Earlier this month I found myself locked into a slightly
antagonistic online exchange with a comic I barely know,
so much so that I finally picked up the phone and called
him to straighten things out. At first I didnít know why
I didnít just dump out of the conversation and let it be,
because there was nothing for me to gain by arguing with
him. Even if he accepted what I was saying it wouldnít
help me in any way.
Then I realized why I couldnít let it go. I absolutely
hate to see people make mistakes out of ignorance and desperation.
Those two characteristics-- ignorance and desperation--
describe about 90% of comics currently in LA. Theyíre desperate
to get off the road, to get steady work, to pay their rent, to
get rich and claim some status so people in this city will stop
treating them like they donít exist. They want to get inside
the gates before things are closed to them forever.
And theyíre ignorant about how to do it. Any clue they do have
is a red herring, taking them away from the real answers and causing
them to lose more and more time as they grope around in places that
will never yield them anything of value.
Again, I donít know why this bothers me so much. Maybe itís the
fact that I grew up in a working class family in Kentucky that
was thick with ignorance and desperation. Maybe thatís why I
write this column, its part of my personal lifelong war with those
two pale evils.
Whatever the reason, ignorance and desperation were sure as hell
bothering me that morning I was talking to that comic. He had
told me that he had been offered Hollywood "management" by
someone out in the Midwest. He was very excited about this.
Which I understand. Weíre all excited when someone in the game
offers to get you down on the field. But thereís a huge difference
between a peanut vendor saying he can get you into the World Series
and the manager of the Yankees saying heíd like you to sit on the
bench so he can ask your opinion when the game gets tight.
The guy who wanted to sign the comic was a partner in a comedy
club who was trying to expand into the management business (there
are hundreds of these guys, by the way; every comedy club
bartender and manager in the world has heard about how Rick
Messina was a club bartender/manager who started managing a
guy named Drew Carey, and now is worth a couple of hundred
million dollars). This "manager in the making" said he could
get the comic an industry showcase at The Improv; he could get
him seen by Lenoís people. All of which sounds pretty snazzy
if youíre working the road out in the middle of the country.
But the thing is, if I pulled a couple of favors I can get you
an industry showcase at The Improv. I can get you seen by
Lenoís people. Those are common happenings around here.
Dozens of them happen every week. Itís easy to get those things.
What isnít easy is getting Lorne Michaels to look at your
tape, fly you to NY for one audition, and then hire you that
night for SNL. What isnít easy is getting a producer to call
to tell you that they want you for a film for a week at
$10,000 grand and you donít even have to audition for it.
What isnít easy is getting you on the showcases where
powerful people in good moods come to see you, rather than
sending out a bunch of 20-year-old assistants who want to
get drunk and make it look like the office is working its
tail off to find the new blood. What really isnít easy is
helping you negotiate the very strange political terrain
out here where you finally manage to get aligned with the
right people and projects, but not too aligned because
those people are probably going to be fired next week and
then new people will come in and sweep you out so they can
show everyone that they have better taste than the old people.
So what the comic was actually doing by signing with someone
who wasnít really in the LA game was handicapping himself,
maybe even dooming himself, before he ever stepped foot into
LA. Because he wasnít even going to let the really big,
powerful, effective LA management companies get a chance
to see him unsigned and pristine. He was going to show up
in LA with a big "Do Not Help Me" sign around his neck.
Because he was ignorant. And desperate.
And so, because I dislike ignorance and desperation so much,
I thought that this month I would write what I know about LA
* * * * *
Imagine for a moment that LA is a jungle. Jungles are
mythic places, dark and dangerous but full of mystery and
allure. Thick with hidden quicksand and snakes, but they
hide lost empires and golden temples.
So the metaphor fits. LA is a jungle. Complete with
quicksand, snakes, and golden temples. Iíve seen them
all out here.
Lurking at the edge of every jungle are guides who offer
to take people inside. Who claim that they know the safe
paths. That they know the ways of the natives. They know
all the exotic dangers. That you are somehow the shining
chosen one who holds the key for opening the great vaults
of diamonds. And that they will help you get to those vaults
safely... for just a small fee.
