Being a Well-Rounded Person Is More Important to Working in Comedy Than Any Internship

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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 a college student hoping to work in comedy when I graduate. Got any advice? What should I be doing this summer?

–Daniel C., Ohio

It’s great that you already know the industry exists! You’re way ahead of the game. If you want to go the traditional route, I know there are a billion internship programs, UTA has a great (paid) summer internship for college students that can help pave the way to a job when you come back. There are books? And websites? OK fine, I don’t actually know! I didn’t do anything useful for my job in college. I was pre-med, I majored in Italian, I went to law school and never practiced. Focus was not my strong suit, but that’s ultimately what me get hired and promoted.

This is not the advice everyone is going to give you, and maybe things have changed a lot. But I think while you’re in college you should focus on the goals of college: making yourself a well-rounded human being instead of painting yourself into the corner where you want to spend the rest of your life. It’s not trade school (if it is, smart!). You’ll get to the industry job corner eventually. In my opinion, you have many years after you graduate to find a PA job, or start at the ground floor of an agency or production company. But what you do now can help you get hired in those jobs, and better ones.

Sure, you could bug your aunt’s friend for an internship, but I think your time right now can be better spent broadening your general experience. Other than just being more fun than filing papers at the DGA or whatever, you could be doing real stuff in the world. And that stuff will make you a more attractive hire, one that pops from a crowd of identical resumes. I like to use the example of my friend Anton, who was a surrealist painter before he applied to med school. As you can imagine, he stood out in a sea of biology majors with the same GPA, and he’s now a surgeon who paints. And also grows his own food, in Sonoma. Anton has life figured out. I digress. Here are some things you can spend your summer doing that will help you in the long run.  

Obviously get a job, any job. It’s nice to make some money. Or volunteer somewhere, if you can afford it. It doesn’t have to be in the business. And then:

Read a billion books and magazines. Everyone is watching TV and movies. Your value in the industry will be bringing new ideas to the table, and part of that is being an excellent conversationalist who has interesting new things to say that no one has heard before. I don’t know what other job interviews are like, but here they are basically killer cocktail chatter. Study up.

Learn a language. Spanish is great, Chinese is fascinating and useful as well. As distributors become more interested in international markets, knowledge of a language can help. And it makes you seem smarter. I’m almost certain my facility for languages got me promoted to agent. Not that I ever used a single word of anything other than English, but they liked the idea enough to notice and help me.

Travel! See the world, or the country, or your state. Study abroad, if you can! Get some perspective. Work on a farm. Do things you can’t do later, in LA, with a full-time job. This applies whether you want to be standup (for material), writer (material), director (visual references), or exec (perspective).

Make stuff, if it’s one thing or a hundred. A series of photographs, a short film, a papier mache sculpture of a pig. Keep that creative part of you well-oiled. You’ll be in an office soon enough, and by then you won’t even remember that you can cut up an egg crate for those piggy legs.

Cultivate friendships, especially funny ones. Are you on an improv team, or participating in open mics, or writing for a humor magazine? You might get to work with those people forever — ask my husband, whose teammates were Jason Mantzoukas and Jessica St. Clair. If your college doesn’t have any of those things, start one. While you’re making friends, fall in love, if you can. Every movie and TV show is about love, for something, or someone. Be familiar with it.

Caveat! Being interesting is not collecting quirks. Don’t go buy a unicycle. Focus on expanding the breadth of your experience. I was speaking today with Stuart Cornfeld, illustrious comedy producer, about the importance of living a life before you dive into our work. So many creators, he said, draw character traits from people they’ve seen in the movies, instead of real life. Real people lie, and are complicated, and have complex feelings and interests, and stories. It’s why writers rooms and mail rooms alike look to hire people of varied backgrounds, who have done things other than write jokes or sort mail. Once you’ve lived a life, or begun to live one, it will start to show in your work. Then, when you’re really interesting, and have done things outside of bring Ellen coffee or whatever, send your resume in to bring Ellen coffee. I guarantee it lands on top of the pile.

Have a question about the comedy biz for Priyanka? Send your queries to thebusiness@splitsider.com or bug her on Twitter. No submissions of material, please! Priyanka can’t and won’t read any scripts, etc. sent to her.

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