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Waiting for a Break

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"I can show I got what it takes
But I already used my fifteen-minute break
I'm, working for minimum wage
When I should be up on the stage"
Cyrus, Let It Shine, "Tonight's the Night"

Artists, especially writers, actors, and musicians in their early days get by on jobs not directly related to their desired eventual career in order to prevent themselves from being a literal Starving Artist. They may ferry people about as taxi drivers, lend friendly ears as bartenders, pump gas at a garage, or put their charisma to use in getting the tips as waiter or waitress.

That last one is especially common, and though this trope covers all iterations of artists working in what are traditionally low-paying and often considered less 'fulfilling' jobs, the waiting profession is what has influenced the trope name. It isn't uncommon to see a waiter or waitress in fiction who is waiting for the day they get spotted by an agent, a movie studio picks up their script or they net that record deal. In fact, if anybody connected to these trades decides to go out for a meal at the restaurant a character who falls into this trope works in expect them to attempt to woo their customer with their performance of Hamlet, try to serve them their screenplay as a course, or break into song at random.

The reason for the prevalence of the selected career being waiting is, as explained in this article which shares its title with this trope (but the name was coined independently, it's a Pun after all) is because it lends itself well to an auditioning actor. They can work a few long nights a week and use the rest of the time to audition or rehearse, and as mentioned above they can use the charisma many consider necessary to be an actor to get themselves tips, with the people they are serving as their audience. In other words, Truth in Television and Write What You Know are in play here.

Related to Starving Artist (or Giftedly Bad if the reason they are still in such a job isn't that they are an undiscovered genius, but they just think they are). Contrast Pursue the Dream Job. See also Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job,and I Was Young and Needed the Money for someone whose past need to make ends meet led them into something less reputable than waiting tables. Sister trope to Paying Their Dues, the unimpressive gigs most artists are reduced to taking at the beginning of their careers.


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  • Bruce Campbell wrote in his memoir If Chins Could Kill, that the key to being successful in acting is to not depend on acting to pay the bills, basically explaining that you need to get a "real" job first. Various famous actors are known for being skilled in entirely unrelated trades that they did to pay the bills before they were famous as well, ie: Harrison Ford worked as a carpenter. He got the chance to read for the role of Han Solo because he happened to be working on the set at the time.

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Heat Guy J, Kia Freeborn is doing odd jobs like waiting tables while he attempts to become a famous blues singer/guitarist.
  • Shizuka Sakaki from Shirobako wants to become a prominent voice actress, but she's currently waiting tables at a snack bar while only being able to get very minor roles. Her arc during the series has her struggling with this, until the final few episodes, where she finally lands the role of a prominent character in an anime.

    Board Games 
  • In Lenny Henry's Stand-Up Comic Board Game, the "neutral" spaces where nothing happens to further or impede your comedy career are labeled "Greasy Spoon" and "Valet Parking".

    Comic Books 
  • The Sandman: In the issue "24 Hours", Bette works as a waitress at a 24-hour diner, but sees herself as a novelist gathering material and dreams of hitting the big time with a novel inspired by the people she meets.
  • One of the minor heroes trying out for the team in Wildguard: Casting Call is Super Temp, who is just doing the whole superhero thing until his band hits it big. It does — because of the publicity generated by his appearance on the show.

  • After the Jungle Series: Even by the time she's well into her 40snote , Olga Sherman (née Pataki) still clings to her "pipe dream" (as Helga calls it) of becoming an actress, taking periodic trips to New York City with her family (convinced that she's a star just waiting to be discovered).

