letter-writing

I’ve been doing comedy for ten years now, and I guess along the way I’ve made a little name for myself. I mean, I must have, because for some reason, I get e-mails or Facebook messages from people asking for advice, at least twice a week and it seems to be increasing each month. I don’t know who sent out the memo that says I know what I’m doing, but it is flattering to think that some people out there think I’ve got my shit together.

But to be honest, I’d say that 70% of the time I still feel like I did in middle school (uninvited, unpopular, unnoticed), and that’s, you know, my “issue.” That’s my little demon that I have to fight on a daily basis in order to get anything done and to take any kind of risk. I spend way too much energy on it, but I guess everyone has some kind of asshole living in their head telling them they are no good, and he makes us do all kinds of stupid shit. Sometimes you can shut him up, and other times, he’s cranked up to 11 and spewing diarrhea all over your hopes and dreams.

Thus, sometimes, it’s hard for me to think I’ve got anything worth saying in terms of advice. But anyone who knows me, knows I love giving advice anyway. It’s annoying probably. And I always have mixed emotions about it. Sometimes me giving advice is just me yelling at an imaginary younger Sara Schaefer for not getting her act together earlier. Sometimes it’s me yelling at a younger comedian who is complaining about their amazing job working on a TV show at age 23 because it’s not EXACTLY their “passion.” Ugh, I walked up hill both ways to my stupid law firm job for 5 years, you entitled piece of shit! Neither of these responses is very helpful, and so sometimes I don’t even answer at all. And lord I know how it feels to be ignored by someone you look up to, so that’s no good either.

Therefore, I’m writing this out, on this weirdly calm day in my brain, so that, in a pinch, I can direct someone to this blog post. I’m also writing it because these are things I have to tell MYSELF daily in order to keep going in this vastly perplexing business we are in. So here’s my advice! To you and to me. If we follow these simple steps, we are going to each own our own separate (but neighboring!) islands.

1. WORK.

There is nothing more beneficial to one’s career, state of mind, and personal confidence than WORKING! Working hard on anything – whether it’s that latte you’re making for some rich douchebag, or the spreadsheet you have to redo, or the clever tweet you’re crafting, the open mic you’re tackling, the sketch idea you’re mulling over, the slightly annoying comedian you’re chatting with backstage – FUCKING WORK ON IT. Don’t sit there and wonder why you got stood up for the dance; fucking sew yourself a pink dress with weird angles and SHOW UP ANYWAY. And don’t just work, work with a damn smile on your face. Stop complaining that you have to work. What did you think you would have to do? Open your eyes one morning and suddenly see a brick of gold bullion sleeping softly next to you?

Sometimes I agonize over some of my choices early in my career. Why did I work some shitty, soul-crushing, highly exhausting 60-hour a week job calculating damages for securities fraud cases? WHY!!! I had no interest in that shit! What a giant waste of time!! Why couldn’t I have just waited tables and walked dogs and spent all my time on my comedy? I was packing in as many shows as I could on top of that job, and made my own way regardless…but it was definitely a slower path. It was the one I felt I had to take when I arrived in New York, but I was just so naive. I wanted to do comedy but I knew almost nothing about it. I had never seen a live stand-up show before I came here. I was just clueless and afraid to dive in head first. On the other hand, that law firm job enabled me to gain some highly valuable skills. I am very good at business now. I know how to maneuver within a corporate environment and how to manage people and how to get shit done – and I developed the stamina I would need to handle the crazy pace and schedule of a late night talk show and understood the commitment level necessary to make it work. That has helped me immensely in my comedy career in countless ways. But either way…you are probably going to have to make sacrifices. You probably are going to have to work in some job you hate for a while so that you can survive. You might have to lose some personal relationships and some leisure time in your life to make room for this crazy dream of yours.

