Pillar of Authenticity
So, the first pillar is about being able to compete with other comedians and the second pillar is about refusing to blend in and pursuing your uniqueness. The third pillar is the Pillar of Authenticity. It doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are, the only way to gain a massive fan following is to create a connection with the audience. That connection doesn’t come through effectiveness or uniqueness… It comes through authenticity.
Authenticity is so important to human survival that it’s actually wired into the brain. That’s why there isn’t a civilization in the world that values inauthenticity. We’re naturally repulsed by it. Importantly, these emotions are handled by the unconscious brain. We don’t consciously think, “Hmm. It’s Monday. I think I’ll be mad today.” We just are. It’s unconscious.
- We’re not making a choice to like authenticity. If you’re a human, you already value it.
- We’re unaware of the importance of authenticity because it’s not something we have to think about.
Comedians that feel fake are more likely to repulse audiences instead of attract them, even if they’re funny. Creating a fan-base is not just a question of being funny, and being unique only gives the audience something interesting that they could connect to. Your fanbase is a direct result of your ability to connect with audiences on a deeper level.
This is why storytelling is so powerful. It’s completely authentic and natural. It’s engaging the audience like a real human being instead of like a calculated robot. When people are authentic, we connect with them. Since we love comedy so much, we’re naturally going to choose to connect with the audience in a funny way.
In everyday life, we like to know that people are being real with us. In a deep relationship, we don’t mind when people have faults – it’s the people that hide their faults that scare us! On stage, just like in real life, what you lose in “not looking like a ‘perfect person,” you more than make up for in connection. Audiences didn’t just “forgive” Woody Allen’s imperfections… they loved them. A large part of his comedic power came from being seen as a lovable, neurotic person. Audiences flocked to Richard Pryor because he was the first comedian to allow himself to be vulnerable. He was authentic in a way that had never been seen before. He never took “cheap shots” to get a quick joke. George Carlin became a sharp-witted social commentator. He spent over 40 years selling out arenas by arguing for what he believed. Authenticity was at his core.
I count myself very lucky. It wasn’t very long after rejecting joke-telling and pursuing my own uniqueness that I began working with Kyle Cease. While Kyle isn’t quite a household name, he’s one of the most talented comedians working today. He holds the all-time record for most college performances and was voted as having the #1 Comedy Central Special of 2009. Through the years that I’ve known him, I’ve consistently been blown away by his authenticity. He is exactly the same person off stage as on stage.
Kyle’s authenticity doesn’t come from telling stories of childhood trauma or admitting guilty pleasures. It comes from a consistent commitment to approaching every moment with a childlike playfulness. He refuses to conform to the norms of stand-up comedy. He refuses to take himself seriously.
During his Wake Up College Tour he liked to tell college students the story of his early work with Comedy Central. His Comedy Central debut was only a few minutes long but it scared the hell out of him. He was so afraid of messing up on TV that he sped through his material as fast as he could while holding onto the microphone stand to make sure he didn’t fall over or pass out. Hardly the poster-child for authenticity. To his surprise, the network liked him and offered him his very own Comedy Central Special, which would eventually become the highest rated special of 2009, narrowly beating out the emerging comedy star Jeff Dunham for the top slot.
Between the 2 shows Kyle reinvented himself. He didn’t suddenly throw out all his material (Comedy Central wouldn’t have been too happy if he did). But he knew he couldn’t take another several months of worrying about the future… so he committed himself to staying playful in the moment.
When the time came to shoot his special, Kyle didn’t play by Comedy Central’s rules. TV viewers wouldn’t know it, but there’s a teleprompter on the back wall to make sure the performer doesn’t have any problems while the cameras are rolling. There are two important rules for the taping:
- Stick to the script– TV isn’t the time to try anything new.
- Don’t do crowd work– You can’t be 100% sure what will happen when you engage the audience. If something went wrong, editing around it would be a nightmare and could possibly ruin the special.
During the taping, Kyle Cease (“Things Girls Say” video) blew both of those rules. He jumped around his material so much that the teleprompter guy eventually gave up trying to figure out what was being said or what he would be said next. Kyle also included his signature crowd work, a mixture of high-energy tangents and self-commentary.
Kyle hit all three of the pillars we’ve been talking about in this chapter. He was incredibly effective as a performer. He had over a decade worth of material to rely on, even though he wasn’t entirely sure which material he’d say that night. He was also incredibly unique. He was playful in a way that most comedians don’t allow themselves to be. He was also the only comedian to do crowd work or improvise on the show. But more than either of those, he was incredibly authentic. He didn’t feel like “a comedian.” He felt more like your best friend from high school. That feeling wasn’t lost on Comedy Central viewers when it came time to vote for the best special of the year.
Patrice O’Neal (video) is another good example of authenticity. In one of his best bits he tries to explain “What men actually want in a relationship.” His commentary strikes a chord with the audience. Just by starting his story from a very authentic place, he got the audience to completely buy into the entire bit. Even the women in the audience were identify with his POV. If you removed his authenticity and simply read through his material looking for jokes, there wouldn’t be much there. The biggest laugh he got in his bit was from a very simple and honest observation that the whole audience could identify with.
For most comedians, your stage persona and your true personality will be nearly identical. Comedians with a stage persona different from their off-stage persona can still be seen as authentic, as long as everything about their persona makes sense.
It’s like a sci-fi movie. The audience will accept a world where people can fly and aliens can shape-shift, but only if the rules are consistent. If you’re halfway through a movie and the main character can suddenly fly, you’d feel the screenwriter cheated. But you have no problem with flying in Superman or Peter Pan. The authenticity comes from consistency.
The same thing is true for a comedian’s authenticity. Everything doesn’t have to make sense compared to actual reality, it only has to make sense for the persona. It makes sense based on the world you’ve built.
Here are some examples of great comedians who built a consistent persona that was very different from their off-stage personality: Rodney Dangerfield (video) (“I get no respect” ), Andy Kaufman (video) (wild practical joker), Steve Martin (anti-comedy), and Andrew Dice Clay (video) (“I’m a badass”). These comedians gained their power not from holding up a mirror to reality, like many comedians successfully do, but by offering an incredibly unique perspective by stretching reality.
Interestingly, the number one rule of anti-comedy is to never let the audience know you’re bombing. It’s not the incredibly stupid joke that gets a laugh… it’s usually how smug and self-assured the comedian is while he says it. Anti-comedy, like all forms of comedy, is rooted in authenticity. Without consistency, both comedy and anti-comedy lose its power.
So, the Pillar of Authenticity is all about creating a connection with the audience. By basing your career on all three pillars, you become a comedian that knows how to get laughs (worth listening to), can be seen as unique and special (worth remembering), and can also create a deep connection with the audience (worth talking about). This is a night-and-day difference from just trying to “tell the funniest jokes.” If you had to bet your life savings on which type of comedian would become successful, which would you choose? Are you willing to bet your own career on it?
(If you are, you’re a helluva lot braver than me).