Using Big-Picture Thinking as a Comedian

How “Big-Picture” Thinking Can Help You Become a Better Comedian

Big-picture thinking is all about momentarily stepping back and observing your career and environment. Both your comedy career and the environment (the stand-up comedy industry) are continually changing. What you need as a comedian today will be different in the next few months. To become a highly successful comedian, you need to continually monitor yourself and the comedy industry. Big-picture thinking has several benefits that comedians need in order to be successful.

Big picture thinking allows you to lead

Do you want to be a leader or a follower? Comedians that lead might have many look-a-likes. But one thing is certain, the audience always knows who the original leader was. Leaders have a first-mover advantage with the audience. The audience sees them perform a highly unique set and from then on the audience will always associate the style/material/etc. with the first comedian they saw perform it. That means that no matter how funny a comedian is, they’re doomed to be thought of as “the comedian that looks like ______” One cannot become a highly successful comedian by following, only through leading.

But leadership doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re at the front of a gigantic trend (think Pryor or Carlin). Nor does it mean that you’re creating a revolutionary change in performance style (think Steve Martin). In fact, leadership is often evolutionary instead of revolutionary. It starts off with a comedian taking a small step away from the crowd, away from the status quo. This move is usually so small that only your friends will notice. But eventually these evolutionary ideas compound on one another until there’s a huge difference between you and conventional comedians. That’s when you become a one-of-a-kind comedian… a true leader.

Big-picture thinking keeps you from being caught up in the mundane

Comedians are entrepreneurs by their very nature. They are the only ones responsible for their own success. That means spending plenty of time writing, performing, and marketing yourself. The more you do these activities, the more successful you’ll be as a comedian. But this comes with a down-side. As a comedian, you’ll always feel pressure to do these activities more and more. There’s no end. As “entrepreneurs,” there’s no clock to punch out. You’re always on. This is especially true in comedy, where most of your great ideas will come when you least expect them. The problem is that the more you spend on these activities, the less time there is to devote to big-picture thinking.

Big-picture thinking is one of the most important activities you can do as a comedian. But it feels unproductive. When we take a step back we are instantly struck with a feeling that we could be using this time to actually write material or get on stage. It’s extremely important that we periodically fight this urge and allow ourselves time to think broader questions like…

  • Is the path that I’m on right now leading me to where I want to go? (similar to benchmarking)
  • Is there a better way to do what I want?
  • How would (insert a comedic hero of yours) handle my current situation?


Big picture thinking helps you to chart uncharted territory

Don’t be a “me-too” comedian. In business, “Me-too” brands are the knock-offs. They enter a field only after someone has created a successful product and attempt to duplicate it and throw some of their own flavor (usually a mild one) into the mix to get around copyright laws. “Me-too” comedians are similar in that they adopt a similar style, either to one of their favorite comedians or a “conventional” style of comedy that plays it safe.

When you take a step back, you’ll notice opportunities around you that others miss. Richard Pryor and George Carlin epitomize this type of big-picture thinking. Both comedians famously took time off from their careers to “find themselves.” They realized that they couldn’t both be a part of the system and rebel against it (this separation isn’t always physical). They found solitude where they could reflect on both the current state of the stand-up comedy industry and on themselves. The results? Both comedians reinvented themselves into the comedians that we know and love today. Carlin got his first standing ovation and Pryor became the top ranked comedian of all-time (by Comedy Central).


Big picture thinking keeps you on target

When was the last time you sat down and really thought about what your goals are and whether you’re going about achieving them with the right strategy? It’s probably been awhile. It’s not uncommon to dream about achieving success, but it is uncommon for comedians to actually plan what that path should look like. Without big-picture thinking, you’ll get caught up in the mundane, everyday tasks of being a comedian. There’s a tiny, but important difference between writing because it’s “what you know you should be doing” and writing to achieve an end-result.

It’s common knowledge that great comedians tend to be highly differentiated (see “how to get more fans“). There’s simply no comedian that could substitute for them. What many don’t realize is that doing that requires effort. It means saying “no” to some great jokes that don’t fit their style. Big-picture thinking is what allows comedians to stay on target. It’s impossible from simply day-in day-out activities. One tiny change can lead you to watering down your comedy material.

How to Become a Successful Comedian

We’ve briefly addressed how big-picture thinking can positively impact your career. Remember to keep big-picture thinking in your regular practice. You don’t (and probably shouldn’t) use big-picture thinking every single day. It does take an time investment. However, if you really want the best rate of returns on the time you spend working on your stand-up comedy career, big-picture thinking is absolutely necessary. The perspective you’ll gain will be invaluable to you in your day-to-day functions. If you’re interested in learning more, we teach this and many other strategies in-depth in our Creativity For Comedians Course.


Jared Volle