The Ugly Truth About Comedy and Talent Reps
How often do you think about comedy on a given day? If you’re a reader of this site, chances are that it permeates a sizable chunk of your waking thoughts. Maybe you’re just a fanatic and love following your favorite performers or the general industry news. Perhaps you’re an aspiring comedian/entertainer yourself and enjoy the inspiration your heroes provide. The amount of mental resources we give to comedy may vary from person to person, but the one thing I can assure all of you is that nobody cares less about comedy than a talent agent.
Many come to Hollywood recognizing, but willfully ignoring the cliché that they will be making a name for themselves from the ground up. Gumption, hard work, and a little bit of luck are certainly vital equipment in the toolbox of a fledgling comedic actor, but too often it is assumed that once they reach the point of requiring an agent, the hard part is over, and these rainmakers will be able to steer them to the correct casting directors, showrunners, auteurs, etc. Unfortunately, I’m here to give you the sobering inside scoop. While I obviously don’t speak for all agents and managers, particularly at the more monolithic agencies, the brutal truth is that unless you’ve sought out and signed with an extremely specific and small subset of the available pool of talent representatives out there, you’re only wasting your valuable time attempting to bring comedy into your general meeting.
My experience in the business side of the industry spans multiple agencies and years and, during that time, I have had my optimism and earnestness wrung out of me like so many of my forbearers. So, please, use my cynical pearls here to steel yourself for what awaits you, should you choose to seek your fortune in the acting side of comedy.
Everybody “loves comedy”
This is one of those insipid affirmations that people say when they’re attempting to assert normalcy. Beware of representation that tells you this in the same way you’d avoid a dating site profile that espouses to “love music.” No shit. These are traits of humanity we all share, but an inability to delve into specifics should set off alarm bells. It’s not that all these representatives are unable to grasp alternative or dark comedy. It’s just not their passion. At the literal end of the day, like most boomers with careers, they just want to come home and watch Big Bang Theory and leave the funny to the pros.
The network is God
A quick Google search will give you all the information you need on why the Nielsen rating system is inaccurate, outdated, and stagnating the growth of the industry. It’s an argument I’m not going to get into here, because you’ve also likely heard it before. That said, it’s still one of the only metrics that matters to the suits of the industry. Despite the very obvious shift in the past decades towards a new-media grassroots for all creative content, the majority of money is still coming from advertisers handing money over to ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and The CW. HBO and Showtime have some cache amongst reps, as do a few of the cable channels. But try explaining the value of a web series to a theatrical agent. It’s not paying scale? Not worth their time. Or yours, they’ll tell you. This isn’t the fault of representation, so much as a systemic issue. Their job is to land you auditions for jobs that will yield you both the most amount of money. Network pays SAG/AFTRA scale rates and above. Many cable channels top out at scale unless you’ve somehow secured a series regular spot. Furthermore, those channels aren’t as keen to risk money on original content. So be prepared to slog through auditions for shows you’d never watch in order to land your co-star and guest star spots. Acting may as well be a secret society for all the unbending tradition and dues paying so many new actors go through.
Improv schools are interchangeable
Obviously there are quite a few esteemed improv schools. The problem is, few agents and managers are aware of the merits of each. Getting into the various schools of thought, “the game vs. the scene,” “UCB or Groundlings” are all subjects worthy of discussion when choosing the classes right for you. However, this discussion is not one to have with your agent or manager. The classes they recommend are merely classes that other agents have recommended to them. The more they tell a prospective client to enroll in said class, the more their tautological resolve hardens that this must be the best program out there. I mean, why else would they be recommending it for all these years? But they have no clue about why getting into the Harold could make your career, who Del Close was, or even what the phrase “yes, and” means. They just know that improvisational skills are helpful during auditions and add a shiny merit badge to your resume that casting directors seem to just eat up.
We won’t go to your thing
I’m sure someone, somewhere has once been able to convince a big-time agent to see their one-man show and sign them, but it’s akin to playing the lottery when you send out mailers. 99% of them will get the slightest of glances before going in the trash. It’s a shame, but you should know where your hard earned dollars are going: past jaded eyes before a permanent retirement to the waste bin. And that’s just with headshots! We’re even more cavalier with mailers for shows and showcases. The only way a rep is coming to your thing is if a colleague has referred them. After a long day of hard work, most of us aren’t getting home until 8:00 or later. The last thing we need is an unpaid obligation tacked onto our night. Please save you money and chill out on the mailers. There are more efficient ways of getting your name out there.
If it wasn’t on Deadline, we never heard about it
Twitter, Reddit, and the like seem to be ground zero for breaking news these days, even in the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, the only news that reaches the eyes of middle-aged agents and managers has been filtered through Nikki Finke’s bubble. Remember the kid that managed to get top billing over Tom Cruise for the upcoming film, Jack Reacher, pointing out a huge flaw in IMDb’s ranking algorithm in the process? Guess how many on the business side of the industry even heard about that, despite its going viral. Pretty cool how Louis CK has started to change the business model for many a comedian by self-producing and charging a fixed low rate, right? Of the reps that know who Louis CK is, how many do you think are aware of this pay model? By now you should know where I’m going with this. The majority of managers and agents are far too busy, nor do they have the inclination to spend their time persistently linked to the web absorbing the perpetual stream of news to which we’re all so accustomed. Deadline.com is their go-to blog that allows them to feel hip enough that they’re getting their news online, while no longer being a slave to the trades, yet insular enough that news is usually fairly old and/or digested by the time it reaches the talent representative.
Your best bet, should you ever make it to an agent or manager’s office, is to like what they like, mirror their comedic predilections, and aim for broad humor. Never assume they’re as passionate about the aesthetics or artistic merit of the industry as you. They aren’t. These are mostly kind, tenacious, and honorable people, but there’s a reason they ended up on this side of the camera.
Anonymous is a cynical jr. talent agent in LA.