In my first installment of this column I talked about how Hollywood seeps into comicsí acts when they move to L.A., and suddenly all they talk about on stage is "the industry." This month I want to stay on the Hollywood topic, but take it in a different direction. With so many comics flooding into here from all over the country, I think it's time to talk about how comics need to change in order to succeed in Hollywood.
Hollywood or Bust
I had the opportunity this month to catch two sets by Tom Simmons, a comic out of Atlanta, now in Greenville, SC. The first was a Wednesday night showcase at the Hollywood Improv, the second a Sunday guest set in front of Bob Saget at the Pasadena Ice House. Tom did well both times, as he should, because heís a good comic. He avoids the hack, takes on comedy-tough topics like gun control and racism, and is well-spoken, clever, and road smooth. Heís been to Montreal, he lived in New York, and heís repped by New York Omnipop, so he knows the business and makes a living at this.
During Tomís sets I let myself play a game Iíve started since I moved to L.A.. I imagined myself as a television producer scouting talent, and I tried to figure out where I could use Tom in a show. Not where I could plug five minutes of him into a standup segment of a talk show, but where I could plug him into a sitcom or even build a show around him.
Here was the problem: no matter how hard I tried, I couldnít see where I could use Tom in the media. Here was this really good standup, getting strong laughs, a young, good-looking guy, and I had no idea where I could fit him in. He didnít really show acting skills in his set. His writing was good but not strikingly different or hugely original. He was likable, but not the type of powerful or quirky personality that you would remember and want to see again and again just for who he is.
I talked to Tom afterward and when the discussion turned to what he wanted from L.A. he suggested that he was going to do the road for five more years and hope something would click that would take him to that next level. In other words he was hoping the road would teach him what he needed in order to make it in the media. It hit me right then that a lot of good comics donít really understand the massive differences between working the road and having a career in the media.
The road is a unique world, and by its very nature it creates a certain variety of comedian. On the road you are a lone artist, and you perform for real people who give direct feedback that lets you constantly hone a single monologue. Road comics learn to admire comics who take risks, have no fear and are able to create and dig themselves out of holes, who shatter rules and taboos, or who can go on the attack and rule a room. Because it is a verbal form, we also like comics who are geniuses with words, honest, different, creative. Because it isnít highly produced or team-generated, standup is believed to be best when it is organic--written and performed all on your own.
Almost none of which helps you in a media career. If anything, the lessons of the road hurt you.
The media isnít better or worse than the road, itís just different. First, the media is never "authentic." It may talk about itself like itís art, and every so often it might stretch to that level, but 99% of the media is a never-ending circus that needs flashy things to make people watch while advertisers sell. It requires powerful personalities that demand attention and hold it rock-solid. The media needs people who are visually stimulating, either hyper-attractive, strikingly unusual or, it is hoped, both. It needs people who can display a range of emotions, and who can make audiences feel those emotions intensely. It requires professional acting from people who can do exactly what is needed by a writer or director. It wants originality and genius in its writers and performers, but it has to distill those into the recognizable structures and genres of television, film, or radio.
Much of which goes directly against what standups have learned to do. In standup you have independence and autonomy and choice and can be a solo artist drenched in all sorts of ideas about rebellion and truth and art and independence. The media might be able to use those who have developed those qualities, but only as needed to fuel its own pre-set structures. In other words, in order to get work in the media you have to show media types how what you do fits into a system that is trying to get butts in seats-or, as the media would say, target audiences for advertisers.
The truth is that working in the media often disgusts comics once they get into it. The only thing that makes standups even want to do media is the money (and the lure of getting off the life-numbing road). Hollywood is a constantly dangling carrot of millionaires who have managed to get a show into the system and who don't seem that much more talented than you. Even low levels of the media offer standup comics is incredibly well-paying--although unbelievably hard to get--work in commercials, talk shows, game shows, sitcoms or film. Since those are the genres where standups most often find work, let's take a minute to look at each of them.
