I am an enormous fan of stand up comedy. Enormous. I enjoy nothing more than I enjoy checking out new comedians and listening to classic sets. Rather than little snippets on YouTube or Vimeo, I particularly enjoy full sets. I love it for a number of reasons. First, I love to laugh. Nothing better. Second, I like long sets because they afford me the opportunity to get some work done. Whether I’m walking around the house doing chores, writing or whatever, long stand up comedy sets are great company. Third, and most importantly, I love studying the structure of how a comedian puts together a full set.
I think that writing a stand up comedy set, a good stand up comedy set, is one of the most complicated acts of creativity imaginable. I think I’m relatively funny and I’ve had more than one person tell me that I should be a stand up comedian. Because I can tell a couple jokes and make people laugh? Ridiculous. Stand up comedy isn’t about making people laugh. Well, ok it obviously IS about making people laugh but those comedians who make stand up an art form don’t “tell a couple of jokes”. Rather, it’s an intricate, woven symphony of building trust and breaking barriers. It’s an orchestra of hilarity.
So for the last several years, I’ve studied and absorbed everything I possibly can about the craft of stand up comedy. (If you’re interested, I’d particularly recommend HBO’s Talking Funny. It’s a masters class on how to construct a comedy set). In particular, I’m interested in how comedians build a cohesive piece. It’s a lot like building a business. Plenty of people have some neat ideas. Some of those ideas might even qualify as great but a lot of great ideas have failed as businesses because some component was flawed. Great product, bad marketing. Good sales team, bad production. Whatever the case, having a couple of good jokes, or a couple of good ideas, does not guarantee success.
When you’re looking at building a business, you need to think about each and every aspect, not just take a couple of great ideas and run with it. Bill Burr talks about how he delivers a show by saying, “I start off with a premise that I KNOW the audience disagrees with me on. I make them feel uncomfortable and then I make them come around to a new understanding”. Comedy, much like business, is built on the premise that a good product alone does not mean people will buy. Instead, you have to work on creating a situation where people grow to love who you are and what you do.
I was recently watching a special of a comedian that I haven’t seen much of before. But he had a Netflix special and I’ve gone through MUCH of what Netflix has available for stand up so I decided to give him a try. He had some AMAZING bits that I absolutely loved. Like, bust a gut and pass out pieces that STILL get me when I think about them. But he failed to bring it all together into a cohesive piece. There were lengthy parts that were downright not funny and there was no consistency. There was no plot. Some comedians don’t have a plot. Some do. But if you’re not going to, you better have some real, knock it out of the park jokes. Basically, if you’re not Mitch Hedberg, you better bring it all together somehow.
And that’s what business is. It’s about tying things together. Sales, marketing, production, organizational development. Each of these components is a piece of your set, your special. You can’t afford to do bits. Bits don’t come together. Bits aren’t cohesive. Bits (generally) don’t last. But when you put all those things together with structure and purpose and clarity, your chance of success is dramatically improved.
My advice is to start watching some stand up. Partly because I think the really great ones will help you see what cohesion looks like. Partly because the really bad ones will show you what scattered plans look like. And partly because you could probably use a laugh.