    Films — Animated 
  • In Hoodwinked!, the Woodsman turns out to be an out-of-work actor trying to get his next big break. In the meantime, his day job is selling schnitzel out of a food truck.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Incredible Jessica James: Jessica teaches kids at a theater nonprofit in Hell's Kitchen while she tries to get her playwright career off the ground.
  • There was an actor/cabbie in Time Chasers. Not a good actor, either.
  • L.A. Story: "Ask for me, I'm Shan your waiter, and I also act."
  • Mary Jane from the Spider-Man Trilogy films (in the comics they're based on, she's actually more successful at getting work, having had a lot of modeling jobs, a recurring soap part, some B movies, and a well-received off-Broadway play whereas her film counterpart struggles much more, with a soap opera telling her to get some acting lessonsnote , and while she does establish herself as a model and off-Broadway actress a couple years later, she ends up as a singing waitress after being fired from her Broadway debut). Midway through the first film, she chats with Peter on the street, and when her boss yells at her for walking off the job, she ashamedly opens her coat to reveal she's wearing a waitress uniform underneath it.
  • In La La Land, Mia works as a barista at a coffee shop within a movie studio while she waits for her big break as an actress.
  • Troll (1986): Jeanette Cooper is an aspiring actress who works as a waitress between auditions.

  • In Moving Pictures, Ginger works as a waitress during a slow patch in her career, while Victor attempts horse-holding (the Discworld's equivalent to valet parking). Victor and another more experience horse-holder discuss the fact that acting ability is a useful skill in this line of work, as someone who provides a good "'oss-'olding experience" will get more repeat trade than someone who's merely good at holding horses.
  • In "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories" by Neil Gaiman, the protagonist is a writer who's in Hollywood to consult on the film of his book, and finds every waiter and receptionist he meets confiding in him that really this is just to keep them going until they've finished the screenplay they're working on. Near the end of the story, he impresses somebody by asking how her screenplay's going before she's told him she's writing one.
  • Inverted in Woody Allen's short story "The Lunatic's Tale", where the protagonist meets an actress whose real ambition is to be a waitress at a coffeehouse.
  • Three at Wolfe's Door: The suspects in "Poison a la Carte" are all young actresses who take a job as waitresses (dressed in Greek costumes) for a high-society dinner party.
  • When Zachary Beaver Came To Town: Toby’s mom is a waitress who dreams of being a professional musician and loves to sing to her customers. Toby worries that she will abandon her family to pursue her career, and he's right.

    Live Action Television 
  • Penny from The Big Bang Theory works at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant whilst attempting to become an actress. She eventually gives up on acting (after having nothing to show for it except a hemorrhoid ad and two bad movies) and has a successful career as a pharmaceutical representative (although she admits that pretty much the only thing she actually likes about the job is the high pay).
  • When Joey starts working at Central Perk in Friends and he says that it's supposed to go waiter to actor, not the other way around.
    • Joey has also worked spraying cologne samples at a department store.
  • Seinfeld: Kramer moved to LA and tried to market his script to Fred Savage while serving him as a waiter. Again, tried
  • In Taxi Bobby was an actor-cabbie
    • Lampshaded in the pilot by Alex when he first met Elaine:
      Alex: ...Me? I'm a cab driver. I'm the only cab driver in this place.
  • In Extras most of the main characters are aspiring actors who have only been able to be cast as extras, and this trope appears. Though main character Andy Millman does have an agent, he works part-time at Carphone Warehouse to make ends meet... and by 'he' we don't mean Andy, we mean his agent. Darren is a very bad agent.
  • Cordelia in the first and second seasons of Angel is working at Angel Investigations until "[her] inevitable stardom kicks in". By the third, she's fully committed to being a detective/monster hunter.
    Doyle: I think it's refreshing to see a woman living like this, you know. It means you're not so uptight, you live for the moment— (steps in a bowl of oatmeal) You're disgusting.
  • Carey from The Other Two is a struggling waiter/actor who watches his little brother become a Youtube sensation virtually overnight.
  • Everyone on Party Down is only working in catering until they get their big break. Or so they hope. Henry is the only one who's given up his chance of stardom.
  • Karen is working as a waitress at the beginning of Smash until she gets her break. Fortunately for her, it happens early enough that she can quit by the second episode.
  • On Difficult People, both Billy and Julie are aspiring actors and many episodes' plots deal with their attempts to break into showbiz. While they wait for their big break, Billy is a waiter and Julie writes TV recaps (while being supported by her live-in boyfriend).
  • NUMB3RS: Brought up in Hollywood Homicide, as the victim was someone who was trying to break into Hollywood and was working as an escort for people in Hollywood while doing so.
  • Prima from Mimpi Metropolitan is a soap opera extra and paid audience member who aspires to be a famous actor. When the pay he gets from being an extra is not enough for his living, Prima works as motorcycle taxi driver. After he gets promoted to field coordinator in his agency, he slowly stops taking such side jobs.
  • The Sandman (2022): Hal Carter aspires to be a Broadway star, but had to give up and move home to Cape Kennedy, where he runs a bed and breakfast and does drag performances on the side. In the season finale, he's inspired to try again.
    Hal: Rose, do you think I want to be here? Cleaning up after Barbie and Ken? Don't get me wrong, I love them, they're great—but if Broadway called tomorrow, I would sell this fucking house and I would never think about any of these people ever again.

