I am sometimes asked by people I know (and people I don’t know) what my career path has been thus far and how I got to where I am. I try to answer back, but I’m pretty bad at keeping up with emails and phone calls. So I figured I’d write this miniature treatise since this is normally what I’d tell someone in an email or on the phone. This is basically my story from college until now.
I gradated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2000. In college I majored in Film Production and minored in Religious Studies, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with either or how to start. So I moved across the country with my best friend to snowboard for a year. We drove cross country, tried to settle in Bend, Oregon but that didn’t work out. We ending up getting in a car accident and were stranded for 6 weeks while my car was in the shop. I’ll spare you the details, but basically we moved to Montana where I worked random jobs and was a snowboarding instructor for one season. (I also worked on a farm digging potatoes and worked for a company that made lasers.)
A year later I moved back home to Charlotte, North Carolina where I wanted to be a video editor. When I got there I spent a Summer working at a kids camp in the NC mountains as their photographer. That turned into me being the ‘program director’, which meant that I did all the media and creative entertainment program at the camp. I was basically the ‘show runner’ for this camp’s creative programs. After that I went back to Charlotte and worked as an on-set Production Assistant for commercials and TV shows for 4 years (strangely there’s a lot of production work in Charlotte). I drove a lot of trucks, got a lot of water for people, did random production stuff, drove a lot of directors, producers, and actors around (including taking Lance Armstrong to the airport once). So that happened for 4 years and each Summer I’d go back to the camp and resume my Summer job as program director. Camp was pretty much the only creative thing I was doing for those years - making videos, emceeing camp stuff from the stage, planning big assemblies for the kids, doing silly little characters, etc.
After those 4 years, I realized that I wasn’t gonna go much further in Charlotte and I knew I wanted to do more than just on-set production work. I wanted to do more creative work, specifically in comedy. I was pretty much at a quarter life crisis and needed some sort of change. I met with a career counselor who had actually grown up in New York City and, after talking some, it became clear that comedy and improv was the direction I needed to go. I was originally going to move back to Chapel Hill, NC to get in on the ground floor of an improv club a friend was starting, but I knew I eventually wanted to move to New York at some point and it made sense to just go ahead and more there. I visited New York for a week and took a one week intensive improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (where I ended up meeting people that I still collaborate with today).
That week I decided I was gonna move straight to New York and a few months later I did. I took some savings to New York (which was gone in a little over a month…New York is expensive) and eventually I got a temp job organizing files in the HR division of large construction company. It was horrible and boring but the people were nice and it paid my rent. I also got an internship at the UCB Theatre which paid for my comedy classes, and I met tons of people in the UCB comedy community which was great. It really plugged me in there.
After 6 months of temping at the construction firm, I got a job on a reality show about weddings transcribing interviews and logging footage. Over the season I was able to move up to be a production assistant and then an associate producer since we had such a small crew.
Comedy wise, I spent 2 years taking improv and sketch classes at UCB and performing around the city with independent improv teams in small shows. I took a really good commercial auditioning class which led to me eventually getting a commercial agent and then later a better commercial agent.
A year and a half after moving to New York, I got a job at VH1 as the overnight editor, editing and producing a nightly podcast for a blog of a now defunct show called Best Week Ever where I stayed for two years. Those years taught me more about editing and working with on-screen comedians to create jokes and collaborate (which is essentially “producing”). I also started working with the daytime writers of the Best Week Ever blog and filling in when they needed someone to write posts. This was great because I got a.) experience writing for a specific task (comedy writing for the web), b.) credits to my name, and c.) made relationships with people who could call on me for creative work. I also met a blogger there who later became the head writer of the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon blog. She asked me to apply at Late Night when and I ended up getting a blogging job there. After two years at Late Night, she left, and I moved up to be the head blogger.
During all those years I was also working on my comedy outside of my day jobs - learning to do stand up, auditioning for more commercials (and sometimes booking them), starting to audition for TV and films, working with friends to put up comedy shows at bars and NY comedy theaters, and taking “real” acting classes through an acting school. During the time at Best Week Ever, a friend and I set a goal of making a sketch video every two weeks for 6 months. We eventually hit and exceed that goal, making around 16 videos.
And that’s mostly my experience up until now. One thing that it taught me is that everything you do will lead you to the next thing. I felt really behind moving to New York at almost 28 years old, especially meeting people 5 and sometimes 10 years younger than me in my improv classes. But what was encouraging is that all my experience working in film and production helped me out. I got that job at the reality TV show through a friend because I had a lot of production experience. And I was able to move up so fast there because I knew what I was doing on a TV production - I’d been a PA for 4 years before that.
