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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.

Vist Dan's site, FunnyPlanet.com!


 

How Do I Get Your Job?

To bring up to speed those who didn't read my previous article(s) for SHECKYmagazine, I am a comic who in the past few years has transitioned out of standup and into fulltime comedy writing in Hollywood. After a year stint on The Best Damn Sports Show Period, I've now been at The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn for approaching six months. Since our show is once again on a dark week, I thought I'd take a little time and catch SHECKYmagazine readers up on the glorious world inside network television comedy writing.

In brief, I still love the job, the other guys on staff are pleasant and funny, and I've found my own groove between how I naturally write and what Kilborn needs in order to fill in his show. The longer I've been in the job the more efficient I am at it, so it no longer feels like I'm in a mad scramble to get all the assignments done, which, as you might guess, is a good thing.

From what I can tell at this point, the job and I seem to get along pretty well. Will it stay that way? Unfortunately, there are no reliable long-term weather reports in the Hollywood climate. Cancellations storm through, stars quit, personalities clash-- all making it way too hard to know the future. C'est la Hollywood.

But none of what I've said so far is why I'm taking time to write this article. The truth is that I'm writing because I've had a lot of comics approach me not so much to help them get a writing job, but to help them at least understand how to get a writing job. They ask for advice in different ways-- what kind of sample do I need, how do I get my stuff seen, etc.-- but it's all the same question: how do I get hired when I'm not inside the system, I don' t have an agent, I don't have direct experience, and I don't know much about the game?

Since I'm now an "expert" on getting work in Hollywood, I'm going to try to tell you what you need to do in order to get hired on a talk show. There are four elements, I think.

(1) Understand the layout of the land in comedy writing.

(2) Understand your own abilities at comedy writing.

(3) Gather together proof of those abilities.

(4) Get that proof to someone who can hire you.

I'll now cover these with far less depth than they deserve. Maybe some day I'll write a book in all my spare time between working, being married, and raising a family.

* *

(1) Understand what you're getting into.

The first step in working in this business is the one that most people skip entirely: realize what you're getting into.

There really aren't that many talk show jobs. There are only five network talk shows: The Tonight Show, Conan, Letterman, Kilborn, Kimmel. The Tonight Show has around 15-20 writers, most have been there long term. Conan 12-15. Letterman 12-15. Kimmel I think is around 12. And we have 7. So for networks, you're talking a total of about 60 jobs.

Dropping down below the networks you'll find syndicated daytime talk shows and cable. Daytime would be Ellen. I think \ that's it (Wayne Brady was recently cancelled). Cable you have The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Mahr, Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, then Dennis Miller on CNBC, The John Henson Project on Spike, and Best Damn on FoxsportsNet. After that you have a host of shows that have come and gone-- Orlando Jones, Tom Green, etc.

Again, not many options. And daytime and cable don't pay very well. Damn it.

Below those shows are a range of other shows that aren't exactly talk shows, but that need "humor." Game shows, animal planet shows, sports talk shows, radio shows, etc. There are lots of places that use jokes, although again, not for much pay.

So there aren't many jobs. Less than 100 total talk show jobs, maybe another 50 asundry game show jobs.

And there are lots of people trying to get those jobs. We are a nation of 250 million or so. Of whom probably about 25 million think they can be comedy writers. Of whom maybe about 25,000 actually pursue a comedy writing career. Of whom probably 15,000 or so do some standup and even move to LA or New York.

That's the layout of the comedy talk show occupation. You have a huge morass of people trying to get a few comedy writer jobs.

Is there any hope, you ask? From the scenario I've set so far, you wouldn't think so. But there is a rub, and here it is:

Most of the people applying for these very few jobs... suck. Which leads to the second step in getting hired: know your own abilities.

(2) Know your comedy writing abilities.

A very important question to ask yourself in the process of getting a comedy writer job is: Are you really a writer?

It's a good question, because, you see, comedy writers write. Every day. Hours on end. They generate piles and piles of useable, polished material. Comedy writers are obsessive about generating new material, with reworking old material. They have big comedy muscles that don't get tired from generating day after day after day, for hours on end.

