Cash For Words
My tax returns prove it: I made more money last year writing
comedy than performing comedy.
Not that I made huge money doing either, but it's a step in
the direction I've wanted to go since I moved to LA two years ago.
After my daughter was born it was clear to me that I had had enough
of the fulltime road life, had no aspirations to the acting life,
figured I was fairly far off from the directing/producing life, so
the writing life seemed the most immediately accessible venue I could
I have since learned, that like all things that eventually lead
to money, there is a set of vague and inconsistent requirements, an
array of difficult to identify obstacles, a gaggle of good and bad
competition, and only a few real paths through the maze toward
being a fulltime Hollywood writer. Although anyone can sit down
at a computer and call himself a writer, calling yourself a
"professional" writer-- someone who gets paid to write on a
consistent basis and at a non-embarrassing rate-- is a different
So even though I'm not yet big-time, I thought I would set out
some of the things I've learned on the way to being small-time
that might be of use to those with similar thoughts about either
straddling or leaping the fence between standup and comedy
"writer." In fact, I'll make it a little series,
since there are actually many different humor writing venues
out here, each with its own flavor, requirements, weirdnesses, etc.
I'll start off with one of the gigs I now have in LA, which is writing
for other comics. Next month I'll do my other gig, daily joke writing.
Then I'll write about sitcom writing. Then films.
Something to look forward to.
* * *
There is a company in LA that tapes every single hour of
programming that appears on television each week, and actors pay
for copies of themselves on shows that they can use for their reels.
That's all this company does, tape every single minute of every
single station of every single hour of television that ever occurs.
Which illustrates something interesting about the entertainment
industry in LA. Entertainment here is like some massive crab with
all sorts of strange capitalist limbs that you couldn't ever predict,
but which someone somewhere out here is doing for a living.
And like all other forms of entertainment, standup has its own
cottage industries. There are management agencies that specialize
in getting standups into TV, film, personal appearances. There are
photographers who specialize in headshots for comedians. Acting
classes for standups who want to do sitcoms. All sorts of seminars
or classes for actors who want to simulate being standups so they
can be seen on local stages. There are classes for standups from
around the country who want a taste of LA without moving to LA.
The queen of these is Judy Carter, but there are also classes at
The Improv and nearly everywhere else in town.
Whether or not these offshoots are worth your time depends on how
much your time is worth. Standups once learned their craft in the
trenches of the road, but shortcuts to wisdom are always appealing,
so people pay for them. They usually end up without all the
necessary tools to really do standup well, but hey, whatever
works for you.
There is also a small, very small, industry of comics who
write for other comics. Hollywood is full of lore about who
actually wrote for what famous comedian. Paul Mooney bills
himself as Richard Pryor's writer. Bob Zmuda wrote at least
some of Andy Kaufmann's material. I heard one of the original
writers on Saturday Night Live talk about how he had sold jokes
outside the Improv to all of the big standups. It seems there
is a lot of lurking behind the man, as it were.
I don't know how much of all of that is true, but if you're
thinking about making your living writing for other standups,
buddy, it's a lean life. As far as I can tell, there are only
three ways to sell to standups: one, you write for up-and-comers
who need help with material but who can't pay you; two, you
write for established acts who now need more material because
they've burned up what they have; or three, you write for
mid-level comics who need specific help on some specific set
for some specific venue.
Start with the up-and-comers.
I've written for new comedians for nearly as long as I've been
in standup, going back to when I was teaching workshops at
Charlie Goodnights to total beginners. If I saw someone I
liked, I just naturally started taking their raw material and
turning it into standup-ready stuff, then giving it to them
and helping them hone it. Of course the problem here is that
they have no money, so I've either done this out of the
goodness of my tiny heart, or with a vague agreement that
they will pay me when they do start making money. Not the
best system for your bank account, to be sure.
