It’s no laughing matter. Comedy can be tough. Like Chuck Norris tough. Birthing a career as a comedy actress can include about a dozen trimesters. Having delivered many such roles in my career, I can confirm some of the possible symptoms and discomforts: nausea, back pain, cramps, dehydration, inexplicable cravings and a few other unsavory side affects that I’ll spare you with. The common denominator is this: an ill-conceived career strategy can lead to, let’s say, complications.
So you want to act, and to tailor your career on the premise of making people laugh? There’s no unfailing formula. No textbook. No tried and true method guaranteed or your money back. And if the correct steps are missed, you could be headed towards otherwise avoidable pitfalls in your journey to booking roles and building your comedic niche.
Now you might say people are always telling you just how hilariously talented you are. And witty? Check. Can’t miss timing? Check. Physical comedy? Check. Verbal comedy? No problem. Situational? Please.
Even when armed with such comedy artillery, the film and TV biz is notoriously present with landmines that can implode your Lucille Ball or Kristen Wiig-like aspirations. So whether you’re starting out, well entrenched or ever considering retreat, I am here to back you up with my 5 Serious Career Rules for Any Seriously Funny Comedic Actress.
1. “The best activities for your health are pumping and humping.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger
And the best activities for your comedy are training and showcasing. That’s right, you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run. In comedy, you have to train before you can showcase. Even the Governator knows that.
Some great places to begin training and showcasing in Toronto are Comedy Bar, Second City, Rivoli and The Ozzington. If you’re like me and you take your talents south to Los Angeles, for any amount of time, I’d recommend training at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, or as the coolest kids call it simply – UCB. There, Friday night shows are called “Not Too Shabby.” You put up your own sketches and in doing so, can begin your training.
As for stand-up, there’s a million shows to try and get on and the route is to take classes and go to shows. Same goes for Groundlings, also in LA. There are stand-up shows like Sleepaway Camp and Blam Blam Blam that are very open to newcomers. You should go to the shows and familiarize yourself with who is running the show. And let’s not forget the Fresh Fish Variety Hour at the Clubhouse. The Clubhouse is a new, exciting spot in LA for shows that are bubbling with new talent and opportunities for stage time, as is Meltdown on Sunset Blvd.
My final words of wisdom for training are simple: always be writing. There is no better exercise.
2. Live At Live Shows
Okay so once you’ve learned, practiced and polished the fundamentals, meet your new second home – the live show! There’s a reason so many of the all-time comedy greats got their start by performing live on stage at venues known throughout the comedy community in Canada and in the U.S. – Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Deborah DiGiovanni, Alana Johnston and Katie Crown. The list goes on and on.
It’s important to go to shows and know what shows you want to attend, so that you can begin formulating contacts. Some people might be able to help set up slots for you prior, but a lot of venues want to see you there prior to booking you. Get a tape together of your work so that you can send it to bookers and get shows lined up when you arrive. And by shows, I include sketches, improv, stand-up and storytelling.
3. Create Your Own Vehicles
No one is going to do this job for you. As the competition increases, the opportunities are more scarce, especially for comedic actresses. Do not wait for someone to hand you a job. Create the jobs. Create the shows. It’s a more fulfilling career path.
I worked steadily to created a myriad of short films both commissioned and self driven. I absolutely know that this has helped me succeed and end up on shows like Comedy Central’s Emmy nominated “Key and Peele,” “New Girl” on FOX and my own MTV web series called “How to End a Date in 30 Seconds or Less.”
By working with other comedians and having peers see my work, the opportunity to work at MTV came to me. I was approached. I finance my own work for the most part. People’s best bet are Kickstarter programs, parents, friends of parents…take it to the streets. Getting involved in a community like Channel 101 helped me greatly because there were like minded people who wanted to create and shoot things. DPs, editors…there are a ton of film students who want and need practice, so it’s best to find those resources and get involved.
Always shoot things no matter how dumb or bad. Teach yourself to edit, no matter how bad you are. Borrow a camera. Direct yourself. Don’t treat anything as if it’s precious. It will only get in the way. It’s all building blocks and a learning curve until you create work you are proud of.
4. Men Are From Mars. Comedy is from Venus.
Comedy is a male dominated area in the entertainment industry. It’s just how it’s been. But we are so lucky to live in a time where strong female comedians are continually bursting forth onto the scene with new, imaginative, hilarious voices.
Everywhere I look there are incredible females bringing it every time they hit the stage – names like fellow Canadians Alana Johnston, Georgia Brooks and Katie Crown, as well as Emily Heller, Alice Wetterlund, Beth Stelling, Kate Berlant, Megan Neuringer and more. If we think in terms of female or male comedians, we are a lost civilization. It’s about being a funny human. Gender is insignificant.
Don’t worry about the sexist, over misogynistic D-hole at the open mic that thinks he’s hilarious as only “joking” about that finger banging drunk girl joke. Do your best work and the rest will come. Know that there are a bunch of women doing the same thing as you, doing it well and not letting a male comedian intimidate them off their path.
5. Comedy doesn’t build character. It reveals it.
The best way to approach comedy is be honest. Figure out what you are trying to say. Figure out your voice. It comes from practice and will consistently change. I generally generate a lot of comedy from the worst things that have happened to me or something that has affected me in some way.
Then blow it out in scripted form. Go to shows and try to assess why other people make you laugh, and what you like about their performances. Maybe you are more of a storyteller. Maybe you are more of a straight stand-up. Character work is possibly your thing. Or musical comedy. Whatever your area is, explore and try to learn as much as you can from others.
If you think you are funny, then go for it. Fall on your face. Try.