I read an op-ed in The New York Times this morning entitled, “Is Your Student Prepared for Life?” The article was written by Ben Carpenter, who is credited as “vice chairman of CRT Capital Group and the author of ‘The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals.’” This op-ed piece infuriated me, but there was no opportunity to post a comment so I’m writing this blog instead.
I have tried, over the years that I have been writing this blog, to share with readers some of the “secrets” of getting into show business. The first “secret” is that there are no secrets. All of the information you need is readily available on the internet and in publications. The second “secret” is that there is no tried and true path to success as a writer, actor, director, producer or any other job in Hollywood. Each person must find his or her own way.
I wrote my book, Elephant Bucks, to try to demystify the structure of a half-hour sitcom script. I offered a step-by-step guide on how to write a spec episode of a current TV sitcom. When I wrote the book, a spec episode was acceptable as a way of proving your ability to producers, agents, and executives. In the years since the book was published, the spec episode has gone out of fashion as a calling card. Now a spec pilot or two is required. One can still read my book, learn from the suggestions, and use those suggestions to write a spec pilot. I am not going to write a book about spec pilots because at this point I have neither the time nor the inclination to do so.
In his New York Times op-ed, Mr. Carpenter bemoans the fact that his daughter graduated from college with no idea what she wanted to do with her life. He suggests that colleges offer prep courses for students in how to find a job after graduation. This might be useful for some students. On the other hand, Mr. Carpenter, a wealthy financier and author with friends at The New York Times, could have maybe talked to his daughter for twenty minutes about what she was going to do after graduation, and then, I don’t know, perhaps offered his own advice on finding a career to pursue. I think that’s called being a parent. I think that’s called not being so wrapped up in yourself that you let your kid go through four years of college in a coma! But I digress…
My daughter graduated from college last year. She did know what career she wanted to pursue. It had occurred to my daughter while she was attending college – in part because her step mother and I kept harping on this with her over and over and over again – that she was going to graduate some day and she ought to think about what she wanted to do with the next forty or fifty years of her adult life. While still an undergraduate, my daughter decided on the field she wanted to enter, researched it, consulted with her college advisor, applied to grad school, and got accepted. How hard is this to figure out, Mr, Carpenter?! My daughter is now in grad school prepping for her career, working part-time on campus to pay her rent, and interning many hours each week in a facility associated with her career goals. Some of my daughter’s college classmates who never thought for two seconds about what they wanted to do after graduation, and whose parents are apparently as self-absorbed and unconscious as Mr. Carpenter, are now getting pregnant, flailing around in jobs that they hate, or living back home with their parents.
I decided when I was in college that I wanted to be a TV sitcom writer. Age 20 is pretty good time in life to decide you want a career in show biz. Age 43, not such a great time. Ship has sailed. Train has left the station. Rocket has already blasted off. Better to gracefully accept the fact that you let opportunity slip away and stay with the gig at the escrow office. Get it?
While still an undergrad, I found out as much as I could about becoming a TV sitcom writer. There weren’t any books in those days like Elephant Bucks, or Ellen Sandler’s TV Writers Work Book. There was no internet. Hell, there were no personal computers! I had a manual typewriter, a copy store two miles away, and stamps. But I was attending UCLA, one of the top film schools in the country. Some of my professors were Hollywood writers. I went to my professors for help and guidance – and got both. I used my own initiative. I wrote dozens of scripts and gave them to anyone who would read them.
I work every day with eight other professional writers. One wrote a spec sitcom episode while still in college and miraculously sold it. Then he had to go back to being a waiter for a while until he could sell something else. But he finally made it. One writer started out as an actor, began writing sketches and jokes in the earliest days of cable TV, and eventually became a full-time TV writer. Another came to LA to be an actress, worked for years in clerical jobs while performing with The Groundlings at night, and eventually was discovered in a showcase by her current employer. One writer started her career writing soap operas in NY. Another started out as a stand-up comic, made friends and connections in the comedy clubs of LA, worked as a stand-in on a sitcom, began writing spec movie scripts, and eventually became a successful movie director. One writer started out sweeping the floor in a radio station in Boston while in college. He wrote jokes for free for the disc jockeys, and eventually earned a radio program of his own. Another writer started out as an unpaid intern. That turned into a paying job as a writers assistant. After years as an assistant she got the chance to pitch some jokes and eventually was hired as a staff writer. One writer came to LA to be a musician. He never found traction in the music world so he took a low-paying job writing for comic books. This eventually led to a job writing for Saturday morning cartoon shows, which eventually led to writing for prime time TV, which eventually led to him becoming one of the most successful TV producers of all time and being inducted into the television academy hall of fame.
What every writer with whom I currently work has in common is that each had the chutzpah to come to LA or go to New York and take the gigantic risk of trying to break into show business. None of them stayed home in Buffalo or Providence or Kansas City or Long Island or Detroit or Connecticut hoping for some secret short cut to fame and fortune. All of them moved far from home, lived in crappy apartments, worked at low paying jobs for years, and went through dozens of setbacks and disappointments until they finally started making a living as a TV writer.
It is difficult for me to understand how anyone can go through four years of college and graduate without a clue about how to earn a living, especially if you have a wealthy and successful father who writes books and op-eds for The New York Times. There’s a breathtaking disconnect there that was left out of the published article. You have every opportunity in the world at your fingertips and you don’t make use of them? Come on! And then your dad whines about it in the newspaper?!
It is also baffling and saddening to me that people can claim to want a career in show business yet fail to understand how competitive the business is, and that in order to be in show business one must move to where show business is done. It’s like some kid standing in the school yard shooting free throws, moaning that he wants to be in the NBA, and claiming he has no idea how to pursue his dream. If you can’t figure out even the basic steps toward success how do you ever expect to achieve it? I guess if you’re too dumb to know how to succeed you’re too dumb to succeed.
Those who can’t figure out how to make it in Hollywood will continue to write e-mails to me expressing their frustration. Most of those who are going to make it in Hollywood will never write to me or read my book. They’ll figure out for themselves what they need to do, likely by trial and error. They will risk everything and move to LA or NY. If they aren’t making it as an actor they will switch to writing, or vice versa. They may end up as an editor or a production manager or a location scout or a line producer or a camera operator or a property master or an agent or an executive or as somebody’s assistant. If they don’t achieve the success they desire, they can always leave and go do something else. But they’ll never know anything until they come here and try.
Are you prepared for show business? If you are, you will try everything until something works. If you aren’t prepared, you’ll be as lost as Ben Carpenter’s daughter, wandering around with no clue what do with your life.
The people who make it are not the ones who sleep walk through four years of college or who sit at home in Pennsylvania writing e-mails to me demanding easy answers. The people who make it are the ones with the imagination and audacity to dream big dreams, and then the courage, tenacity, and drive to pursue those dreams.