This is my 264th column and I can't believe I'm just now getting around to committing The Speech to cold, hard print.
The Speech is a combination Pep Talk and Reality Check that I deliver in many variations, all of them the same. While certain of
the particulars may differ, the essence of The Speech never varies.
The Speech is most often delivered to an acquaintance who is working in the television and/or movie businesses, or seeking to work in
those fields, most often as a performer, sometimes as a writer. I would guess that, in the last ten years, the ratio has been about 70-30, in
favor of the performers.
That would include actors as well as folks attempting a career doing stand-up comedy, magic, cartoon voices, singing, dancing or
modeling...and I even gave it once to an aspiring ventriloquist. Fortunately, he didn't make me repeat it for his dummy...or his agent.
The Speech has been given to beginners — those still dreaming of that Big Break — but it is more often directed to someone
who has had a few breaks and a career that has mysteriously ceased, perhaps (they fear) forever. About twelve years ago, I delivered an early
draft to a comedian who had appeared a half-dozen times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He was depressed because Johnny's
bookers had stopped calling.
Later that same week, I performed it again with slight variations for a novice comic who had yet to get on television. He was
convinced that he would be set for life and all his problems would cease forever if only he could get one shot — just one shot — on
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
The Speech, with a few nouns and examples changed has also been used to soothe the anxieties of any number of writers and artists in
the comic book business. It can probably apply to any kind of writing or performing or any field wherein, you hope, others will pay you for
your creative services.
Here then is the Show Business version of The Speech, which almost always includes the following joke...
A man arrives in a strange city. He wanders around and eventually finds his way to a local tavern where folks crowd around a
roulette wheel to gamble. He pulls some cash from his pocket and joins in.
After a while, a waitress wanders up to him and whispers, "The wheel's crooked."
"Thanks," he says. But he doesn't quit.
A few minutes later, the waitress notices him still losing money at the table. She sidles back up to him and again whispers,
"Didn't you hear me? The wheel's crooked!"
"I know," he says as he lays down another bet and promptly loses again.
The waitress is baffled. "Then why are you still playing?" she asks.
The man replies, "It's the only wheel in town."
That joke, to me, perfectly summarizes Show Business — or any field wherein allegedly-creative people offer their services in the
marketplace, hoping someone will notice. The joke is perfect because it makes the following points...
1. The system is not fair.
2. It's never going to be fair.
3. You have two choices: Play under the system, as it is, or get out.
4. If it should happen to pay off, it pays off big.
Taking them in that order...
The system is not fair. Show Business purports to be a meritocracy, which means that everyone gets rewarded according to
their abilities. The trouble is that it's a meritocracy wherein, as William Goldman has noted, Nobody knows anything.
The key word in that oft-quoted quote is knows. A scientist knows that combining hydrogen, sulfur and oxygen will
yield sulfuric acid. But a movie producer only thinks he knows that combining Neil Simon, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau will
yield a terrific movie.
Sometimes, it does. See The Odd Couple.
Sometimes, it doesn't. See The Odd Couple II. Or better still, don't see The Odd Couple II. Good
It's all a matter of educated guesses, hunches, whims, wishful thinking and, often, someone making the choice that they're least likely
to be blamed for if there's a train wreck. This doesn't mean that a person's track record and skills count for nothing. It just means
that the people who do the choosing — who decide who gets what job, who gets to be a movie star, whose screenplay get filmed — sometimes
pick wrong. Sometimes, they aren't even sure what they want and it turns into a game of eenie-meenie-minie-mo.
The other day, a friend of mine who does cartoon voices dropped by...as desperately in need of The Speech as anyone I've
encountered. At times in the past, this fellow worked two or three times a week, which is a lot for a cartoon voice actor. Lately, he's
gone months at a time without a job and he's baffled as to why. After all, he's just as talented as he was in 1994 when he worked
constantly. What's happened?
A couple things. First off, the voice biz is lately skewing towards celebrities — meaning people who are known for their
on-camera work on TV and in movies. Secondly, in '94, my friend was a "hot, new discovery" and that gave him a certain heat that he hasn't had
since. But mainly, the reason he ain't working is this...
He's very talented but so are thousands of other voiceover actors. The people who decide who works (producers, casting directors,
voice directors) all have their favorites — actors who have delivered for them in the past. When I cast, I pick from the local talent
pool but, like everyone else, I often go to my own little "stock company."
Not long ago, I was offered a 65-episode series to story-edit and voice-direct. I didn't like the show, so I didn't do it and am
presently casting nothing at all. I told my visitor, "If I'd taken it, I'd have hired you ten times in the last three months."
Hearing all this calmed him down a notch, but it could just have easily made things worse. It can be shocking to realize that so
much of what determines how and when you get work is completely outside your control!
That awareness can be comforting because you realize that you aren't necessarily doing anything wrong. It can also be maddening
because you realize it's outside your power to change things. My friend can't cause me (or others who hire him) to accept more jobs, nor can he
make himself a "hot, new discovery" again...
And he certainly can't change the trend to celebrity voices. Oh, he talked about trying to get the Times to do a story on
it...perhaps call the industry's attention to how some inferior talent is getting hired because of its fame — as if Show Business could be
repulsed at such a concept.
Ultimately though, apart from keeping his talents honed and poised and retaining whatever minimal sanity he has left, there's nothing
he can do. And if that doesn't sound fair...well, the biz isn't fair.
And you know what? It's never going to be fair. Deciding who's the best actor — or even the right actor for a
given part, which is not always the best actor — is an utterly subjective decision...and always will be.
