Your Job Makes Me Jealous is a weekly podcast with a young Canadian whose career is so cool that people at parties crowd around to hear about it. We talk about the ups, the downs and the pay.
This week, Rebecca Addelman, a 31-year-old comedian from Ottawa, talks about her job writing for the hit show New Girl that airs on Fox/Citytv.
Addelman started with a B.A. in literature at the University of Toronto and then took Comedy: Writing and Performance at Humber College.
After many evenings of stand-up in Toronto and a day job copy-editing, Addelman made the leap to L.A. in 2008. Since she got there, she’s written for half a dozen shows including China Il. She returned to Toronto one summer to write for CBC’s InSecurity and then started at New Girl in June.
The money in comedy writing can be “obscene,” she says—$3,600 a week right now—but the work is sporadic at best, with contacts lasting mere months while agents and managers take their cuts.
Click here to listen to Your Job Makes Me Jealous with TV writer Rebecca Addelman (5:05)
When you were doing your B.A. at U of T, did you ever think you’d end up writing on a comedy show in L.A.?
It became pretty clear pretty quickly that I didn’t want to pursue academia, I didn’t want to be a doctor, I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I wanted to write. I had these illusions that ‘I’ll be a novelist, I’ll be a Great Canadian novelist.’ I also had tacekd up on my walls a collage of Conan O’Brien… in my door room walls, so I always veered toward doing something a bit sillier and trying to make people laugh.
I took… at Humber College, the Comedy Writing and Performance program, and there was a sitcom writing class taught by a great guy called Lorne Frohman and our homework was to write a spec script. A spec script is when you write an episode of an existing TV show. So I’d write my version of a 30 Rock or my version of a New Girl. So I was doing that and I was loving it and it was something I knew I wanted to do more of. So I eventually moved to LA, got myself a visa and just started trying writing and comedy here.
It’s funny you bring up 30 Rock, because I think a lot of people when they think of TV writers picture that show and I wonder if TV writers are really as weird as the writers you see on 30 Rock?
Yes. Short answer, yes. 30 Rock is obviously a bit cartoonish and heightened. It’s one of my favorite shows of all time. But it’s mining a certain core truth which is that this is a weird job that attracts a lot of nerds, geeks, somewhat social misfits, people who both like to tell stories but also goof around and kind of don’t take anything seriously.
Actually, one of the highlights of my job right now is that I get to work with a woman, Kay Cannon who was on 30 Rock for six seasons, from season one up until last season. I’d see her name on all the episodes I’d watch and now she’s my colleage, and so that’s in some respects a little bit of a dream come true.
What’s your typical day like as a TV writer?
Your typical day, you start around 10 or 10:30. You screw around a little bit off the top. You dig into whether you’re breaking a story—figuring out what episode 211 is going to look like and figuring out what all the characters are doing and coming up with a new fresh story, or you’re punching jokes.
Right now, I am punching a lot of jokes. That means you go through the script and the show runners have told you what scenes they want you to focus on and you look at a big monitor and all the jokes are up on the screen. As a group, you call out whatever jokes you think are funny and hopefully it makes it up onto the screen and hopefully into the show.
All of these things you do all day, you’re with people. I’m never alone. It’s such a collaborate experience. So for 12 hours of every day I’m staring at the same people’s stupid faces. And you learn to love those people and sometimes you hate them, but they’re kind of like your weird new surrogate family.
Comedy, when you start out, doesn’t pay very well. Does it get any better? Does the pay improve?
Yes, the pay in television can get actually almost obscene. I will say that. A staff writer on a network show, you make $3,600 a week, which is kind of a lot of money.
But I went for years kind of struggling…whether you’re a stand up comic, or I did sketch… So many of us, when you’re just starting out or kind of in that period in your career where you haven’t quite broken through but you do it full time, it can be trying to pay the rent. Sometimes shows don’t come back. Sometimes you’re on a show that’s cancelled. There’s a lot of instability in this business which is why you kind of have to get paid pretty well when you’re working, because as soon as your job is done, you might never have a job again.