Now What? How Answering This Question Lead Us to Changing Everything (Part II)

by Ceda Xiong and David Wolinsky

This series follows two Chicago writer-producers as they try to make it in Los Angeles.

Okay, so first up: We lied to you in our last post. We started writing it before we left Chicago in November and while we had wild delusions of finishing it while driving across the country. That, as it turns out, was a stupid plan. We, and Ceda’s boyfriend, Jorge, were too busy driving non-stop for 2.5 days after Thanksgiving. And from there, we were simply too slammed with the logistical crap you inevitably get caught up in when you move anywhere: getting furniture, finding our grocery stores, and we also had a torturous week with no Internet at all despite having arranged with Time Warner Cable to get here on day one.

So what this means is two things:

1) We’ve actually been here two months, not one.

2) We unintentionally have become L.A. lying douchebags from the outset. Sorry about that.

Ah. We feel so much better being honest and direct with you. You see, we are no longer modest Midwesterners, but smoothie-slamming wannabes with oversized sunglasses and egos. It’s so good to be ourselves, finally.

Sarcasm aside, we just wanted to frame this month’s update to not mislead you and have you think somehow we’ve been able to cram a December and January’s worth of experience into a single month. That would be douchey.

Hidden Costs

David: About a week after we got here, I rented my apartment in Chicago. One of the most adult things about me is I own property thanks to an unexpected inheritance I got in 2005. It sounds like some sort of Dickensian plot twist, but it’s true. I bought an apartment with that money back when I was full-time at The Onion, but since I became a freelancer that place always felt like a walk-in albatross. At times it felt like a constant war of attrition to buy my own insurance, pay the mortgage, bills, and everything else that came up. So, renting my apartment after barely being here felt not only like a great victory, but also an obvious good omen that I had made the right choice to move to L.A. Not that I’ve doubted that for a second out here, but nothing says, “Hey, good life choice,” like having a monthly mortgage payment taken off your back. Literally, the rent from my Chicago apartment from my tenants just about covers my rent here in L.A.

But in the months that followed, I realized I was basically throwing a parade in my mind for breaking even every month. It’d be like a company boasting about having no profit margins. I have work I brought with me that I’m still doing out here, but I guess I’m saying something not all that original: I wish I was earning more money. The move out here inspired me to try to focus on my own “personal brand,” a phrase that me five years ago would have shuddered at. I have two possible book projects in the works (one self-published, another that an agent is interested in and we’re exploring options) and also have started tutoring people on creating comedy stuff for the Internet via Google Helpouts.

Ceda: Ugh, I hear the siren calls of wanting more money. It cost roughly $1,025 to ship my car from the body shop to L.A. (it got in an accident days before we were going to leave), which is something I can probably seek reimbursement from the other insurance company, but it would take months of legal badgering. At what point do I decide that the time and energy put into wrangling a settlement is worth the $1K? I don’t think I know that answer.

For my actual paid work, the flexibility of my job has been a huge save. I’m pretty happy that I’m not waiting tables and writing my scripts on lunch breaks. Nothing wrong with that, but I’m not interested in making my life harder. My hours are little lopsided now, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. to accommodate for my East Coast team. I have more daylight hours to burn on our many many deadlines. More on that later. So right after I finish my paid work, I start on our writing work. On a particular rough stretch of two weeks, we began at 3 p.m. and then called it quits at midnight.

The fact is, I have new expenses. There’s car payments, gas, and insurance, and those really add up. I wish I could figure out a way to make more money, but I don’t see how that’s possible without taking on a second job. My current second job is being this great unpaid adventure of trying to be a writer in L.A. Even though my awesome credit union through my job gave me an amazing 1.77 percent APR for my car loan, it’s still a pain. Transportation was something I never thought about in Chicago. It was always either a $2.50 train ride, or free on a bike. Whenever I see a biker in L.A., I say a little non-religious prayer for them because it is one of the most dangerous looking activities I’ve ever seen.

David: Whereas I take the bus and the subway everywhere and I’m treated like a freakin’ war hero because of it. People are literally stunned when I say I took the bus up to Burbank from East Hollywood. You’ve no doubt heard people say getting around L.A. without a car is impossible, but the only people who say that are those who have only ever driven. They’re wrong. Public transportation in Los Angeles is real because Los Angeles is a major metropolitan city. So I’m not feeling the pinch there in that regard.

Since Ceda and I came as a team, our futures are now tied to each other, so there is this weird approach to life where we’re not as focused on the money we’re earning but it’s still impossible to ignore that we always need it. It’s been hard for me, personally, because for the first time since 2009 I turned down a job offer. A colleague floated me an opportunity to get a job at a literary agency and I had a crisis of conscience: Do I take something that seemingly has no bearing on where I want to be headed just because the money will be stable? Should I really take the first thing that comes along? Won’t that just get in the way of what I came here to really do? I thought it would, so I politely declined and am focusing on searching around for other opportunities that will still afford me flexibility. One of which is going up to San Francisco in March for the Game Developer’s Conference, which I’ll write about next month.

