What Creates Massive Success In Comedy?

In this article, I’ll introduce you to a new way of looking at creativity. I’ll also show you examples of how this type of creativity was applied by the greatest comedians of all time. Then I’ll go a step further and show you how this type of creativity actually lead to their future success.

This simple change in a single belief can unleash a wave of creativity. Since this isn’t a “strategy” or “tactic” there’s no action that needs to be taken… it’ll work in the background while you are working on your material.

Understanding Comedian Creativity

For years I thought I was maxing out my creative potential simply because I was “doing creative things.” What I didn’t realize at the time is that creativity wasn’t inherent in the writing or performing process itself… it’s HOW writing or performing is actually carried out. Simply put, you can write all day and not be creative, or you approach your writing from a fresh perspective and have a highly creative ideas right away.

But first, let me back up and explain what creativity really is. Creativity is a very broad term, but a creative idea requires at least two features: It must be “useful” in some way (in the case of stand-up comedy… this means it must get a laugh) and it must be unique.

While the act of writing is creative in a sense, it is false to believe that all creativity is equal. Creativity researchers recognize at least two types of creativity, which they (uncreatively) called Big-C creativity and little-c creativity. Big-C creativity is the type of creativity that breaks through boundaries and has a sizeable impact. It is no coincidence that the top three comedians of all time (as ranked by Comedy Central) all exemplified this type of creativity.

Little-c creativity is the type of creativity that works within a current set of rules. Instead of seeking to break rules and create new ones, little-c creativity seeks to perfect the current rules of the game. If I were to ask you to write ten “your momma” jokes, you would be exhibiting this type of creativity. While many of the answers would be unique, they would hardly stand-out among countless other comedians doing the same thing. While “your momma” jokes are an extreme example, many comedians restrict their creativity in a similar way. They embrace the “rules” of comedy, almost entirely dismissing the unknown territory that lies beyond those rules. While working within the rules may be necessary in the beginning of a comedian’s career, to be successful, a comedian must move beyond the rules.

As Richard Pryor said “I know all the tricks. I assume that everybody does. But people like me because I won’t use them, and if I do, they can tell”

Why have comedians embraced little-c creativity?

First, because they do not understand there is another option. If all types of creativity are lumped together as a single action… then you either “do” or you “don’t,” there’s no room for strategy.

Second, because little-c creativity is what they are taught, either implicitly through comedy schools’ and books’ heavy emphasis on the rules or unconsciously through observing other comedians who hold the same beliefs. As much as we’d all like to admit to being totally unique, no man is an island. We are all shaped by our environment on some level.

Third, and most dangerous, because it appears to work. Little-c creativity does benefit a comedian. Clearly, a comedian can rewrite their material to get a better audience response. However, those rewrites make the material tighter, they don’t serve to break through boundaries or differentiate the comedian in the eyes of the audience. The danger here is that a comedian is left with the false conclusion that “excellence in comedy” is simply applying this single type of creativity (little-c creativity) at ever-higher levels. This creates a moving target that is unreachable (“IF I apply these rules even better… THEN I will be successful”).

Why is the goal unreachable? It’s because more of the same never adds up to the best. Top comedians exhibit both types of creativity. It’s the comedian’s skills in applying little-c creativity that make him proficient at getting laughs, but it’s his skills in applying Big-C creativity that make him unique to the audience, and thus memorable.

You can prove the importance of uniqueness for yourself by simply analyzing your favorite comedians. Do you enjoy Chris Rock because he has a high PAR value (PAR value being the percentage of laughter a comedian gets throughout their set) or because he offers a unique experience that cannot be found elsewhere, even by look-a-likes? Are you a die-hard fan of Louie C.K. because he says five jokes per minute when other comedians only tell four? Or is it because you identify with him on a deeper level, if only because he’s being truly authentic? No matter who your favorite comedians are, it’s safe to say that laughter wasn’t the deciding factor… uniqueness was. And this uniqueness is never found inside conventional writing strategies.

