A Blank’s Blank

What does it mean to be an actor’s actor? Or a writer’s writer? Or … well, you get the idea. Let’s try to make sense of a phrase that shapes how we think about success.

By Andrew Egan

Today in Tedium: Recently, I rewatched a movie I hadn’t seen in years, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s still a classic but, by the end, I felt differently about it than I remembered. When Gene Wilder says, “But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted … he lived happily ever after,” I felt like I saw Wonka for the real trickster that he is. Charlie is a child, unlikely to know what he really wants. And Wonka doesn’t seem especially happy with his “ever after.” This might be a leap but, this led me to think about the nature of what it means to be successful on different terms. Especially in the creative fields, where fame and fortune are often elusive, many are left to define their success without either. Today’s Tedium is looking at a number of different professional fields to see what we can glean from the blank’s blank (actor’s actor, comedian’s comedian, writer’s writer, and even the pilot’s pilot and lawyer’s lawyer), a phrase template used to describe a certain type of success and achievement. — Andrew @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is of Steph Curry, arguably the shooter’s shooter, drawing a blank. It was basically the only GIF we could think of that would work for this highly esoteric topic.

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The number of Coppola family members that either have or have had significant careers in Hollywood or broader entertainment, according to Screen Rant. Beyond Francis and Nick Cage, the family has deep roots in the entertainment history going back to family patriarch Carmine Coppola, a musician and Broadway orchestra conductor who would later score his son’s films including Apocalypse Now and The Godfather Part II, which earned him an Oscar for Best Original Score.

Sydney Sweeney Euphoria

First-generation wealth, such as what Sydney Sweeney is earning from Euphoria, is much harder to come by than second-generation wealth—as any actor family will tell you. (HBO)

Success in creative fields is notoriously difficult, but the general public doesn’t likely understand just how difficult

This past weekend, the writer Alyssa Miller released a fascinating article on the movie blog No Film School, titled “If You’re from Poor or Middle-Class Families, Hollywood is Nearly Impossible to Navigate”. The piece largely focuses on the issue of Hollywood nepotism and the unique situation that Euphoria star (and one of the many current “it girls”) Sydney Sweeney finds herself in. Sweeney recently made headlines for her statements on income for up-and-coming actors, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “If I wanted to take a six-month break, I don’t have income to cover that. I don’t have someone supporting me, I don’t have anyone I can turn to, to pay my bills or call for help.”

She continued: “They don’t pay actors like they used to, and with streamers, you no longer get residuals. The established stars still get paid, but I have to give 5 percent to my lawyer, 10 percent to my agents, 3 percent or something like that to my business manager. I have to pay my publicist every month, and that’s more than my mortgage.”

The reaction on social media was predictable and swift, with many blasting Sweeney’s comments as tone-deaf, while noting she was in the process of renovating a $3 million house in the Hollywood Hills.

Miller’s article is especially interesting in that it defends Sweeney, largely by pointing out that people were misinterpreting her comments. Miller argues that Sweeney was calling out a system by which people who come from wealth have a much better chance at success because income in the early years is remarkably weak. Unfortunately, this is nothing new across creative fields. Just search for “famous artists who lived in their cars” and you get dozens of lists that include Chris Pratt, Jim Morrison, and Jewel.

On Reddit, the reaction to Miller’s article on r/entertainment was a mixture of criticism and sharing of personal anecdotes of trying to make it in Hollywood. The criticism was mostly that both Sweeney and Miller are stating the obvious, that wealthy people with connections succeed more than others. But stating the obvious is important—because, from time to time, it can help us diagnose the scale of the problem. The Reddit thread on Miller’s article likely inspired another in r/Movies seeking to find examples of nepotism, but with talent. The comments to most of the suggestions are people connecting the dots between up-and-coming actors with their famous parents, as in Chernobyl’s Jared Harris. Or younger people learning about older famous actors, like Josh Brolin and his father James.

The issue is so common across creative fields that individuals without the right combination of wealth, connections, and talent are facing a steep climb to achieve meaningful financial rewards and/or notoriety. Again, this might be stating the obvious but entertainment shapes culture and often frames how the masses see themselves, their communities, and even the future of our planet. Leaving that massive responsibility to the upper class feels like a stupid thing to do. But what’s one more culture-defining responsibility left to wealth when so many are already under their control?

So what does success look like to the talented people without connections and wealth but who decided to follow their passion anyway? Spoiler: it certainly isn’t measured by one’s bank account.

