So much more goes into production, but these are crucial.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Producing, directing, learning a set.
You’re not ready, sorry.
Wait, no, I didn’t realize you’d taken improv and sketch classes. I also didn’t realize you’d worked with members of your sketch community to create your own work on the weekends. Wow, you guys wrote and shot five sketches already? And all those were written by you, and not you and a co-writer? Woah, okay, I apologize. It seems like you’ve got a decent body of work shaping up.
Have you ever written an article before? No? Then it’s going to be tough to make any money freelance writing.
See, in order to claw your way into paid writing work, you’ve got to cover every base you can. Problem is, the entertainment industry has like 12,000 bases to cover, and they’re constantly moving around the field, and some people place more emphasis on some bases than others, so it can get confusing. All that said, you can set yourself up for getting paid to write in a few ways.
First, have a sketch packet you’re proud of, have it edited/proofread (by you and your sketch and improv classmates and teachers), and update it every year.
Second, have three to five pieces of filmed sketch or short film work uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo, with ready-to-share links. Views on these videos aren’t important. Having them at the ready very much is.
Third, have a sample of a funny essay or article you’ve written. And then have two more, ideally about different topics. Do you read Shouts and Murmurs? Do you read McSweeney’s? Do you read CollegeHumor, Reductress, ClickHole, the Onion? You should. These are the types of things you should be writing in your spare time.
Last, be prepared not to write anything you find funny for a while. Aggregating materials you’re proud of and submitting them to PR and creative agencies after you send an email inquiring about freelance writing opportunities and they request to see some of your work is commendable, and you may luck out and nab a project that resonates with you right away. More commonly, though, an ad agency or PR firm that represents a brand will ask you to pitch on a topic (for free). It could be a concept for a new commercial campaign or copy for a print ad. Likely, you won’t find the assignment particularly interesting or engaging or hilarious on its face. Get over it. You wanted to be a writer, so write.
Make your pitches interesting and engaging, and — okay, maybe it’s tough to make laxatives hilarious — but bring your voice into it in whatever way you can, and be thankful for the opportunity, because do you know what will happen even more than working on something dry? Working on nothing.
That’s when you know it’s time to send a whole batch of new inquiry emails.
What should those written pitches look like? Let’s stick with laxatives as a jumping-off point, as I say multiple times per day.
Now, let’s say an ad agency you reached out to has requested that you come up with a commercial concept for a new brand of laxative that makes you shit yourself within five minutes. You’ve asked them what the most important parts of the product are and what they’re hoping to get out of this commercial. For instance, is it driving sales or generating awareness? Let’s say it’s driving awareness. So, you want your pitch to give a little teaser of what that idea might look like — like a coming attraction for the script you hope they’ll pay you to write. Something like:
‘THE FASTEST MAN ON EARTH’: We’re all familiar with ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentaries – stirring and affecting chronicles of some of the most inspiring stories in sports. Well, what if we explored one of the most inspiring stories in … restroom speed? This comedic spot will seem like it’s a story about the fastest marathon runner in the world, until it becomes clear that our piece’s hero isn’t a runner at all, but just a regular guy who’s been dubbed the “fastest man on earth” by his friends and family ever since he started using [X BRAND laxatives].
Then, you’d go on to explain a joke or two from the eventual piece and wrap up with a line about how it drives the brand’s message forward in an effective way.
Oh, and for any pitch prompt, you need at least three, and ideally five unique ideas. The paragraph above would count as one, so get to work thinking about good laxative-ad scenarios now!
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Idea generation, pitching, writing prose, networking.
They wanted you to be a doctor, lawyer, bus driver, or literally anything besides a comedian. That’s okay. This is all you want to do, and that means you need to do it. But you may not have your family’s support until they see your mug or your name onscreen, and that may take a while to happen.
In the meantime, you may not be able to rely on them for a boost of any kind, whether that be emotional or financial (assuming they’re even able to help in that way). So, what do you do?
You keep going. It costs nothing to write and send inquiry emails. It costs very little to go to open mics and/or audit comedy courses where you can meet people who may want to bootstrap production on a video (or five) with you. The road will not be easy but, if this is what you want, you’ve got to cut back on social spending and make time for comedy on nights and weekends.
It will get easier. You will find support. Hopefully from your family. Definitely from your new comedy friends.
You just have to be devoted.
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Perseverance.
This is terrifying — maybe the most terrifying moment of your life, if you’re one of those blank loose-leaf people. You will be intensely conflicted, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s completely normal. Here are the questions you need to ask yourself in order to arrive at a choice:
• Have I decided that I like comedy?
• Have I and at least one more experienced person decided that I’ve got promise?
• Do I have six months of rent and living expenses saved up? (Make this at least two years of living expenses if you’ve got healthy dependents.)
• Have I developed a portfolio of work across print and video?
• Do I have at least two dozen original ideas I want to pursue across various mediums?
• Do I have a treatment for at least three of those ideas?
• Have I made at least $5,000 in freelance income on no less than five paid projects as a comedy quasi-professional (writer, director, producer, performer, and so many other roles)?
• Do I see myself living in or near a major city?
• Can I imagine doing anything else with my life?
Answers to Nos. 1–8 must be “yes.” The answer to No. 9 must be “no.”
Comedy Career Skills Developed: Risk-taking.
Many of the steps described above shouldn’t be viewed as steps at all, because they can be taken in any order you’d like. For instance, there’s nothing that says you have to take improv classes before sketch or that you need to do stand-up if you’ve got no interest in it. What’s most important to remember is: A career in comedy can be achieved, and it can be achieved by you. The end result can take many forms, from a multi-hyphenate writer-director-performer to an audio engineer. Through this process, you need to remember three things:
• If you’re good, it’s going to take at least five years before you feel like the odd jobs you’ve been picking up are coagulating into a career, and it may not even be the career you thought you’d have. Go with it. If you’ve read this far, you probably aren’t over the moon about your current job, and whatever spot you’ll find yourself in will likely make you feel better than you do right now.
• Money will never be the most important thing in your life, because it can’t be. This is comedy, and sometimes your paychecks will be … comically low. That doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be taken advantage of. Once you’ve done a job successfully and for free one time, don’t do it for free again, unless it’s a passion project or a networking opportunity that could move your career forward in a meaningful way (read: expanding your contact list or skill set).
• Never, ever compare yourself to anyone else. It’s useless, and it will make you miserable, resentful, and ultimately, unsuccessful. This is your ride, not theirs.
Whatever you decide, make sure chasing it is what keeps you up at night. You’ll be fine, and then, with a whole lot of work, you might just be great.
I did it. So can you. Good luck.
Luke Kelly-Clyne is executive producer and head of development at Big Breakfast. He is showrunner and executive producer on Pop TV’s half-hour comedy series Hot Date and creator and executive producer of I Want My Phone Back. Until assuming his role at Electus’s comedy studio, Big Breakfast, Luke served as a staff writer-director-performer and head of native video at CollegeHumor. Before joining CollegeHumor in 2013, Luke served as head writer on ABC’s Nightline. He authors the long-running weekly Vulture column “This Week in Web Videos,” hosts the HeadGum podcast I’m Still Right, and is a guest lecturer in the Film and Media Studies department at Johns Hopkins University. He used to work at Morgan Stanley. Follow him @LKellyClyne.