If one believes that playing within the rules is all there is to comedy success, then they must also believe that they can take a great comedian, strip them of everything that makes that comedian unique, and that that comedian would still wind up on top. Would people have put on bunny ears and packed into stadiums to see Steve Martin if he wasn’t “A Wild and Crazy Guy?” Would Andy Kaufman have been a great comedian without his practical jokes? Would George Carlin have been able to stay on top of the industry for over 40 years without constantly pushing boundaries? When you strip a great comedian of their uniqueness you’re left with a comedian that, at best, is slightly better than average.

If a comedian fails to move beyond the current rules of the game, he has little hope of differentiating himself as a comedian. He will be competing head-to-head with every other comedian in the world on neutral ground… May the best 45 minutes of jokes win. But even the winner won’t truly win because laughter is not the only factor in stand-up comedy success. If this were true Pryor and Carlin would not be held in such high regard.

The Good News: Creativity Is Not “Fixed”

Creativity isn’t fixed… It is actually made of three different components, all of which can be honed through a mixture of education and practice. The “official” terms are Domain-Specific Knowledge, Creativity-Relevant Skills, and Motivation… but here’s what that means to us.

Domain-Specific Knowledge: “Practical knowledge about stand-up comedy”
(how to write/revise material, perform, market yourself… etc.)

Creativity-Relevant Skills: “The ability to move beyond conventional strategies/techniques and differentiate yourself”

Motivation: “The ability to not just “know what to do”… but “do what you know.”

The comedy industry has excelled at teaching the first component. Comedy classes, books, and seminars all teach these skills. They have been so successful that almost all comedians are aware of these principles to one level or another. In fact, they might have been too successful.

The emphasis on this single factor leads new comedians to believe that this factor is the only one that’s important. One cannot differentiate himself by doing what every other comedian is doing, no matter how much he is motivated. At the same time creativity-relevant skills have been almost entirely left out.

Two points are important here.

First, because the vast majority of comedians do not learn these creativity skills, there actually is an opportunity to gain a significant competitive advantage. Instead of seeking to apply the same tools better than others, comedians can learn a new set of skills that provide new tools for their career.

Second, even if creativity was widely taught, it would still be the only way for a comedian to differentiate himself in the eyes of the audience.

Success in any creative pursuit requires all three components. Without deep knowledge of stand-up comedy a comedian cannot skillfully craft and deliver material. Without extensive creativity a comedian cannot break through the noise made by the sea of other comedian or differentiate himself. Without motivation there is no forward movement. All three must be present.

Creativity Precedes Success

There is a very important factor that has been unrecognized by the majority of comedians. Creativity precedes success. As more and more comedians began pushing the boundaries and gaining success in the early 70’s, both audiences and fellow comedians have, in large part, viewed those comedians as “exceptional” rather than as simply creative or differentiated. As if they were born with a talent those outside the limelight do not possess.

This is far from the truth. Careers like Rodney Dangerfield’s exemplify this. Dangerfield was far from “a natural.” In fact, he once quit comedy and became an aluminum siding salesman, later stating “to give you an idea of how well I was doing at the time I quit… I was the only one who knew I quit.” It was only after he reinvented himself, approaching comedy as creative self-expression that audiences began to take notice. If comedy success is about being “exceptionally gifted” then his career, and those of numerous famous comedians that found success only after “reinventing themselves” simply don’t make sense.

It is important to note that “exceptional” is only an attribute we bestow on comedianafter they make an impact. However, we rarely dig deeper into how they were able to make their impact. When we do, we always find creativity. We also find that these same “exceptional” comedians were less-than-stellar before they began using Big-C creative thinking. No matter what level of proficiency they had as a comedian, there was always a “before” and an “after.” When comparing their early and late careers we may conclude that they were simply “still learning the ropes” or “just hadn’t gotten their big break.” However, these are false conclusions as well.