Once, I spoke at a meeting of an actors' support group. One wanna-be thespian who felt unfairly and consistently bypassed stood
up and spoke about making the system "fairer," He proclaimed, "The Screen Actors Guild should establish a rule. For every role, producers
should have to audition at least five actors they've never seen before."
Well, that's not likely to ever happen. And even if it did, producers would still hire whomever they wanted, their guesses
wouldn't get any better, and some actor would be at a support group saying, "They should have to audition ten actors for every role..."
Once you understand that the system is not fair, you need to understand that there's really nothing you can do to change things.
This means that you have two choices: Play under the system, as it is, or get out.
At this point, I would like to say something about following your dream. I don't think this is always a good idea.
In song and story, you're oft-told that, if you want something badly enough, you have only to believe. Even when things look
bleakest, you must never, ever doubt for an instant that it can all come true if only you wish upon a star, never take "no" for an answer, stand your
ground, hang in there, keep on fighting, have faith, refuse to give up...and believe in yourself.
I'm sorry. That doesn't always work.
Dreams are wonderful but they need to be tempered with at least a dash of reality. If I decide tomorrow that I want to jump
Center for the Lakers, no amount of determination is going to get me there. I am never going to perform Der Ring des Nibelungen (or even
Mambo Number Five) at the Met. I am never going to ride in the Preakness or star in a movie opposite Meryl Streep or engineer a hostile
takeover of Microsoft.
I could dream and pray and try and sweat and persist until I give myself a hiatal hernia...but none of those things will ever
Some people simply are not as good at certain things as others. Some goals are unattainable. True, we all hear and love the
stories about the guy who wouldn't accept defeat. Everyone told him it was hopeless but he stubbornly refused to abandon his dream and he kept
at it and finally, one day, he won the World Series or the Academy Award or the hand of some supermodel in marriage. These are lovely stories
and they do happen...once in a while.
But no one points the camera at the millions who dreamed these dreams and never got any closer than waking up damp. The newspaper
prints the name of the guy who won the $35 million in the lottery. They don't mention the 12 million people who entered and lost.
If you've spent years pursuing your dream to no avail, perhaps it's time to see if you have another, more reachable dream.
Otherwise, some unpleasant day, you may wake up and realize you've thrown good years after bad; that you could have invested all that time and energy
in a Second or Third Choice that was eminently more possible.
Should you decide to tough it out and stay in the game, it will probably be for this reason: If it should happen to pay off, it pays
off big. I don't mean that only in a monetary sense. Most players, I think, are in search of one or more perks from the following
list: Creative fulfillment, fame, freedom, glamour, self-expression, influence...sometimes, to fraternize with opposite sex or even the same
The cash can be nice but getting into performing or writing for the money is one of the dumber gambles a body can make. Creative
arts are all exasperatingly inconsistent. One week, everyone wants tall blondes; the next week, they won't see you unless you're a short
redhead. Or if you're a writer, this month they all want short stories; next month, it's haiku poems or epic novels.
Remember that comedian I mentioned who stopped getting calls to appear with Johnny Carson? Well, The Tonight Show wasn't
the only gig that evaporated on him. It was like all of Show Business had suddenly gotten together and agreed not to hire him.
One year, he did 20 TV appearances and over 200 club dates and concerts. The following year, it was 1 and 9 — and neither
the one nor the nine were particularly prestigious or lucrative. The year after, he went 0 and 6.
One night, he called and said he was packing it in...moving out of L.A., going east to work with his brother in some marketing
company. He didn't want to do it — he'd rather have chopped off a limb or two — but he had a wife, a kid and absolutely no reason
to think anything would change. His career was as dead as dead can be.
That was on a Tuesday night. Wednesday morning, his agent called and said that a new TV series wanted to audition him. He
almost didn't go but he had to drive by the studio anyway. So he went and three days later, he had a regular, co-starring role on a hit
show...and he was suddenly deluged with offers for personal appearances. Whenever he wasn't doing the series, he was appearing — for top
money — at all those comedy clubs that wouldn't return his call over the previous 24 months.
As a result, over a four-year period, his annual income stats went something like this:
Year 1: $110,000
Year 2: $6,000 (much of it, residuals from the previous year's jobs)
Year 3: $3,000 (likewise)
Year 4: $700,000
What did he do right in Year 1 and even righter in Year 4 that he wasn't doing in 2 and 3? Answer: Absolutely nothing.
(Believe me. We spent a whole evening discussing it and couldn't come up with a reason other than Luck o' the Draw. It was just time for
the crooked wheel to pay off.)
Year 5 was a lot like Year 4 and so it was until his series was cancelled. Since then, it's been back on the
roller-coaster. Every so often, he has to call or stop by and hear The Speech. I gave it to him just the other day.
Later that afternoon, an animation writer called and I gave him The Speech and later, an actress came by and she got The Speech.
Before bedtime, I'd done my fourth show of the day for a friend who used to — note the past-tense — have steady work drawing comic
books. It was about then that I decided it was time to type it out and stick it here.
Oh, sure. You're thinking I'm getting lazy. You're thinking that from now on, whenever anyone needs The Speech, I'll just
fax or e-mail them a copy of this column. And, of course, you're absolutely right. I never could get one past you.
But did you ever stop to think there's another reason I'd like you all to have a copy of The Speech? Everyone in my line of work
needs to hear it once in a while. It would be nice if you were able to pass it on to some soul in dire need of C.P.R. (Career Progress
You don't have to parrot it verbatim. Put it into your own words if you like...just learn it.
I may be calling any day.