6 secrets of networking your way into the comedy business
I almost walked right into Stephen Colbert. The Late Show had just finished taping for the day and we audience wranglers (technically CBS pages) had ushered everyone out. A few of us walked through the door leading the theater just as he was coming in from the other direction. A fellow page stumbled right into him. A step behind, I nearly crashed into him, too. I took a step backward at the last second, looked up at Stephen, and daintily curtseyed as if to say, “Do pardon me, sir.” He chuckled and we went our separate ways. I contend to this day that Stephen’s was genuine laughter. (Yes, we are now on a first-name basis. Not.)
I had just turned 23. Even though I knew I wanted to work in comedy programming, this moment–despite being a literal stumble–made me sure I was headed in the right direction (a rare feeling in showbiz). How did I get there? I worked hard, and I NETWORKED hard.
I studied creative writing and film in college, and interned one summer for Brillstein Entertainment Partners. The next I was able to intern for CONAN in Los Angeles, which also led to a PA gig for Conan’s week at the iconic Apollo Theater in the fall of 2017. Since graduating, I’ve worked as a CBS page, which landed me on some incredible sets: The Late Show, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal, The Rundown, and several more. I’ve also worked for an upcoming Apple TV comedy about Emily Dickinson (!), and I’m starting my next gig at a Sony Pictures superhero movie next week.
Landing those gigs was never easy, and it still isn’t. But listen: when people say they “stumbled” into a job—like that page and Colbert—it’s almost never true. Networking is KEY. And you can do it starting with next to nothing! Here are 6 tricks I’ve learned that I’m happy to share.
1. Build your own network!
Most of the time you have to build your network from your unique experiences and interactions, that only one person on this earth has had (you!).
One day, sit down and write as many relevant names as you can think of. Don’t worry for now if some people don’t work in exactly the same field as the one you want (i.e. if you want to work in movies, but they only worked on stage shows, still write them down).
You don’t have to email all of them right away, or ever — but get those names on paper. Who knows what direction your career will take in two years, and you don’t want to miss out on any potential connections.
Examples from my world:
- Old bosses/coworkers from any showbiz internships/sets/media offices
- teachers/professors/mentors you’ve had who were/are in entertainment
- the teachers of any performance/showbiz classes you’ve taken (they know people!)
- relevant friends of [insert anyone important to you]
- (that means parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, friends, friends’ parents, etc.)
- Industry adults you’ve met through non-entertainment jobs or interactions (you babysat for them, shoveled snow off their driveways, anything!)
2. Your network may be larger than it appears.
You will find yourself frustrated that people with showbiz connections can find success much easier than you; that’s normal – it is unfair!
But try not to hold resentments against your fellow emerging comedians/peers of unfair privilege. Some of them will know so many people right off the bat (they usually have at least one parent in showbiz). It constantly seems like everything falls into their laps.
Frustration towards these people is definitely justified, but it won’t lead to anything good. Trust me! Hating them won’t get you a job any faster!
Remember you have a more diverse collection of connections to the biz than might first meet the eye.
It is all a spectrum. There will always be people with more connections than you, just like there will always be people with way fewer. Getting angry about how unfair it is won’t solve anything. Just work on building your own network bigger and bigger until one day, it will be the network everyone wants to have!
3. Early in your career, make the most out of all opportunities—which includes making friends!
At most of these ‘starter jobs,’ your actual tasks may not be the most thrilling or informative about comedy/showbiz. They’re still worth it for two reasons – exposure and friends. You get exposed to the whole world, even if you can’t participate (I think of it as watching the parts of a machine work together to create one perfect product).
When I interned at Conan, one part of the machine was getting to watch rehearsal. Conan would pluck his guitar while he, Andy and the writers worked through jokes. We could only observe but it was still great. Once we are real people on set, we won’t get to sit back and enjoy anymore.
The other great thing about the bottom of the totem pole is the camaraderie. You will make your closest friends in these circumstances.
At Conan, it was sheer number of hours the interns spent together. We bonded. For example, during downtime, I taught two other interns how to solve a Rubik’s cube. Even though we are still all in our early- to mid-twenties, some of those fellow interns are now Fallon writers, MSNBC producers, etc.
What I found as a CBS page was an already-existent network that constantly ebbed and flowed. I was simply woven into the fabric of it. I started as the newbie, then the regular, then the seasoned pro, then the one who finally gets their big kid job and moves on. It is the circle of the page program.
We were a group that got along because besides all loving showbiz, we had the shared misery of getting yelled at by people for things we did not control. We would often go out to eat or drink as large groups after our shifts. Many of us are still close friends. If you stumble across a group like this, make yourself indispensable to it.
I got my job working on the Apple TV show because the person who’d previously had the position quit unexpectedly. A friend of mine who I’d met at the page program (who already worked on the show) immediately recommended me for the job. I was hired later that day!
So be nice to everyone!! Everyone, okay? Yes, that includes tolerating the tools. Sorry.
4. Don’t judge!
Not only because you’re often wrong, but because people can sense it. They will know if you were looking down on them. The beautiful girl who seems like she has the easiest life is probably just as bright, determined and troubled as anyone else.
There is no room for assumptions or prejudice. I originally thought that one of the first pages I spoke to on the job was a bit of a… well, tool. He is now one of my best friends in the entire city! It turns out we grew up 10 minutes apart and had been living semi-parallel lives. What I initially read as cockiness was actually just confidence.
Because I was so green (new), I thought his security must have been a sign of pompousness. But he was just secure! I found myself saying things within similar certainty within a month there.
Obviously, if you see someone be cruel, it’s different. But this is about initial impressions and how wrong we often are.
5. Know that you will get conflicting advice.
This is natural because success in showbiz can come in so many ways, and seasoned pros like to share their stories. (If they don’t share, ask!)
Don’t get too stuck on their specifics; what worked for someone might not be what you will need! For example, after talking to two different pros, I heard:
“Take only relevant jobs. Don’t work in tangential lanes… if you want to be on the creative side, apply for those jobs. Don’t accept any old job just because it’s on a TV set or about entertainment. You will get stuck in those lanes.”
“Get your hands on any showbiz job you can! You will meet people there; who knows who will walk into your office? Soak it all up, even if it isn’t an exact fit! Just grow your network!”
Both these people are successful. Neither is wrong. It comes down to what feels best to you and excites you more. At a certain point you just have to go with your gut. I went with my gut for the Apple TV show and it was an amazing decision. It was a clerk job in accounting!
Don’t feel guilty for not taking the advice of someone successful – it’s not an insult to them (someone may be very cool and definitely successful, but their method is just one way). I wouldn’t ignore EVERYONE’s advice, but again, if it feels like something good is brewing, go for it.
6. Every day you are continuing to forge your own path. Keep on it!
But do learn to curtsy. Just in case.
Photo via: Lauren C. Jones
Nina Lerner considers herself a lifelong New Yorker despite growing up in the suburbs. Her passions include the golden age of TV (now), rainy days and Paul McCartney.