How Does One Become a Successful Comedic Actor?

tobias-auditionAs a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and produces on her own, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide.

In show business they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

Other than performing, auditioning, and crossing my fingers for pilot season, what can I do to further my acting career?

One undeniable bummer of your profession is the waiting. Not just in your trailer once you’ve made it, but waiting by your phone for an appointment, a director meeting, a decision from a producer, studio, network, whatever. It doesn’t ever go away, and I honestly don’t know how you all have the patience, especially for the trailer boredom. It’s admirable.

When you finally do get a call, the information handed down is opaque or piecemeal. You don’t know why you can’t get an audition, you don’t know how or why your friend got in, you’re wondering how to get a leg up in a sea of funny and mostly attractive people. It’s enough to drive almost everyone away, but you can combat helplessness by focusing on what you want to achieve, and maintaining some control over the process so you don’t go insane or give up.

Who do you want to be?

Whose career do you want? Be super specific, don’t be embarrassed to say it aloud, and think big. You don’t only want relationships with casting directors, or to be scooped up by a superagent — although those are all crucial bricks in the path. When you close your eyes to assess your mental vision board, what is the main image? Do you want to host a daytime talk show? Star in a network comedy series? Be the weird neighbor on a network comedy series? What is the dream credit on your IMDB page? That’s your career blueprint, the bullseye of your professional target. You are all hustling so freaking hard already, so focus that hustle toward the thing you most want.

Take control.

Now that you’ve figured out what kind of content you want to contribute to the universe, you already know what I’m going to say next: go make it yourself. Established screenwriters who have no idea who you are will not tailor their scripts exactly to you. I know, you want to leave the writing to the writers, and the directing to the directors, but rolling up your sleeves will save your sanity, improve your confidence and value in the marketplace, get your name out there, and teach you how making a movie or TV show actually works, so you can have intelligent conversations with other people in the industry. Instead of someone else making the decisions, it can be empowering to make them yourself. Empowerment builds confidence, which attracts the right kind of attention.

If you’re doubting your ability to create, know that all of my data points over the years point to the fact that most funny people can write. Funny people are smart, perceptive, exacting. Funny people are often great mimics, and that applies to screenwriting too. You write bits and pieces all the time. Improv is nothing if not off-the-cuff writing. Read a good book or two (Save the Cat or the Viki King book, if you value efficiency). Then either write your dream script yourself, or ask your funniest friend to write for or with you. Someone you know wants to be a director — give him or her the opportunity to shoot a reel. Every other human wants a producer credit, so just pick someone you think is smart and supportive, and get going.

If auditions are speed dating, nothing is more attractive to a prospective mate than someone who has a lot going on. You want to be the kind of actor that directors and producers earmark as “value added,” someone who can make funny scenes even funnier. When you have created something, whether it’s a solid standup set, a fake talk show, or a short on the internet, you are demonstrating your added value.

Make a to-do list you can actually to-do

The tendency of most actors just starting out is to throw everything against a wall and see what sticks — zipping around town to perform every night of the week, saying yes to any opportunity that comes you way. While you should definitely keep yourself open-minded and game, it’s important to always line these things up with your bullseye, and set related goals every year. Not hopes and dreams, but actual tasks you can complete and cross off.

My friend Jen is an actor and fundamentally hilarious person who was having pretty good luck on the commercial circuit, but was feeling a bit gloomy about the bigger picture. Last year I made her throw out her New Year’s resolutions, because I can’t help myself. They were:

-Go on more auditions during pilot season
-Get a manager
-Perform more

The problem with these items is that they are vague and/or someone else decides when they happen. We discussed what she actually wanted to do (per above) and Jen revised them to be more specific, do-to list type tasks.

-Write and perform a live musical comedy show every month
-Write a pilot based on the live show, and shoot it
-Make a target list of agents, managers, casting directors and invite them to monthly show

A year later, like magic, she is repped at 3Arts, auditioning like crazy, and we just wrapped a great-looking pilot we shot over a week at her house, which also serves as a strong writing sample if she has any interest in pitching shows, movies, or staffing. Her options are endless, and she steering the ship of her own career. She is defining herself as an actor, producer and creator, and I can already feel the confidence and firmness in her correspondence when she emails me and tells me she’s decided it’s time to lock picture! The old Jen would definitely have asked permission, and I like this one even more.

If I haven’t made it abundantly clear, F PILOT SEASON. I hate the pilot system. It’s a nightmare breathless dash to fill a billion roles with the same six actors every year, the ones that all of the buyers have decided have “heat” and they all want to “be in business” with. These are also generally actors who they wouldn’t even let audition five years ago, so let that fact (and it is a fact) ease your self-doubt if you’re not getting in. Pilot season is a necessary evil, and you definitely have to take part in the process — refusing to audition is like saying you want to get married and then locking yourself in the bathroom forever — but you can’t define yourself by someone else’s supposed opinion of your worth. It’s too discouraging.

But what if the thing you make is terrible? Who cares, try it, it’s better than waiting for the phone to ring. If it’s terrible, people will ignore it until you make something awesome. It’s not like we all sit around going “Oh this person is great but they had that one awful idea, remember?” Nobody cares about your bad ideas, they only pay attention to the great ones. You just have to keep having ideas. Keep creating, keep performing, and don’t be precious about it — yes, acting is a hugely competitive field, but if you are creating, most of your competition will fall by the wayside or give up, and your skill set and reputation will only gain strength.

Have a question about the comedy biz for Priyanka? Send your queries to thebusiness@splitsider.com or bug her on Twitter.

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