How to Network in the Comedy World
As 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!
I’m an aspiring comedy writer and performer, and although I feel like I have some understanding of comedy, I’m lost when it comes to the networking side of things. Obviously it’s a really important aspect of the business, but I’m quite shy and hate to feel like I’m imposing on people — I was wondering how you go about networking without seeming exploitative, desperate, or pathetic?
–Alex G., Brisbane, Australia
Other industries are built around an infrastructure of mixers, recruitment fairs, and LinkedIn, or whatever people with normal jobs do, but our only options are improv class, or film school, or mailrooms. The comedic creative temperament isn’t exactly defined by its gregariousness or confidence, and selling yourself just seems… icky. But as my old boss once told me, every job is going to have icky parts, and you have to do them if you want the job badly enough. This doesn’t mean you have to be out pounding the pavement every night, but be systematic about expanding your circle of contacts, and do good work, and the confluence will pave your path.
First, please know that everyone feels exploitative, desperate, and pathetic at times, some are just better at hiding or ignoring it, while focusing on the potential upside. I have basically zero shame, and I still get a little twinge in my stomach every time I email or call someone I don’t know. The ideas outlined below aren’t universal or foolproof, but maybe they can help trigger your brain to cast as wide a net as possible. The key is to stop thinking of networking as some clammy-palmed exchange of business cards, and think of it as collecting comedy friends. Your first step is just meeting more people who are interested in the same things. Through them, you will probably meet people who can actually do things for you, and if you’re working hard and creating, those elements will combine to lift your career.
First, are you creating your own network? They might not be influential yet, but are you writing and performing with other people you think are talented? The more people you work with and meet at the ground level, the more you can depend on those people as they gain influence. Seed your own network that will grow — through classes, improv teams, writers you admire socially. Schedule work sessions together, drinks if you’re flush, coffee if you’re not. Keep in touch.
Mine your past for contacts. Call the head office or alumni association of your school, college, grad school, and see if anyone has “made it” or is at least made-it-adjacent, and get their contact info. Was there any sort of entertainment or performance-based club at any of the institutions you attended? Was there a screenwriting or film program, or even one film or TV-related class? Even if you weren’t in it, email the professors and stop by during office hours. This led to my first job, and I had never taken a single entertainment-related course.
This sounds totally counterintuitive and old-fashioned, but at your next family gathering, tell everyone you’re related to, and everyone they know, that you want to be a comedy writer. My husband’s foot in the comedy writing door was thanks to a friend of his mom’s, who knew an intern at SNL. You never know. Broadcasting your ambitions will lead other people to hear opportunities for you. If they all think of you as an accountant or whatever your day job is, all you’re going to get is tax referrals.
Be around other people interested in comedy. Are there legitimate local organizations you can join or contact for events and mentorship opportunities? Contests you can enter, resources for aspiring writers and comics? The resources in the US are relatively endless, if often obscure and opaque, but Canada has a film council that recently started a comedy lab, and of course Just For Laughs, and Australia has the festival in Melbourne. Intern at a film or TV organization, if you can afford not to have a paycheck for a few months. Volunteer at a big comedy or standup festival — those things are built on a shoestring and need all the help they can get.
The next tip works better later — after you have a foundational network — and is especially useful if you come from either (U.S.) coast or some fancy college. Look up the writers on shows you like, producers of shows you watch, execs at places you want to work, etc. Look up every single one on Facebook and see if you know anyone in common, then ask for an introduction. This is harder from Australia obviously, but start with local live shows and work your way broader. The community there is tiny, and all you really need to know is a couple of people to get started. I apologize in advance to people I know who are about to receive a barrage of requests, but if you’re employed, it’s your job to pay it forward, because your first gig didn’t fall out of the sky.
Don’t just bug strangers on the internet; make your first circle of contacts people you meet organically, not just cold calls. Once you feel like you have three to five good people you like and trust who are also working in comedy, ask them who you they think you should meet. Build relationships with that next circle, and so on and so forth. Let the circle get bigger, introduce people in the circle to each other, make yourself invaluable to that network. You’re trying to get people to like and help you. Randomly reaching out to people you don’t know, without an introduction, is like walking up to someone you think is cute and pulling their hair. They need context. No stranger is going to respond, or read your script, or help, without a feeling of obligation. Like the obligation created by a mutual friendship.
When you do want to reach out to someone you’ve been sort-of-introduced to, make it pleasant and easy for them. Offer to come to their place of work and bring coffee. Bring a cookie, even if they tell you not to. Say you have to leave half an hour later, and send a follow up note thanking them for their time. Don’t ask for help in the room. Ask how they got where they are, ask tons of questions about their lives and work. The more you listen, the more people like you. Make it less about you needing something, and focus on getting them invested in you as a person. People like to help people they like. Try to get a sense of what they are looking for in their work or lives — perhaps you can make yourself useful. Do they need a pep talk, a new assistant, script, girlfriend, roofer, a BBQ to go to this weekend? Have things to talk about — ideas you’re working on, articles and books of note, just have a conversation, in which they talk more than you. You want to have long term working relationships with these people, which, in our business, look suspiciously like friendships. If they want to read your writing afterward, send the one thing of which you’re most proud. Not nine scripts and a short story.
It goes without saying that you should be keeping everyone’s contact information in a vault for future reference, as your e-rolodex will end up being a valuable asset. That way when you do have a script or reel you’re proud of, you can ask them to pass it along, or consider it, or collaborate on it, depending on what you need. The trick, really, is to pave the way with some genuine, small kindnesses yourself, so they don’t feel like they’re being sucked dry. Ideally, this will help each one of your contacts will turn into a mutually beneficial relationship. There. Now you know all my secrets, and my friends think I’m a sociopath, but it’s all for the greater good.
Photo by Ged Carroll.