  • "Weird Al" Yankovic's song Skipper Dan is about a failed actor who took an unfulfilling job working on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland to pay the bills.
  • "Bohemian Like You" by The Dandy Warhols (except it's a musician, not an actor).
    So what do you do?
    Oh yeah, I wait tables too.
    No, I haven't heard your band,
    Cause you guys are pretty new.
  • "Do You Know The Way To San Jose"
    L.A. is a great big freeway
    Put a hundred down and buy a car
    In a week, maybe two, they'll make you a star
    Weeks turn into years. How quick they pass
    And all the stars that never were
    Are parking cars and pumping gas
  • The bartender in "Piano Man" by Billy Joel:
    He says, "Bill, I believe this is killing me,"
    As the smile ran away from his face.
    "Well, I'm sure that I could be a movie star
    If I could get out of this place."

  • David Mamet's Edmond has a monologue to an actress who is "really" a waitress.

    Video Games 
  • Amanda Straw of Elite Beat Agents is a love letter to this trope, being an aspiring dancer who has been working as a waitress for two years. As her story starts, her boss is ready to fire her, her boyfriend is crushing her dreams, and she's facing eviction from her apartment, but with the help of the titular Agents, she impresses customers, pays for singing lessons, and nails a final audition, landing a starring role on stage.
  • Bisk from Splatoon 2 has dreams of being a rock star, and he left his lover behind to pursue a band career in Inkopolis. In the meantime, he works as the proprietor of the shoe store Shella Fresh.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines: David Hatter is an aspiring screenwriter who works nights at a seedy Hollywood motel while he waits for his self-proclaimed genius to be recognized. The player character needs to destroy his screenplay, which has inside information on the Masquerade; for extra cruelty points, they can intimidate him into surrendering it or sweet-talk him out of it by pretending to be a talent scout.
  • The first level of the Entertainment career (i.e TV, movie, or Broadway actor) in The Sims is Waiter/Waitress.
  • Story of Seasons:

    Visual Novels 
  • Kathy from Daughter for Dessert wants to be a writer, but doesn't have the focus to make good on any of her ideas. Meanwhile, her biggest writing accomplishment isn't even hers (her hit erotica series actually being written by Amanda). In the "good" Kathy ending, Kathy finally gets her big break after publishing a best-selling book.
  • Averted with the title character of Melody. She doesn't take a food service job while working toward her big break, as she's discovered right after she starts performing her music publicly.

  • Yumi's Cells: When Yumi quits her office job to Pursue the Dream Job of writing, she takes up a part-time job at a book store to make ends meet. The book store eventually closes down, so she fills in for her former coworker who is getting married. As she's ready to give up on her dream and go back to the office, the chief editor of a publishing company comes across one of her manuscripts and helps her become a published author.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Mickey Mouse Works short "How To Be a Waiter", Goofy starts out as one but then quits to become an actor. Eventually, he gets a role in a film... as a waiter.
  • In Family Guy when Brian Griffin moved to LA he was a waiter at a catered party and used the opportunity to try to chat up some bigwigs. The operative word is try
  • Squidward Tentacles from Spongebob Squarepants works at the Krusty Krab so that he can pay his bills until his career as a clarinet player takes off. Given how bad he is, it's probably going to take a while...
  • Illustrated in this exchange from Pinky and the Brain
    The Brain: We're going to a place where the sun never sets, the size of your wallet matters, and actors and actresses slave all day.
    Pinky: We're going to Denny's?
  • Roger Smith from American Dad! used to work as a waiter in L.A, in hopes of becoming a famous actor.
  • A number of characters in Bojack Horseman worked as waitpeople and Starbucks employees soon after arriving in Los Angeles, while waiting for a break. Bojack could himself be seen as a successful example of this trope.

