Comedy Central VP Tara Schuster on the Career Advice That Put Her Big Dreams Within Reach
(It came from Jon Stewart.)
When I started out in entertainment, I was a mess of a 23-year-old with no clue what I wanted to do. Well-meaning adults told me to follow my “bliss.” This confounded me. Where do I start? The idea of “bliss” felt so ew, so overwhelming, I wanted to curl up and binge-watch reality TV until life had passed me by.
A concerned friend suggested I apply for an internship at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and by some act of God, I got it. I had never worked in television before, and I wasn’t sure I’d fit in until we had our intern lunch with Jon. Someone asked him what his big break was, and he firmly replied, “There are no big breaks. There are only a series of little breaks. The key is to work your hardest and do your best at every little break.” Jon Stewart is/was/will forever be my hero, and so I swallowed his words and tried to make them a part of me.
I wasn’t the funniest intern, and I was horrible at keeping track of the petty cash, but then and there I decided that my only job was to stop worrying, find a little break, and maximize the hell out of it. One day I noticed that the coffee machine where Jon made himself a drink after every rehearsal was often out of water or — worse — broken. I imagined how annoyed that would make me if I were the hardest-working person in the office. Here Jon was, trying to get a show on the air, and he couldn’t even get a mediocre capsule coffee? Not on my watch! I saw my first little break.
This might shock you, but cleaning the coffee machine was not the sexiest job at The Daily Show. There was zero competition for my role. Yet I treated that machine like a precious object, cleaning it, refilling it, putting it back together. I read online how to fix it and even bought a similar model and practiced on it at home. I spent a good part of each day making sure no one would go without coffee. I started doing what I could, instead of focusing on what I couldn’t. Sure, I was a lowly intern. But I was the lowly intern who could fix the most important item in any creative environment: the coffee machine.
My decision to find the odd, overlooked opportunity and make it my bitch helped me get to my current job, which, it turns out, is pretty blissful! Did I become a VP at Comedy Central because I cleaned a coffee machine? Eh, not exactly. But cleaning that machine did teach me that to accomplish anything big, you need to break it down into small steps and commit fully. I now try to apply the same persistence and care to all facets of my life. I know I have to show up, figure out what’s wrong with the water tank, and work like crazy to fix it. I have to be patient, understanding that sometimes there will be a breakdown for no reason and I’ll be left dumbfounded with an ominous red light staring me in the face. But then I’ll just dismantle the whole thing and start again.
Since being the best at the worst kick-started my career, I now help pretty much anyone within earshot of my office find their own little breaks. Whether it’s a fledgling writer seeking advice, an established comedian like Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, or Nikki Glaser looking to create their own show, or an intern searching for their own coffee-machine situation, I tell them, “Take whatever weird little opportunity you can find and own it.” Best-case scenario? Someone cool will notice. Worst-case scenario? You’ll notice and feel pride that you’re doing a good job, even if the task sucks. Simply put: Start where you are, wherever you are, without worrying about how far you have to go. All of a sudden you’ll look up and your biggest dreams will be a hell of a lot closer than you think.
Schuster is vice president of talent and development at Comedy Central, where she has been the executive in charge of shows like Lights Out with David Spade and Key & Peele. Her new book, Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies, is out now.
For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download March 20.