These days I’m on a real podcasting kick. One of my favourites is the Nerdist, which is moderated by comedian Chris Hardwick. Hardwick has all sorts of guests, but some of the most interesting are his fellow comics. During the hour long shows, comics such as Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, John Oliver, Paul Scheer, Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien (among many others) tell funny tales, discuss life in the comedy world and outline how they first got their starts. There are a lot of gems in these conversations. Here are five lessons I’ve picked up that cut across all careers.
Success takes hard work
We often think of being funny as a personality trait, rather than a skill. While some people certainly may have an aptitude for comedy, Hardwick and many of his guests point out that comedic success usually comes after a great deal of slogging hard work. To develop a successful bit that “kills” on stage, it takes countless rounds of practice to refine, tweak and amend. Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) alumnus Paul Scheer talks a lot with Hardwick about how important having the courage to try new ideas out on stage (and failing fast and often) is to honing your skills as a comic. After all, none of us start in the Apollo. All comedians have to put in time at crappy dive bars, working for beers and refining, honing and perfecting bits before even getting a chance at a shot of greatness. The lesson for you? Practicing something over and over again is a good way to improve. “Practicing it perfectly” (without TV, phones or other distractions) with a calculated and thoughtful manner, is an even better way to get better – fast. Working hard and long hours is often critical to positioning yourself for that big break.
Good comedy isn’t understood universally by all audiences. My friend John shared this bit from “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. John (and probably most people) really enjoys this comedy and in particular – Jerry Seinfeld. I, on the other hand, didn’t chuckle too hard at all. I’m not sure why, but Seinfeld’s humour just never really cracked me up. The important lesson to draw from this is that just because one person (or even a few people), don’t recognize your talent or that special thing you bring to the table, doesn’t mean that’s the consensus. If you have a boss that’s not interested in a special project you’re pouring your heart into, don’t be angry at her. Try telling a co-worker or mentor about it and get their opinion. Don’t let one individual dictate your success and certainly don’t fold up shop and quit. They may be wrong or more likely they may just not understand your thinking. Cut them some slack and move on. Most importantly, don’t let one negative opinion taint the many other positive perspectives that are surely out there.
Honesty is the best policy
Some of the most effective and powerful comics are those who use their humor to explore fundamental truths in how people and society function. Comic Louis CK is a master of this sort of observational humor and sometimes these observations can make people uncomfortable. While attacking sensitive issues head on like Louis isn’t always advisable, finding a clever and current way to provide your perspective, even if it bucks the common wisdom floating around your office or at home in your personal life, is important to your success. Humour can often be your key to honest – particularly if you use the staple of self-deprecation.
Know your audience
Comics often talk about killing a set. While plenty of it is in the material and the comic’s ability to deliver, many comedians also talk about the diversity of audiences – even geographically (New York vs. LA crowds) and its impact on the show. Judging your audience and their energy and adapting your approach and manner to optimally engage them is critical. If you’re giving a presentation and the mood in the room is flat, try to pivot and shake it up a bit. That might mean engaging the audience in the conversation, dropping a joke or two or even varying your pace and tone. For more tips on having a great presence (and things to consider when getting up on that proverbial stage), click here.
Embrace Planned Happenstance
The challenge of living and working in a world where the next paycheck or gig is far from certain – particularly early in the career – is a frequent topic of conversation between Hardwick and many of his guests such as Craig Ferguson and Jon Oliver. In an interview with Bill Maher, Maher explains his show Politically Incorrect was perfectly timed to break the traditional TV mold with cutting political satire and sarcastic socio-political commentary. Created a little earlier or a little later, the show might have missed its window. Embracing planned happenstance means soldiering forward and adapting to new opportunities and circumstances is a practice many of us in more traditional sectors can learn from. Even if the next rung of the career ladder isn’t clear, trust in your process and keep an eye on the prize. Follow the lessons described in this blog around information interviews, optimizing your online presence, volunteering and seeking out mentors and eventually, odds are good that you’ll find your way to your next “gig”.