    Real Life 
  • Old joke: "So you're an actor? What restaurant do you work at?"
  • In the 2017-EU, 20-50% of people aged 18-25 are unemployed and an indeterminable proportion of the remainder are in jobs with no long-term prospects, as per this trope. Though figures vary wildly depending upon the measures used and states analysed, the USA as a whole isn't that different. Even Australia and New Zealand, which have not wholly abandoned evidence-based economics (in favour of hypothesis/theory-based) like the Eurozone and USA have, are not an order of magnitude better.
  • A Cracked's Photoplasty contest "If Restaurants Were Honest" entry #3 shows a woman's jacket with both a "Welcome to Los Angeles!" button pinned to it alongside a Starbucks name tag saying "Hi There I'm Failed Actress #112,873"
  • A number of famous actors and other creator-types actually held lucrative professions either before discovering acting or while pursuing it.
    • Brendan Gleeson was a schoolteacher
    • Jeremy Renner found work as a makeup artist and home renovator
    • Danny Aiello was a bus driver
    • Kathryn Joosten was a nurse and didn't get into acting until her 50s
    • Harrison Ford was a carpenter and successful enough he could pick either acting or construction depending on which had the better paycheck.
    • Likewise, Nick Offerman was a carpenter and setbuilder, although he considered himself largely "a carpenter who can act" rather than "An actor working as a carpenter" and worked mainly in the theater before his break.
    • Dennis Farina was a police officer for 20 years
    • Jerry Doyle was a stockbroker and pilot
    • Buster Merryfield was a bank manager
    • Kurt Fuller was a real estate agent
    • Liam Cunningham was an electrician
    • Gabriel Byrne was an archaeologist and teacher
    • Alan Rickman and Phil Hartman both ran graphic design businesses
    • John Mahoney was a teacher
    • Danny Glover had a career in politics before acting
    • John Cho and Jon Hamm were both teachers (Hamm was also a waiter for a few years after moving to Los Angeles).
    • Ken Jeong was a licensed doctor and had his own practice for a number of years, he was actually discovered while doing Stand-Up Comedy.
    • Steve Buscemi was a firefighter for four years, and in fact returned to his firehouse to help after 9/11.
    • George Miller was a doctor
    • Catherine Hardwicke was an architect
    • Mary Harron was a journalist
    • Errol Morris was a private investigator
    • James Cameron was a truck driver
    • Robert Bresson was a film critic
    • Lee Daniels ran a nursing company.
    • Sean Connery's first job was as a milkman in Edinburgh with St. Cuthbert's Co-operative Society. In 2009, Connery recalled a conversation in a taxi:
      When I took a taxi during a recent Edinburgh Film Festival, the driver was amazed that I could put a name to every street we passed. "How come?" he asked. "As a boy I used to deliver milk round here," I said. "So what do you do now?" That was rather harder to answer.
      • After a stint in the navy, he worked as, among other things, a lorry driver, a lifeguard at Portobello swimming baths, a labourer, an artist's model for the Edinburgh College of Art, and after a suggestion by former Mr. Scotland, Archie Brennan, a coffin polisher.
    • Christopher Eccleston took a variety of odd jobs at a supermarket, on building sites, and as an artist's model.
    • Malcolm McDowell worked in a nut factory and in his father's pub. He was also a coffee salesman, which formed the basis for O Lucky Man!
    • Tom Baker found acting work so scarce that he found himself working on a building site.
    • Sylvester McCoy worked in The Roundhouse box office for a time, where he was discovered by Ken Campbell.
    • Nick Frost worked as a waiter before being cast in Spaced. Averted in that he wasn't an actor but was simply working as a waiter.
    • Bruce Willis was a bartender when he started his acting career. Prior to that, he worked as a security guard at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant and transported crew members at the Du Pont Chambers Works factory in Deepwater, New Jersey. He then had a stint as a private investigator.
    • Jean-Claude Van Damme was a waiter and a bouncer.
