Thursday, December 4, 2014

"Day Job"

It is a devastating punchline.  (That you have all heard.)

A performer auditions, giving it everything they’ve got, and when they’re finished, their adjudicator intones,

“Don’t give up your day job.”

Which, of course, means, at least to that adjudicator, that the auditioner is unquestionably going to need it.  (To make a living.)

The adjudicator’s comment also implies another thing:  That the auditioner has a day job.

Which leads circuitously, though hopefully not tediously, to where I am about to proceed.

My Chicago-based brother-in-law is an excellent clarinetist and saxophone player. (Once, during a “scoring session” for one of my series, he was invited to sit in with the assembled L.A. professionals, and he acquitted himself impeccably.) 

But, keeping with his longstanding dictum – which I am about to reveal so I am kind of writing this backwards – my brother-in-law was also a music teacher (rising to the position of Dean) at a community college, where he dutifully explained to his students:

“You have to support your art until your art can support you.”

Which is a kindlier version of “Don’t give up your day job.”  Or, going back a step, you will almost certainly have to obtain one.

At any time, in every branch of the entertainment business, the overwhelming percentage of aspiring candidates for those positions are unemployed.  (And if it weren’t for the circus, in the case of jugglers, the percentage would be “Everybody.”)  

As a result, in order to support yourself (and possibly some dependents) financially, you are obliged to make a reliable living outside of the business.

My daughter Anna has friends who are rock ‘n roll musicians.  They lead, or once led, highly regarded bands, who were on the precipice of success, until the music business fell apart.  They still play gigs occasionally, but for regular paychecks, one them is a waiter, and the other works at Ikea. 

Recently, after enjoying the performance of an actor in a play I had just seen, I inevitably inquired, “What else had he done?”  I was subsequently informed that this talented actor was a fulltime food server at Umaniburger.  (An upscale burger emporium, but still.) 

I am talking about gifted professionals who are not making a sufficient income at their chosen field of endeavor.

That is simply the way it is, a discouraging outcome, mitigated by the fact that when those infrequent opportunities to “do their thing” do arrive, you can see clearly that, despite jolting career setbacks, they still love to perform.

And what about me?

Well, my story is different.  And if you've got a minute, I shall continue.  (I could have stopped here, but I am feeling expansive in my mood.)

With the exception of the time I spent in London (age 21 to 23), where I was a substitute teacher, and wrapped toys at a major department store (Harrods) during the Christmas season, my exclusive source of income has always derived from my writing.

Which makes me incredibly fortunate.  And I know personally the – and this is barely overstating it – agony of not being where you would dearly aspire to be. 

Once, sitting in the Tea Room at recess when I was a teacher, my face bore the unhappiest expression you can possibly imagine. {Try imagining it anyway.}

A fellow teacher caught sight of my enveloping gloom, and in an effort to bolster my spirits, remarked,

“Don’t worry.  It probably won’t happen.”

To which I immediately shot back,

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Eventually, thankfully, things fortuitously turned around.

The year after I returned from London, after hearing me relate an amusing anecdote at lunch, a dining companion volunteered that they knew an editor at a local newspaper, and almost before I knew it – and through no effort of my own other than relating an amusing anecdote at lunch – I had a weekly column (a job that lasted two years) in the Toronto Telegram. 

And with that, I was on my way as a “Writer for Money.”  (I received twenty-five dollars per column.  Though by the end of my tenure, my salary had skyrocketed to fifty-five dollars.)

In time, I supplemented my income writing and performing short commentaries on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio, adding a third paycheck (of thirty dollars) toiling for a business newspaper, where my assignment was to produce a column about new products.  With the accompanying direction:  “Make it interesting.”

Every week, I would sift through an imposing stack of press releases, searching for “The New and the Fascinating.”  And when I found something – like the portable “Shower-In-A-Suitcase”, I would deliver a short blurb about it, injecting a distinctive Pomerantzian spin.


For the “Automatic Manure Spreader”, created to replace the manual manure spreader, I wrote: 

“This exciting new product is a boon, not only to the manure spreader himself, but to anyone who is required to shake hands with him.” 

That assignment did not last long.  Apparently, the man who hired me forgot to inform the paper’s publisher of my “mandate”, and the publisher insisted I be fired for making the new products sound ridiculous.

Later, I was hired to write and perform a series of radio commercials for a well-known Toronto delicatessen called Shopsy’s, which at the time was expanding into the frozen food arena.  I recall one spot in which I inimitably (I like to believe) anthropomorphized Salisbury Steak:

“Hi.  I’m Salisbury Steak.  I come with mushrooms but they don’t talk.”

When the job was over, the dual presidents of the two-man ad agency producing those commercials offered me a full-time job in advertising, with a starting salary of ten thousand dollars.  My biggest paycheck to date had been the aforementioned fifty-five dollars.  So, in the words of Jon Lovitz in A League of Their Own:  

“That would be more then, wouldn’t it.”

I gave the men’s proposal barely a moment’s consideration.  Thanking them for their flattering offer, I politely turned it down, explaining to them that I would rather stay in show business.  Interesting enough, I was not in show business at the time.

Searching my mind now, I do not recall any of my sitcom-writing associates (who by that time were all making good money) talking about the “day jobs” they had performed while they were working their way up.  Suggesting, perhaps, that sitcom writers may be particularly unsuited to do anything else.

I know I am.

Ask me what I’d have done if I had not succeeded at what I succeeded at and you will hear a responding silence more deafening than the Grand Canyon after “Closing Time.”

I have absolutely no idea. 


Anonymous said...

ahh but the benefits at Ikea re top notch.

Unanimouse said...

Can you still wrap?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Reminds me of the closing scenes of THIS IS SPINAL TAP, in which Nigel Tufnell, asked what he'd have done if he hadn't had a career in a rock band, said he fancied a career selling hats.

It also reminds me, though, of the lack of respect for people who don't become stars. Particularly I think of, say, female tennis players ranked between 25 and 100, who are either ignored or dismissed as failures by people who will never, ever be in the top 100 of *their* profession.