How Does One Get a Job as a Writer’s Assistant?
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 does one become a writer’s assistant? Seriously, how do I make this a thing?
–Rachel L., New York
You semi-stumped me with this one. While I can usually cobble together a response via my own brain and a couple of fact-checking texts, I had absolutely no idea where to begin. I came up in the world of representation, which is a pretty lockstep path: start in the mailroom somewhere, and stick around while everyone else gets fired. But with less structure, how do you end up working for a writer, or in a comedy writing room?
The first step, as I’ve mentioned before, is to make a long list of your contacts in entertainment. You might think you don’t have any. But call your high school or college or grad school alumni office and make them give you a list of anyone who is even remotely connected to making anything. Email screenwriting professors, even if you didn’t know them. People like to give advice! If you know that an entertainment business exists, then someone you know knows a sound guy, an engineer, a PA, on something that is being filmed right now, whether it’s a movie, a commercial, a PSA, a DIY comedy short, a freaking mass-emailed christmas video. I guarantee it, unless you live in a basement encased in bubble wrap (and always have). Ask your parents, ask your parents’ friends, ask your annoying uncle. Ask your Facebook friends and Twitter contacts if they know anyone. Be on Facebook and Twitter! It’s not beneath you! Almost nothing is beneath you (yet, unless it’s illegal). Help people help you by letting them know you’re looking. If you truly can’t think of anyone, take a comedy writing/performing/producing/directing class. Then ask your classmates and teachers if they know anyone. Get out of the house, and start to make yourself a rolodex. It will serve you well forever. I can’t stress this enough.
For next steps, I canvassed a cross-section of people who have worked as assistants on shows, and assistants to standalone comedy writers, about how they got the gig, what makes a good writers assistant, and what advice they would offer. The fundamentals are the same as any job: get your foot in the door (any door), make yourself useful, and once you’ve proven your value, tell everyone what you really want to do.
Get your foot in the door, any door.
I’ve talked about this in so many previous columns, because it truly is the hardest part of the journey. Once you’re in, as long as you’re not a total idiot, you’re in. Almost everyone I spoke to started out as a PA, which is telling. Stare down the list you’ve collated by following my advice above, and use them to get any job in the field, whether it’s that PA gig, casting, wardrobe assistant, coffee-run intern. Get into the matrix that will allow you to be in close proximity with creators. This advice does seem limiting to LA and NY, but so much production happens outside of the cities that there are almost more opportunities in New Orleans, Atlanta, Vancouver, and the like. Pay attention to productions occurring near you, and poke around the facilities to make yourself known. Every city that hosts film and TV shoots has local crew — Line producers, wardrobe, etc. Find them and email know you’d be willing to work for them. If PA and production gigs don’t exist at all, think about applying to an agency or management company mailroom and seek out literary desks, so when a writer needs an assistant, you are right there, and a proven quantity. Other than the traditional advice, this was an ingenious tactic I hadn’t thought of before:
Apply to temp agencies that studios have accounts with. Universal, Warner Bros, etc. use temp staffing a lot. If you specify with an agency that you’re looking for studio/production company assistant work, those are the kind of jobs you’ll get sent to. This can sometimes turn in to a job, or at the very least, you’re meeting more people.
Do your job (whatever it is) well, and make a good impression
LA is full of smart people doing menial jobs, and you can tell who won’t make it, because they think they’re too good for the crap. I remember an agent saying to me, when I was an assistant, “You can always tell 30 seconds in if someone is going to be fine” and that is totally true. The people who are happy to be part of the machine, doing a fun job, ready to serve their purpose with the belief that it will help them move up, are the ones to watch. Whatever horrible task you’re given, make it your goal to be the go-to for all tasks. If anyone needs anything done, they will turn to you, and they will remember your name, and that you’re reliable. People are watching, even if you don’t think they are. As one former WA says:
I enjoyed being a PA as I try to enjoy every step of the journey (I get to work in TV, it’s awesome!), but for the most part, a lot of people I’ve met feel the PA job is beneath them (they think they should be getting paid more/doing something more intelligent, etc.), which leads to a lot of complaining and slacking off. But you can’t expect someone to promote you to writers assistant if all they see you doing is being a mopey, lazy PA. Take pride in what you do, even if it’s just getting coffee for people. And don’t ever complain. Sure, PA jobs can be rough, but everyone knows that, you don’t need to remind them. Complaining casts you in a negative light when you want the writers to think about you only positively.