In LA they call these guides "Representation."
* * * * *
Let there be no doubt about it: you have to have representation
to work in Los Angeles. Every stage, every show, every writing
job, every commercial, every tiny place you could possibly work
out here is locked up by an unbreakable collusion between
representation and people who hire talent. Producers and
casting directors and network executives hire people. They
do this by letting representation suggest who they should hire.
If you donít have representation, your name never even enters
Some will tell you that you can get right to the producers,
casting directors, and network execs directly, without
representation. You cannot. For all practical purposes,
you cannot. You will spend all your time going up on stages
hoping an industry person will spot you, and it will never
happen. Iím sorry, it wonít. And if it does, it will be a
low-level industry person who has no power to sell you to
the industry proper. Or it will be someone with some power
who will ask who your management is, you will say you donít
have anyone, and that will be the end of that. Or theyíll
tell you to come back when you get management. Which means
youíre right back to where you started, needing representation.
Why is it like this? Because people who hire creative talent
like to deal with representation. They trust representation
to be professional, efficient, and to send them good people.
If you donít have representation it is a huge red flag that
says youíre not ready to play the game.
So you have to have representation in LA. Thatís how the
town keeps things organized. Thatís how non-creative people
drain off huge sums of money from LA. Thatís the middle man
who actually rules the creative people in Hollywood.
There are two types or representation: agents and managers.
You need both. Agents sniff out work for you. A manager
finds agents, and then makes sure they find you work.
An agent knows about available work and suggests his/her
clients for that work. Hollywood is crawling with agents.
They scurry like starving ants all through the industry,
signing up clients, trying to stay aware of any possible
project that is rising up that might have any amount of
money invested in it that might in some bizarre way actually
use one of their clients. But hereís the problem: there are
good agents (those who send in clients that actually get looked
at) and there are not good agents (those whose clients are
routinely ignored and not given a fair shot). And there are
horrible agents (people who really have no contacts at all,
who are low-level assistants or outsiders or fakers who try
to attach themselves to a talent who will actually bring them
along even though they do nothing to actually get the talent
How do you tell a good agent from the bad?
You donít. You canít. Because youíre not in the industry, you
donít get to see and hear what agents are doing, you donít get
to experience the difference between good agents and bad agents.
Itís your managerís job to tell the good agents from the bad.
Or at least itís one of their jobs.
A managerís first job is to sift through the psychotic swirl of
agents and find you a good one. Except when I say agent, I mean
"agents." As a comic you need a TV theatrical agent,
a film theatrical agent, a commercial agent, a personal
appearances agent, and a literary agent. And all of them
need to be good.
A manager helps you pick an agent, and then stays on top of
your agents and makes sure theyíre actually working for you.
What else do managers do? Hereís a quick list. (1) They
find you agents. (2) They constantly create and maintain
contacts within the industry that can help you. (3) They
keep the industry aware of you, they try to convince the
industry that you are valuable. (4) They stay aware of the
industry, the players, the projects that might be good for
you. (5) They evaluate your skills, talents, what you have
to offer. (6) They find people who can help you get better
at your skills, talents, what you have to offer. (7) They
keep you from making mistakes. (8) They stay loose and fast,
always ready to cut you off their roster in the event that
you flake or bomb out, because they have to make themselves
money, and they absolutely must keep their reputations intact.
Good or great management has tons of powerful, friendly
contacts, often because their families have been working in
Hollywood for decades. They run a well-organized, efficient
office where they actually make and return calls. They have
a cadre of groomed, eager, smart assistants. They are incredibly
easy to talk to. They keep up communication with you. They
make you money.
For all of this they usually take 15% of what you make. And
they try to get attached to your projects as producers (so that
they can watchdog to make sure your projects donít turn to crap;
and so they can get a huge cut of your projects-- thus, Rick
As far as I can tell, LA has five levels of management
companies that deal with comics.
(1) Super agencies, those that can call anyone in town,
get right through, get their clients at the top of the list
for acting jobs and writing jobs, and can actually put together
deals and create projects on their own. There are three:
Brillstein-Grey. Three Arts. Messina-Baker.