Trying to act like you know what’s going to happen is silly. The one constant, though, is you will always need money. Something I think we all take for granted as adults and professionals is that we’re all presented with challenges, but we also have the freedom to face them however we want. We’re not done taking risks just because we left Chicago.

Ceda: Yeah. For example, who would have thought going to Target would have been a risk? We both went to Target on our second day in L.A. to get essentials because a new apartment necessitates having to go to Target every day (or sometimes twice a day). We went about every day for a week in December, getting toiletries, Ibuprofen, and kitty litter and everything else you need to make a house a home. A month after that, it was no surprise that all of our accounts were vulnerable. Thankfully, our cards weren’t compromised.

I am also happy to report that Los Angeles’ living expenses are reasonable. Produce is cheap here, because of its proximity to a vast underpaid labor source as well as large farm lands. The ocean is close, so my beloved seafood is accessible and fresh. I am also completely in love with the amazing Korean, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Armenian grocery stores that have taken over my food budget. I’m constantly amazed by the different ethnicities in Los Angeles. Coming from a Chicago, a city known for its hyper-segregation, it felt so good to see different neighborhoods mashed together into a true melting pot. Goodbye racism!

David: I’m also tempted to say goodbye to Citibank after the impressive bungling it did of my account information with the move. Although I had notified Citibank and my credit cards of my new address back when I lived in the frozen tundra of Chicago, apparently Citibank has a different understanding of confirming that change. To wit: My own charges out here resulted in me defrauding myself. To Citibank, I had stolen my own cards and gone on a wild shopping spree of groceries and new jeans. Thankfully, Citibank shut down both my credit cards without notifying me, and when I finally figured out what was going on, it said the best it could do was get me replacement credit cards in seven business days. Two weeks. Thanks, Citibank! Also, I like the seafood here too.

Ceda: Another fantastic thing about a city with perfect weather is that you can do all the outdoor activities you want, for free! We live about 1.5 miles from Griffith Park, and I try to jog up to the observatory every week. For a flat lander, running uphill is an accomplishment I rank higher than childbirth. After I do my victory lap at the top of the city, there’s free yoga in Runyon Park. A gentle instructor guides you through downward dog facing palm trees and blue skies. Sometimes, I slap myself for not moving sooner.

David: What I positively love about Los Angeles are the unlimited piña colonics. My colon has never been more irrigated or filled with citrusy goodness. I don’t know. It’s going to sound dumb to get into specifics and like we’re dumping on Chicago. But the air indeed smells better. The food is better. The weather is better. Beyond those shallow reasons to embrace a city, I am really loving finally meeting all my L.A. cohorts and colleagues I’ve known for years. I am enjoying running in the mountains. I like smelling the sea air. It’s a gorgeous place to be try to find your way. I’m not saying L.A. is perfect. Just that I like it here. So sue me.

We Were Wrong About Everything

David: Last time we talked about our YouTube channel that seeks to encourage collaboration and connections between different comedy scenes but something we got blindsided by was meeting a TV-writer friend of Ceda’s who shook our plan. Until this coffee date, Ceda and I had basically been knocking around L.A. meeting up with different people we already had as contacts out here. I was much more aggressive about it than she was for whatever reason, and by this point (mid-January), I had met with one of Tim and Eric’s producers, the head of development for Adult Swim, an executive story editor for CBS, and a bunch of other people in similar positions. Many of those made sense for me to just go solo on, because Ceda and I had no real plan for our first L.A. job stuff and these were all people I’ve known and had easy lines to. I thought I’d try to become a writers’ assistant and send the rope ladder down for Ceda, but I had heard it’s very difficult once you’re on a show to get an outsider in. That’s why it’s so hard for anyone to “make it” in TV: You only want to work with people you know. That’s true of any industry, sure, but Ceda’s friend inadvertently made us realize some of our greatest assets as a team and also that our plan was entirely wrong. And I’m glad she did. Ceda-san, want to explain this great/disgusting/horrible truth we learned?

Ceda: Ah, my old friend, not being white. What my friend told us is that all the major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC/Disney, and Warner Bros.) have a budget set aside for a “diversity” hire, which is essentially a poorly coded descriptor for a non-white writer. Diversity hire salaries do not come out of a show’s budget, which is why rooms are eager to get the free writer. These hires are usually made through fellowship programs, which all have due dates at the end of April. We have to submit a spec to qualify for the fellowship. A spec is an episode of a running TV show that does not exist (a fanfic, for the layman) and is written on speculation. In other words: Nobody asked for this, but it demonstrates our ability to write in another show’s voice.

