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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 it's 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.
- 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."
- 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.
Live Action Television
- Penny from Big Bang Theory works at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant whilst attempting to become an actress
- When Joey starts working at Central Perk in Friends and he says that it's supposed to waiter to actor, not the other way around
- 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
- In Extras most of the main characters are aspiring actors who have only 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.
- 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.
- "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
- 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.
- Old joke: "So you're an actor? What restaurant do you work at?"
- This T-Shirt