What Comedy Pays
After my last column on getting a book optioned, it has become clear that many readers who want to go into comedy aren’t sure what it pays, other than a lot, if you get famous. For those of you who are not famous, here is what you can expect for foot-in-the-door comedy jobs. I’ve tried to keep this simple because there are so many contingencies, but basically most first-time jobs are determined by rates set by the writers guild (WGA), directors guild (DGA) and acting guild (SAG-AFTRA). Studios and major financiers and production companies are guild signatories, and agree to pay the base rates to the talent they hire. Most first gigs will adhere to guild-set minimums, and then afterward you have a “quote” in place, and can negotiate based on the quote. Ideally this number keeps rising, if all goes well.
Network staff writers (and premium cable writers) generally make around WGA minimum, and then who knows how many episodes are ordered, blah blah blah. Basically, a staff writer on a full-season order show will make $150,000-170,000 a year before taxes and commission, with a nice hiatus. It’s a good job.
Basic cable pays network scale, and the shorter series order will mean more money per week for fewer weeks, so a 20-week show is in the range of $3,500/week. 14 weeks is $4,500, six or eight weeks is $6,000. Premium cable pays the same weekly rate but order fewer episodes.
If you have a slight leg up on a newbie, like you have written/created a digital series or something else that proves your worth, you may be able to sell an original TV idea on pitch. If you sell a TV comedy pitch and get paid to write the pilot, you’re looking at a $75,000-100,000 script fee for a network pilot or premium cable pilot. Basic cable can be more like $25,000-35,000 to start. Remember that you split these numbers if you have a writing partner.
Late Night Writers:
On a network show, a first-timer is looking at $3,700/week with 13 guaranteed weeks, but most work on 13-week options, year-round.
While not a starter gig, it’s helpful to know what you’re working toward. After years of experience, these deals can be complicated and all over the place because most high-level writers who can act as showrunners will have overall deals at studios and various contingencies like blind script expectations that can factor into their episodic fee. Also there are different rates for show runners who created a show versus showrunners for hire. All this aside, a low rate is $35,000-50,000 per episode in broadcast, which can be $50,000-75,000 in premium cable.
There are two ways to sell a movie, either by writing a script on your own for free and then selling it (a spec), or pitching an idea to a buyer who then pays you to write it. You can’t really pitch unless you’ve written something that buyers already like, so most people do start out spec’ing. For a feature comedy spec with an element attached (actor or director), the sky can be the limit, but assume it tops out at $300,000. On pitch — and no one pitches anymore other than established writers who have had movies made, and even they hate it — a first pitch will be in the $125,000-200,000 range, with elements attached.
If you’ve written a smaller script and an independent financier options it, it’s the same model as the book option: basically nothing up front and then a fee tied to the budget if it gets made. If you’re commissioned to write a script by an independent entity, assume the fee will be in the $35,000 range.
$15,000-20,000 for a pilot, then will depend if their deal is for all episodes produced (even episodes they’re not in) or a guaranteed portion of the episodes ordered, like 9/13. Movies obviously have a huge range but if it’s your first gig, back to SAG minimum, usually +10% to cover agency commission.
First time studio film directors can aim for the $200,000 range, and will probably be tied to optional pics. If you’ve directed some shorts or something and you get hired to direct an indie, your fee will be a percentage of the budget. Usually around 2-3%, with a floor and ceiling, depending on what the budget can bear. Ideally in this case, where the fee is small, you can also negotiate some percentage points on the back end.
In TV, you’re going to get DGA scale for pilots and episodes. If you’ve directed something already, it’s maybe tops out at $100,000 for a network pilot.
These numbers are all over the place because there are no guild minimums, so it really depends on what your market value becomes as you gain exposure and a fan base.
A club comic will start at $20-$50 per night, if lucky. But the point of a club is to get good, and get exposure. No one is in it for the money. A mid-level comic headlining a club weekend is around $3,000. A college date for tha same comic is $3,000-5,000. Touring numbers depend on what the market will bear. For example, on the higher end, a comic touring with something like Oddball Fest (but not headlining) can make $7,500-12,000 per show. A headliner could make 10 times that.
A half-hour comedy special for Comedy Central pays about $20,000, and for an hour special it depends on where and how it is being sold — Comedy Central can be $150,000, HBO or Netflix can pay more for a package they like, or less if they acquire one that you shoot yourself. The cash cow for many working comedians is theater shows — a great comic can make in one night what he or she might make in a year making a movie, with more control, and less overhead. The same goes for albums, which can now be released directly, with even less overhead.
Again, this is a complete wild card, because there is no guild (maybe there should be?). The publishing friend I spoke to said that books can land anywhere in the range of $2,500 to $1.5 million, with most landing in the $12,500-$300,000 range. The same book can get offers that are hundreds of thousands of dollars apart. As you’d imagine, write a book if you’re dying to write a book, but it’s not the fastest path to writing riches. Unless you’re famous, in which case, it can be a nice piece of income.
Priyanka Mattoo is a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, where she represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. If you have a question about the comedy biz for Priyanka, send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org or bug her on Twitter.