The Business of Creative Careers: Joseph Scrimshaw
I’ve been writing/performing/producing comedy of some kind for about 15 years. I’ve done a lot of wildly different things to make money. The only thing that truly ties them together is they’ve all been comedy. I would almost include my three years as an Assistant Manager at Kinko’s as a form of comedic performance art, but that’s a line I can’t cross even for the sake of the joke.
In general, I used to do a lot of comedy work in the world of theater including sketch shows, improv shows, as well as one act and two act plays.
On Halloween of 2007, I quit my part time job at Mill City Museum in Minneapolis. This was the last normal human, non-comedy day job I’ve had.
Starting around 2010, I switched my focus from theater to mostly stand-up, various forms of writing, podcasting, and spending too much time on social media.
In early 2014, I moved from my long time home of Minneapolis to Los Angeles.
Keeping it as simple as possible, here are the main ways I make money:
-Producing my own shows
-Royalties from existing plays
The money coming in from these various sources is in a constant state of flux from “I can’t believe this is working. I can get guacamole on my Chipotle burrito without worrying about it” to “Perhaps I should get a job at Chipotle so I can get free guacamole at all times?”
That said, I’ve also been married since 2006 and my wife has had steady professional day jobs that help smooth out the rocky financial course and I have zero plans to quit comedy and work at Chipotle.
ND: When you decided to pursue a career in comedy, did you plan for the financial considerations of your career? Was it “do what you love and the money will follow,” or “map out every potential expense and prospective income source in advance,” or somewhere in between?
JS: Somewhere in between.
I started doing comedy with the goal of making all my money from comedy. When I was ready to quit my day job, I had enough writing and performing jobs lined up to sustain me for the next year so I jumped off the cliff and I continue to construct my comedy wings and I haven’t hit the ground yet.
What did you learn after you got started? What surprised you?
I knew on a rational level that write/perform-for-hire jobs would pay very differently based on the company hiring you to do the work. But it’s still a shock on an emotional level to remember there isn’t agreed upon value for a lot of creative work. One year, I wrote and performed variety shows for two different institutions. One paid $5000 and one paid $500 for very similar kinds of work.
The other thing that constantly surprises me is the endless self-motivation needed to freelance and/or be an indie creative person. There are days where I need to visualize a little ghost version of myself pushing corporeal me toward the computer.
What prompted your decision to go full-time? Was it primarily financial-based (“now I’m earning enough money to do this”) or creative-based (“if I had more time, I could do these bigger and better projects”)?
I’ve been full time since 2007. At the time, I had a lot of good gigs lined up and wanted to go all in. Pretty much the second I quit, I put bigger and better projects on my plate.
Since moving to LA, I’ve been a guest host on and off for a satirical news web series called WTFark. I research the stories, write the script, record the show, and sometimes help out with the editing. It’s a freelance creative thing, but it takes up my whole day like a normal day job.
It’s great fun, but doing that reminds me of how many of my current pursuits I’d have to give up if I ever got a normal day job again.
How much did you finance your career “out of pocket?” At what point did your career start to pay for itself, as if it were a small business? Are you able to earn a personal income on top of the cost of running this business?
I’ve made a living for myself since 2007, but it fluctuates dramatically.
I’ve definitely had to “spend money to make money” in terms of financing shows, paying to attend conventions, etc.
Right now, I’m not doing shows or going to conventions unless I have reasonable expectations I’ll break even or turn a profit.
When you perform at a venue, who pays for what? I know that some places, like M Bar, make you pay to play. Are there other venues that pay you? Do you find yourself footing the travel bill for non-local shows, and are you able to break even or make a profit in those situations?
There are many different models for putting up a show. I’ve encountered the same models in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
There are straight-up rentals where you pay to rent the space and take care of everything yourself. It’s great for the freedom but the most work to make your money back.
There are venues that split the ticket sales and if you don’t make enough you might owe them something. This is often a good deal because the venue might be motivated enough to help promote your show.
A few venues, and this was my deal with the M Bar which is sadly closed, just want to make money on food and drinks. So as long as you bring enough audience to make their minimums they let you charge whatever you want for admission.