And they donít mind giving 95% of their stuff away (for pay). They don't mind working with fairly crazy performers who sometimes make your stuff sing, sometimes just dismiss it like a diva. A comedy writer is okay with being the person shoving coal into the comedy furnace. It's not the type of job that gets much public recognition, it's the kind of job that just makes money in a fairly pleasant working environment. And if you get good at it, it's the kind of job that allows you to run a show, hire performers you like to write for, and make a lot of money.

But it's not a money-game. It's a work game. And the work is generating humor every single day. Much like making doughnuts.

If you really feel like you want to make comedy doughnuts, then continue to read on. If not, head back to the standup stage or try to be an actor.

For those who are convinced that they are writers at heart, the next step is to figure out how good you are at writing. I tend to think in categories, and so I break comedy writers into three broad distinctions: those that suck, those that are competent, and those that are great.

Suckness as a comedy writer comes in many varieties. Sometimes the comedy mind at work isn't sharp enough. It spits up mediocre thoughts, easily guessed punchlines, boring language use, recycled ideas. Sometimes the mind is sharp, but it isn't sharp about what a particular show needs (ie, writing for the widely accessible, easily decoded, visually-dominant, mostly Midwestern Leno is very different than writing for the snarky, boozy, ironic, swinger hipster Kilborn). Sometimes the person is sharp, but just doesn't want to work very hard, or is burnt out, and doesn't put their full mind to work at a particular job. And sometimes the mind is just too inexperienced-- not enough standup to make them seasoned, not enough television writing to let them know what works.

Competent means you can handle the basic needs of comedy writing, but there are limits on what you do and how well you do it. You have both distinct strengths and distinct weaknesses. To analyze your own competence you would ask things like, how unique is your sense of humor? How consistent, how reliable? How well does it fit for a particular show? How hard do you really work? Are you crazy and/or high maintenance? Do you have a downside that might explode-- too much pot, alcohol, bad relationships, distractions, etc.? And are you a good guy-- i.e., would you help others if you were in a position to do so?

Most Hollywood comedy writers that I know are competent, even drifting toward highly competent. They write solid jokes, they come up with a slew of ideas, they have decent work habits. You can hire them and they get the job done well enough.

And then there are those writers who are just amazing. Their minds are fresh and unique. They have something funny to say on nearly everything. They have a way with language, a different take on politics, a feel for people, a keen sense of what's funny and not. If they match all of that up with a good work ethic (and sadly, most do not), they're gold. A relentless, talented comedy writer who isn't high maintenance is a golden ticket. Once inside the system they will always work because they're valuable. Very valuable. The top very small layer of comedy writers in Hollywood will blow you away with the amount, quality, consistency, and breadth of their output. Give them an assignment, they come back quickly with funny, surprising, unique, and powerful stuff. Time and time again. You know you can rely on them to give you what you need, give it to you fast, and give it to you week after week after week.

Think about how valuable it would be to you as a standup if you had a writer who every day could churn out a new two or three minutes, perfectly in your voice and without any need to edit even a single word, that absolutely killed on stage. Not that got a chuckle, but blew the room open. You could use it on TV, to get corporate work, to up your money in the A rooms, etc. You would want that person to be around, available. Hey, you might even pay them.

That's the type of writer you want to be if you really want to get work in Hollywood. Someone who is so good and reliable that whoever pays you is convinced that they're going to get quality material for their money.

So there it is. Many comedy writers trying to get work in Hollywood suck, another big layer are competent but not spectacular, and a handful are amazing.

When it comes to getting jobs in Hollywood, if you are in the top ten percent of talent and work ethic, or even in the top twenty five percent of competent writers, you have a massive advantage on the field. Sort of like you're a horse without a jockey racing a thousand other horses carrying John Goodman and Rosie O'Donnell clones.

So ask yourself: do you suck? Are you competent? Or are you a top ten percenter?

Unfortunately, most people cannot answer those questions themselves. Either the answer is too painful, or they don't want to admit the truth. Or they're crazy. Or they don't get enough professional, trustworthy feedback to ever really know where they stand.

One thing I try to do for people who want my help is to get them to see where they are on the talent continuum.

If you suck, I will tell you nicely that you need to keep working to make your stuff stronger.

