Now What? How Answering This Question Lead Us to Changing Everything (Part VI)
by Ceda Xiong and David Wolinsky
This is a series that follows two Chicago writer-producers as they try to make it in Los Angeles.
This month “making it” in Los Angeles looks like this: David lost his gig and Ceda’s doing a lot of stand-up. They’re navigating life changes together and separately and also discuss expenses for their cats (not in this column, in real life). Here are the highlights.
FEELING OUR AGE
CEDA: Last month, I concluded with some very rah-rah speechifying about stand up. It’s great for meeting other comediennes! It’s great as a calling card for a young writer! All of those things are still true. But I think I glossed over a few things. Since our last column, I’ve performed at 25–30 different open mics in the city of Los Angeles (and one in Pasadena), and I see the room breakdown like this. Seventy-five percent white males under the age of 30. Ten percent men of color. Fifteen percent women. In the percentage of women who manage to stick it out, about half of those are women of color. So yeah, I’m swimming in in the minority pool. I knew it was going to feel strange. But I was also kind of cocky that my material would separate me from my physical appearance.
Believe it or not, young men under the age of 30, see almost everyone around them as impossibly ancient. I went to a show yesterday to see Anthony Jeselnik and hung out with my 24-year-old friend, and a younger male comic mistook me for her mother. Somehow, as a 31-year-old, gave birth to a 24-year-old around the age of 7. It goes without saying that my friend was Asian and we automatically got lumped together as relations. Yes, even in a city as progressive and diverse as Los Angeles, this is the kind of stupidness I still have to deal with.
I’d like to think that ageist/racist comments would be easy to deal with by now. But as a woman, it is so hard to let go of the things that society teaches you are important: youthful appearance, sexual attractiveness. Actually, this one male comedian summed it up really well: White men are on their way out, but even as they grip the edge of relevance, they can still scream out “you could stand to lose a few pounds” as parting words to any woman. It’s such a true comment. Nothing can take down a woman faster than comments on her appearance.
I’m feeling pretty icky about the whole thing, but it still hasn’t put me off stand-up. Doing stand-up is fucking electrifying. It’s worth the BS of young men talking out of their asses about how women should act. It’s worth sitting around for six hours just to get on stage for about 15 minutes (including travel time to three different venues). There’s time and opportunity cost.
DAVID: You sound pretty pissed. I don’t blame you. I feel like sometimes we maybe use this space more for therapy than what it’s intended for, which ostensibly is to talk about our anxiety over smaller financial goals. I’ve been especially quiet on this front largely because I’m a pretty private guy and as a freelancer am accustomed to sharing even less publicly: You never know who’s reading anything you’re saying, and as such whether someone will snatch a gig from beneath you or undercut your rate.
I realize this sounds paranoid. It isn’t. It’s just being practical as a freelance writer. Toss in the fact that I’m also a dabbling academic (I started teaching near the end in Chicago), and you’ve got a guy here whose earning potential has not exactly been fully realized yet. Ceda, as you put it: I’m cash-poor? What does that mean again? Warning ahead: You are all about to learn how dumb I am about money.
CEDA: I’m guessing you mean that you have a lot of assets that aren’t liquid? Like your cat.
DAVID: You’re always bringing up the cats. But yeah, I guess that more or less has defined my situation for a while. I’d like to temper the following by saying: I have many friends and colleagues who consider me a great success as a freelance writer. Indeed, I have managed to survive and flourish as a wandering writer-ronin for four years, full-time. I didn’t set out to do this. Some people jump into this life, others are pushed. I was pushed. I learned to swim quickly. But flourishing in this pursuit, in all honesty, kinda sucks. Or it does after turning 30.
Flourishing means I have a lot of great names on my résumé, have had a lot of great experiences, but basically live check-to-check. It means owing an insane amount on taxes because you don’t earn enough to pay in for estimated taxes year to year. It means your bank accounts are always more or less the same — a couple grand in both checking accounts, and a couple grand on the credit cards. It means having shitty insurance. Amazingly, I got an inheritance in Chicago and was able to invest in a condo. I used to hate that place when I was living in Chicago, but now it is one of my main means of income out here in Los Angeles.
It’s especially important now, because I lost the gig I came out here with on Memorial Day. I have that and one other gig. The latter is too unpredictable income-wise to rely on month to month. It would be awesome supplemental income, and the reality is that’s what most freelancers bring home. Most freelancers are married to partners who have more lucrative, more stable jobs that also extend benefits to them.
I’ve never had that.
What I have now is a lot of fear and uncertainty, but rather than spiral into a full-on panic, thanks to my friends and my own bizarre resilience that freelance has battle-forged in me, I feel oddly Zen-like. After freaking the fuck out, I have re-centered and learned to relax into the chaos. I also know stumbling, catching myself, and refocusing is all part of these transitions.
As I just said, I was pushed into this life. And moving to Los Angeles is my way of trying to push back out.
