"The label you give yourself cannot impact external forces that are not motivated by your own psychology or influenced by a third party's pre-existing consciousness of you. We are all presented with reasons to struggle which come from completely external forces; to pretend that one is not struggling is either arrogance or an admission of defeat. To admit that one is struggling is a sign and a source of strength." - Evan A. Baker

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Say Uncle

You might think you know Gil Christner. People meet him all the time and they swear "I know I know you!" and they'll keep trying to think if he was their old tax preparer, a medical specialist they've been to, or if their spouse and him were old golf buddies. 

You might think you know Gil because you've seen him on television. A lot. He's that guy who's been making a pretty good living as an actor. 

One of the things that I've always admired about him, is that he is an actor/writer/creator. He started doing stand-up in San Francisco, moved to LA, and became very successful doing several things he loved, all of which were creative. An incredibly funny and observant man, he also worked as a comedy writer. He would send us his comedy cds and to this day if a certain song comes on, I sing along to the spoof lyrics of a Pink Floyd Lemonade commercial that he had written ("Hey! Teacher! Put that cola down!") cause I actually don't know the real lyrics. Now, he also has a very popular and award winning blog.

I was four when Gil married my Aunt Sira (I still remember him reaching out to dance with me on the dance floor) so I've always remembered him being a part of my family, and being the other half of my Aunt, and always constantly coming up with jokes that made us all laugh (including lovingly always feigning excitement over "Brisket!" and a joke about my brother's birthday: "Nine bucks!" that is 23 years old and STILL funny to me.).

About two years ago, Gil and Aunt Sira invited me over for dinner and he told me that he was incredibly proud of me. That he admired how I was still pursuing what I love and didn't let the industry get me down. "If I were you, with the business the way it is now, I think I would have given up years ago."

But I have something Gil didn't have: I have an uncle who has been in the business for two decades, and both my uncle and aunt have weathered the highs and lows of the industry together as a couple. I have two people I can go to for advice. I have two people who know how hard it is. I have two people who also really, really want me to succeed at this, as opposed to two people who constantly remind me that I should be doing something "more stable" with my life. 

Both my uncle and aunt are two major supports in a big city that doesn't always make sense and isn't always fair. It's hard to give up with you have two very important people always rooting for you.

So when Gil has something to say about the industry, I listen. 

I think you should too:

When Lira asked me to write a post for her blog, she suggested a starting off point of “How has the industry changed in the last 20 years?”
Well, that’s kind of too easy.  The industry has changed a lot in 20 years.  Now, your agent never needs to physically talk to you ever again, they can just email you your audition time.  Now, nobody has to wait years and years to be a gigantic embarrassing flop, because everybody can put together their own bad TV show on YouTube.  Plus, no more Ships.
I think a more layered, and therefore pertinent question for people in Show Biz, would be “How hasn’t the industry changed in the last 20 years?”
And the answer is brutally simple:  it’s frakking hard.  Still. 
Trust me, kids, if there’s anything…ANYTHING…that you can do with your lives and still be happy, do it!  If you can garden, if you like to teach, if research is your thing, if you can paint, if you like to fix cars, if you have a knack for tending animals, or kids, or the kids of animals… ANYTHING!!!... run, don’t walk, out of this business and into any other that will provide you with a sense of self-satisfaction and a living.
Because the bottom line is this:  Unless you absolutely need to do it to exist, there is no reason to be in Show Business.
Because Show Business is a harsh Mistress, harsher even than the Sea (at least with the Sea, you get a place to be buried).  There will be weeks, months, years even, where you won’t get work.  You will never have the peace of mind of a steady paycheck, because even if you achieve that coveted Series Regular spot, there’s no telling how long the Series you are a Regular on will last (ask James Wolk of Lonestar).
You will constantly see other actors working in roles that you yourself were up for (and let’s be honest, we all would have been much better in that role than whatever actor actually got it, the bitch/bastard!), or worse still, you will see roles in shows that you are perfect for, and for which you never even heard of the audition!
My best/worst story along those lines happened to involve my Evil Twin.  Now, everybody in Show Biz has an Evil Twin…another actor that gets those parts that we know we are far more perfect for.  Mine happens to be Paul Eisenhauer, a perfectly nice guy who looks a lot like me.  Sometimes I get the role; sometimes Paul gets the role.  It seems to even out, though both of us would probably tell you that the other guy gets more work (full disclosure:  my IMDB page is longer.  Neener neener neener).
So, to continue, I got an audition for a Pepsi commercial, which was to have been directed by Joe Pytka, the infamous bad-boy commercial director who had used me in an IBM commercial a few years earlier.  The Pepsi spot would have been sweet to get:  the premise was that I would have been riding a motorcycle super-imposed into from the iconic scene from Easy Rider along side of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.  I would have loved to been seen by millions in that spot, and I was sure I did a great audition.  I was (and kids, don’t let this happen to you) already counting my money on the way out the casting door.
But a few days went by, and alas, no call back.  I was confused.  I did a great audition,  I was funny, I was quick, I would look perfect, as the goofy schlub stuck in a famous movie scene.  Plus Joe Pytka loves my work (which, for Joe Pytka, means he uses the “F” word at me only a dozen times or so per hour).
Well, I rationalized, they must have just gone another way.  That’s the only way to explain it.  The creatives decided to go a completely different way than I would have done it.  Sure, that’s it!  What else could it be?
Of course by now, you have all guessed the punchline.  A couple of months later I was watching tv, and lo and behold, there’s Paul Eisenhauer, my Evil Twin, riding a motorcycle right next to Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in a Pepsi spot! [editor's note: my dad actually called Gil up, excited to congratulate him on this very Pepsi commercial. How's that for rubbing salt into your wounds?]
So, to recap:  Not only did I not get any work, not only did I not get any money or benefits, not only did I not hear word one from anyone about if I got it or how I did or what was good or bad about my performance, I got insulted by not even being asked to a call back for something my exact look-alike was perfect for.  Nice move, Show Biz!
And I could tell you about the audition where I literally got a standing ovation from everyone in the room, and then never heard from them again.  Or the audition where, after acting my ass off, the first and only thing I heard from the producer was a comment about the catering of the session:  “I like this casting place because they have grapes.”
If you choose a career in Show Biz, you will be disappointed, burned, rejected, ignored, dismissed, disrespected, bummed out, and not even called in a million times more than you will be accepted.  And being accepted does not even mean getting the job.  You have to keep getting the call backs, and ingratiating yourself into the good graces of first the casting directors, then the producers, then the networks and the studios.  And then maybe…MAYBE!!... after you become well-known around town, you just might get a job.  If you’re lucky.
And then the really hard part comes:  making a job into a career.  Because, my friends, Route 66 is littered with the corpses of One-Hit Wonders, who thought they had it made when they got that first job, only to wander away from Los Angeles a few years after they realize nobody’s going to hire them ever again.
(Hint:  Talent gets you the first job, Professionalism gets you the second one!)
A career takes complete focus of everything that is you:  your time, your energy, your waking hours, your productivity.  Any time you are not actually at an audition or (God willing) on set at a job, whatever you are doing should only be to further your skills and your networking.
Never stop taking classes.  Ever.  Never stop meeting people.  Go to parties, don’t get drunk (seriously!  A sloppy embarrassing scene gets around town quicker than a guy on a moped taking Fountain). 
If you are lucky you might make some money.  If you are real lucky and hard working, you might get a good reputation.  If you are real lucky and hard working and real persistent, you might make some benefits, like insurance and a pension (although with the way the current Union leadership is acting, that might soon be a thing of the past).  And if you are real lucky and hard working and real persistent and St. Genesius smiles upon you, you might have a career.
So I reiterate, if you can do anything else, do it.  A career in Show Biz is one of the loneliest, self-denigrating, abusive, consistently unrewarding undertakings that a person can take.
It’s pushing milk uphill.  It’s herding cats.  It’s threading the needle without using your hands, or your eyes for that matter.  It’s frakking impossible, is what it is.
But I will tell what else it is:  a couple of weeks ago, I was on the Sony (previously MGM) lot.  After a relatively good audition (which I didn’t get a call back for), I was walking down one of the streets between the sound stages, and the sun was on my face.  I was chatting with another actor who had been at the audition, and it hit me:  This is it.  This is what I live for.
These are the streets that Gable, Hitchcock, Loy & Powell, Brando, Capra, Garland and Heston walked when they were working.  I’m in the same business as they were.  The business that, for centuries, has comforted the downtrodden, enriched the spirits of millions, sparked the imagination of untold numbers of kids waiting to spread their own wings and take on the world.  That’s the business I am in.
It takes a special kind of person to put themselves on the line on a daily basis, risking total and complete humiliation just to get a chance to pretend professionally for a day, maybe two.  It takes someone with dreams bigger than the sky, and a fire burning deep within that’s hotter than the sun.  It takes a great love of humanity, and a strong desire to connect. 
And when it works… and, truth be told, it often works, just not enough to be encouraging about it… when it works, there is no greater feeling.
As I walked those streets between the sound stages, I knew: I was where I belonged, doing what I was supposed to do.  I need to do it, to exist.  I need to be in Show Business.
So, in conclusion:  forget everything I just said.  Go act your hearts out kids, and don’t let anyone ever discourage you.


  1. Beautifully inspiring post! Thanks Gil (and Lira, by default.)


  2. I have known and worked with Gil for about fifteen of those twenty years, and he has given me many great pep talks and realistic ones, too. It's so good to see him honored in this way!

  3. As someone who worked for Gil when he produced radio comedy, I have to say this is terrific and he is a true inspiration. I remember when he made the leap from writing/producing to acting full time -- it was scary to watch but we were filled with awe and respect.

  4. It's interesting to hear the backstory of somebody I know only as a political blogger. I'll still take him over George Will any day! Thanks- you are lucky however.


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