In a scene that reads like a parody of Hollywood interaction, a bankable handsome star, let’s say Jon Hamm, walks up to an unknown coffee-wrangler and writer type to say, “You made a great script.”
The star then extends his hand for a shake, and the struggling unknown writer dude, who answers phones eight hours a day professionally, watches a compliment ooze out of the actor’s perfectly chiseled, square jaw in slow motion.
This isn’t a parody. It’s the real-life story of Oklahoma native Kevin Costello meeting the man who was “soft-attached” to play the lead role in a script Costello wrote. As Collider reported in 2012, Hamm was set to star in Costello’s comedy “Epic Fail.” Despite a year of developing the movie, it never sold or made it to production.
“I was still working my assistant job, making barely enough money to afford rent and groceries, and this was such a small interaction, at a party, but it was like, OK — this didn’t work out, but it could have,” Costello said. “I came out here having no idea if my writing was even good enough to get anyone’s attention, and now Don Draper is shaking my hand. That’s something.”
‘Los Angeles is a hard city’
Costello relocated from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in 2007 and is part of a short but growing line of funny Oklahomans who move west with high hopes in the face of challenges. According to some, every day is a challenge in California.
“Los Angeles is a hard city in general. (…) Not only is there constant traffic, but there are also constantly obstacles in your way,” said Leah Kayajanian, an aspiring stand-up comedian and writer who moved to Los Angeles in 2011. Kayajanian started her comedy journey at Oklahoma City open mics in 2006. “Everything is [kind of] like that — harder for no real reason and a ton of people in your way. There’s no space to breathe, and I never realized how much I needed that until it wasn’t there. That’s [kind of] what it is about comedy in L.A. too – there’s thousands of people doing the same exact thing you are, and they’re here to do that thing.”
It’s not the city. It’s you. by James Nghiem
Christopher Fox, founding member of Oklahoma City comedy troupe The Saad Boys, has expressed a desire to move as of late, but sees positives to starting in Oklahoma City even if those positives eventually hit a point of diminishing returns.
“I was afforded a lot of opportunities to mature and grow, practice and learn without consequence. That is a great thing, but the other side of the equation is that competition is not as tough as a bigger comedy city like Austin or Chicago, your peers are not going to push you as hard and it’s easy to coast through mics and showcases because the stakes are low,” Fox said.
‘Comedy writing is such an insular thing’
Kayajanian said a lack of opportunities factored in her decision to move. Kayajanian said she had hit a wall with her home club, The Loony Bin in Oklahoma City, before she moved. Kayajanian said it was hard for her to be viewed as anything other than an opening act in her hometown.
“It very much felt like I had to move away and get a credit to get a spot as a feature or headliner,” Kayajanian said, having gotten multiple credits since moving to Los Angeles including one on Comedy Central’s Roast Battle.
Kayajanian said her TV credits have helped her book more shows around Los Angeles.
Costello also felt that moving out of Oklahoma was a necessity.
“I felt like I had to be in L.A. to start a career because I knew no one in the industry or anyone who could conceivably help me,” Costello said. “Comedy writing is such an insular thing out here too — for staff writing jobs, features, etc — comedy people hire their friends. Everyone wants to lift up those people they ‘came up’ with. Which is not a bad thing! If my friend didn’t ask me to write a script with him, who knows where my career would be right now. I think in L.A. or Oklahoma or Austin, NYC, Chicago, whatever — I think the most important thing is to find creative friends that can push you and inspire you, and to help each other.”
The script is Costello is referencing is Brigsby Bear, co-written by Costello and middle school classmate and SNL cast member Kyle Moony when the two lived in San Diego. The movie, which stars an adult Moody who re-enters the world after having grown up in isolation, was a success for Costello and company, taking them to Cannes Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival and Shanghai International Film Festival. Since then, Costello has garnered a writing credit on Jean Claude Van Johnson, an action comedy series from Amazon Studios starring Jean Claude Van Damme.
“I met with director Peter Attencio, and I ranted about ‘Hard Target’ and spinning heel kicks and they brought me on,” Costello joked about the hiring process.
Oklahoma to Los Angeles: ‘I miss how big the sky feels’
All of this would have never happened if Costello’s OU screenwriting professor Lou Berney didn’t give him an actionable plan.
“He said: Go to L.A., work for free for as long as you can, get an assistant job, meet people, read every script, write, give your script to people who can help.”
Still, there are things about Oklahoma everyone misses. Kayajanian said she misses space and people. Costello seconded her opinion.
“I miss my friends and family, but whenever I come back — this is going to sound very silly, by the way — I miss how big the sky feels, and how dark it gets at night,” Costello said. “L.A. has a constant quality of bright and busy overstimulation, and it’s exhaustive in a way you can’t really recognize until you get away from it.”