Recently a friend-of-a-friend asked if she should move to New York City to take improv and writing classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.
The short answer is, oh, hell yes. If that’s what you want to do.
But the longer answer, what I sent this young lady, is a missive, which I happily rattled off to someone who was probably expecting a tip like, “Sign up for Sketch Writing 101.”
As much as I was offering advice to a stranger, I was also writing a pep talk for myself: reminders of what I did right and wrong, and how I’d do it differently were I in the very exciting position of starting anew at age 22.
And then I thought, Who am I to give advice? I’m just an average improviser! What can anyone learn from me?
What I concluded—and how I justify listening to me—is that most of us are average. That’s math, not pessimism. (Unless math is pessimistic.) Statistically speaking, you will have more in common with me than say, the Genius Amy Poehler. But you should definitely listen to her, too. You can learn from lots of people, but ultimately, you should listen to yourself. (And really, the best advice I’ve seen recently is over at Rob Delaney’s page.)
So, regardless of the artistic path you’re on, I thought I’d share. Thus with no further ado, I present to you…
ADVICE TO A YOUNG ARTIST FROM AN AVERAGE ONE
1. Find the people who love you and vice versa and work with them. First, you’ll play better in an environment that supports your ideas. Second, the whole point of “following your bliss” is to have fun, and this way, you’ll have more fun, which, of course, makes you better at comedy anyway.
2. Write as much as you can and PUT IT OUT THERE. The only way you’ll get better, and find your style, is by seeing what works. The nice thing about now is that it’s incredibly easy to put your work “out there” and get feedback. (Thanks, internet!)
3. Ask for feedback when it’s only 70% perfect. The people who are most successful are always shipping, even when it’s not perfect. Especially when it’s not perfect. Do not let perfection (which you’ll never achieve) stand in the way of progress (which you can achieve). Also: always say thank you for feedback, even if it’s idiotic.
4. Keep classes in perspective. They’re a way to test your material, get practice, meet funny people, build a network, etc. What they can’t do is give you permission or validation—again, that’s your job. I spent too much time waiting for approval, when I needed to trust myself more.
5. Enjoy the process. To quote Amy Poehler, who I heard speak at the 92Y recently: “Comedy is all about embarrassing yourself.” So: take risks, give yourself time, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to say, get a paying gig in three years. It could take ten—and I’ve seen people “make it” after plugging away for 13 years. Besides, realistically, you may never get to the point where you want to be. So enjoy the failures. Two arguments for this: (1) those flops are helping you get better; (2) they’re reminders that you’re living your dream. It sounds like a punchline, and it can be used as one, but living the dream is more than many people do.
6. Get a job that will give you enough time to write/perform but also provide rent money. And get health insurance. This is not easy. This is one of the biggest challenges of this game. Some folks will tell you to go “balls out” and make your life so miserable that you have no choice but to find success and thus pull yourself out of the sludge that is your life, I say NO!!!!!. You will drain all your creative energy, using it to worry about where your rent money will come from, or working three jobs to pay rent.
7. Buy Bob McKee’s STORY. If you want to get into screenwriting, it’s the Bible.But even if you don’t want to into screenwriting, STORY will explain movies and storytelling better than anything I’ve ever read. Oh also: buy Final Draft software to write sketches.
8. Don’t listen to every jackass with an opinion. Including me. I wasted so much money doing commercial classes because people told me I should. Well, guess what? I didn’t like it. I thought auditions were stupid, I wasn’t good at them, and thus I didn’t put in the energy to get better at them. I wasted everyone’s time.
9. Remember why you’re here. Before embarking on anything that will take more than an hour of your time, ask yourself: Does this [Show/Class/Practice Group/Friend’s Show] support why I’m here? If not, go do something that will.
10. Be cool. You’ll find, when you start to do comedy, that other comedians rarely laugh. Nothing’s funny enough; everything’s been done before. This is lame because (1) you gain nothing by noticing what’s bad about something; (2) the world isn’t going to judge you so harshly and the world, in fact, often appreciates something that’s relatable; and (3) everything’s been done before.
11. Have a life. Date, enjoy your day job, see friends who aren’t in comedy, volunteer, yada yada yada. It will give you more to write about anyway.