2. TURN YOUR HEAD.

Stop being so obsessed with everyone else and what they are doing. Even those that sleep their way to the top are WORKING! Do you know how much energy it takes to stalk powerful industry types and find out where they are hanging out and then give them all blow jobs? That’s HARD WORK! So stop looking around, asking why it’s so easy for this person or that person. There is no question, that if somebody is achieving some level of success, they fucking worked for it. And it’s never “easy” for anyone. Everyone has their shit. Sure, there’s some luck involved. Some people get a break. But your luck will come. You may not even realize your luck on a daily basis. (See: “Sliding Doors.”) But luck is nothing if you don’t have the work ethic to back it up. Sure, maybe you don’t approve of some people’s methods, or their attitude, but they didn’t just sit there and magically get a special on Comedy Central. They lived it, breathed it, they made it their life. Maybe they are a huge asshole and that bugs the shit out of you, but that is not your concern. They probably aren’t that big of an asshole anyway, you have just made them out to be one, to explain away your petty jealousies. They’re mostly paper tigers.

A very wise person once explained to me that it feels like we are all fighting for a piece of the pie. And there are only so many pieces of pie to go around. But that’s a myth! There isn’t just one pie! And guess what, you can MAKE YOUR OWN PIE. When I first arrived in New York, I was obsessed with one day performing on the UCB stage. But I immediately realized it was going to be hard for someone like me. You had to become a PART of it, socialize every night at McManus (how was I gonna do that with my big-ass day job?), and really dedicate your life to the SCENE. That just isn’t me. I don’t do “scenes.” It took me almost a year to get the courage up just to GO TO a stand-up show, like, just as an audience member. I just knew they were gonna be able to tell I was a wannabe, and they would all make fun of me! It makes me laugh thinking about it now. But it was true. I had so much fear of the “cool kids.” I just wanted to perform, I knew that trying to break into the popular crowd was going to be a battle I would lose again and again. That is not my jam. Maybe it’s pride, who knows. Regardless, I’m glad now that I didn’t focus on trying to be a part of any particular “scene.” I found that I was more focused on my comedy than the networking, and though I do think I missed out on some of the benefits of that, I have carved my own path that I feel very proud of. Like I said, I’ll always be fighting that feeling of “wanting to belong.” It’s this huge issue for me that probably doesn’t plague some people, and god bless them. I’ll have whatever they’re having. But until then, I try to turn my head. Have I performed at UCB and every show I’ve ever dreamed of doing in New York? Yes. There’s no one way to success, and don’t let any one group or scene tell you that they have ALL the answers. Set your sights on things you want, but don’t get tunnel vision. You never know what round-about path can bring you to that goal.

Note: this is not to say that you are an island and should make no effort to make friends in the comedy scene. By all means, make a great effort to find like-minded comedians who you can lean on for support and camaraderie. My friends have often been the most crucial part of handling all this – creatively, emotionally, etc. Find those people – figure out who are just friends, and who are people you want to work with (some are both) – and KEEP THEM CLOSE.

3. FIND YOUR DINORA.

Back when I was in college, I went on a 6-week trip to Honduras with a group of students from various colleges. Our purpose was to learn and to serve. I was forever changed by the people I met there and the extreme poverty I saw, and since then, I have been sponsoring an orphan there named Dinora. I have a picture of her always visible at my job or at home where I’m working. She is what grounds me and reminds me that it’s JUST COMEDY and that I’m lucky as fuck to even have gotten the chance to go for this dream. Here she is, now aged 15:

That’s what I mean when I say, “Find your Dinora.” Find something that brings you back to reality when you start throwing a tantrum. It will keep you from getting bitter, it will motivate you to keep working, and it will keep you from becoming an entitled monster. I’m not Angelina Jolie or anything, and I’m not saying that you better go to a third world country if you wanna make it in comedy. I’m just saying, it can’t hurt to get some perspective and find someone or something in your life that can bring you back from the brink of mental despair. WHO IS YOUR CONSTANT?

