In this article I’ll be delving into the specific skills that differentiate highly creative comedians from comedians that struggle to write comedy. This won’t be an article on skills for how to write or perform stand-up comedy. Instead, I’ll be focusing specifically on a comedians creativity. I should note upfront that these 5 skills are universal, they’re far more than “comedian skills,” they’re creativity skills. It’s no secret that comedians rely on a heavy dose of creativity to do what they do. Tons of books and classes have been given on how to write comedy and how to perform it… but little is done to help comedians create” their material. Even though creativity is necessary to a comedian’s success, the topic hasn’t been explored in-depth. In this article we’ll take current research and explore the skills comedian need to be highly creative and write mounds of killer material while leaving aside the “how to stand-up comedy” knowledge. Here are the 5 skills every comedian needs.
Associating is a skill that allows comedians to link seemingly unrelated ideas together. The easiest place to see this in stand-up comedy is when a comedian uses a metaphor or analogy. Association is occurring throughout the creative process of comedians. Most comedians don’t simply write what they see (if that was the case you’d be basing your entire career on being at the right place at the right time).When writing comedy, comedians are (often unknowingly) combining ideas together.
Sometimes this is as simple as combining different stories together to form a single story that has all the strengths of both stories and less of the negatives. Most of the time, however, this combining (or “synthesis” as it’s known in creativity research) is off different smaller ideas (known as “components”). For instance, a comedian creates a story which acts as a framework. From there, the comedian adds and subtracts different ideas, perhaps changing the ethnicity or gender of a character or changing the perspective of the material. In either case, the comedian isn’t creating something from nothing (no creative person ever does). What they’re actually doing is taking pre-existing ideas and combining them together to form a new idea.
It’s the creative comedian’s ability to take control of this process of associating that allows them to consciously generate more creative ideas with higher consistency than their peers.
The second skill every creative comedian needs is the ability to question. The best comedians ask tons of open-ended questions such as…
- “what could…”
- “how might…”
- “if ____ is true, then what does that mean?”
- “What about…”
Effective questioning raises new possibilities and creates new perspectives on old situations. This new perspective is particularly important. In stand-up comedy, no comedian has dibs on any subject. Let’s be honest, for the most part we’re all talking about pretty similar topics. If a comedian is going to stand out among the monotony they have to be able to generate new perspectives.
You really see the power of questions when you read comedian biographies. Time and again, I find that the greatest comedians in the world became that way only after they started asking themselves new questions. Here are two excellent examples. Steve Martin asked the question “why is comedy so serious?” and it led him to pioneer anti-comedy. Richard Pryor asked the question “why can’t comedy be personal?” and was the first comedian to ever lead an audience deep into the dark shadows of a their psyche. What’s so amazing about these two examples is how unremarkable both of these comedian’s careers were before they changed their question. Please note here that I said “unremarkable” not “successful.” Richard Pryor had already been on Carson before he made the switch. It’s a safe bet that you could watch his old material (before changing his question) and be absolutely unimpressed. What’s more, you’d never have guessed that he’d become one of the greatest comedians of all time from his Carson performance. That’s what I mean by unremarkable.
But this happens on a much smaller scale as well. Throughout the stand-up comedy writing process comedians are constantly asking and answering their own questions. These questions are used to test boundaries for material (“can I exaggerate this?”), test (“do I really need this setup line?”), change perspectives (“how would she have reacted?”), expand material (“What else?”), reject norms (“why am I writing/performing in this manner?”) and connect ideas (“what is this like?”) just to name a few.
Quality questions lead to a quality career
Observation is all about raising your level of awareness. It forms the initial components which are used in association. Observation is one of the most important comedian skills out there. Without it, there is no creativity. There’s a false belief that creative people “create something out of nothing.” This isn’t necessarily the case, at least when you’re looking at how creative people go about producing ideas. Comedians don’t write stand-up comedy by sitting at a computer and hoping something amazing comes out. They observe the world and write about it, putting their own unique perspective into their writing (i.e. they’re associating what they observed with their own unique humor/perspective/etc.).
Comedy teachers recognize the importance of this skill. Every comedy teacher I know of suggests having a way of getting your observations down on paper the instant they happen, whether that’s carrying a pen and paper, a voice recorder, or (as I’ve been known to do) calling a friend that never picks up their phone and leaving the joke on their message with a plea to “call me back and tell me later.”
