Pillar of Effectiveness
Let’s start with the obvious one: The Pillar of Effectiveness. Being effective as a comedian comes down to your ability to get laughs, both in quantity and quality.
This is the default for most comedians. It’s how the majority of open-mic comedians compete with one another. They’re all jockeying for position as “the funniest” or “the best.” The problem with this is that it neglects creativity. It assumes that we know everything audiences like and that “the winner” is whoever gives the audience the most of what they already want. If this was true, only joke-telling comedians would be successful, since they get to punchlines quicker than storytellers. Yet history says the opposite. It’s the storytellers that audiences fall in love with.
Effectiveness isn’t about time spent writing or how much material you can create. The audience doesn’t care if it took you one minute or one week to write your material. In the end, what you and the audience really care about is the result. If you spend eight hours cranking out hacky jokes, you’ve done yourself no favors. But the opposite is also true. Your greatest material might (and often does) come while you’re in the shower or driving. If you want to know more, I discuss why this works and how to use it to your advantage in Creativity For Comedians. Everything we do as comedians should be aimed at connecting with the audience on a deeper level, because in the end, that’s what audiences are going to remember.
No comedian exemplifies a heavy focus on effectiveness like Bob Hope (click for video). With the help of a staff of writers, Hope amassed a library of over one million jokes.
I grew up with six brothers. That’s how I learned to dance
– waiting for the bathroom.
At its core, a joke is a bite-sized piece of humor. It’s self-contained in that it doesn’t require anything before or after it to make it work. There’s a clear beginning and a clear end. The setup is as short as possible and the punchline packs as much surprise as possible. They’re designed to maximize effectiveness.
In the earliest years of the comedy industry, jokes were extremely effective. Effectiveness was the first (and only) pillar. The comedians that mastered joke-writing rose to the top.
However, by the late 1950’s, audiences were starting to realize what comedians were doing: setup, setup, punchline. Repeat. The magic of jokes started to fade.
In the 1960’s, comedians like Woody Allen (“I Shot a Moose” video) started bringing lots of personality into their performances. For the first time, comedians weren’t just competing on “what” was said, but also on “how” the joke was told. The quirky Woody Allen stepped off The Effectiveness Treadmill and skyrocketed to success despite being a sub-par performer. If you compare the joke-writing skills of Hope and Allen, Hope is the clear winner… and not by a little. Hope was far superior. Hope’s material was always very tight (very few unnecessary words) while Allen’s stories were often all over the place. Yet Hope’s popularity declined while comedians like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby became the new cultural icons.
As the industry evolved into the late 60’s, the Second Pillar of Comedy Success emerged.