HOW I QUIT WALL STREET FOR A CAREER IN COMEDY
A stint on Wall Street and co-founding (and later selling) a tech startup was enough for WNW Member #6633 Alex J. Mann to realize that his true passion lied elsewhere, in making other people laugh. Given that he grew up in a half-creative, half-business family (his parents own a jewelry store and he has artists and accountants on each side), it made sense for Alex to flex both the left and right sides of his brain. Since we're suckers for the "quit your job and follow your heart" stories, we spoke to Alex about how he made the leap into Hollywood, his creative influences, and why technology particularly fascinates him:
"Popular culture has become pre-occupied with technology in a way it hasn’t experienced since the Space Race. Technology saturates every facet of our lives, from apps that make grocery lists, to a government that eavesdrops and conducts cyber-warfare, to companies like SpaceX dedicated to the prospect of human travel to Mars. The question that drives my work – is our technology serving us, or are we serving it?"
Tell us your story! 140 characters, max. Just kidding :) Who is Alex Mann and how did you get here?
I studied finance undergrad. My creative pursuits at the time – writing, drawing, painting – were hobbies. I worked on Wall Street for two summers while in college, decided it wasn't for me, and started a tech startup my senior year of college. I raised a venture capital round and moved to Silicon Valley. I ended up merging the company with a company called Trendrr and moved to NYC.
The startup began to feel like a day job – I was bored and unfulfilled. My friend Abbi Jacobson of Broad City was involved with the UCB Theater at the time, so I took an improv class. Improv led to sketch. That led to me performing standup and writing on my own. I started getting paid to write for CollegeHumor, Someecards, Thought Catalog, Funny or Die.
I left the tech startup in 2012 to do "comedy" full-time, although I didn't know what that meant. I had equity in the startup, and the company got bought by Twitter in 2013. During that time, I signed with an agent, wrote on TV shows for Funny or Die and MTV, sold my web series to SundanceTV, acted in a pilot for A&E, and wrote a roast about a Russian billionaire for Jeremy Piven.
My lease was up in NYC about a year ago so I moved to LA. Since moving, I've directed a project for AwesomenessTV, a subsidiary of DreamWorks, and I'm writing a TV series about Food Trucks for Pivot. I also started Space Oddity Films, a production company exploring technology’s impact on culture.
Given that your parents ran a jewelry story, did you have like, diamonds lying around the house? (And for all those almost-engaged people, what do you recommend?)
No diamonds laying around. I wish my house was a Rihanna music video. They're in a safe somewhere which I still haven't cracked. My recommendation: go big, like "Kobe Bryant apology ring" big.
In all your career twists and turns, have your parents been supportive? Do they understand what you do for a living?
The support comes in spurts and is often mixed with worry and dread. They get it. They get it the most when I make money.
Top five pop culture influences on you as a child:
I immersed myself in pop culture as a kid. My favorite show was Pee-Wee's Playhouse – I loved the art direction, design and absurdity. I watched a lot of movies. I probably saw Billy Madison 100 times. My top five influences would have to be:
You write all this quite casually but these are huge things to accomplish! What did your tech startup do?
Social media analytics for brands. This was social media's early days – we were scraping public Twitter, Facebook and blog APIs for data (which there wasn't much of) and running NLP algorithms. It worked okay, but "okay" was adequate for the time.
In a sentence:
Like a clingy ex-girlfriend.
Your worst dressed friend.
I know you met Abbi at Jewish camp. Why Jewish camp?
It wasn't technically a Jewish camp, but it was attended by mostly Jews. I went to public school with primarily Irish and Italians. I was one of about ten Jews in my class of a few hundreds, so I think it was my parents way of making sure I had some sort of social Jewish experience.
Writing unfortunately seems to be one of those mediums that people think should be done for free. When you’re starting out, how do you make sure you’re paid?
My first comedy paycheck was from Someecards. My second was from CollegeHumor. I knew these sites paid their writers, so I targeted them. Sometimes you just need to ask. Othertimes, it's worth sacrificing pay if the credit will be helpful in getting future paid work.
So many people have the dream but not the courage. Do you have any regret about not starting to write sooner?
This thought plagues most creative people. "If only I had started sooner..." I try to crush this type of thinking because it's unproductive, and focus on the present and the future. Can you tell I live in LA?
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome when going into filmmaking full-time?
It takes longer than you think. The creative process, and any inkling success.
Best piece of advice to anyone moving to Hollywood to pursue their acting/writing dream.
Don't. Just kidding. Sort of. My advice: Make stuff by imitating the people you admire. It will be bad, but keep doing it and it will get less bad. Eventually, you'll develop a voice and aesthetic. You can then discuss your “voice and aesthetic” with Hollywood friends over kale salads.
How do you make the transition from writer to director?
Write for budget and make stuff on your own. It's uncommon to be hired as a first time director, so the best way not to be a first-time director is to direct your own work.
Let’s go a bit deeper into technology and culture – what’s your primary interest in the subject? What do you think technology is doing to culture?
Popular culture has become pre-occupied with technology in a way it hasn’t experienced since the Space Race. Technology saturates every facet of our lives, from apps that make grocery lists, to a government that eavesdrops and conducts cyber-warfare, to companies like SpaceX dedicated to the prospect of human travel to Mars.
The question that drives my work – is our technology serving us, or are we serving it?
It’s your lucky day..bonus questions!
Current favorite app(s)
Sky Guide. You hold your phone up to the sky at night and it shows what constellations you're looking at.
Who are your creative influences, from film, television, music, literature?
Check your computer’s history - what were the last three things you Googled?
You're a boxer. How does the sport inform the moves you make outside of the ring?
I don't box anymore because I want to preserve my brain. But...I think the key to boxing is not overexerting yourself too early, accepting the long-haul, and punching people you don't like.
You'll have to ask Bill.
Two truths and a lie.
I partied with Bill Murray. I'm lying. I'm telling the truth.
Who are some other WNW members whose work you admire (and why)?
Maximilian Niemann. I like his low-angle camera decisions on the G-Shock spot.
Brad Hasse. His work balances humor and elegance.
Isabelle Rancier. She designs psychedelic eye candy.