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DAN FRENCH has an M.A. in Rhetoric, and a Ph.D. in Media Studies, but don't let that fool you. And he still hasn't mailed us an 8 X 10.

Vist Dan's site, FunnyPlanet.com!
Dan French
Archived

The original "What Works"
"Tom Kenney"

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
TV Development


"Whose Line is it Anyway?"
French's gag in a Quote-A-Crostic!


"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
TV Programming


"Your Showcase Set"
How to craft an L.A.-ready set


"The Clogged Drain of Comedy"
Who belongs on the stage? Comedy in L.A.


"Torture"
Why move to L.A.?


"Good Side/Bad Side"
What does comedy mean to a culture, post-911?


"Management"
What should a manager do?


"Standup on TV"
What does TV want?


"Cash for Words"
Writing for dollars


"Stoking the Joke Machine"
Writing for a living


"Screenwriting for Standup Comics"
Just what it says


"Random Realizations"
Wisdom born of experience


"P.O.V."
Casting Season in L.A.


"Ladies & Gentlemen: A Job"
Working at Best Damn Sports Show Period


"LA Freefall for All"
It happens to everyone: Freefall!


"Hollywood or Bust"
How to change to succeed in L.A.


"How Edgy"
Column #2


"How Hip"
Column #3


"Who Writes Your Stuff?"
Why don't comics ask for help?


"The Art of Standup"
What would we gain by "turning up the art"


"Christmas Wish List"
Holiday column


"Getting Exercised"
A writing exercise


"High Octane"
Road vs. L.A., Monologist vs. Performer


"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
Television Programmers


"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
Television Production and Development


"Castle Breached"
Working at Late Late Show, Network television gig!


"I Like LA"
The third of five columns on writing comedy for money


"Hollywod Carousel"
Between BDSSP and Late Late Show, what I learned




 

Inside The Box

I said when I started writing this column that I would analyze multiple aspects of standup to see what works and what doesn't on that little universe we call a stage. But since moving to LA a year ago I've been absorbed/fascinated by the LA scene, and I keep finding things to say that I think will be useful to people who are wondering about what the hell is going on out here or contemplating making the move themselves. So for the road guys who are tired of hearing about LA, I'm sorry. I know there is more to standup than just this city. Skip this and go right to Kid Dave, because here I go again. This month-- and probably the next two months as well-- I'm going to take things up to a slightly more abstract level and take my turn at explaining this mysterious entity that calls out to all who think they are funny. I'm going to write about The Media.

Television.

That cash machine sitting there in the living rooms of the world. That strange little device that we all seem to want to be in, almost like we didn't learn the lesson from Poltergeist that it wasn't cool living inside the television, Carrie Anne. It's television that's calling you off the standup stage and out of Iowa. It's television that's getting us all off the road. It's television we want.

It's television, man.

The process by which television shows make it to air is a complete mystery to most of the human beings on the face of the earth. And generally that causes about .0000001 per cent of people to lose any sleep.

But it's different for standups. There is obviously a bridge between our career and a media career, and the money waiting for those who make it across that bridge-- say $10 million an episode as offered to Jerry Seinfeld in his last season, or even five grand a week for writing for some WB show no one has ever heard of-- is more than enough incentive to make many of us yearn, dream, nightmare for a media job, and then finally up and move our lives and families out to where it all can happen "in the blink of an eye."

Unfortunately, for most that eye blinks very slowly. And one of the reasons that standups don't immediately find ways into the media castle, or universally thrive when they get into media strongholds, is that they don't really understand the basic practices and patterns that drive the media along like a huge Greyhound bus full of stranger- than-thou characters all hurtling 1,000 mph into a fairly profitable oblivion. You have to understand the big picture of what the media is before you can paint your own small picture of who you want to be within the media. At least say I.

To start, let's look at the people for whom you will be working. Comics often think they will be doing their schtick for the American people. Get on TV, do your stuff, the people love it, you win the game. And for standups that's a great set-up. Because you know the American people. You get out there every week and talk to, and at, them. You hear them laugh and you feel their derision. It's a blood thing between you and them. You know you should be on television because you know you can make the people choke and gag and spit their beer.

Unfortunately, the idea that you do comedy for the American audience is na´ve. Between you and the audience are a whole set of people for whom you also work, and you have to work for them before you ever get to the great unwashed American audience all road dogs know and love/hate so well. These people you will be working for include the business executives at mega-corporate "parent" companies, programming executives at television networks and cable companies, development executives at production companies, a wide variety of producers, a host of casting agents, a horde of talent bookers, a limitless array of advertisers, and a maddening crew of marketers. If you manage to get what you do past all of those people, you might get a few weeks in front of a particular segment of the American audience that wants to watch what you have to offer.

