Paying Their Dues

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

A term used in show business to describe the minor roles and drudge work one usually needs to do before hitting it big.

The name comes from paying dues to a union one belongs to, but even big successes need to pay dues if they are part of a union.

Naturally applies as much, if not more so, to Real Life as well as fiction.

Compare Money, Dear Boy, because even big stars have to pay their bills. If this work is exceedingly terrible and the artist does make it big, these often become their Old Shame. Fuel for the eventual "Hey, it's that guy/girl!"

Examples of Paying Their Dues include:

In General

  • This seems to be the rule with successful actors, directors, musicians, etc. Therefore in biographies of them, quite often there will be a section detailing about the small work they did before hitting it big.


  • In the commentary on one of the Red Dwarf DVDs, the actors talk about the original actor for Kryten. He asked if they were "legit", meaning if they had paid their dues in small parts on stage before being on TV.
  • The late, great Paul Newman's first screen appearance was a minor role in an episode of the now-forgotten sci-fi anthology Tales Of Tomorrow.
  • Scarlett Johansson, as of this writing one of the most prolific actresses of recent Hollywood, sure has come a long way from her debut in North, hasn't she?


  • The rock group Boston had a song about having paid their dues.

"We were just another band out of Boston. On the road and trying to make ends meet..."

Newspaper Strips

  • Referred to in one of the vaudville Garfield strips. Garfield gives this as the reason why he's doing an act that universally gets shoes thrown at him.
  • Doonesbury's character Jimmy Thudpucker (Trudeau's go-to character for lampooning the music industry) once refused to do a "paid my dues" song as being pointlessly whiny. Pointing out he was an overnight success at age nineteen. His agent retorts "It's in your contract." A Take That against rock music groups with such songs.

Professional Wrestling

  • The Professional Wrestling industry had a hard-on for ensuring that wrestlers come up the pipeline naturally rather than through shortcuts. Many wrestler guests on the reality show Tough Enough seemed to be there for no other reason than to vent at the contestants as to how far they were ahead of thousands of others looking for the same break and how much they resented having to deal with these debutantes.
    • This term is used a *lot* in professional wrestling, partly as a need for experience, and partly as a need to understand locker room etiquette.
    • It's practically accepted tradition that no matter how you got there, once you make it to the WWE, you're going to spend at least a year going through constant hazing, both in and out of the ring, until the veterans are satisfied you have the "mental fortitude" to make it in the business.
    • There's a reason it's called "doing the job".

Video Games

  • High Voltage Software spent years making licensed games, but did get a reputation for getting work done on time and under budget. Then they used the skills and experience they got on making The Conduit, their breakthrough game.
  • WayForward Technologies (named after the company in Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency) was a small time game developer spending years making Licensed Games, except most were pretty enjoyable. Eventually, they started to work on a project which would come to be known as Shantae...