The Power of Negativity In Stand-Up Comedy

Why Negativity In Stand-Up Comedy Can Be Your Ally

It’s a shame that so many people view comedians (or other creative individuals) stereotypically as negative. In fact, negativity one of our greatest strengths. Without a healthy sense of negativity, nothing creative gets done. It’s the DIS-satisfied comedians that move the stand-up comedy industry forward, not those that are content with the status quo.

How Negativity Effects Comedians

Negativity has several beneficial effects on stand-up comedians.

First, it creates motivation to push boundaries. I can almost guarantee you that if you’ve been satisfied with your level of performance over the last several months that you haven’t written anything lately that pushes your game forward. Effort and quality of material are inextricably linked. Put in a similar amount of effort and you’ll get a similar quality of joke (in general). Put in more effort than last month and, on average, you’ll get better results. It’s as simple as that. It’s a healthy amount of negativity that allows comedians to reject their old standards and adopt new, higher standards for their career. It doesn’t matter how funny, talented, or experienced you are… that’s your baseline. If you want to move up from that baseline you have to put in extra effort, which comes from some form of negativity.

This principle scales up and down. Boundaries might be the quality of your material, the style of your performance, your networking skills, individual jokes,  entire career, or whatever. Lenny Bruce was dissatisfied with not being allowed to be himself on stage. That dissatisfaction lead him to reject the conventional style of comedy present in the 1950’s. Richard Pryor was dissatisfied with writing surface-level jokes that weren’t personal. Carlin was dissatisfied with not expressing his views. It’s interesting to note that both Pryor and Carlin had successful careers before they changed their style. But what solidified them as the greatest comedians of all time was what they did AFTER they became dissatisfied.

“Civilization had too many rules for me. So I did my best to rewrite them” –Bill Cosby

Second, being negative changes our focus. When a comedian is dissatisfied they tend to look at specifics. When they’re satisfied they tend to look at things as a whole. The brain is naturally wired for this type of behavior. It’s the same for everyone.

How does this affect your ability to write stand-up comedy?  Negativity is almost always the initiator of a new joke or bit. When was the last time you said “I really like dolphins. I’ll write a joke about them.” No. You probably thought “I hate people that change lanes in the intersection” and got your pen out to start ranting. When you view something you enjoy, you view it holistically. You tend to not pick out specific things that you enjoy about it… you simply enjoy it. But when you’re negative you want to know the cause. That search for a cause launches you into writing comedy. You explore different possibilities, make a couple of assumptions or generalizations, or create a narrative.

Two powerful things are happening here that affect your ability to write comedy. First, you’ve narrowed your focus down on something. By getting specific, you give your brain a goal. As we discussed in a previous post, this will help you overcome writer’s block. Rather than sitting down at your computer and thinking “ok. Let’s write something.” You’ve actually got a topic right in front of you that is strongly tied to your emotions. Second, you’re attempting to bring yourself back into equilibrium. The usual strategy here (for comedians or otherwise) is to attempt to tear down the object of your negativity to restore a feeling of superiority. Because comedy naturally lends itself to putdowns and the like, that negativity makes it very easy to write comedy.

Third, negativity creates more accurate evaluations of our own performances. Comedians that are overly positive and optimistic might be a little happier in the short run, but the pain is going to catch up to them when they realize that they’ve been coasting for years and that other comedians are passing them in their career. Here, only slight negativity is desired. If you get too negative and you’ll rip up the paper and refuse to write comedy again. If you consistently judge yourself too harshly all you’re doing is making yourself feel inadequate, which decreases the likelihood of you writing. In this scenario, you’ll likely find that you’re sabotaging yourself, constantly finding excuses for why you can’t write (you have your subconscious brain to thank for this). Learn more about this concept in our blog post on benchmarking.

Balancing Your Negativity

But so far we’ve only acknowledged the benefits of negativity. Sometimes too much negativity can get in the way of being creative. Since negativity narrows a comedian’s focus, it makes it difficult to think of ideas that are new and unique. Creativity researchers call this ability “categorical thinking.” It seems that when a person is in a negative mood, the brain naturally wants to rely on trusted ideas that it can go back to again and again. Conversely, positive moods help the brain think of ideas that are harder to reach, increasing the originality of your material and making it more memorable.

The proper balance of negative and positive moods will depend on the comedian. It would be ridiculous to say that Lewis Black and Brian Regan should spend the same amount of time in negative mental states. What’s important is two things…

First, the amount of time you spend in each state should reflect the type of material or performer that you are. Lewis Black will spend much more time in a negative state because that’s his persona. It’s not only who he is on stage… it’s who he is. Brian Regan is going to spend more time in a positive mental state for the same reason. Both comedians need to give the audience what they want (this isn’t Bob Dylan going electric) and the best way to do that is to align themselves with their stage persona (or more accurately, they’ve aligned their stage person with themselves).

Second, you shouldn’t dismiss either of the states. There are clear benefits to both. Too much positivity and you’ll find it difficult to spot ideas to write comedy about. You’ll also be too easy on yourself when you evaluate the quality of your material. Too much negativity and you’ll likely spot tons of joke premises but not develop highly original ideas off of those premises.

In what mental state do you spend the majority of your time?

Would you benefit from spending more time in the other mental state?


Jared Volle