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Posts tagged comedy career

A friend shared this recently, with the plea, “Dear Comedians, Don’t do this. Dear Marketers, Pay your talent.”

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Now, maybe you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s a couple hours of my time in return for a Domino’s Deluxe and some sweet, sweet Pabst Blue Ribbon.”

To advertisers, you’re just naturally funny people, and if you’re going to have funny ideas anyway, send them their way and they’ll actually make them happen.

What they don’t see is that it takes years of training and thousands of dollars to get to the point where your brain is worth picking. Just like they spent years of training and thousands of dollars learning about advertising.

Students pay around $300 in Canada, and $400-$475 in the US for classes. And as every comedy student knows, there’s a lot of classes. Acting, improv, stand-up, sketch, clown…it’s a field where you never stop learning.

It’s not that you can’t do favours. It’s just that you might be forgetting you’ve earned the right to ask for money. You went to school for what you do. You put in the time and money and now you can reap the rewards. Not just have others reap the rewards.

And by rewards I mean that sweet, sweet $35,000 a year the average comedian makes (with many earning far less). No wonder we’re willing to work for food.

In this age of Fivvr and crowdsourcing and Kickstarter potato salad, the line between an investment in your career and being taken advantage of can get blurry.

But stay strong, young Grasshopper. Because the real lesson here, buried in that ad, is Dollar Shave Club.

Two weeks ago, Unilever bought the company for $1 Billion.

The commercial that made DSC famous (23 million views and counting) wasn’t created by an ad agency. It was the brainchild of CEO, Michael Dubin.

Dubin studied and performed comedy for eight years at UCBT. He made the video, which he wrote and stars in, for just $4,500.

Michael Jones was an early investor. In a piece for CNBC, he said he wasn’t totally sold on Dubin’s business pitch. What convinced him was a rough cut of the video. After viewing it, he said, “I knew that Science Inc. needed to come on board…”

Comedy. It’s powerful stuff.

Research shows people rarely make rational purchases; they make emotional ones. Simply put, we buy brands we like. Dubin’s idea for a shaving company was worth something. But his comedic idea was worth billions. The value of Dollar Shave Club was made clear in that creative expression.

Sure, he could’ve given it away for some pizza and free razors. He’s a funny guy with plenty more ideas. But he didn’t. And now he never has to.

Neither do you.

All creatives – comedians, copywriters, art directors, designers, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, and yes, even comedy students – deserve to be compensated fairly.

Because now more than ever, ideas are our greatest currency.

*We initially quoted $30K as the average comedian salary. A Workopolis survey pegs the average wage for arts, entertainment and recreation at $30,186. Stats Canada reports an average of $40,300 for actors, comedians and drama teachers combined. (That figure seems high – to us and people we’ve spoken with – given that many seasoned performers live with roommates and scrape by working as film extras, servers, baristas, or real estate agents to supplement their comedy pay. Also, some stats are for Quebec; francophones book bilingual, as well as French-only acting roles, far more often than bilingual anglophones.) Still, according to StatsCan, one third earn $10,000 annually or less. 

Recently a friend posted on Facebook. He was talking about Canada, but it could just as easily have been America, or Ireland, or Micronesia:

“How do we fix the Canadian entertainment system? How do we get funding to more people? How do we do this without stifling creativity? How do we get audiences to take note? Is there anything we can do? Anybody?”

Replies poured in:

  • Canadians tend not to appreciate talent till they move to the States and become successful
  • Canadian film/TV should stop trying to emulate America
  • Canadian film/TV should stop worrying about creating “Canadian” stories, and just let Canadians tell stories
  • Government-funded content is usually an “art wank,” as opposed to something with broad appeal
  • Canadian funding is too risk averse, leading to watered-down end product

All valid points. In fact, I’ve heard them from actors, writers, producers and directors for the past 25 years. And in all that time, not much has changed. If anything, in some ways it’s worse.

So what then? “Can’t win, don’t try?”

Heeeeeeeeell no. I’m saying “Can win, do try;” you just may need to change the way you do it. Here are some things I’ve learned in the last quarter century that can help.

Show, don’t tell.

You’ve written a screenplay. It’s box office gold. You just need someone to read it, and soon you’ll be rubbing shoulders with Seth Rogen.

In that case you should check out I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script by Josh Olson. It explains, in no uncertain terms, why you probably should spend some more time on it before unleashing it on innocent victims.

On the other hand, maybe your script really is brilliant. Maybe you’re the next Aronofsky, or Apatow, or (please God, not the later stuff) Adam Sandler.

You’ve still gotta put in some work – OK, probably a lot of work – to convince others of your genius.

