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.
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
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
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
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