Pryor and Carlin both went through a phase of reinventing themselves after they had gained success. But they didn’t reinvent themselves by “trying harder” or “learning more about comedy.” They did it through embracing higher levels of creative thinking. When they reemerged onto the comedy scene they brought an entirely different strategy. It was only afterward that major success followed: Soon after coming back onto the comedy scene Carlin got his first ever standing ovation, writing in his journal “this is what I aspired to… the hair on my arms was probably standing up, it was just so moving. Such affirmation of what I believed about myself.” Pryor’s career took off as well; he developed a cult-like following and was eventually ranked the top comedian of all time. It is no mistake that Pryor and Carlin became the top two comedians of all time. There is nothing more powerful than the mastery of all three components of creativity.

So how can you explain the early success of Pryor and Carlin if they had both gained success before embracing Big-C creativity? The most likely explanation is that these two comedians were working within a different context. The Golden Age of Comedy had not yet begun. There was very little that differentiated any comedian from another. This was an era where it was very common to have a staff of writers churning out jokes for a comedian who acted more like a CEO than an artist. When you take Big-C creativity out of the picture, you’re left with only two significant deciding factors for success: domain-specific knowledge (how good a comedian is at applying the “comedy rules”) and motivation. Pryor and Carlin excelled at the two factors that were the most important at the time.

As the Golden Age emerged, success became more and more about creativity. Comedians started breaking boundaries, and audiences took notice.  Comedians that belonged to the “old order” were made nearly obsolete. The success of the old generation was eclipsed by the new. Once audiences saw what they had been missing all along, they no longer wanted the highly mechanical setup/punch line structure of comedy. It is because of this shift in audience demand that satisfying post-Golden Age audiences started requiring all three factors: competence as a comedian, high creativity, and motivation. Playing within the old rules no longer works. The audience demands more.

But along the way the comedy industry lost its lust for exploring the unknown. While the industry never reverted back to its pre-Golden Age ideals, it has none-the-less lost its edge. Instead of challenging the new rules created during the Golden Age, we adopted them as fact. We have sought the path of great comedians rather than seeking what they sought… comic originality.

As Richard Zoglin, author of Comedy At The Edge writes, “The sense of adventure [characteristic of the Golden Age of Comedy] has been replaced by the programmed predictability of a general motors assembly plant. The comics all sound pretty much alike these days, with the same patter to loosen up the crowd… the same recyclable loop of stand-up topics… just when did the fun go out of stand-up comedy?

It is a natural, but false, conclusion to believe that laughter predicts success in comedy. In fact, the biggest factor getting in the way of success for comedians today is their creativity… not their ability to gets laughs. It is a far more dangerous path for a comedian to emphasize laughter over creativity. The quality of material can always be increased through rewriting the material. However, the uniqueness of material, as well as the performer, cannot be increased through subsequent rewrites. One cannot take un-unique material and make it significantly more original. Nor can the comedian add unique material into their un-unique material. Such material would not fit well within a set.

This is why comedians like Pryor and Carlin scrapped all of their material and started from scratch, applying their deep understanding of “the rules” of comedy that they had gained earlier with a powerful desire to break the rules they saw were holding them back. Contemporary comedian must approach comedy from a similar perspective: comedians must diligently learn the rules of the game, but also seek to move beyond them.

Every comedian has an opportunity to reinvent himself. The reinvention need not be as drastic as Pryor or Carlin. “Big-C” creativity does not require that one “go crazy” or shatter long-held industry beliefs. I use these examples only because it is easy to see the differences between comedians using Big-C creativity and those resigned to apply only little-c creativity. Nor does reinvention necessarily require throwing out material. Drastic changes, like Pryor and Carlin may require throwing out material. However, less-drastic breaks from the past may not. Reinvention doesn’t even need to take place at a certain stage of a comedian’s career. Past greats have reinvented themselves early on in their career (Steve Martin), while struggling (Rodney Dangerfield), and after gaining success (Carlin & Pryor).


What it does require is a shift in thinking.

Jared Volle

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