What Determines Long-Term Success in Stand-Up Comedy?

How Benchmarking Leads to Success In Stand-Up Comedy

Benchmarking is one of the most powerful strategies for creating long-term success in stand-up comedy. Benchmarking is used to evaluate something by comparison with a standard. That standard comes from other people that are in the industry. More so than any other factor, your standards are going to have the most effect on your success in stand-up comedy. Comedians with high standards are continually searching for a better way. In the long-run, there’s no stopping them. They’re going to become successful comedians every time. They might not find the key to success today or tomorrow, but they’ll find it and eventually cruise past their peers. It transcends individual comedic styles, comedy classes, and experience. It’s the cure-all for comedy. It doesn’t matter what’s in the way of you realizing your goals, high standards are the answer. Without them, the search for a better way never begins.

So where do these standards come from? In short, your benchmarks.

There are three types of benchmarks: positive, neutral, and negative. A positive benchmark is any comparison that makes you feel superior (“I get more laughs than him”). Conversely, a negative benchmark is one that makes you feel inferior (“That guy crushed and I bombed”). Neutral benchmarks are… well, neutral.

These three benchmarks have very different effects on comedians. Positive benchmarks signals to a comedian that they’re doing well and are on course… no change is necessary. If you positively benchmark yourself long-term, don’t be surprised if 5 or 10 years down the road you haven’t taken your game to the next level. Comedians that do this consistently will find that they have all knew material that gets the same level of response they were getting in the past. You can see how difficult it would be to become a successful comedian by continually benchmarking this way.

Being content = being static

Negative benchmarks, however, signal that there’s a problem and action needs to be taken. Think about the last time when you were highly motivated to make a change. The desire to create the change probably didn’t come out of thin air… it probably came about because you related your current situation to that of another’s and found yourself lacking. That negative contrast is an extremely powerful emotion that creates an intense drive to make a change. It’s strange, but humans will do far more to avoid pain than to gain a similar amount of pleasure. If you make a change without a benchmark, you’ll likely feel a little pleasure in doing it. But if you make a change because of a negative benchmark, you’ll do far more to avoid the pain of being found wanting. Highly successful comedians tend to have very high benchmarks for themselves. They don’t care how many laughs an open-mic comedian is getting… that’s not their benchmark. They benchmark the best of the best. Eventually, they too become successful comedians because they had consistent, intense motivation to continually raise their standards. They understand that learning how to be a comedian is a journey, not a destination. Even the best have to continually push.

Creating negative benchmarks is different from “beating yourself up.” Comedians that create negative benchmarks use them to drive themselves forward to achieve success in comedy. Their focus is on the future, not on their present. They become excited about the possibilities that are ahead of them, not content with where they are. Dwelling on what you lack results in lower motivation… not higher.  When creating a negative benchmark, acknowledge that the comedian you’re benchmarking is ahead of you, accept it, and them become determined to close the gap by taking consistent action.

Feeling in lack = motivation to raise your standards


Creating Benchmarks For Success

That “standard” comes from all around us throughout our day. However, it’s much more concentrated with standards that are more frequent and more emotional. The more often you make a comparison, the more intense the drive to meet that standard. Similarly, the more often you check yourself against a standard, the more intense your drive will be to meet or exceed that standard. It’s for this reason that benchmarking is one of the most powerful strategies you can employ as a stand-up comedian because, in large part, it determines what standards you are going to have for yourself and your career.

Your consistent, long-term standards determines your level of success

Let’s say you write for an hour a day. Is that good? How would you know? To figure it out you’d have to relate it to other comedian’s standards. Open mic comedians might think that you’re killing it while A-listers might think “why so little?” Would you be more motivated to write longer if you knew other comedians were impressed with how much work you already put in? Probably not. But you definitely would feel that drive if you suddenly realized that other comedians are putting in 2 or 3 times the effort you are. Which one is more likely to lead you to success in comedy?

But it’s not just about effort. Benchmarking can be used for results as well. How many laughs do you get on stage? How many applause breaks can you count on? If you’re benchmarking those your around, you likely get around the same results as everyone else. But if you’ve been benchmarking yourself against top comedians you’re likely killing on stage and continually moving towards success.

  • Benchmarking those above you creates intense motivation to raise your standards (“I need to raise my game”)
  • Benchmarking those at the same level creates inertia (“everyone else is doing it. Why change?”)
  • Benchmarking those below you will slowly erode the standards you have (“why am I putting in so much work?)

So who you’re benchmarking is important. If you create a low benchmark, you’ll likely feel that you’re superior to open-mic-level comedians and feel justified in how much effort you put in or the results you get. Benchmark the greats and it’s a whole different story.

Seinfeld (a comedian widely regarding as having the best work ethic) didn’t create his work ethic out of thin air, he created it by relating how much he works on stand-up comedy with how much people work outside of stand-up comedy. Specifically, he thought about how construction workers put in 8 hours of work a day and decided that THAT should be his standard). You can see from this example that your benchmark doesn’t necessarily have to come from inside your own industry. The only factor that’s important is that whoever you chose to benchmark yourself with moves you towards success and away from complacency.

You can’t be content with where you are while simultaneously setting yourself up for success. Even if you’re already “successful,” you still have to maintain that success. Top comedians that become satisfied with their level of success stop pushing boundaries. Eventually, the audience grows tired of them. The audience acclimates to the comedian and eventually becomes bored.

The solution here is obvious. If you want to be the best comedian, you have to benchmark the best comedians and then take your game up even further.


Who’s someone that you could benchmark that would have a positive impact on your career?

Want to learn more about how to become a successful comedian? Check out our blogs on originality in stand-up comedy and 4 ways to become a more creative comedian.


Jared Volle