If you are competent I will try to figure out your strengths and weaknesses so you can see where you need to get better, what strengths you might be able to peddle right away.

If you are an amazing writer/generator of humor, and without huge downsides, I will immediately tell you so and then do whatever I can to help you get work, because you're going to be in this business and I want to stay in contact with you, work with you, because I am going to be in this business, too. And I want to work with amazing people. It's a lot more fun that way.

But then comes the question. How do I, or anyone, truly know if you're good or not? Easy. I get to see proof.

(3) Proving that you're a good comedy writer.

What someone really wants when they hire a writer is to have proof that the person will be good or great at the job that needs to be filled. Proof comes in four possible forms: samples, credits, recommendations, and live performance.

* Samples

I constantly get asked about what goes into a writing packet. The useless but most truthful answer is that it doesnít matter as long as it's great. It can be sketches, top lists, jokes, columns, standup, etc. It doesn't matter so much what it is, just that it shows that you are drop dead, unquestionably, and forever funny.

The more useful answer is you need a generic package that shows you're funny, and serves as a basic foundation from which you can adapt other writing packets that fit the exact show you want to apply for. You get hired because the person who is hiring is immediately and unequivocally convinced that you will be able to give him or her great material that is dead on and doesnít need to be rewritten. You need to show the person you can nail the voice, the tone, the content of his or her show. So whenever you apply for a job you need to adapt your material to that job.

To do this you might try any of the following options:

* Topical monologue jokes. Two pages is plenty, usually collected over a span of time, but you might also include a page of recent jokes from the past few months to show you are still actively writing. Don't just leave these in your voice. Adapt them to each host and show-- i.e., if you write Leno-type stuff for Kimmel or vice versa, forget it.

* Top Lists. Four or five with nothing but killer lines, and not derivative of Letterman.

* Desk pieces. Every show has the host at the desk doing bits-- fake ads, doctored photos, fake magazines, etc. Kilborn has set things we do-- Sebastian the Asexual Icon, What Up?, or To Blank With Love.

* Sketches. Usually things that can be done in-house, on small budget, on the actual set of the show.

* Rants/mini-monologues. Aka Dennis Miller. Or a host of others who do these.

* Bits specific to each show. Every show has particular things they do that you can use to show you get the tone of the show. Kilborn and The Daily Show both do news parody, but they have different styles. Kilborn also does product sponsors (the news is brought to you by), This Just In's (someone hands Craig a page with a random piece of information on it), and Camera Turns (and now Craig shows you a tiny piece of acting).

Put together a nice, tight packet of jokes, a couple of desk pieces, a couple or rants, and anything from that particular show you want to take a crack at. It should be short and to the point, no frills, and nothing cute. Make it business-like and easy to read. It doesn't need to be long.

What it does need to be is great. Great samples will get noticed. They will get you interviews. But only if they stand out from the others that the person sees. Your sample packet has to be better than what the head writer receives from professional writers with years of experience.

How do you make that happen? You work really, really hard to become a good writer. You work really, really hard on the packet itself. And, of course it's Hollywood, so you cheat, too.

The honest part of putting together your writing sample is that you have to work on it not over the course of a weekend when someone asks to see your stuff, but every single week over the course of a couple of years. You want every joke to burst off the page. Those types of jokes don't come out in a week. They pop into your head once a month, if you're lucky.

By far the most common mistake I see beginning writers make is to not have great samples ready when asked. Instead, comics try to throw together stuff in a single night, and it comes out a mixed bag of weak jokes and strong jokes. It comes out not good enough to impress.

But even putting in hard work over a long period of time often isn't enough to make your samples sing. You have to cheat. By which I mean that nearly every single sitcom spec script or writing packet that gets someone hired in Hollywood has been worked over by a writer's group, best friends, spouses, teachers, and other professional writers. It's an odd secret, but just like most standup sets are full of lines other comics added into your show over the years, so are writing packets. To make one great you usually need help.

My writing packet is a result of four years of daily joke writing, all of which I've reworked and rewritten on my own hundreds of times, and which I've also shown to friends and professional writers who have given me suggestions and led me away from bad choices. I've been writing fifty jokes a day for Kilborn for six months now. The sample I now have is much, much better than the sample that got me hired at this job, which I put together over the course of three years of writing radio jokes, and six months of watch Kilborn every night, and two sets of feedback from a writer who was already on staff at Kilborn.