What all of these systems (ok, mines not so much a “system”) have in common is that they are designed to help spur your creativity when you’re writing comedy. Instead of having to “create something from nothing,” you’re able to “create something from other somethings,” which is much easier (actually, creating something from nothing is literally impossible, but that’s for another blog).
For simplicity, you can break creativity down into two separate acts: acquiring (observing) and synthesizing (associating). The more ideas you have to combine together (i.e. the more you observe), the more unique and fun combinations you’ll be able to create later on (i.e. synthesizing).
Think of creativity (or if you will, writing stand-up) as building a Lego castle. If you want to “create” a complex structure you need to…
- have enough Legos
- have the RIGHT TYPE of Legos
- be able to put those Legos together correctly
In this analogy, observation is the way that comedians collect Legos. Again, comedians don’t build something from nothing. They build something (a joke/bit/set) out of something else (tiny observations).
The fourth skill of a creative comedian is the ability to experiment. If you do it correctly, creativity results in something that’s never been seen before, something original. That’s what makes it so memorable to audience members. However, originality comes with a downside: because you’ve created something truly different, you won’t know if it’s going to be accepted or rejected by audience members. You have nothing to compare it to. Creativity, by its very definition, involves risk. Comedians already recognize this. You write a joke and test it on stage. Any comedian that’s been around for a few shows knows that you can’t accurately predict what will happen the first time you tell a joke. Since it’s the first time and it’s a new joke, there’s risk there.
It’s the same with all forms of creativity. That’s why great comedians are always experimenting. The pursuit of originality as a stand-up comedian is more evolutionary than revolutionary. They test out an idea, get a response, and then adjust where their idea goes. It doesn’t begin as a fully formed plan. It begins as a simple experiment. That experiment is usually a joke or bit but it could be a new delivery style (new comedians, especially), a new persona, a new marketing technique, or any number of possibilities.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a fully-formed “plan” for wildly original material
By networking, I’m not referring to comedians exchanging business cards or following each other on twitter. Creative people use networking differently- for new ideas and new perspectives. The most important characteristic of a creative person’s network is its diversity. Creative people, comedians included, tend to have lots of people within their network that have very different backgrounds. This diverse background allows for new ideas to emerge that a single comedian was incapable of developing by himself.
What’s great about the stand-up comedy industry is its diversity. Comedians aren’t all working as 21 year-old waiters, they come from all walks of life and they bring different, unique skills and knowledge with them. Some comedians will be much better at different tasks than others. A comedian that uses one-liners will have a different perspective on developing a bit than a comedian that tells stories or talks politics. Sometimes these exchanges happen formally, such as in writer’s groups or when hiring a comedy coach, but most of the time they happen informally. They happen in the greenroom, after shows, on the phone, etc. They’re quick exchanges between comedians that are so quick, they can often go unrecognized.
I’m not just referring to comedians tagging each other material, though that’s often what happens. The most beneficial exchanges happen when comedians constructively challenge other comedians. A simple “Why don’t you try…” can lead to a huge breakthrough in either your writing or performing (given that you actually accept their perspective instead of quickly writing it off).
How to Use These Comedian Skills to Build a More Successful Career
These are 5 universal traits of great creative thinking. Applying these 5 skills will help you take the knowledge you learned in comedy classes, comedy books, through trial-and-error on stage, or while observing other comedians and apply it more purposefully in the future. This blog has been a quick rundown of the 5 skills for being a more creative comedian. If you want to learn more, download the first hour of the Creativity For Comedians Program by filling out your name and email in the opt-in box.
Identify the weakest area in your comedy career (writing, performing, marketing, whatever) and apply these 5 skills consciously for the next 2 weeks. You’ll likely find that you begin the process feeling as if you’re standing in a dark room feeling your way around. As a few days pass and you begin creating new solutions to old problems, you’ll find that you’re now able to take more control over both the quality and quantity of your ideas. What’s more, you’ll find that you’re ability to use these 5 skills improve in other areas of your comedy as well. Even though you singled out the biggest issue in your comedy, your original strengths will get even stronger.