Do You Have to Move to New York or LA to Make It in Comedy?
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!
How do we advance the success of an entire sketch group if we don’t live in NY or LA? We are a St. Louis-based group called [redacted], and we perform improv and sketch here and in Chicago, with some success. How do we get as much attention as possible from here, is it as easy as inviting managers and agents to a show? If we get signed, how does that work for our individual acting and writing projects?
Also, do I really have to move? I really don’t want to relocate just to take classes at UCB, form an inauthentic “group mind” with strangers just so I can be eligible to make a house team by committee and cross my fingers that my improv performances provide an opportunity for my writing and performing to get noticed.
–Greg W., St. Louis
You’ve asked a whole bunch of important questions I hear all the time, so let me unpack them in a sensible order.
First, no you don’t have to move yet, but it might take longer to achieve your goals without proximity to the machine. I’m a big proponent of honing your craft wherever you are before moving to a bigger pond, but eventually moving will call to you. Chicago obviously is an incredible training ground for comedy, and, in my opinion, perhaps the best. But once you’re trained it helps to throw yourself into the madness.
Yes, NY and LA can seem like discouraging and super competitive marketplaces where everyone is up for the same jobs, but competition will keep you sharp on a national level. Ultimately you won’t get the right attention without advocates in NY or LA, because the business, while friendly, can be insular and short sighted. If you don’t want to cut the cord, I would at least plan to make it to some comedy festivals and plan to be out in LA a couple of times a year so you can meet local talent and reps, and do a show or two at places representation is likely to frequent.
How to draw attention to yourself: The first place people go is your website, so put on your party face. I just looked up your website, which will be anyone’s first stop. Having one is a good start. Now pay someone, it doesn’t have to be much, to make it look professional, and load it up with original material. This original material is your chance to put your acting/writing/directing reels out there without waiting to be cast in stuff, so select carefully. Unless you’re a standup, no live shows. Sketch rarely translates well if it’s not specifically made for the web. Make some scripted shorts you love and upload them.
As a sketch group, try to have a point of view that sets you apart. No one has done this better than the UCB, or The State, The Kids in the Hall, and more recently the Lonely Island, but you’ll see specific themes and visuals even in newer groups like the Birthday Boys or Katydids. Sell yourself in the way you’d want to be sold. Fill out that About section! “_________ is a group of improv performers who met at __________. (Funny anecdote or backstory) We like _______ and ____________.” In defining yourself on your WordPress template or whatever, you’re influencing people to see you in a certain way, and they will come away from the page thinking this group has a vision other than throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. In the future, your website will be used as a selling tool, and your calling card. Do you want buyers to see your site in its current state? Clean it up, and fill it with the best presentation of your finest work. Jorma Taccone of the Lonely Island agrees: “The advantage of YouTube is that every agency has it, with young agents scouring for good content. The most important thing is edit that content aggressively and well. If a scene or a short is wonky, just pull it. Your internet presence should always be your best foot forward.”
As for getting people to your shows, no I wouldn’t contact representatives directly, because you don’t want your email to get deleted along with every loony who thinks they have a great idea. To pave the way for your success, first invite all the funniest and most talkative people you know to every show, because they will go tell people about it. Make sure they come. Be annoying! Buzz travels. Then, take a look around and see which of those people have representation, then ask them to invite their reps to your shows, or forward your material. It means more coming from someone who has been prescreened. I can’t emphasize enough that you can’t just email people directly, you must be introduced via a mutual acquaintance. If that sounds medieval, it is. Just do it, because it’s a skill you’re going to need forever.
If you get signed, you will sit down with your mangers and agents and tell them everything you want to achieve, a a group and individually — the more the better. It’s like a writing partnership but potentially more lucrative; think of all of those paychecks! It’s so important to be clear about your goals — it’s not your reps’ business to tell you what you want. Overreach, share your hopes and dreams. Their job is to execute your wishes and by navigating the system and selling you to the extent of your potential. The more they have to work with, the more they can do for you.
Finally, let’s address this bleak image of this phony life you’re going to live in LA with your phony comedy friendships. Despite the reputation of big city industry, good, smart, kind people abound, and you will make great friends here. The scene is your grad school and your professional mixer, combined. The more people you know who do what you do, the greater the chances that you will all have something great to work on together one day. I hated so many things about LA for the first six years I was here, and I had a (good) job. Your apartment might be crap, your roommate might be a lunatic, a mouse might eat the last of your food while you cry over your -$900 bank balance (true story). But not even once did I doubt the generosity and vibrancy of the comedy community in LA.
I’ve never met more helpful, enthusiastic, and like minded-people as I have working in comedy here, whether PAs to movie stars, so shake off your fear and have some faith in your people, the ones who have chosen to make others laugh for a career. Guess what? They’re mostly not jerks. Caveat: everyone is a piece of work, because being annoying and talented go hand in hand. In fact, two comedy friends and I sat down last night and couldn’t think of anyone we know in LA who isn’t sometimes a pain in the ass. Maybe Max Silvestri, but he just moved here.
Photo by Ben Amstutz.