The Office wouldn’t exist if Stephen Merchant hadn’t filmed Ricky Gervais for a corporate training video. They cleverly used it to pitch Ricky’s David Brent character to the BBC.

“If we’d just handed in a script, it would still be sitting there on someone’s desk,” says Gervais. “You’ve got to see the performance in context.”

While part of me weeps for the English language with every emoji, people think in pictures, and your 100-page script is a long slog for anyone to attempt. Make it easy for people. Film a teaser or demo to bring it to life.

New ideas are scary. 

The BBC weren’t just sitting around waiting for the next When The Whistle Blows to walk through their door. Or maybe they were, and that’s the problem.

It’s a sad fact of life that it’s easier to like the familiar. Most innovation is only embraced after the fact.

Remember Dove Evolution?

It won two Cannes Grand Prix, logged millions of views, and spawned countless parodies. With an idea that brilliant, it was an obvious slam dunk from the start, right?

Not quite. While the ad agency knew they had something powerful, the clients weren’t convinced. Instead, they approved another, tamer ad:

The underlying message is similar, but the execution isn’t nearly as strong. It quickly disappeared from view.

But the agency didn’t give up. Writer and co-director Tim Piper pulled favours from suppliers and begged the client to piggyback Evolution on the other film’s shoot.

When other clients saw the millions of YouTube hits, not to mention free press from Ellen, Oprah, and countless news outlets, they wanted an Evolution, too. Ask any creative who worked in 2007: suddenly every brief was for a “viral video like Dove.” (Of course, very few clients had the balls to pursue brave ideas, so most of the work stayed in boardrooms. Like we said, new ideas are scary.)

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. – Milton Berle

Canadians of a certain age will remember Speakers Corner. For a buck, anybody could enter the booth and talk to the camera about any subject. The best (and worst) clips were aired weekly on City TV.

Albert Howell and Andrew Currie hijacked the show with improvised mayhem. Calling themselves The Devil’s Advocates, they built a cult following that led to their own TV show.

Today there’s a much bigger Speakers Corner, called YouTube. And while jillions of videos vie for attention, you can still stand out from the crowd.

How about taking some of the worst fanfic ever written and filming it?

That’s what the creators of the My Immortal web series did, racking up tens of thousands of views and winning die-hard fans.

The real value of “free.”

There’s a difference between someone expecting you to work gratis, and doing stuff for free because you can’t get it made any other way (yet).

Create your own web series, short film, or stage play, and someone may like it enough to pay you. If not for that, then for something else.

The My Immortal crew shot the first two seasons on their own dime. Then, thanks to their loyal fan base, they were able to fund a new series through Kickstarter called No Boys Dorm.

Those crafty Devil’s Advocates made numerous appearances on Speakers Corner before being offered their own show, Improv Heaven & Hell. Albert Howell went on to write for Comedy Inc, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and most recently, a little thing called The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Evolution‘s Tim Piper has his own film and television studio, where he directs long-form content for clients.

And after scoring the lowest rating of any BBC program ever, The Office went on to win BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody, spawning a US version that lasted for nine seasons.

Of course, there are no guarantees. You may not find big investors for your one-man show about your sex life, or your hilarious podcast about periods. That’s OK. You’re probably just ahead of the curve. Keep believing in yourself, and eventually others will too.

“Our lives are our biggest projects.” – Ayse Birsel

Sometimes we think, “If I could just (direct an award-winning film/write a groundbreaking comedy/host a late-night talk show/get a date) I’d be happy!”

In that case Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, who directed the Oscar®-winning Little Miss Sunshine, should be retired. Instead, they shoot commercials for State Farm and Sprint to help finance their passion projects.

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross changed the face of comedy. But they struggled for years after Mr Show ended, before finding new fame with Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, and coming soon to Netflix, With Bob & David.

And who could forget Conan O’Brien? After years of being groomed to take over The Tonight Show, he was put in an untenable position. Forced to choose between walking away or moving The Tonight Show till after midnight (essentially becoming The Tomorrow Show), Conan resigned.

It was a low point not just in Conan’s career, but in late-night history. But Team Coco followed him to TBS, where he and Andy Richter continue to make their own brand of funny.

To go back to my friend’s original post, “How do we fix the [your country here] entertainment system? Is there anything we can do? Anybody?”

The answer, as always, lies with you.

There is no finish line. There is no free lunch. But there is such a thing as artistic freedom when you take responsibility for it yourself.

You can rail against the system, or you can say fuck the system. Create your own content. Involve your friends. Learn the skills you need to make it happen. Most importantly, as Mick Napier would say, just do something. Anything. It doesn’t have to perfect.

Share your work, build your own tribe, and others will join you. Before you know it, you won’t care about fixing the system, because the system will be chasing you.