So let's say you manage to put together a killer writing packet. Unfortunately, even that's not enough to totally prove that you're great, and reliable, and hirable. You need other types of proof as well.

* Credits.

Credits are a list of what you've already done, places you've already worked, awards you've already won. Credits are wonderful things in Hollywood. They open doors and get your stuff seen, get you interviews. I lost out on a job at Kilborn the first time I applied there because they hired someone who had an Emmy, and had worked on Chris Rock, Conan, and a couple of sitcoms. He was also a funny writer, so he deserved the job, but what put him clearly ahead of me were his very substantial credits. I couldn't compete with those.

How do you generate credits before you get jobs? Really, you don't. You have to rely on the other forms of proof, and hope you don't go up against guys with huge credits. And you shouldn't try to massage what you've done to make it look like you've got credits when you really don't. Say you're a standup. Say you've taken writing classes. But don't reach for things just to make it seem like you've done things you havenít. For television, the only credits that matter are television credits. Anything else that isn't TV or film just sounds amateurish. Don't manufacture credits like "I write my own column," or mention your "Evening at the Improv" from 1989. It's better to look inexperienced than to look desperate.

* References and recommendations.

Having other established writers recommend you and praise you will also get you some play for jobs. I sometimes recommend guys I like. I don't have a lot of pull, but I have enough to get someone's packet to a few different head writers. But I only recommend those I know are stable, competent, or great. Because if I recommend someone who can't do the job really well, I look bad, and I go down in someone's estimation. If I recommend someone good, I go up in their estimation, and then I have some favors owed to me, more friends who are working, and I get to think of myself as a wonderful guy. How nice for everyone.

Recommendations are useful, and powerful, but they won't be enough. The person will still want to see your samples and meet you in order to judge for themselves if you're funny.

* Live demonstrations of your ability.

Actually showing that you're funny in live settings can also get you jobs. Which means you can be funny in conversation, in standup, or in a job "tryout."

Being funny in conversation is tricky. One of the hardest things to watch down at the Hollywood Improv is guys trying to be "funny" in normal conversation. I know why they're doing it, because they are desperate for work and want to show anyone within ear shot that they have the goods. Unfortunately, it never works. Comics don't let you be the funny one the way the regular world lets you be the funny one. You're better off just being pleasant and having something interesting to add instead of something quasi-funny to add.

A better way to show you're funny is by having a killer standup set you can do around LA or New York. If other comics think you're funny, they'll help you (sometimes). And there are producers, and assistants, and agents in the audience sometimes, and they might be impressed enough to also offer to help or to work with you. It does happen.

Or you might be able to get a limited-time tryout for a show. I got hired at Best Damn after submitting a sample that got me a two-day tryout. It's a suck way to get hired, because you are pressured to jump in and be good with very little help or preparation, but if that's the only chance you've got, you've got to do it well. My first two days at Best Damn I pitched and wrote like a demon. I wanted them to think "This guy puts out a lot of stuff, and it's good." I managed to tread water fast enough that I got stuff on the show, and I was hired.

So at this point you know what Hollywood is, you know your own abilities, and you've got your "proof" ready. Now all you need to do is get it seen.

And that's the tough part.

(4) Getting submitted for jobs.

Itís tough looking for work in Hollywood. Believe me, I know it's tough. It's maddening, trying to figure out where the jobs are, how to get to the person who is doing the hiring. It's very frustrating to find that you can't even figure out who is hiring, where they are, what they want, or how to ask them anything. They don't return phone calls or emails or letters.

Why is that? Because producers and head writers in Hollywood don't want to be drowned in a huge avalanche of writers and wanna be writers looking for work. If a producer were easily available and highly publicized, they would receive hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, of applications.