“When you start a company, the decision about which market to pursue comes early and lasts a very long time. If you start out building automobiles, you won’t likely pivot over to become an online advertising network. As a result, the CEO’s job is to optimize the company in the current market or move to an adjacent market. Some CEOs find themselves unopposed in gigantic markets while others face brutal competition in smaller markets. A CEO who achieves a good outcome in the latter case might do a far better job than a CEO who achieves a great outcome in the former.”

— Ben Horowitz, the cofounder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, discussing the idea of “The CEO’s CEO” in a 2011 blog post. In seeking to define what success looks like among a group where compensation is almost guaranteed, Horowitz notes that CEOs recognize the importance of markets, circumstances, and general luck. The nature of their profession, however, almost precludes the idea of a CEO’s CEO, with Horowitz writing, “Warren Buffet once said that he likes to invest in businesses that can be run by a ham sandwich. CEOs won’t give another CEO credit for being a ham sandwich no matter how successful her business becomes.” But Horowitz also hints at the difficulty of dedicating anything significant, either companies or individual careers, to an uncertain future. The CEO’s CEO seems to be one that can redefine success.

Actor Stage

When wealth isn’t the driving factor, what convinces you to get on the “stage,” whatever that looks like? (Erik Mclean/Unsplash)

When performing your art isn’t about the money, what does success look like?

Seek a career in virtually any creative field, and you’ll eventually run into the phrase, “A blank’s blank.”

This would refer to the actor’s actor, the writer’s writer, the comedian’s comedian. How these phrases are defined and their individual meanings vary widely between fields. One of the clearest examples would be the contrast between the actor’s actor versus the comedian’s comedian. In an article in The Baltimore Sun, critic Mike Sragow, contends the phrase has evolved over time, “It meant that an actor of formidable range, technique and invention—such as Laurence Olivier—had become a performer even peers looked to for guidance or inspiration because of a string of undeniable accomplishments.” He argued in 2008 the phrase had become watered down, writing, “it’s become an encomium for any star who’s delivered the splashiest or most radical-chic turn of the year.”

Rather than just take Sragow’s word for the definition of an unofficial phrase, I asked Dave Columbo, who studied acting at UCLA and has been a stand up comic in NYC for 10 years. He largely agrees with the Sragow’s original definition but adds, “the slight adjustment that rather than an actor’s actor being potentially successful, I’d go with one who is kind and reciprocating as a scene partner. If someone were to say ‘so and so is an actor’s actor’ to me, that conjures an actor who knows their lines, arrives on time, doesn’t trash a dressing room or a trailer, is respectful to the crew, and most importantly- successfully implements their tools efficiently and recognizes they are but a cog in a much larger wheel of creation. Success really isn’t a part of it, since I don’t think I’d classify 99 percent of the highest paid actors in the world as an ACTOR’S ACTOR.”

A comedian’s comedian is an interesting contrast to the actor’s actor in that according to Billy Wayne Davis, a touring stand up who also makes appearances on well known podcasts, “It’s someone who isn’t doing it for fame or money and genuinely loves the craft of stand-up which is a grueling and tedious process when you’re trying to build an honest body of work. Succinctly put, it’s an artist, not an entertainer.” In usage, the phrase is also often used as an almost backhanded compliment with Colombo adding, “It almost specifically implies a lack of mainstream appeal and an almost ominous concession that the pinnacle of humor, by definition, must not be palatable to people who pay a two drink minimum to go see comedy, which is the thin line we walk regularly.”

There are a few common themes in the definitions used across creative fields. A graphic designer in New York I came across in a bar (great source, right?) argued the phrase implied a “maturation of their discipline” regardless of usage and I think that’s a great observation. In a panel discussion at the New Yorker Festival in 2011, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicole Krauss, and Jhumpi Lahiri were asked about the phrase writer’s writer with editor and moderator Deborah Triesman starting the discussion by saying, it’s “Someone who lives at or below the poverty line.” Haha.

The panel did offer a few thoughtful suggestions such as “purity of vision” and writing every book like it was their first one. Like in comedy, they also offered a slightly backhanded element to the definition by saying a writer’s writer can often be difficult to read, “because you keep reading the same sentence over and over.” But I think Eugenides nailed the most necessary aspect for being a writer’s writer, especially in fiction, “If you mention a story, someone will quote a line from it.”

But even for writers, there are distinctions between forms. Ernie Smith, my editor and founder of Tedium, pointed to examples of journalists and nonfiction writers who inspired him to write and report. As a nonfiction writer, I have to agree to this addendum for nonfiction. There is a certain wonder to the idea that if you find the right facts, people will read them. It’s a wonderful reassurance that your effort isn’t wasted when you write non-fiction.