For further reading, we recommend:

http://endcrawl.com/blog/7-ways-make-your-own-luck-film-industry/

http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/mar/15/mark-duplass-south-by-southwest-sxsw

How do you make the leap from doing improv for laughs to launching a career? We asked some of the brightest lights in the improv community for their perspective. First up, Calgary native, Rebecca Northan.

Photo © Gordon Hawkins

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

My brother and I used to do commercial parodies in the living room for our parents. Tensions were high, we thought if we were funny we might save their marriage. No dice…but we did both become fairly OK improvisers. So. You know. Plus side to everything.

I had a more concrete notion in Junior High. We would do “skits” (such a terrible word). People wanted me to be in their group for assignments, so I guess I was bringing something to the table.

When I was 16 years old, I discovered the Loose Moose Theatre. It was the most amazing and magical place I had ever been. I never wanted to leave. I lived for Sunday night Theatresports. I met Keith Johnstone and mistook him for the caretaker; I was baffled by this odd Englishman in a parka. He changed my entire life.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

Keith Johnstone. Loose Moose was his theatre, and everything I hold dear, and believe about improv and theatre stems from my exposure to Keith. At the time I was so young I had no idea who he was in the context of the international theatre community, or how he was a pioneer in improvisation. That may have worked in my favour. Dennis Cahill, who is the Artistic Director at Loose Moose for going on 35 years, is the second most profound influence. He was always easier to understand when I was a teenager. As a mature artist, he always offered me the most support and the best clarification when I have had questions about my improv practise.

Loose Moose does an International Improv School every summer. I highly recommend it!

What was your first paid improv-related job? 

I was asked to do the All-Star Show at Loose Moose when I was 19. This was a very big deal to me. The notion that I might get paid to perform was a dream come true. Playing with improvisers 15 – 20 years my senior, players I looked up to and wanted to emulate, I felt unspeakably lucky. We were paid a cut of the door. There were many, many times when our take for the evening was better than a month of babysitting!

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Derek Flores, who now lives and improvises in New Zealand, started at Loose Moose within a week of me. I think of him as my Improv Brother, and one of my dearest friends. When I have ideas for shows, I’m always thinking of Derek in a key role, even though we’ve lived in different countries for years now. He’s always been a touchstone. He’s also kicked my ass when I needed it. There are few people I trust as much on stage.

Patti Styles (former Loose Mooser, now based in Australia) is another serious influence. My Big Sister in improv. We can go for YEARS without seeing each other, then reconnect, and are on the same page.

I would say freely that the people who were my contemporaries at Loose Moose are my family. Even those company members who came before, and after; we have a certain something in common. Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time around Keith – they feel like cousins. Rebecca Stockley (San Fran), William Hall (San Fran), Dan O’Connor (L.A). Veena Sood (Vancouver). Cousins. Family.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Improv at its best can be the most amazing live performance you might ever see.  Staggering moments of spontaneous creation. Moving drama. Gut-busting comedy. What more do you need?

Improv at its worst will make you wish you’d been born without eyes and ears.

It can be a wonderful development tool, or an excellent team-building experience.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

To be honest, I’m not a fan of the notion of “working improviser” if it implies that it’s your main point of focus. I prefer improvisers who are doing all kinds of other things, who have day jobs, or who work as actors. I believe that improv is made better when people have a rich life experience to draw from. Otherwise you risk disappearing up your own improv asshole and recycling experiences you’ve never personally had, but have seen on TV, or in the movies.

I realise this will not be a popular response.

I am interested in improvisation that explores human truths. I want to see moments of spontaneous theatre. I’m not keen on impromptu sketch comedy; certainly not as a regular diet. For variety, yes. But I challenge performers to go deeper.

If you’re a working improviser who is telling great stories, exploring narrative, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, exposing something about the human condition…and your audience is laughing not because you’re clever, but because they see themselves in something you do…then I will bow down and worship at your improv feet and bless you for being a “working improviser.”

I suppose you can also make some good money spreading the cult of “Yes, And” to corporate-type people. The philosophies behind good improv can most certainly make us all better human beings. If you can make money sharing that, I think you should go for it!

Describe a typical day in your life.

I don’t just work as an improviser. I work as a mainstream theatre actor, film and TV actor, director and producer, teacher, coach. I’ve created a few shows that I work on selling to theatres: improv/theatre hybrids that I refer to as “spontaneous theatre”: Blind Date has played off-Broadway and in London’s West End, as well touring Canada and parts of the US. Legend Has It, a fantasy adventure, is in extended development, as is An Undiscovered Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival of Canada.

So. Typical day: sleep in. Coffee. Internet. Emails. Gym. Auditions. Meals. I only improvise with a select group of people. I’m currently working to get a show off the ground in Toronto that showcases Loose Moose-trained improvisers.

