It never fails, if you are in this business – as a performer or writer– you are going to be asked to work for free. Some people just don’t feel comedy is a profession…or at least not one they should have to pay for. “You spread laughter, there should be no fee involved in that.” Of course, lawyers are fighting for justice, shouldn’t that be free? Doctors are healing the sick and wounded, shouldn’t that be for free? I guess not. I worked with one well-known writer who had this response, “The day I can walk into to Vons and walk out with a cart load of groceries free is the day I’ll start working for nothing.” His point was well made, even comedy writers have to feed their families.
It always amazes me as soon as someone finds out you are in comedy, they can think of a million jobs they want you to do, but none are for money. As soon as you mention money, their attitude changes a little bit.
I recently had someone call me –someone I haven’t talked to in a couple of years. Her husband had written a book and she wanted me to punch it up a bit and send it out to publishers. I told her I won’t send it out to publishers because that wasn’t my job, but my fee for punching up the book would be x amount of dollars. She got mad; “I can’t believe you don’t just want to read it for fun.” I may have gotten a little cranky when I replied, “No, for fun I’m going to be painting my house. So, if you guys want to do that for me, then I’ll read the book, just for fun.” She hung up the phone…and I probably won’t hear from her for another couple of years.
But it is going to happen. People will ask and sometimes working for free is not a bad thing. Yes, that was from the same person who moaned and groaned just a few short sentences ago. So how do you know when to work for
free and when not to? Let’s see if we can help with that.
When opportunity presents itself, do a little research and some soul-searching. Okay, and be a little selfish. Ask yourself, what will I get out of this?
Sometimes the answer will simply be a warm feeling. There are organizations that are near and dear to our hearts and when they ask us for something, even if they are paying, we don’t want the money. Knowing that we are helping a cause we believe in is enough.
Some comedians will work a club for free to show off their stuff. Once the club realizes how good they are, they can start collecting the paycheck. Another reason is to get the stage time. There is a coffee house around here that has a comedy night. No one is paid, but it’s a chance to perform in front of a live audience.
If you ask yourself, what will I get from this and the answer is nothing, then you might want to pass it up. With the book story I mentioned earlier, the trade-off wasn’t there. If he sold the book, he wasn’t going to come back and remember me. It would have taken a big chunk of my time and to me it wasn’t worth it. But there are times when you may want to consider writing for free. For example, you may have a book that you want edited. So, you agree to trade manuscripts. Or it may be a comedian who is just starting to get paying gigs. If you write for him or her now and do a great job, he or she may consider you when they make the big time. This one is a gamble, and only you can tell if it is one worth taking.
You also may want to take on the challenge free of charge for the exposure. Maybe it is for a new group of people you would like to work for. Or it may be a new form of comedy…like giving a humorous talk, or speech.
Working for free is one way to test your material and practice this new craft.
Once, you agree to do a gig for free, then what do you do? The gut reaction is to go in, get it over and done with. You don’t do anything extra or really put much energy into it. After all, you’re not getting paid why should they get your best stuff. They should get your best stuff simply because you should be giving your best every time you step on stage and every time you submit your written work. If you are working at an event, they aren’t going to introduce you by saying, “Here’s John, hey we’re not paying him so don’t expect much.” Or give you a written byline that says, “If you liked this article, you should read some of the stuff she actually got paid for.”
The audience will never know you are working for free. And why is that important? Because you don’t know who is in the audience. On numerous occasions I have heard about people who didn’t want to do a gig or assignment because they weren’t getting paid. They did the job and were pleased they did because it resulted in many paying gigs. I also have my own personal experiences to back it up.
When you agree to work for free, try to find a way to avoid the negative feelings that go along with it. We all have them, but try to push them aside. Think of ways to make the job work for you. Ask the person in charge if it will be possible for you to sell books, CDs, T-shirts, or whatever it is you have to offer. We have given talks to writer’s club where we waive the fee if they will allow us to sell books. The book sales more than made up for the small amount they were able to offer.
Even if you don’t have merchandise to sell, don’t despair. Try and get something else. Ask if you can distribute your business card or have a special flyer made with how people can contact you. We once did an event that was
being held at a museum and asked if it would be possible to get tickets to come back and go through the museum. The answer was yes.
On top of that, ask for a letter of recommendation. This is especially important if you are venturing into a new field. This letter can help you land paying jobs in the future.
It’s also a good idea to space out the number of free jobs you do. Even if all the reasons for doing it are right, you still have the rent to pay, gas for the car, school for kids, food for the dog, etc. etc. etc. So consider that when the request is presented. You certainly don’t want to work for a month for no pay.
I also feel I should mention, don’t work repeatedly for free for the same person or group if you aren’t getting anything out of it. Again, we all have our causes that no matter how often they ask or what they ask, we will do it, and that’s okay. That’s what makes us good human beings. But there are people and organizations that will continually “use” you, if you allow them to. We worked with one professional group that was like that. They promised us all these great returns that never happened. According to them, we were the best, they loved us. Finally, when they called and asked us to do something again, we replied, “Sure, here’s what we normally get paid.” They never called back. Apparently, we weren’t the best and they didn’t really love us, we were just cheap.
If you do an event, and you leave feeling used, and the paybacks aren’t happening, then don’t go back. “No, thank you” is a perfectly acceptable phrase.
So, remember these little steps when you are asked to work for free…and you will be. Turn it into a positive, find a way to make it productive and profitable for you, and most importantly give it your all. Remember payoffs are not always immediate.