(2) Known agencies, those that are a step below the big guys,
but who can still do a lot for you, and have really good inís
at a few important places. From what I can tell, there are
five: Power Management. Barry Katz. Moore-Medavoy. Omnipop.
(3) Independent managers who have split off from one of the
top agencies to start their own shop. Names I know include
Rath-Walker, Jeff Gitlin, Randi Seigal. Iím really not very
clear on these because they come and go so fast. Itís a crap
shoot with these people, because they can do some things and
not do others.
(4) Independent managers who have a couple of weak contacts, and
start calling themselves managers and signing comics, mostly to
leave them in limbo. These include, more often than not, anyone
who doesnít live in LA. Not that there arenít some good, smart,
even ethical people out there who can do a few things for you.
But they donít have the always-growing, thick and intricate web
of contacts you need to get consistent work.
(5) Liars. A whole host of people who will never be able to do
a thing for you, but who still want your blood.
Now the obvious question: how do you get great management?
You get great management by two processes: you prepare
yourself and then you expose yourself.
Preparation means: (1) You are skilled, have learned through
study and experience how to really act, write. Not how to do
standup, but how to act and write in the specific formats of
film and television. (2) You are talented, have tons of raw
natural ability that comes through in conversations, on stage,
etc., even if it isnít skilled. (3) You are useful, which
means something about you and your life can be easily turned
into a show, or you just happen to match a pre-existing slot
the media likes to fill (ie, a fat, funny-looking janitor they
can kill in a horror movie).
These three things will make managers eyes light up like dollar
bills when they see you. Because they can make money off of
you. They can get you development deals with networks and
production companies. They can get you holding deals. They
can get you on writing staffs and take 10% of your salary
every week. The can place you on existing TV shows and take
10% of your salary every week. They can get you films and
take 10% of your fee, and attach themselves as producers.
You are a cash cow, my friend.
So say you believe youíve got the Big Three Necessaries that
will attract a manager. Now how do you get seen?
If youíre skilled, talented, and useful, exposure is easy.
The festivals-- Montreal, Aspen, even Chicago-- are basically
a way for people who arenít in LA to get seen. But as soon
as youíre seen, you have to move to LA. Because how are you
going to audition, to go to meetings, to meet producers, if
you arenít in LA? Youíre almost useless if youíre not here.
So hereís the alternative for those who donít get into the
festivals. Move to LA. Get a day job. Go up around town
at the coffee shops, the open mikes, or on easy nights at
the clubs. Comics who already have management will think
youíre funny. Tell everyone you talk to that you are looking
for management. Be friendly and easy to hang out with.
Comics who like you will want to help you because they
think youíre going to be "big," and that youíll feel
grateful and then help them. So theyíll start talking
you up to their manager. And soon youíll have managers
at your shows, giving you cards, saying they want to set
up a meeting.
But then hereís what you do: donít sign. Wait. Until you
know the real lay of the land. Iím convinced that you shouldnít
sign with anyone your first year in LA. If someone really
wants to help you, have them "hip pocket" you (means they do
some stuff for you to show what they can do, to see what you
can do, but there is no commitment until something bigger
happens). If they want to sign you without hip-pocketing,
donít do it. Itís a red flag that says this person isnít
good enough. They donít believe that you will want to
sign with them after you get to know them and their work.
So there it is. The basics of management. My attempt to
lessen your ignorance and quell your desperation.
And to answer your question, I donít have representation
right now. Because Iím not yet sure what I want from them.
Itís taken me awhile to figure out the LA grid and where I
want to fit into it. From where I sit the best job in the
industry is writing screenplays at home and then having an
agent who knows the buyers and can sell what you do, and/or
get you assignments to script out and rewrite concepts a
studio has already bought. That way I donít have to show up
every day and I get to control at least the first draft of
what I do. But just like there is a learning curve until
you really figure out how to do standup, thereís a learning
curve in figuring out how to write films. Iím just now
getting to where Iím confident that I can write a great script,
and so Iíve waited until I was skilled before getting exposed.
I waited until I could get rid of some of my own ignorance.
And in the interim I got a day job so I didnít feel desperate.
But thatís just me.