4. BRING YOUR A GAME AT THE B ROOM

When I first started performing, I was hosting these little variety shows in a theatre above a porn shop across from the Port Authority. It had mirrors in it leftover from being a strip club. It was disgusting and creepy. One night, I really phoned it in. I just wasn’t trying. Then the next day, my friend who was also on the show, told me a scout from casting at Fox was in the audience and they wanted to meet with him. I was devastated! I couldn’t BELIEVE someone important would be at a show that little ole me was on. That’s when I learned that you always have to at least try. Don’t waste the audience’s time or your time. If you’re going to take the stage time, USE it. Yeah, you never know who’s gonna be in the audience, but it’s even bigger than that. It’s about self-respect. You’re always gonna have off nights. A huge crowd, perfect performance…you still might not get laughs. But I learned that night about the feeling of “what if.” You don’t want to leave the stage going “what if I had actually tried?” If you do your best, then even if it doesn’t go well, you know you at least put forth your best effort. There are so many things you can’t control in this business. But you CAN control your effort and your level of presence in any given situation.

Same goes for anything in comedy – jobs, auditions, projects, assignments. Especially when you’re working with others. The majority of the time, we’re working on stuff for free. Nobody’s getting paid. On one hand, that makes things a little less pressurized. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it seriously. That person you’re helping with a video sketch on the weekend? Might be your potential boss one day. That kid you’re being rude to at the comedy theatre? Might be running a network one day. I’m not saying you have to be this overly schmoozy person. I’m saying you should be kind, hard-working, and humble as often as you possibly can. Obviously, being an asshole works for a great many people. But I’m not one of those people, and if you want to know how the asshole got to his or her station in life, go ask them for advice! I’m just one person. Nice or not, bringing your A game in any given situation is definitely the way to go.

5. DO THE SECRET, SORT OF.

I have never read The Secret. But I know the basic gist of it: imagine what you want and it will magically happen. I kind of think this is true. HEAR ME OUT! When you DECIDE you want something – like really really make a choice in the deepest part of your soul – you are going to inevitably move towards that something. An internal decision “I WILL be a TV writer,” will lead you to make all sorts of tiny decisions along the way that propel you towards it. You suddenly start making little choices like “No, I will not sleep in today, because I need to work on some jokes.” Your mind also becomes open to things you otherwise would dismiss. “Yes, I am gonna try to get that job, even if it’s not exactly what I want, or it’s out of my league, etc.” I know so many people (including myself) who have made excuses as to why they aren’t gonna try to get some gig – and it’s all just excuses because inherently you, deep down, believe you’re not good enough.

I have always tried to say yes to whatever audition, job opportunity, etc. that comes my way. When I got my first job in comedy, it was so weirdly off center from what I had dreamed of as a little girl. It was hosting an on-line comedy/music show for AOL. At the time YouTube had barely made a dent in the world, and it was like well, it’s something. But I learned so much, and it was a huge break for me. I know people who would have shirked such an opportunity because it wasn’t TV or not “cool” enough. But for me, it was the right path at exactly the right time. It actually ended up being extremely cool. And, it led to everything else. From there, I got a job blogging at BestWeekEver.tv. Then from there, I got the gig as the Head Blogger at Fallon. Leaving Fallon was a hard decision, because it was such an amazing and intense place to work. It was so so close to my ultimate dream. Leaving to write for “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” might have seemed odd to some people. But it was the best decision I ever made. I’d hit my ceiling at Fallon and I didn’t wanna be a blogger anymore. I wanted to be a writer, a standup, someone who creates shows. I had to break out somehow. Millionaire turned out to be an amazing fit, and the schedule was such that I was able to work on selling a pilot in my spare time. Which I did, all within 9 months of leaving Fallon. I’m lucky to have had some really wise people in my life who helped me see that this was the right path for me. As of this writing, I’m not sure what my immediate future holds. But I do know, after everything that has led me to this point, that it’s gonna be great.

6. STOP READING THIS AND JUST GET OUT THERE AND DO IT.

I’m going to follow my advice and stop writing this terribly long-winded and preachy shit. Let’s go do comedy!

Love,
Sara