Of course, this isn’t some kind of golden ticket that gets you into a writer’s room. The programs are incredibly competitive and there’s no guarantee of being hired once you finish them, but all things being equal, we still feel that an in is an in. Other people may have family connections, but hey, I have my skin color.

David: Hey, we, have your skin color, Ceda. Thank you for that. So, out here, people will look at us as a team and assume I am hitching my résumé to her ethnicity. Since we made this discovery, I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with other white TV writers who are incredibly envious of my “amazing luck” of writing with someone unlike myself. It may actually work against us later, because there’s a stigma attached to diversity hires: Because they are obligatory hires, many feel they are inherently less talented. It’s like affirmative action, but for people who want to write TV jokes about farting robots.

So, we are refocusing our efforts on cranking out these scripts to be considered for these programs. I’ve long felt placement programs and contests can be sort of bullshit — they feel like shortcuts. I’ve also heard some of these placement programs are usually won based on who you know, which is not surprising. Although, first, I assumed because they have seemingly noble intentions they would be merit-based. But then I remembered few jobs truly are won that way, really. It’s always political. Your experience matters, sure, but that alone isn’t enough.

This is all a long way to say we aren’t doing exactly what I thought we would be doing out here, but at least a solid plan has emerged. Something that frustrates me is we aren’t as heavily involved in producing stuff for our channel, but at least we have our kindred spirits in Atlanta collaborating on stuff with us. We’re just juggling things differently, and time management dictates we simply can’t be out shooting short things right now. We have to be writing so we have these samples to send around during pilot season. Oh, and I had to ask because we didn’t know, either: Pilot season ends around April.

We Need Clones

Ceda: Now that we’re locals and have a plan, meetings have become more purposeful. It’s no longer “Hey, we’re new in town,” but more presenting ourselves as a team and what we’re doing in Los Angeles.

David: Yeah. We want to do this casually and be our charming selves, selling potential future bosses or co-workers on us and our senses of humor. We have to find ways to conversationally “stumble” onto talking about what we’re currently writing and, if we get a response, say, “Sure, we can send that over to you.” It works. That’s what you’re supposed to do. It might sound icky, but something I’ve told a lot of friends about L.A. who are also thinking of coming out here or moving in general is that nobody’s ever going to give you permission to start doing the thing you’re chasing after. You have to let people know you’re interested and doing the work. More than anything, when you’re on the lot with an assistant or even a showrunner, you want them to imagine not being sick of you after working long hours trying to write that perfect robot-diarrhea gag. Something about oil? I’ll think of it.

Ceda: I think the robot has to trip in his own diarrhea. BP Bot has an accident. That’s my pitch.

David: Too soon.

Ceda: And speaking of pitches, our meetings are a great way for us to refine our story pitches. I remember our first pitch for the web series taking over five minutes to explain, and now we’ve got it down to something like two sentences. A good pitch should separate us from the other baby writers in town, I hope. But all these meetings also make me feel like we’re not doing enough. We should have more writing samples. We should have more shorts that we’ve shot. We should be meeting even more people. It’s hard to feel like I’m keeping up with the pace of what I think we need to do.

David: I think once a month one of us talks to the other about not feeling like we’re doing what we should be doing. It always feels like there’s something else we could be working on or should be working on. Should we be going to see more improv shows? Should we be having coffee with someone? Should we just stay home and write? Should we be watching more stuff to draw inspiration from?

All of those things feel equally important, but none of them pay me. Yet. That’s the way we’re choosing to think about this all, as an investment that will pay off in the future. How or when is impossible to predict. Thankfully we’re both mature enough to realize there are no straight lines in careers or even lives, but the bigger the risk you take, the more you want to force it to play out that way. Hopefully none of this sounds like we’re feeling defeated. Quite the opposite. Meeting and talking with all these producers and writers reinforced something I’ve known my whole career: When you climb to the top of a ladder, you’re actually at the bottom of another one. You can take that as a crushing discouragement, but I like to think of it as incentive to keep climbing or figure out what the hell’s wrong with your ladder.

A collection of this series can be found here.

Ceda Xiong and David Wolinsky are newly Los Angeles-based writers and producers and the co-founders of Now What?, an online channel that helps people create funny stuff for the Internet. They are podcasting about L.A., their careers, and writing on a show called Writers Write, Right? with another writing pair still living in Chicago.

David created Second City Chicago’s Humor Writing for the Internet program, helped The Onion take its local sections online as the Chicago city editor, and is a video producer for E3. Ceda has freelanced for publications such as Venus, McSweeney’s, and Nerve. They live with her boyfriend and their three cats.

Photo: Nauly 22