It’s echoed in everyone else’s experience:
At every step of the way I tried to be the best at whatever task was set in front of me. When I was washing dishes, I tried to be the best at washing dishes. And when there were execs who didn’t have assistants, I tried to help them out and become their pseudo-assistant even though I wasn’t being paid to do it. When you’re working as someone’s assistant, you don’t really have a chance to impress them with your writing. You may have occasional chances to impress them with your creativity, but the main thing that they see you doing every day is your job, which is usually fairly menial. So as frustrating as it is, I think doing a really great job at the menial stuff is one of the only ways to get noticed.
Also important is turning up that charm:
Be likeable. I know it’s something that is somewhat out of your control, but attitude has a lot to do with everything. If you’re pleasant and capable, people will want to keep working with you. Pleasant, capable, adaptable people are a lot harder to come by than I ever realized before I moved here. The bitter PA is tragic to me. A PA position should be where you are meeting people who can one day help make your dreams come true. If you have a bad attitude as a PA, no one will want to work with you in any other capacity.
I can echo this. I was a terrible assistant. But my boss found me entertaining, and liked that I read a lot, and eventually promoted me by telling me that I was a menace who was going to ruin her career. In the long run, your IMDB page will certainly speak for you, but so will your reputation as someone fun to work with. You will spend hours upon hours with each other, and personality is at least 50% of a hiring decision.
Let people know what you want to do…
…but only if they ask. Once you start getting a good reputation, as dishwasher, PA, gopher, all of those hours will start to pay off, and people will actually take interest in you as a person. Make it clear you’d like to work with writers. If people like your personality and think you’re smart, they will think of you when gigs open up. I will forever remember a PA we had who was born in a frat house and raised by a fraternity. I realize this is the plot of a movie, and it’s called FRAT BABY, and that’s what we called him for the entire shoot. Anyway, he was obviously the friendliest, most helpful kid on set, and he wanted to write and assist a writer. I would have helped him get any job he wanted.
Also, keep your eyes on the prize: “There were a few points in my PA career where I was offered a promotion to Post PA. Some people on the production side of things even recommended I take these as post experience can be very helpful to writers. But I knew taking a Post PA job would put me on the road a lot, and I wanted to remain in close contact with the writers.”
So what does a writers assistant do, exactly?
If you work for a writer who isn’t in a room (a feature writer, or someone who is developing other stuff), the sky is the limit. You’ll do coverage on books and scripts that are submitted for her consideration. You’ll research current things they might be writing. You’ll help with beat sheets on current and future projects, and spend long days discussing what works and what doesn’t in a scene. Or you’ll spend the entire time getting lunch and walking the dog and dealing with the interior decorator. But whatever it is, be good at it, and it will get you your next job.
If you end up working in a room, you’ll basically type for 14 hours a day. Some show runners might ask for general summaries, while others want a transcript. you act as a resource for the writers in the room when they go off to outline and script, and might be called upon to summarize scenes beforehand, with a list of all possible jokes, as a framework they can work off of to write. More poetically,
You have the opportunity while type type typing away to see how brilliant seasoned creative minds do what they do best: imagine. And your literal job is to cull all those thoughts, ideas, line pitches, and jokes into a translatable, organized document at the day’s end. You learn very quickly how to pick up on when people are jazzed by an idea and when a story is traveling in a particular direction. With that knowledge, you are better equipped to structure the notes in a more linear and cohesive fashion. I was taught to take notes verbatim, using a bullet proof trusty application called Pear Notes (I recommend this to all writers’ assistants and still use it today as a writer in notes sessions with showrunners). After the room broke for the day, I would spend 3 hours culling through my pear notes document, picking up anything I had missed (the app records the sessions) and then organizing the notes in accordance with the episode’s proposed beginning, middle and end so the writers could glance at it in the morning before room start and remember the big ideas we had landed on.
How creative is it?
Keep in mind that during a long day of taking notes you’re also hoping that you may get to pitch an idea or two in the room. Some showrunners encourage that and some hate it, but either way you have to pick your spots. It’s really difficult because your brain is so consumed with capturing and writing down every element of the conversation and by the time you get enough free space to think of a pitch or a joke, the room may have already moved on to something else.
I spent 95% of my tenure as a writers’ assistant listening and not speaking. Important point. Listen. Use this incredible opportunity as a way to learn how it’s done. Soak it up. I called it osmosis. And that shit works. I mean, it really does. You’ll get to do all the talking soon enough. Learn from the greats first.
However this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a strong writing sample — often they will get you hired so that a producer or show runner can take look and say “okay, he/she gets funny, and gets structure.” If you play your cards right, that sample can eventually get you staffed on your show. Because you don’t want to be an assistant forever.
Endless thanks to current and former assistants Meghan Malloy, Tim Yang, Simon Ganz, Ross Zimmerman, Jacqui Rivera, Ben Glass, Brook Wied, Alexander Burnett for writing this column for me.