Since I've been in LA I've thought about extending the system,
even turning it into a little business. There are tons of
interesting performers out here who can't write well enough
to get a set of power standup together. I could write them a
show, take maybe 10 per cent of their standup earnings for as
long as they performed the material. Sort of like a playwright
who gets paid a percentage each time his play gets performed,
but only one person is allowed to do the play. I may still do
this, because I've seen it work well, and I like to make money
without having to go on the road myself, but to tell you the
truth, it's all kind of a pain in the ass. Because young
performers are flakes, and working with flakes is always more
trouble than it seems to be worth. They change the jokes,
they don't have the experience to make the jokes work as well
as they should, they don't want to go on the road, blah blah
blah. Plus, I'd have to somehow account for how much they owe
me, they would balk at paying, etc., etc. But I don't know,
maybe I'll still do it. We'll see. Depends on whether I need
to do it or not. My wife is pregnant again, so maybe. It's
all about motivation, you see.
Which brings me to the second system, writing for established
comics. I got a call from a friend about a year ago who was
writing for a really good comic that I always liked, helping
him get together a new hour of material. My friend told me
that another comic, someone who was once-famous and was still
making good cash, had contacted him about writing material.
My friend wasn't interested, but gave the guy my name and said he
might be calling. Which he did. Which was kind of weird,
because I came home, hit my answering machine and it was this
guy I had heard for years saying, "Dan, this is ----.
I need jokes. You can all me at ---."
So I called the guy, and I could tell right away he was a loon.
There's always a reason why a shooting star becomes a falling
star, and something about lost fame seems to eventually convince
people they are actually messiahs sent to help the cloudy-minded
world, even though most of them have such horrible personal
lives they can't even help themselves. So he was a loon.
But he was a loon with money, and I kind of liked his stage
persona, so I listened and we talked. I ended up writing for
him. And like all loons he turned out to be even loonier when
I got more on the inner circle. But because everyone around
him had the good manners to immediately pull me aside and tell
me to make sure I got paid up front because he went through
writers like Dennis Rodman goes through white girls, I made
sure I got paid up front. So even though it all crashed like
a bad hard drive, I came away with at least something for the
therapy sessions disguised as comedy writing I did for this fellow.
Which I guess is a roundabout way of saying that if you plan
on writing for established comics, it's kind of a pain in the
ass. Comics with money seem to be paranoid because they think
everyone is out to get their money. And because they're paying
you they retain control over everything, which means the guy
who couldn't write his own stuff in the first place is now
choosing which of your stuff is good or not, and he is usually
choosing wrongly. It's very frustrating to write a bit that
you know would kill and then see a guy warp it or not put out
enough effort to make it work, or even worse just dismiss it
without ever even saying it aloud to another human being. So
although I made some money writing for a faded star this past
year, I won't do it again unless the person is really cool to
work with. It's not worth it.
Which brings me to the third, and most artistically if not
monetarily rewarding writing I've done, which is to write with
surging comics who need help putting together specific sets for
One of the cool things I like about LA is that standups gets
hired to do all sorts of filler work out here. They host
roasts, award shows. They make appearances on talks shows,
they do cable specials. And each one of these venues has
its own flavor, its own requirements. So standups have to
adjust what they do, hone it down, write a few new things,
get rid of anything that might be objectionable to that particular
venue. And because they usually have very little time to get
ready, it really helps them if they can get someone else to
help them make those adjustments.
In the past six months I've worked with a few different guys
that I really liked, and together we altered their road sets
so they fit with some television spot they were booked for.
And it's been enjoyable every time I've done it. These are
all very good standups who just needed an outside observer to
help them clip and mold. They needed a finish carpenter to
fill in the cracks and tidy up any loose spots. It's been
enjoyable mainly because they are open to being helped, and
they take ideas and expand on them, make them even better
than what I originally suggested. It's like being on a small
writing team where both of us are working together to try to
make the final product really strong. I liked it. It's
something I could easily do for a living and actually enjoy.
Which brings me to a stopping point, because from here on out
I'm going to talk largely about writing with other people, which
is what you almost are always doing in LA when you're getting
paid. Being on the road you're your own dog, you think up the
jokes, word the jokes, try the jokes, edit the jokes, keep or
dump the jokes all on your own whim. Out here it's always a
team effort, and to understand that we'll need to get into each
of the other forms available-- talk shows, sitcoms, films-- to
anyone who moves here to write the funny.
Which I'll start into next month.