A lot of folks come to improv classes and get stars in their eyes. What’s the salary range for a working improviser in your city?

There’s not a lot of glamour in improv. You’re going to make your best money doing corporate work. I believe you ought to have a minimum of 10 years experience under your belt before doing that kind of work. Corporate shows require decorum, professionalism, and an understanding of that world. Don’t quit your day job, basically.

You can expect to make $0 – $10,000 annually if you’re lucky. If you’re affiliated with a company who is already doing corporate work, and you get in there, you could stand to make much more. But my experience is that those jobs are few and far between until you are in a position to offer workshops to Senior Managers. That’s not something you’re going to have the chops for in your 20s.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so hard to get bums on seats at shows (or is it, in your experience)?

Honestly? Most improv shows are terrible. Gangs of improvisers, over- excited by doing a show, storming on to the stage with way too much energy, yelling, not listening, trying to out-joke each other, or worse: saying “yes” to ideas that no one is inspired by…it’s off-putting. The average ticket buyer has a multitude of options in terms of spending their money. What are you offering that’s special? If your improv show is the equivalent to sitting around at a party riffing with your hilarious friends, you’re better off hosting a party.

The best improv shows are people working to inspire each other in search of a spontaneous miracle. Those are very, very, very rare groups. I think Dan O’Connor’s group is doing that in Los Angeles with their “unscripted theatre.” They do long form, genre-based improv, and are extremely skilled actors with years of improv training. You’ll see solid work at BATS in San Francisco. The gang who produce Die-Nasty in Edmonton are fantastic.

If all you’re doing is spontaneous sketch…well, I can see that on YouTube and I don’t have to put pants on, or spend money to see it.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest gig you’ve done as an improviser?

I showed up for an industrial that took place in a family’s living room on an acreage outside of Calgary. It was Grandpa’s 80th. We performed in our socked feet. We were also informed the sump-pump was broken and we weren’t to flush the toilet unless “necessary.”

There was also a corporate show where the audience was so drunk they threw butter at us. We called the show and walked out after our first scene.

Lessons in humility.

Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in improv?

When I started 26 years ago, improv was a real Boys’ Club. I was given opportunities early on because I showed promise and there was a shortage of women. I got better faster by playing with more experienced improvisers. I am grateful for that. I was also often told, “We just need you to play Moms, or secretaries.” I nipped that in the bud by barging into every scene and asking if anyone needed coffee, or for me to take a memo? – regardless of the scenario.

I’m not entirely sure. Depending on where you are in the world, it feels like the improv scene is 20 years behind mainstream entertainment sometimes. I always feel like the women I see are better than their male contemporaries because, as in the corporate world, they have to be.

What are the advantages or disadvantages to being a woman, period? This is a huge question, far too large for me to answer here. It can be a bonus to be a rare commodity. It can be an exhausting drawback to feel like you’re fighting to be seen in an equal light.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Ugh. God. Still performing. Teaching more and more. This amazing, life- changing training was given to me for free, in exchange for ripping tickets and slinging popcorn. I feel a responsibility to pay it forward. It gives me pause that the concepts that Keith has been teaching for 40 years are still considered “radical” in so many ways, even in the improv community. I want to continue that kind of work, to inspire improv that means something, to challenge performers to be better human beings, to allow themselves to be vulnerable, to be changed, to tell stories that matter.

I had my biggest light-bulb moment in a Kundalini Yoga class. The instructor approached me, aware that this was my first class, to ask what my previous experience was. I told her I had done both Ashtanga Yoga, and Hatha Yoga. She smiled slightly and said, “So you’ve never done yoga.” I was taken aback by how exclusive that seemed. Then I realised the world of improv can be just like that. People will say, “I studied with So-and-so, the way I improvise is the ‘right way,’” or “the best way.” I am so guilty of that. Now I tell people, “I come from a particular school of improv, with a specific set of values. Some of those values may seem to be in direct conflict with things you’ve learned with other improv teachers. All I can ask is that you practise cynical benevolence, and just try what I’m suggesting. Then decide for yourself. Keep what works for you, throw out what doesn’t. Follow your bliss. Work to inspire your partners. If those around you are working to inspire you, and give you what you want, in theory, we’ll all be having a good time.”

Rebecca Northan is a professional Artist who acts, directs, writes, produces, educates and improvises. Her one-woman improv show, Blind Date, has toured across Canada, the US, and London, England. Rebecca continues to pioneer her brand of Spontaneous Theatre and is currently honing her latest show, Legend Has It. She is also developing an improvised Shakespeare project at the Stratford Festival of Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccanorthan Web: http://www.northan.com