Years ago, I read a biography on Bill Cosby. He’d done a stint in the Navy, dropped out of Temple University, and decided to become a comedian at age 23. His very first gig was at a bar where he got paid 200 dollars a week and a room upstairs. And that’s how he learned his craft, by slinging jokes every single night at his home club.
Most of the comics reading this are thinking: “Shit, I wouldn’t mind taking that deal now!”
And that’s a pretty common story. Comedians working small clubs, writers selling short stories to the Saturday Evening Post, actors making a living doing summer stock. It wasn’t great money, but it was enough to live on. And they got paid to learn. This was their apprenticeship.
Random story: When I first moved to LA, I was on a flight with a lady who was a successful creator of children’s shows and cartoons. She told me she got started by walking into the Hanna Barbera offices and asking for a writing job. At the age of EIGHTEEN. That was it.
Of course that’s all changed. Very few people make a living doing theater and you’d have to sell a ton of short stories to pay your rent.
And as for new comedians getting 200 bucks a week and a place to stay? Man, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day.
It just doesn’t happen like that anymore. It’s a different world. And those days of apprenticeship are over. You’re not going to gradually build your career as an unknown and have steady work until you hit the big time. “Talent development” is something that rarely, if ever, occurs these days.
The current entertainment model looks a bit like this:
1) Work for free
3) Get famous
It can be pretty frustrating. Because there’s really no roadmap, no predictable path to success.
Not that everything was all sunshine and roses back then. Sure, it was great if the right person found you and liked your work. The right booker, agent, producer—your life could change in a minute.
But what if that didn’t happen? What if the gatekeepers said no? You literally had no other options. You were stuck.
The most depressing example of this is John Kennedy Toole. Publishers all rejected his manuscript for Confederacy Of Dunces, now regarded as one of the best (and funniest) novels of the 20th century. After he killed himself, his distraught mother begged a well-known author to read it. The author happened to love it and started a THREE YEAR fight to get the book published.
That’s the only reason we’ve ever heard of John Kennedy Toole. And he died thinking that no one would ever read his work.
And what if you did get anointed by the right gatekeepers? That didn’t necessarily guarantee a good outcome. You could still get screwed over by the Powers That Be.
Here’s a recording of Buddy Holly pleading with a record label who owned the rights to one of his songs. All he wanted to do was re-record the song after they did such a terrible job with it. He offered to reimburse them for the studio session.
Why? Because they had all the power. Even after they’d dropped him from the label, they still owned him.
And if Buddy Holly can get screwed like that, think about all the artists you HAVEN’T heard of.
But the internet is changing all of that. Even though those early apprenticeships are dead, something else has come up in its place. A completely different model.
Here’s a link to an article I read today:
After 19 years of getting rejected by publishers, Theresa Ragan sold three hundred thousand books last year, all through the Amazon Kindle. Herself.
Nineteen fucking years. Trying and trying, constantly getting rejection letters. And never breaking through. And now she’s connecting with the marketplace directly.
And it’s not just writers. Youtube personalities are making a ton of money putting their comedy sketches online. They’re doing it without any studios, managers, or any of the things that used to be necessary to make a living in sketch comedy.
And as for comedians? The group of people that inspired this essay?
Well, Louis CK released his last comedy special on his website and made a million dollars in the first week. He didn’t have to tailor his set to Comedy Central or whomever’s standards. He did it his way.
Aziz Ansari is doing the same thing. And there are quite a few comedians who are organizing their own tours, renting out performance spaces, and connecting with their audiences directly.
It might not be 200 bucks a week and a room above a bar. It’s better.