In the six months that we’ve been here, I have accomplished a bunch of stuff that I also haven’t shared in this space out of that aforementioned paranoia. But to demonstrate the types of things you can shake down when you’re truly motivated and driven to do so (and thanks to the career I’ve had through freelancing, of course), I would like to quickly just share:
• I got a literary agent two months ago. I don’t want to get into what the book is just yet, but it has been the single most vindicating development in my career and life. As I write this, it’s been rejected by three publishers. My agent assured me: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
• I may have gotten Sony interested in letting me and a colleague produce a documentary to be released via Playstation next year. I also can’t go too much into that, other than share my astonishment at how good I am at finding angles, working them, and staying persistent.
• Ceda and I finished our Brooklyn Nine-Nine spec. Given that we didn’t know each other exceedingly well before moving here, I’ve learned she’s a supportive, professional person to work with who understands the wild fluctuations of juggling adult responsibilities and pursuing creative fulfilment. We both believe, perhaps with wild abandon, you should go after the things you want in life.
CEDA: Seeing you struggle with freelancing and constantly chasing after jobs is both terrifying and really inspiring. I mean, just the sheer amount of phone calls I hear you making in the mornings when I’m writing business contracts or whatnot is astonishing.
I wouldn’t be honest if the prospect of giving up my very sweet job will be one of the hardest decisions I have to make. I know that at some point, in the very near future, I will have to. But the uncertainty of having income from project to project makes me feel sick to my stomach. I’m an immigrant. My parents uprooted their entire lives in China to give me a better one. How do I turn all of that down in order to pursuing projects that all have short-term employment potential? (Because that’s all of the entertainment business, whether in film or television.)
I tamp myself down after having a career security panic by trying to write as much stand-up as possible. I do feel like doing stand-up has been great for making sure that I’m consistently producing material. And unlike sketch or screenwriting, I can immediately test out my product. No wait time! Except for the agonizing hours sitting in dark rooms at open mics.
As far as opportunity cost, I think stand-up is actually the thriftiest form of performance. With improv, you have to take classes that always cost about $300 bucks a pop. My pet theory why improv is always full of white dudes is that classes are expensive and many wonderful white families will pay for improv classes; it’s the reason why hockey is sport for relatively affluent families. You have to pay the high overhead to get in.
Stand-up by comparison is dirt cheap. And to that economic equation, I do see waaaay more ethnic diversity at mics than I ever did in an improv class. Open mics are usually free. The most expensive thing is usually to buy a drink or to pay a nominal fee ($3-$5) to get on stage. There’s gas money to drive from mic to mic, but if you drive a gas-efficient vehicle like a Prius (do I get sponsorship from Toyota yet?), your gas cost shouldn’t break the bank.
But what’s the dark secret to all of this? No stand-up gets paid in Los Angeles.
Yep. It’s true. Wait, what about Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, you say?
Well, they’re Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, they get paid anywhere. Los Angeles, as the entertainment capital of the world, never lacks for talent. So why would anyone pay a relatively young comic to be on stage when there are hundreds of equally talented young talent dying for stage time? This is something incredibly useful I learned from Shayne-Michaels.com, the website of a long-time L.A. comedian who quickly dispelled my illusions about making any kind of money on stage. Even extremely successful comedians can only really hope to make about $45 a week at any of the major stand up clubs (Laugh Factory, The Improv, The Comedy Store) in town. Forty-five dollars.
DAVID: That’s a fortune compared to what what you’ll shake down freelance writing these days, man. Getting back on my hustle for exactly the type of work I wanted to move past has been utterly fucking depressing. One place offered me $1 to $3 per post. Lots of places play up the fact they give you experience. When I was at NBC Chicago, they were giving me $20 per. You found me that one Motley Fool lead you sent my way, in the end, yields $50 to $100 per insightful thinkpiece on business trends.
Ladies and gents, my big “secret” in surviving as a freelancer is to avoid this kind of work at all costs. (The gamble with these, though, is that you never know who will read something you write and what that can turn into, if anything.) The real money is in stable, steady income like I had at NBC Chicago. It was not lucrative, but it afforded me flexibility. Turns out, in hindsight, it was lucrative compared to what’s out there now. Adding to my fears is I am perhaps too experienced for temp agencies. Just like the moment I lost my last full-time job, I snapped into a survivor’s mentality. I applied for unemployment immediately. I hit up everyone I knew and lots of folks I didn’t. People like to help people, I thought. They’ll understand.
The same is true today, but everyone I know who is trying to stay afloat as a freelancer is just trying to make it back to shore. I feel both racked with guilt and unsure what to tell the next generation of kids coming up when they send me their scripts, pitches, questions, and everything else. They are essentially asking for my permission to go into writing as I have. In hindsight, I realize how I, with that, have come to just echo the advice I got from people in L.A. before I moved here. “Don’t do it,” I was warned. “It’s hard.” I understand they were deterring me, and I was focusing on the unspoken asterisk: “…unless you really really really want to make it work.”
