Why New Comedians Fail, and How to Build A Fan Base

If you want to be a successful comedian, emphasizing laughter might not be the best option…

In this article:

  • The only factor that separates the most successful comedians from everyone else
  • Why “funny” isn’t always a comedian’s #1 goal
  • A new way of measuring your success on stage


[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znXSqF7KOfQ[/embedyt]


What’s More Important? Maximizing laughter? Or being DIFFERENT?

This is one of the most important topics to stand-up comedian success- How do you go about getting more fans? There are an unbelievable number of comedians that are working today (mostly in the lower-levels) that believe that maximizing laughter on stage is all there is to stand-up comedy and increasing their fanbase. This is the ultimate trap for comedians. First, the audience not care that you were 10% or 20% funnier than the other comedians that you were performing with. Second, and more dangerously, having this belief gives the illusion of forward movement. It leads comedians to value how many laughs they get on stage way more than they should.

The audience only remembers what’s REMARKABLE.

The way most comedians try to measure their success on stage is by the quantity of laughter, either through trying to feel how much laughter there is or by attempting to quantify the laughter. Comedians can learn a lot from this information. However, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Audiences don’t experience a comedian the way comedians “experience” themselves. They don’t logically think “well, he got more laughter than everyone else… so I’ll become his fan.” They become fans because they’re able to pick you or your material out from a host of other comedians or jokes.

If you want to get fans… being 10% funnier than all the other comedians on the night isn’t how to do it. You’ll end up have many great shows, but lacking any real fan base. The audience is not going to remember you unless you give them a reason to.

If you’re not differentiating yourself, the audience has nothing to remember you by. You become a statistic. Interesting, but easily forgotten. There’s no way to build a fan base from this. That’s why early on in my career I started using a new metric of gauging the quality of a performance. Instead of counting laughter, I count how many applause breaks I get. To me, this metric is far more important because it rewards doing something SIGNIFICANT. Applause breaks are generally only given by the audience for material that made a real impact on them. Audiences don’t give applause breaks unless the material is meaningful… and if it’s meaningful, it’s worth remembering. Using this strategy to measure success doesn’t mean you disregard all the other metrics out there, it simply means that you place extra value on applause breaks. An applause break more closely predicts whether I’ll be able to get more fans from a show than simple laughter.

What you consistently measure, get’s DONE. So measure the right thing.

Why not measure consistency instead? Consistency is simply about finding all the jokes that work often and structuring them in a way to build momentum. You can ALWAYS increase your consistency by restructuring material, but you can’t go from unoriginal material to highly original material… you have to scrap it and start from scratch. If you’re at the open mic level, the game isn’t about creating a fan base yet. It’s about building a solid foundation for a career where fans will flock to you. You start with creativity, not consistency. You can’t simply pile on tons of great, conventional jokes and expect creative genius to emerge.

More of the same, never adds up to the best.

You really see this when you study comedians that are at the top of their game. These comedians are so different that the audience remembers them. That’s how they got famous in the first place! They gave the audience a reason to remember them. It’s only after audiences have this reason that they decide whether or not to become a fan (which feeds back into the quality of the set as well as the audience member’s own tastes and preferences). In order to do this you have to start with creativity, not with the quality or quantity of your laughter. Quality can always be built up over time. Originality can’t.

You can spend months creating a great set by repeatedly building upon your material. However, if you’re truly being original, you’re playing by a whole new set of rules. When I’m on stage, I don’t care how many laughs I’m getting (obviously, there’s a breaking point there, but thankful it’s not one I have to worry about anymore), what I care about is giving the audience a reason to remember me (a good one). When that’s taken care of, the laughter comes as a result. Even when I don’t get the most laughs on a night, it doesn’t matter (which is good, because it’s impossible to control who gets the most laughs on any given night). The audience still remembers which comedian I was as well as their favorite bits… if that happens, I’ve already won.

Getting laughs doesn’t mean you gave the audience a reason to remember you…

Give the audience a reason to remember you, and the laughs will come.

This is why tackling the creative side of stand-up comedy is so important. Once you nail down the creative side, you can build up the quality of your material and have the best of both worlds. But if you want both, it starts with creativity, not laughs.

I’ve always suggested that new comedians start out by learning the basics. You have to know what’s been done before you can explore new territory. High levels of creativity generally require high levels of knowledge in your field. You need that knowledge in order to build off of it. It’s important to get that knowledge, but you also have to be attending to the creative aspect of stand-up comedy. Comedians can learn this creativity the same way they learned the mechanics of stand-up comedy: through instruction and/or experimentation.

If you want a fan base, differentiation isn’t just a “good” way to go… it’s “THE” way to go. It’s THE competitive advantage. There isn’t a business in the world that isn’t interested in having a competitive advantage over their peers. In stand-up comedy, comedians get a competitive advantage through activities like networking (knowing the producers of the best shows in town) or through sheer hard work. Both of these are great strategies, but if you’re not combining it with high levels of creativity, you’re a lot of your work is going to waste because it’s not serving your end goals (building a fan base and having a successful career in stand-up comedy).

There are over 100,000 other comedians working today. Would you really want to go head-to-head with 100,000 other comedians (“Your jokes vs. mine”). You’d be in for the fight of your life.

Thankfully, success isn’t based on having higher quality jokes than everyone else. Sure, famous comedians have some great jokes, but the ONLY factor that separates top level comedians from everyone else is creativity. There are people that can kill on stage throughout all levels of stand-up comedy who are left with almost no fan base or fan loyalty.

I often get asked why comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor were the greatest comedians of all time when they didn’t tell a lot of jokes. In fact, if you analyzed both of these comedians’ laughter without taking into account their creativity (the fact that they were absolutely one of a kind) you’d find that, for the most part, they were pretty average. There success was built on being different from everyone else. Audiences couldn’t get the same experience from any other comedian in the world.

About 80% of creativity is learned behavior. Unfortunately, the fact that stand-up comedy is a “creative” profession generally means that comedians assume they must be creative. But creativity isn’t a yes or no answer. The creativity that you have now isn’t the amount of creativity that you’re limited to. Applying creative strategies (REAL one… not this brainstorming BS) has been shown to increase the creativity of individuals both inside and outside of creative professions.