    • William Shatner was a uranium salesman.
    • Michelle Pfeiffer worked as a check-out girl at Vons supermarket.
    • Kevin Spacey was a shoe salesman.
    • Oliver Reed worked as a boxer, a strip club bouncer, a cab driver, and a hospital porter.
    • Jack Nicholson was a lifeguard and even saved someone's life. His first job was a messenger at MGM, where he delivered Tom and Jerry's fanmail.
  • Writers have a much easier time with this trope as writing is seen as an activity that can be pursued outside of work hours and doesn't require the ability to leave work that music and acting might. Many famous writers worked in lucrative professions before writing or while pursuing it: note 
  • Averted with Andrea Bocelli, who worked as a lawyer before finding fame as an opera singer.
  • Comedians:
    • Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Harry Hill were all doctors.
    • Frank Carson was an electrician and plasterer.
    • George Roper was a dockworker.
    • Rodney Dangerfield was a salesman.
    • Jim Davidson worked as a supermarket shelf-stacker, a messenger, air ticket clerk for a travel agency, a cashier for Wall's ice cream, for Rank Xerox (having trained as a reprographics operator), and as a window cleaner.
    • Andy Kaufman worked as a busboy while trying to make it as an actor and comedian and kept the job even after becoming hugely successful on Taxi as he didn't want to be dependent upon the role.
    • Frankie Boyle was a teacher.
    • Dawn French was a primary school teacher.
    • Billy Connolly was a bread delivery man, worked in a bookshop, and was a shipyard welder.
    • Robin Williams worked as a busboy at The Trident in Sausalito, California. He even referenced this trope in his Oscar acceptance speech, when he said that his father, upon learning his son wanted to be an entertainer, suggested that he get a good backup career like welding.
  • Zig-zagged with Stacy Keibler, who has made it no small secret she was only in the wrestling business for the exposure to become an actress. She now considers her time in WWE to be an Old Shame, even though she's better known for that than almost anything she did in Hollywood.
  • Pedro Pascal tried to balance the early years of his acting career with waiting tables, but he ended up quitting or getting fired from over 20 New York restaurants within a seven-year span.
  • Musicians:
    • Elvis Presley was a truck driver.
    • Freddie Mercury sold second-hand clothes in Kensington Market in London with Roger Taylor. He also held a job as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport.
    • Madonna's first job was working at Dunkin' Donuts.
    • Before joining The Stone Roses, Ian Brown washed dishes at a hotel.
    • Eminem cooked and washed dishes for minimum wage at Gilbert's Lodge, a family-style restaurant at St. Clair Shores, Detroit.
    • Before forming Oasis, Liam and Noel Gallagher worked in construction. Noel was also a roadie for the Inspiral Carpets.
    • Sting was a bus conductor, a building labourer, a tax officer, and an English teacher.
    • George Michael started out as a DJ.
    • Rod Stewart worked briefly as a silk screen printer.
    • Elvis Costello was a data entry clerk at Elizabeth Arden and worked for a short period as a computer operator at the Midland Bank computer centre in Bootle.
    • Tom Jones worked in a glove factory and was later employed in construction.
    • Ozzy Osbourne was a construction site labourer, a trainee plumber, an apprentice toolmaker, a car factory horn-tuner, and an abattoir worker.
    • Kris Kristofferson used to sweep floors at Columbia Recording Studios in Nashville.
    • Bryan Ferry was a ceramics teacher. In fact, when he and Sting bump into each other, they greet each other with a cheery "Hello, fellow teacher"
    • Philip Glass worked odd jobs as a cab driver and plumber in New York even while he was beginning to be successful as a composer. This led to a memorable encounter when he wound up installing a dishwasher in a loft that turned out to belong to a gobsmacked Robert Hughes, art critic for Time magazine. On another occasion, a passenger in his cab remarked, “Young man, did you know you have the same name as a very famous composer?”