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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.

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Dan French

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.

Why move to L.A.?

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

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

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


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 take.

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 ballgame.

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 specific venues.

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. HOME Back to the Top