I recently spoke with Alexander Zalben, founding member of the sketch comedy troupe Elephant Larry and a producer of Sketchfest NYC, for the comedy segment of the recent Back Stage “Guide to New York Acting Markets” spotlight. (Read the full story at BackStage.com) As a sketch comedy performer, writer, producer, and teacher, Zalben is an expert in all things sketch, so I asked him to share his knowledge and experience about moving to New York to start a sketch comedy career.
Zalben shares a piece of advice that was offered to him when he first moved to New York City. “If it is going to happen – what ever ‘it’ means to you – it’s either going to take one year or it’s going to take 10 years,” he says. He clarifies that this doesn’t mean it will take exactly 365 days or exactly 10 years to achieve your goal, but “it means either you’re going to hit immediately, or you’re going to have to really work at it and develop friendships, get to know people, and develop your own style of comedy, and that’s going to take literally a decade. Obviously, there are exceptions. And the third option is that what ever your goal is, you don’t make it. But if you are going to make it, I’ve seen it proven time and time again that either you hit immediately or it takes you years and years of work.”
Read my Q&A with Zalben to learn more about how to start your sketch comedy career in New York City, whether it takes a year or a decade:
Do you find that comedians and sketch groups coming to New York from outside of New York have to experience a kind of learning curve to perform for a New York City audience?
Alex Zalben: Absolutely. I’ve always felt like sketch comedy, in particular, is treated very differently in different cities. And this is no slight to any particular city, but Los Angeles, for example, is focused more on showcases, and the actor-driven “Hey, I want to get cast in a part so I’m going to put up a showcase with my sketch characters.”
Chicago and New York are almost diametric opposites, in a way. In Chicago, they’re really supportive of developing work. For the most part, if something’s a little rough and they’re really trying something new, Chicago loves it in sketch comedy, whereas in New York it has to be developed work. You know, you only want to put up stuff when it’s really polished, really well-done, really good. Industry people in particular are very fond of things that look and feel casual, like they’re very personal, things that you’re putting on stage where you’re like, “Oh, it’s just me up here. What? I’m just talking to you, the audience. It’s so nice of you to show up!” But at the same time it’s obvious you’ve spent months and months rehearsing and polishing to get that effect.
So how can performers who are new to New York develop a polished, finished piece to put on stage? Where is a good venue to work out material before you really try to get industry attention?
It’s a tough, interesting question actually. It’s one of those many, many catch-22s that are omnipresent in the performing and entertainment industry. You can’t say, “I’m going to work in my living room until I’m ready to knock everybody’s socks off with my amazing performance,” but at the same time you can’t be like, “I’m going to go out there to perform runner-up material all of the time,” because you’re going to screw yourself either way.
I feel like what it takes is really putting yourself out there, getting on stage as much as you possibly can – whether that means as part of a sketch comedy group or as a stand-up or however. I always think taking classes is a great way to do that. I mean, certainly with so many classes at The PIT and at UCB and other places, that’s an amazing place to go and completely fail. I teach sketch classes through The PIT, and that’s what I always tell my students on the first day: “Listen, I’m not hiring any of you for any jobs. I’m not scouting you guys, or anything like that. So take these next six weeks and be totally confident in the fact that you’re not trying to impress anybody. You’re just going to go out there and write the worst stuff you possibly can now, and you can get it out of your system so when you get out of this class and you’re doing a show, that’s the time you really have to show your amazing stuff on stage.” And even beyond the classes, there are a lot more nights for people to work out their stuff [on stage]. Read the rest of this entry »