Most talent in L.A. makes its money on commercials. The entire purpose of a comedy-based commercial is to be compellingly goofy enough to draw attention while a product is being paraded around. You are there to draw attention so the seller can sell. That means you to have an interesting look, voice, expressions, body movements. You have to be far more expressive and over-the-top than you have ever imagined being on stage because television is a land of incredibly goofy characters--e.g., Kramer on Seinfeld. And you have to be able to swallow the lessons of the road that say comedy is respectable and has some honor to it. Commercials turn art into monkeys for capitalism. And even though you know that and it might make your skin crawl to do your humor for those purposes, you still have to be able to give your absolutely best work for a process that seems to have no soul because if you aren't working on all cylinders you'll get blown off the audition floor by the fifty actors who have also come in to read for this part and who practice this stuff every day of their lives..
The TV host gig is much harder to get, but itís there for some comics. A TV host, though, has to be much more than verbally funny, as Jay Leno learned when he took over The Tonight Show and saw ratings plummet through the floor. A host has to be likable and happy even when he or she doesnít have great material to say. Say what you want about Bob Saget, but he was a master at selling weak material. And it may be sad to watch an all-time great comic like Jay Leno sell out and become Hollywood superficial, but the "I like everybody" hokum and visual gags he has turned to have gotten him an audience and kept him on TV.
The real grail for most comics who come out here are sitcoms, either as actors or writers. Most comics who have strong acts can get a shot at acting in the sitcom world. But the sad truth is the vast majority of them arenít even close to being ready for that shot. Sitcoms may look stupid and easy, but if youíve ever watched one being taped you know they are anything but simple processes. If you want to do sitcoms, come out here and go to ten tapings. Youíll see why you should start taking acting lessons now. I mean right now. You have to be able to perform emotions on cue, to make them look natural and real, to hit marks, to memorize. A lot of what youíve learned to use on stage to get laughs--like cueing the audience with facial expressions or eye contact--works directly against you as an actor. No one is a "natural" at acting. It has to be learned, and if you try to learn it in front of professionals on a set youíre going to fail. You need to be taking acting lessons for three to five years before you get that good shot.
Staff writing is more of the same. Standup comics have to realize that stage humor is different than story humor. In a script you canít just write a joke to get a laugh. It has to be a line that grows from the character and moves the conflict of the story along. You have to be able to write dialogue instead of monologue. You have to be able to write emotions. You have to learn story, which means highly original premises, a problem-solution format that rises in tension with every scene and keeps the audience interested. You have to be able to generate characters, suspense, peril, conflict, twist, surprise, great laughs at act breaks, etc. Very little of which you learn to do in standup.
Making this process of learning to write scripts even more difficult is the reality that in standup you get to learn from audiences giving you direct feedback that allows you to change and grow. Itís much harder to learn scriptwriting because you donít get professional feedback on what you do, and without being inside a room where professionals write scripts youíre always making mistakes that "disqualify" you from getting into the room. Thatís why so many standup comics only get jobs through people they know who are already inside, and actually only learn real scripting once they get inside the writerís room. And that only happens if theyíre lucky enough to have someone vouching for them and protecting them while they learn.
As I said before, the truth is that the only reason most comedians even try for a media career is the tantalizing amounts of money swilling around in it. We all know guys who have signed development deals or landed on staff and are raking in money and returning our phone calls less and less. But here's another truth: If you join the mass exodus of standup comics from the real world to L.A., come prepared to compete your ass off for any and every job out here. And in order to compete you have to be prepared, both psychologically and with marketable skills that go beyond just standup. Donít handicap yourself by holding too tightly to the lessons of the road. Take acting classes to expand what you can do. Take scriptwriting classes, get the scriptwriting books, start writing script after script and begging good writers to give you feedback. Distill your act into a 7-minute showcase set that displays how you can magnetize attention, and gives your vision of the world so some writer or producer can see it becoming a show. And most importantly start thinking of yourself not just as standup, but as an actor or a writer. The road can be fun, and itís as authentic and real as performance gets. But if youíre coming to California, put standup inside your own little glass menagerie and realize you have to open yourself to a different type of work. You can do real standup when you get outside of the L.A. city limits; here it's all about being user-friendly for the media.