I’m in the squeaky part of the gamble right now. People love an underdog and there’s a good narrative here. But I could give a shit about how this all ties up. I want work and I want it now. Months ago I think we were paranoid about whether it was okay to take a writers’ assistant job. Honestly, I’d be happy to temp somewhere just so I can breathe more freely. I am even less sure what to tell aspiring writers when I look at my colleagues and know that, despite their apparent Internet fame, the books they released have only been bought by about 5,000 people. Many treat writing like it’s some sort of panacea.
All things considered, I could be a whole lot worse off than I am now. Hopefully when we check in next month, I won’t find out how that can be the case. I have one very strong contender in a job hunt and a couple other potentials. It’s stuff I never would have imagined for myself, but weirdly have only materialized because I — we — moved.
CEDA: So it sounds like we’re doing a ton of stuff separately, which from the outset might look like we’re splitting up. Not true! We met earlier in the week to start the treatment for the short we’re planning. It’s based on a very personal part of my life in the month right before college started, so I’m a bit more attached to the project than David. But why a short?
For one, resources. We agreed on writing something that’s under 10 minutes long, which should limit the commitments we have to make in order to get it done. Secondly, producing a short will force us to reach into our network to find crew, other producers, actors. We need to find other like-minded people and expand our connections into the entertainment world. Because it’s true in L.A. that people build relationships by working together and if we’re not on a job with other people, we might as well create the job so that we can build those future, useful relationships. I’m thinking like a bootstrapper. Third, in our master plan, a short is something that can be submitted to festivals and can be a great show piece to send to agents and other potentially career-changing people.
Phew, now that this masterful web has been woven, we just have to get it done. And this circles back to some of the feelings we talked about earlier about being pulled in different directions. Since I just started stand-up six weeks ago, I was riding the giant wave of euphoria, of doing something new and exciting. But stand-up is a giant time sink. I’m still going to do more stand-up, but I know that as a writer, I have to find the balance between performing and writing. So I’m thinking that I will split my week between days of doing stand up and days devoted to projects that are essential to building who David and I are as one weird voice. Anything else, David?
DAVID: Balance is always on my mind. You and I agree on a lot of things (obviously, here we are in Los Angeles together), and I think that can be a very powerful thing. Powerful and sometimes dangerous. We are exploring how connected we can be versus how connected we need to be — it’s funny because I sometimes feel we are more friendly than out-and-out friends. I feel like this will sound totally bizarre to possibly you (Ceda) and anyone (you, whatever your name is) reading this, but in the course of my career, having interviewed my share of writing teams, comedians, musicians, Gallagher, etc., etc., etc. . . I’ve learned that balance is important. Many of the teams and partnerships you know and love need breathing room. All relationships need that.
Before I take this home, though, Ceda, as I type this in my bedroom adjacent to your bedroom, what’s our thoughts on that: Does it hurt to hear we aren’t besties, but thick-as-thieves comrades?
CEDA: Ah, you’re appealing to my communist heart. Yes, I do not want to be holding your hair back as you throw up after another heartbreak. I KID. You have no heart.
I think not being besties is actually better because you’re not afraid of impinging on our friendship: you know it’s about the work.
DAVID: Our friendship is based around working, and I think I used the phrase in this space before that I sometimes feel like I’m living in a “prison of work,” and I sorta meant it as a good thing. I’ve come around on that a bad — it’s a bad thing if you never open the door.
Anyway, really, to end this out: I want to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while in this space, which is to pass along some of the advice I’ve gotten from people when out and about meeting up with people on my own as an ambassador to our partnership.
Me being me, though, I don’t want to drop names here. This is where being a freelancer for a long time comes in handy in L.A.: I know when to keep my fucking mouth shut. That said, who said these items below doesn’t really matter. Heed or don’t, I still find all this shit to be super-inspiring.
• “Keep pushing. It isn’t being pushy. Eventually you’ll find your home and it won’t be you being pushy, it’s you doing what they want you to do.”
• “Ask yourself: Will they pay me on Friday?”
• “Going to bed a little bit further along then when you woke up that morning is progress. Just try to make sure it’s a tiny bit better, even if it’s something you put in the mail.”
• “Bill Clinton is out of work at age 64. It’s a world where there are nothing but choices, so as a result but nothing but questions. It’s understandable, but then you factor in the world of show business, it’s a very confusing world.”
• “The only way to play and win the Hollywood game is to be calm and confident and not be desperate and not have to take the first offer that comes around and be patient and take meetings.”
• “The more I say no, the more other things have started to happen. It’d be tempting to say it’s the universe, but it’s also possible you’re just more focused.”
I have more but this is long enough and we’ll write again next month. Thanks all, for reading and joining us on the journey.
A collection of this series can be found here.
They live with her boyfriend and their three cats.
Photo: Gabe Shore