And I knew how to shoot and edit all my own stuff from working at the Summer camp. That really gave me an advantage in getting the blogging job at Late Night because I was pretty valuable - I could write, shoot, edit, and produce. So the years I thought I’d wasted working in production actually helped me later. I say all this just to say: it’s never too late to start and you can always make use out of what you’ve learned in the past.
So…with my long meandering story out of the way, here is some advice I’d offer:
1. It’s important to ask yourself what you want to do. Even though I wandered some, it can save you some time if you know what you want. Is it writing? Is it acting? Is it both? Is it stand up? Sketch writing/performing? Production (working on crew or producing etc etc)? Knowing this will help guide you in jobs you take and work you produce. That can also help you set goals as to what you produce. That being said, if you don’t know and you have multiple interests, do as much as you can and see what sticks.
2. Take classes. Writing, acting, improv, etc. Classes help you learn how to do things, show you if you really like things, and give you a set time to explore these things. That way you don’t just put them off.
3. Produce and make! Write, make videos, perform! Do as much stuff as you can. Some of it will be really bad, I guarantee it. (I did SO MANY horrible videos and still do sometimes). But you get better as you go along and you only get better by doing more and more. The more you work, you’ll have samples of work to show to people. Having articles I’d written and videos I’d made helped me get my job at Late Night. Try to write for blogs, submit to video festivals, put things on YouTube, start a joke Twitter account, etc.
4. DEADLINES. Deadlines help you do stuff. That’s why my friend and I said we were going to make 2 videos a week. We’d stay up til’ 5 am finishing those videos so we could hit our deadlines. If we wouldn’t have done that, we never would have made them. I think the only way to get things done is put yourself in a position where you have to do it. Sign up for a show, a class, tell someone you’ll have something to send them by a certain date, and then you have the deadline to hold you to doing it.
5. Bring some savings if you move to a city like New York. New York (and LA, and San Francisco, etc) is really expensive. If you bring a good chunk of savings, that will help you get an apartment and help you not have to stay in and eat peanut butter for dinner every night.
6. Don’t hesitate to ask people stuff. Most people will sit down with you and get coffee and tell you about their job and how they got there or they’ll at least email you. I am still learning from people at Late Night and friends in comedy and it informs my decisions.
7. Find a community. Whether it’s a sketch group, a theater (NYC has many great comedy theaters), a writing group, a group of people that do open mics together, or a group of friends that all blog and make funny stuff. It always helps to have other people you are working with and the great thing about comedy is that usually everyone likes collaborating. I don’t know how I would’ve made it to today without the communities I’ve had in NYC. One disclaimer: your community doesn’t necessarily have to be in whatever art you’re pursuing. I have a great group of friends outside of comedy and it’s actually very refreshing and amazing to be around people that aren’t wrapped up in every single internet video that was published 6 minutes ago. That being said, a community in your field you’re pursuing is very helpful for support and being connected to what’s going on, i.e. networking. “Networking” can sound skeevy and gross, but it’s really just meeting people and realizing they’re cool and saying “Hey can I do your show?” or “Do you wanna be in my video next week?”
8. Be patient. Joan Rivers said that nothing good happens before seven years. A college friend of mine said there’s a rule in showbiz where you have to put in ten years before anything big happens (and now, about ten years in, he and his brother just sold a show to a major cable network and have a big director and actress attached to their screenplay too). I’m seven years in as of writing this and some great things have happened, but I have to remind myself to be persistent, be patient, and keep working. A lot of times, good things happen slowly. And a lot of that is you growing and getting better as you go.
9. Finally, enjoy. It’s really easy to get bogged down trying to make your dreams come true and then forget to enjoy life and enjoy the thing you’re pursuing. You have to enjoy the process and enjoy life. A writing partner and I always talk about how we are able to see some really cool stuff at Late Night, in the NYC comedy scene, and just by the fact that we live in New York Freakin’ City. I constantly have to remember that these seven years pursuing comedy in NYC, and the years before that which lead me here, have been full of awesome experiences. A pretty successful comedian and actor once told me you have to practice being content where you are. If you don’t do that, when you get to the next step, you won’t be content there either because you’ll be looking ahead again and missing the new moment you’re in.
This was insanely long. Thank you for reading this far and I hope it helped. Here are a few other links to things that I think are really helpful, and hopefully you will too. Good luck. Get out there and do it.
I think podcasts are an amazing way to find out how people got where they were. I find these pretty helpful:
And this book is a great education on Saturday Night Live and several comedian’s careers: Live From New York
Dramatic acting schools: The Barrow Group
Commercial acting seminar (FANTASTIC if you want to get started auditioning for commercials): Brooke and Mary