The final model is putting up a show as part of a festival. A lot of my success doing theater in Minneapolis was in the Minnesota Fringe Festival. You pay an application fee then there was a ticket split between the festival and the performer that greatly favored the performer.
In general, I’m a fan of splitting ticket sales and trying to find institutions/theaters/clubs that are invested in supporting artists creatively which almost always translates to better attendance and better money for all involved.
What are your current income sources? Do you take the freelancer’s perspective of “I work for many clients so if something happens to one gig, I’ll still have these 10 other income streams?”
I am a comedy human of many streams, yes. I think of myself as a freelancer but I also think of myself as self-employed for myself.
I’m happy to do for-hire work but I also try to be aware of taking jobs where I can build a relationship with the audience. I want people to read a comedy piece or see a comedy show and not just walk away as a fan of that one thing but a fan of me as a comedy human.
Can you reasonably predict your monthly income in advance? Can you predict your monthly business expenses?
Right now, I can’t predict my income very well, but I can definitely predict my expenses. I do not get guacamole on Chipotle burritos.
What different jobs have you had, and how have each of those jobs worked financially?
I’ve done an absurd amount of different things under the general umbrella of comedy (for complex reasons there are teenagers dressing up as squirrels this weekend in Edina, Minnesota and I will be paid $150 as a result) so here’s my best attempt at a fast answer.
-Producing my own shows: $$
(This includes theater shows, stand-up, variety shows, convention gigs, comedy festivals, etc.)
(I’ve played Banquo, done children’s theater, performed on the radio show Wits, done a commercial with a monkey, the hosting gig at WTFark, etc.)
(I’ve written for RiffTrax, General Mills, a convention of librarians, and everything in between.)
-Royalties from existing plays: $$$
(Most come from plays called Adventures in Mating and An Inconvenient Squirrel as alluded to above.)
-Comedy albums/book/merch: $$
(I’ve run two successful Kickstarter campaigns and have a Patreon page.)
Has Patreon been a positive experience for you? Is that a workable model for funding creative work?
Yes. I’ve had a great experience with Patreon. It’s a great model for people who have a dedicated fan base—regardless of the size—because it creates the opportunity for people to express that dedication in a financial way.
It also offers consistency which is hard to come by as a freelancer or indie person. When I made the transition from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, it was great to have that backbone of Patreon to build on.
For me, personally, it’s not going to be the one thing that funds me, but I think that’s more a reflection of how varied my career is at the moment.
I think Patreon is at its most successful when it’s very linear. If a performer is known for creating music videos then people are happy to support them doing that thing they do.
For my Patreon, it’s currently supporting my podcast Obsessed and writing comedy blog posts, but I think the majority of people who kindly fund me on Patreon aren’t funding those projects they’re funding me as a comedy human and I’m very grateful for that.
I think Patreon is also a great conversation starter. I love that it is without apologies or obfuscation old school patronage.
Are you in this for the long haul? Are you watching your finances like a line graph, thinking “okay, as long as they’re going up or remaining constant we’re good, if they drop before this pre-determined level I’m going to have to go to the temp agency, and if they stay at that level for two years I’m going to have to find a new career?” (This may be me projecting about my own creative work here.)
I am, without doubt or hesitation, in this for the long haul.
My wife, Sara, and I work together on our finances and we look at different models for our financial future.
There have been many times where the line graph is doing that strange, awesome thing of moving up, but we’ve made a lot of life choices that reset the graph.
We bought a house in Minneapolis in 2008. We started a theater and general comedy production company in 2009.
Despite the turbulent economic times, we got to a point where my comedy career in Minneapolis was profitable but not great.
At the same time, I started doing more touring, conventions, and solo performances.
As a result, we made the decision to move to Los Angeles which is sort of an expensive city so there has been a definite financial reboot, but the line graph is shaking off the shock as we speak.
And as a comedy person who would like to have guacamole without thinking about it, I’m very happy to be in Los Angeles where being successful in comedy has a higher possibility of generating financial security than in other cities.
Photo by Craig Van Der Schaegen.
Previously: Molly Lewis