These are some strategies I’ve come up with after more than 25 years as a TV writer to break into the television industry. (But I’m no James L. Brooks. So, grain of salt.)
Hit the Twitter. Many hundreds of skilled comedy writers post jokes on Twitter. Follow them – you’ll have access to upwards of 1,000 jokes a day, to see what works and what doesn’t and what patterns jokes fall into. Start posting jokes yourself – your following will grow along with your joke skills, and you might get discovered like Megan Amram, writer for Parks and Recreation, the Oscars, and of Science…for Her!
This guest post is by Rick Rosner, an Emmy-nominated writer with the world’s second-highest IQ. He has contributed to 2,500 hours of network TV, including the Emmys, the Grammys, and 12 years of Jimmy Kimmel Live! Follow him on Twitter @dumbassgenius.
Work for nothing or almost nothing. Productions run on unpaid labor from interns (currently a little less than before, after lawsuits over corporate abuse of the intern system). Companies like people who work for free, especially if you’re good – that’s like a bonus. Ask questions, look for opportunities to be helpful without being a pain.
Be competent and cheerful. There’s no SAT for getting a job in entertainment, so many of the people who’ve decided that stardom is their destiny are a little dumb, deluded and full of themselves. These will be your fellow interns and PAs. Be smarter and less jerky than they are, and you’ll stand out.
Know things. Be current. You can’t joke about things that are unknown to you. Have your daily itinerary of websites that’ll get you up to speed, such as Buzzfeed. Have an inkling about current music and social media. Know how Tinder works, even if you’re married
Be lucky. My biggest breaks were the result of pure, stupid luck. Figure out how to stick around the entertainment industry until good fortune eventually strikes. This means finding ways to support yourself that doesn’t suck all the comedy juice out of you. I bounced bars (fun – could be mean to people who deserved it) and modeled for art classes (fun – people had to look at me naked).
Steal from your life. Don’t be afraid to throw yourself under the bus by revealing your most humiliating moments. This is no longer the squeaky-clean Brady Bunch 60s. Nothing is off-limits.
Don’t fight for your words. Write more words. When my partner and I got our first WGA job, the executive producer told us we were hired because the previous writing team fought too hard for their words. Television is highly collaborative. Your words will be messed with and discarded by people who are more talented and less talented than you. Get used to it. Move on, write more.
Learn social skills. Learn how to pitch and be your own funniest self. People in entertainment have the opposite of Asperger’s – they’re handicapped by being too charming and sociable. Learn how to co-exist with these glib, shiny SOBs. (I’m pretty Aspergery, so I started working as a doorman in bars. After greeting 750,000 people, I can engage in small talk.)
Network – make friends. Friends will get you through the rough early years. You’ll make each other funnier. And some friends will become successful and hire you.
Get internet famous. Make your own stuff. The barriers to posting your own comedy online are almost nonexistent. After conquering Twitter, move on to Tumblr and Vine and YouTube.
Figure out what you think – develop a point of view. Your feelings and opinions become more powerful writing tools once you spend some time really figuring them out. For instance, I feel that the future will be weird, scary and awesome. This vague feeling becomes more useful when I try to figure out specific things humanity will gain and lose as the future unfolds.
Set pride aside. Dignity is for dignitaries, not comedy writers. Plus, there are a series of awful jobs between now and being a big-time writer. I’ve mopped up beer vomit and fished pennies out of urinals in bars and may have to again.
Know the time-tested principles of joke construction, such as the punchline goes at the very end, if possible, and the rule of three – regular thing, regular thing, funny thing. Then feel free to break the rules or make jokes about the rules themselves. Seth MacFarlane, for instance, often breaks the rule of 3, turning it into the rule of 8 or 20 or 35.
Write for game shows or for any shows that’ll give you a shot. There are lots of writing opportunities that aren’t real writing. Some of them are on CraigsList. Check ‘em out – just don’t end up chained to a water heater in a basement in Reseda.
Watch, enjoy and analyze the types of shows you’d like to write for. This needs no explanation.
Consider joining or forming an improv group. You’ll get faster and funnier and will learn to collaborate. Just try not to invite friends to your shows – no one in LA wants to see improv.
Don’t stop after your first or second idea. Think of ideas as cheap and plentiful. When working on a script or a joke topic, come up with a dozen angles and pick the best one or two.
Try to be healthy. Writing comedy requires a working brain. Help it out by not eating too much junk, getting enough sleep a couple nights a week and occasionally exercising. The days of coked-up writing staffs ended decades ago. Now, writers’ rooms have exercise equipment and bottles of fiber gummies.
The stories you hear about weird Hollywood behavior are true. The entertainment industry is filled with borderline insane people who decided against normal lives. Working with these people can be delightful or miserable. Just know that when you find yourself in a situation where you’re questioning your sanity, it’s not you, it’s you and everyone else – you’re all crazy.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.