Jan. 2 2020
“My policy has always been to be the best at the worst jobs,” says Tara Schuster. That might explain why once upon a time, the Comedy Central Vice President was an intern famous for cleaning Jon Stewart’s coffee machine. Since then, she’s produced Key & Peele and written “Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies,” a forthcoming self-help book for women too smart for self-help books. (It comes out on February 18.) “Now my job is to find, develop, and support artists with unique points of view, and then get the hell out of their way,” so if you’ve binged Broad City or Drunk History lately, you might owe Tara a thank-you note / tequila shot / bouquet of f*cking lilies. (We definitely do after this Dream Job interview.)
What was your first job out of college? How did you get it?
My first job was being the assistant stage manager of an off, off, way Off-Broadway show. An alumnus of my college who had spoken to my theater class was on the board of the production group. I emailed her and begged my way into that job but was soon begging my way out of it. It turned out to be almost entirely [hard] labor, moving heavy “walls” around a stage. An elderly actress named Black Eyed Susan fell on me during a rehearsal… I got a pretty nice concussion. By the time the play was over, I was seriously re-evaluating a life in the theater. It’s cliché, but sometimes learning what we don’t want in our job (wall moving, actresses falling) is just as important as learning what we do want.
What was your major? Is it useful now?
I was a double major in Playwriting and History. Since my job is entirely in storytelling, I find [them] invaluable, even if I don’t use their specific skills. History is so much about how we tell our stories, and who gets to be the narrator – I think about that when developing scripts and seeking out new voices. In Playwriting, I learned a unique point of view is what gives stories a soul. But the skills? Not so much. I took a year of puppetry for my playwriting major. That’s been less useful.
What internships did you have prior to your first job?
My internship history is so muddy. Please, don’t despair if you didn’t have “the” perfect internship! I had to work most summers. Sometimes on odd projects for my dad, sometimes as a salesperson at Fred Segal in Los Angeles, once at American Apparel, and sometimes at my college as a building manager. I never seemed to get “the right” internship, nor did I have the financial security to take it. I didn’t even get my Daily Show internship until after I graduated college. I had to enroll as a student at UCLA Extension in order to be eligible. This was in a time before internships were paid, so I actually paid to intern. That one internship, however, changed my entire life, no joke. I found an industry I genuinely loved, and was able to shove my foot in the door of Comedy Central. I also met people I have worked with for the past ten years.
How did you land your current job? What were the steps you took?
After working in Comedy Central’s digital department for almost five years, I knew I wanted to be closer to the creative process, but I didn’t know how. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that to work in development, you need agency experience, or you need to have been an assistant for years. I had neither. But I heard there was an open head in the department, and I knew I had to throw my hat into the ring. I started pitching the experience I did have to the head of development. Years before, I’d introduced myself to him; we had an informational interview. But [to get this job], every two-ish weeks for months I pitched him on all the digital things his department didn’t know enough about, but that I was an expert in. I also beefed up my comedy experience, and would tell him about every comedy show I had seen or found online. It was a gutsy move, to be sure. I could have easily annoyed him, but I always came from a place of deep respect and gratitude for the chance just to talk to him. After almost six months of this, he pulled me into his office, and simply stated, “You win.” It was one of the best moments of my life.
What was the best/worst piece of advice you ever received?
Best advice: “Know your value.” Kent Alterman, my mentor, always reminded me that it was important to know what I brought to a project. When you know the actual value you add, it’s easier to be of service to those around you. (And you get a little shine by knowing in your guts exactly what you’re bringing to the table.) Know what you add to a group or a project.
Worst Advice: “Be less aggressive.” Boo. Ick. No thank you. The spirit of the advice might have been right on (“Watch out! You’re making your fires everyone else’s…”) but using the word “aggressive” with a young woman is a big old poison pill…. Not only is this sexist (I have never once heard this advice applied to a man!), it’s just so triggering that it’s not useful.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned on your career journey?
Be kind. It’s often overlooked, and I think in this society of go go go, it might even be seen as “weak” or “not important.” When I started out, I thought the most important thing was to succeed at all costs, at a break-neck speed… But now I see that you get one human life, and if you spend most of your days consumed with “winning,” that’s a pretty narrow and hollow existence.
At the end of the day, when I’ve been replaced by someone younger and better than me, or maybe a robot, I’m not going to be looking back at the ratings my shows earned. I’m going to be looking back on how I treated the people around me and how they treated me. I’m going to be proud of my leadership style and how I lifted up the voices around me and gave people a platform.
And weirdly, being kind is better for the bottom line… When you work with artists, you see that building a culture of trust, tempered with a common goal of excellence, is a far better environment for innovation to thrive. AND you meet the same people on the way up that you meet on the way down… Be kind for f*cks sake.