Kurt Cobain bringing the Meat Puppets on stage for Nirvana’s iconic 1993 Unplugged performance is basically the ultimate example of a famous creator highlighting an inspiration. At the time, the Meat Puppets had a modest profile compared to the culturally dominant Nirvana.

And not to just tack on musician’s, but there we get a sort of mash-up of how the template is used across the arts. A musician’s musician isn’t necessarily popular or widely known but influential to others. It also includes someone who shows up on time for practice and recordings. Sobriety when working is often preferred, but general functionality is vital. In this instance, examples are probably more useful than an attempt at a definition. Captain Beefheart, the Meat Puppets, basically any punk band from Minneapolis in the 1980s. And I think, despite his fame and money, Prince has to be included because it’s weird if you don’t like Prince.

The overarching conclusion I can derive from how this phrase template is used across creative disciplines is that:

  • It denotes a certain skill level within the respective discipline that is recognized by peers
  • It often, but not always, implies a certain lack of mainstream appeal
  • When the work involves collaboration with others, not being a jerk often factors in, to some degree.

But ultimately, I think Billy Wayne Davis hit the nail on the head. The blank’s blanks are the people considered by the larger culture to be our true artists. And to quote a Kevin Costner movie about minor league baseball, “That’s a career man … in any league.”


The number of people airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is credited with saving, following a bird strike that led to the famous “Miracle on the Hudson”. Following the incident, Sully’s wife Lorrie told reporters, “He’s a pilot’s pilot. He loves the art of the airplane.” If earning the label means surviving something like the Miracle on the Hudson, I imagine most pilots would prefer to just be pilots.


Who we put on a pedestal says a lot about our culture. (Andrey Metelev/Unsplash)

How a phrase template from the arts uncovers achievements in other fields

Abraham Lincoln famously said many things, but his advice on appearing pro se as a lawyer is timeless, “He who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” Lincoln’s quote implies a different interpretation of the blank’s blank format. If a skilled professional needed the services of one of their peers, who would they choose? Doctors need their own medical attention. And lawyers routinely face their own legal issues. So for professionals who need extensive education and licensing to legally practice in their fields, a blank’s blank is the one they would call if they needed it? Kind of.

UC Berkeley law professor Orin Kerr wrote a response to colleagues on the matter, claiming that, “As I have heard the term used, a ‘lawyer’s lawyer’ is a lawyer whom the top members of the bar see as a top member of the bar. If that’s the definition, then I agree … about John Roberts. Roberts was not only a lawyer’s lawyer, he probably was the lawyer’s lawyer of the Supreme Court bar of his generation.”

Considering the last 14 years and Roberts stewardship of the Supreme Court, I wonder if Kerr would reconsider his assessment. Ruth Marcus, writing for The Washington Post, offered the mantle of lawyer’s lawyer to Nicole Seligman, a Harvard Law School grad, who assisted Lt. Col. Oliver North and represented President Bill Clinton during their trials for various misdeeds. It’s a commonly used phrase, but with little consistent application.

Just like the difference between actors and comedians, the way doctors and lawyers define their versions is revealing. With lawyers, it’s ill defined. With doctors, it’s a dedicated field. In medicine, the doctor’s doctors are the pathologists, those who study and investigate the specific reasons why people died or got sick. They’re the auditors of medicine, enforcers of accountability. And doctor or otherwise, there’s a good chance they’re one of the last people that handles what used to be you.

Before closing this out, one more thing needs to be added. Across fields and professions, a blank’s blank tends to make their work look almost easy while inspiring a certain level of awe. In my interviews, this was most readily apparent among the bartenders. A bartender’s bartender makes a crowded, understaffed bar run with precision. No one feels ignored and the drinks are perfectly made. But what inspired awe in a jaded bartender?

This brings me to Nick, a bartender who is spoken about in near mythic terms. Think the old Bill Brasky SNL sketches. Or those Chuck Norris jokes that dominated in 2013. One day, the story goes, a customer orders drinks for him and his five friends. Nick obliges, the customer pays cash but doesn’t tip. Nick stays silent because these things happen. The same customer returns later to order another round. Nick refuses, saying he doesn’t serve intoxicated people. The customer is confused, protests that they’ve only had one drink. Nick replies with, “Well, you didn’t tip on your last round and when that happens, it usually means you’re either intoxicated or an a**hole. And I’m not going to stand here and call you an a**hole.”

On that note, and taking a cue from any good comedian’s comedian, I’ll end this by reminding everyone to tip their bartenders and wait staff! Good night Tedium!


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And if you have an example of your version of an ”actor’s actor,” share it with us. Let us know—maybe your point of artistic inspriation might end up in a future issue of Tedium.


Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.com.

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