In order to be successful on TV you first have to be successful for the people who own TV and who choose who will get on TV. So let's take an even closer look at the people for whom you truly work.

There are six television networks: NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, WB, and UPN. There are multiple cable networks, including HBO, SHOWTIME, MTV, VH-1, LIFETIME, TNN, USA, ODYSSEY, OXYGEN, et al. No matter which of these you pick, they are all exactly the same because they all have one primary thing in common that controls everything they do: they are owned by mega-corporations.

There are six primary media mega-corporations in the world. Six and six only. AOL TIME WARNER, VIACOM, WALT DISNEY, NEWS CORPORATION (Rupert Murdoch), VIVENDI UNIVERSAL, and BERTELSMANN (a German giant). These six own everything at the big feeding trough. Every record company, every television network, every film studio, every video outlet, every cartoon, every puppet. Everything. Make no mistake, if you get into the A-Leagues, you will be an employee of one of these corporations. It will help your career greatly if you just marry into one of the families that own these behemoths.

Barring that, take a look at what these corporations are. A mega-corporation is a huge business that wants to make a profit so badly that they will do absolutely anything to make that happen. They will pander to teenagers, scare old people, infuriate women, titillate men, incite white males to violence, manipulate the religious, stir up race hatred, and they will definitely employ, direct, fund, and corrupt artists.

Media corporations need artists who can draw a crowd. Advertisers pay for a gathered crowd. Gathered crowds make money for corporations. So what the media giants want from little old comedian you is to draw them a crowd.

Period. That's what you are for a network. A crowd-drawer.

Nothing else matters. If you need to cut your head off to draw a crowd, fine. If you need to be dramatic and cry and violent, fine. If you can draw a crowd by being funny, hey, we can use you.

Remember that word: "use" you. You are there because you have use. Because you draw a crowd, and that crowd makes money for the corporation.

Is this a horrible thing? Not necessarily. It may be horrible if the executives tell you how to draw that crowd (stop being dirty, stop being controversial, stop talking about OJ, etc.). Or if the crowd is turned ugly or harmed in some way. Or if you feel like a prostitute drawing people in and then watching them being "sold to" while you try to do your art.

But the truth is that if you can draw the crowd you will be fabulously wealthy and you won't really care about the moral or artistic implications of all this. And because you can draw a crowd the corporations will let you do just about anything and will go out of their way to stay out of your way so they don't muck up all the money-making that is going on.

Put this in your notebook to start: the highest level of people you are working for: rich, white business executives. They are happy if you make them money. You make them money by drawing a crowd. A big, loyal, specific demographic, high-spending crowd.

End of story.

But not the end of the puzzle. The second level you will be working for are programming executives at the networks. These are the people who decide which shows to put on the air, when to air them, how much support to give them, and when to cancel their asses. Programming execs are strange people; they do not care about funny. They do not care about art. They care about generating advertising and merchandising revenue to give to the mega-corporation so that they do not get fired.

Programmers serve masters that you do not. They serve advertisers. If the advertiser wants 14-year-old white males to buy their product, then the programming execs want jokes that are funny to 14-year-old white males on your show. They may not want this personally, but they know the advertisers want it. And so they will push you to do that thing the advertisers want. It's called "meddling." Get ready for it. Understand it and figure out how to incorporate it without losing your own artistic instincts.

Programmers also do not want a single show to do well. They want all their shows to do well, because they need success across a week of programming, which means somewhere around thirty-five shows a day, or over two hundred per week. You are just one among many. Yes, it would help if you had a better time slot, and if you had better advertising, and if you could spend more money to get more writers and better actors and great guest stars and better locations and better directors. But every dollar you get is a dollar someone else doesn't get. So you better draw a crowd and make money fast, or be able to succeed on the cheap, because if you are expensive, you are among the first to be cancelled.

Programming executives are also human beings. Which means they are greedy and self-serving. They sabotage shows that they did not themselves choose or champion to be on the air, and they help support bad shows that they themselves did choose or champion to be on the air. Make friends with a programming exec; it will also do wonders for your career.

And here, dear friends, both because this is a ton of information and because I have a life outside of this free column, I stop this month's article. I'll pick it up next month where I'll explain the development and production side of the television business.



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