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, or for when 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 is in play here.
- 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.
- In Heat Guy J, Kia Freeborn is doing odd jobs like waiting tables while he attempts to become a famous blues singer/guitarist.
- 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.
- 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 Sam Raimi 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 reoccuring soap part, some B movies, and a well received off Broadway play whereas her film counterpart gets told by soap opera people to get some acting lessons and ends up as a singing waitress).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Lampshaded in the pilot by Alex when he first met Elaine:
- 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.
- 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).
- "Weird Al" Yankovic's Skipper Dan is about a failed actor who took a crappy job in a theme park to pay the rent
- "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.
- 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 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 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?
- 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 truck.
- Roger 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.
- 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 is Not So 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"
- In the past this trope was averted as a few famous actors either held lucrative professions either before discovering acting or while pursuing it. Brendan Gleeson (born 1955), for instance, worked as a schoolteacher before becoming a professional actor, Jeremy Renner (born 1971) found work as a makeup artist and home renovator, Rodney Dangerfield (born 1921) was a salesman, Danny Aiello (born 1933) was a bus driver, Kathryn Joosten (born 1939) was a nurse, Harrison Ford (born 1942) was a carpenter, Dennis Farina (born 1944) was a police officer, Jerry Doyle (born 1956) was a stockbroker and pilot, Buster Merryfield (born 1920) was a bank manager, Kurt Fuller (born 1953) was a real estate agent, Liam Cunningham (born 1961) was an electrician, Gabriel Byrne (born 1950) was an archaeologist and teacher, Graham Chapman (born 1941) had a medical degree, Alan Rickman (born 1946) and Phil Hartman (born 1948) both ran graphic design businesses, John Mahoney (born 1940) was a teacher, Danny Glover (born 1946) had a career in politics before acting, John Cho (born 1972) and Jon Hamm (born 1971) were both teachers (although Hamm did become a waiter for a few years after moving to Los Angeles), Ken Jeong (born 1969) was a doctor, and Steve Buscemi (born 1957) was a firefighter for four years.
- 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: John Grisham was a lawyer, Stephen King, Frank McCourt, Rick Riordan, Eoin Colfer, and J. K. Rowling were teachers, Raymond Chandler was an executive at an oil company, Chuck Pahlaniuk and Neil Gaiman were journalists (although Palahniuk gave it up ten years before he started writing fiction), Richard Adams worked in a bank, J. R. R. Tolkien was a linguistics professor at Oxford, Kenneth Grahame was secretary of the Bank of England, Gene Wolfe was an engineer, Ben Fountain was a lawyer, Charles Bukowski worked in a post office, Walt Whitman was a carpenter and teacher, Franz Kafka was a lawyer, Ian Fleming was a spy, Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor, Bram Stoker was a successful theatre manager (when he died, none of his obituaries mentioned Dracula and he even got invited to meet Theodore Roosevelt), John Hodge was a doctor, Irvine Welsh was a successful real estate agent, Ron Bass was a lawyer for fifteen years, Thomas Harris was a journalist, John le Carré worked for MI-5, Lee Child worked in television, Michael Connelly was a reporter, Michael Crichton was a doctor, Steven Moffat was a teacher, David Shore and David E.Kelley were lawyers, Gene Roddenberry was a police officer, Terry Brooks was a lawyer, and Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Many of these experiences have provided inspiration for their early works. If you're a writer, you're more likely to be hit with the not exactly inaccurate stereotype about writers who talk about writing but do very little.
- Averted with Andrea Boccelli, who worked as a lawyer before finding fame as an opera singer.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.