Every job that opens up in TV writing is besieged with writers who come in through a variety of channels. The business channels send writers -- agents and managers submit guys (and believe me, there are hundreds of agents and managers of all levels and credibilities in this town scurrying to get work, to submit their clients, even if that client isn't really what the producer wants to see). Personal channels send writers -- people already on staff recommend people, actors recommend people, your old college recommends people, the show's crew recommends people, friends and family recommend people. The show itself sends people-- every writer's assistant and most of the production assistants and personal assistants are trying to get hired on as actual writers. And then there are the "weird" channels-- every show, every head writer, every writer's assistant, is constantly deluged with unsolicited writing samples sent out of the blue by someone no one has ever heard of. Our show gets 5-10 of these a week. They just float in out of the ether.

So that's the bad news: almost every channel into every job is clogged. Badly clogged.

How do you cut through the clog?

There's the multi-million dollar question.

My advice for guys who are just getting started is to try to get some kind of personal "in" to a show you like. Find someone who will do you a favor and help you get your writing sample to someone already on a show. Pick the shows you would like to write for, go through your jokes and adapt what you have so you have a killer sample crafted for each particular show, and then try to find someone on staff you can get to read it, usually through a mutual standup acquaintance. It can be anyone on staff, or even an assistant. If itís good they might be willing to hand it over to the head writer, and if theyíre looking for someone, you might get an interview. There's no better way to get a job in Hollywood than to know someone already on staff who takes your stuff to the head writer and gives you a decent personal reference.

Other than that, itís more of a long shot, but you can buy the Hollywood Creative Directory on-line, get emails and addresses of various shows and production companies, and then blind submit your packet to the writerís assistant, the head writer, and the exec producer at each show (three separate packets). That way maybe one of them will read it and see that you have your stuff together. After a week, send each of them a letter seeing if they got it, then follow up with a letter a week after that. Unsolicited phone calls make you seem creepy. Just be business-like in the letter, donít try to be funny, just try to sound normal and easy to get along with.

I know it sounds like a lot of work, and it's a long shot, but hereís the deal: most writerís assistants are trying to get hired themselves, so they dump packets. Some head writers look at stuff, but they usually have a ton of stuff coming in so they might just pitch it. Exec producers donít normally get sent packets, but some of them like to "discover" the writers, so you never know. Doing blind submitting, if your stuff is good and you seem professional, can sometimes work. But remember, they already think you're a loser because your stuff isn't coming through an agent or manager they know, so it may also be worth your while to submit the same "amazing writing packet" to agents or managers (although dealing with those people is a whole other can of worms that I don't have time to get into right now).

Other than that, some shows allow freelance submissions from "faxers" (emailers, actually). You can call and try to talk to a writer's assistant about getting on the fax team. If you make that inroad and get to send stuff, and your stuff is consistently on target and funny, you'll again stand out. Half the staff at Kilborn was hired off the fax list. Because, again, you've proved you're consistently funny, so it's almost like a job audition. Unfortunately it doesnít pay much, so it's like writing every day for free, but that again is the reality for people just trying to get started.

Those three techniques-- some kind of a personal "in," doing blind submissions, and getting on fax teams-- seem to be the key for guys who donít really have any credits or an agent.

* *

And that's it. I know this is long, and ramble-ish, but I wanted to have something comics can read that tells them how to do this stuff. That way I can say "Go to SHECKYmagazine" instead of trying to say all of this in conversation while I'm trying to concentrate on my drinking.

In the end, I don't mind trying to help, I really don't. It's part of the process out here, and it's part of who I am as a good Midwesterner/Southerner with a Catholicized conscience. Depending on your strength-to-weakness ratio, and depending on how soft-hearted I am at the time, and depending on how many other guys I'm already trying to help, I might actually help you with getting a job, or with building your strengths and losing some of your weakness. But as you could probably guess, doing much of any of that is time consuming and effort-filled, and with a family and a job I don't have much extra time or energy these days. So best to come to me if you're already very competent with very little weakness. Or even better, you're competent and I like you. Or maybe even better better, you're competent, I like you, and I think you can help me get work down the road because you seem really motivated, talented, and together. Sorry, I don't mean to be less than authentic, but a truth of Hollywood is that you can get by without friends, but you can't get by without people willing to hire you. Having something to trade for something you want is always a good idea in this town.

Hopefully after reading all this you understand better what you need to bring to the table if you want to write comedy in Los Angeles. It's a sharky world in Hollywood, but it's not an impossible one. You just have to have your game together so you end up being a little sharky yourself, and not floating around like chum.



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