To show you just how important embracing uncertainty is to becoming a successful comedian, I want to run a quick thought experiment with you. Play along. You’ll be amazed at what you learn. This is some truly powerful stuff. When we’re done we’ll relate this principles back to how to become a successful comedian.
Think back to the most successful thing you’ve ever achieved. It might be in comedy, in school, at work, or whatever. Maybe you got a blackbelt. Maybe you won a comedy contest. It doesn’t matter. Now ask yourself this question… What lead to that achievement? Isn’t it true that you pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone to some degree? Maybe you even did it for an extended amount of time. Would this achievement have been possible without pushing yourself?
Now look at something you’ve failed to take action on. Did you embrace uncertainty in the same way that you did when you achieved an important goal? Probably not. In fact, I’d bet that you valued certainty or a feeling of safety far more.
The point is this… to move to the next level you have to embrace uncertainty. Doing what you’ve always done will always give you the same results you’ve always gotten. Without embracing uncertainty there’s no opportunity for growth. If you place your need for safety (not taking risks) above uncertainty you’re severely limiting your potential, both today and for your future growth as a comedian.
Take a look at your favorite comedian and ask yourself if they got there by either playing it safe or embracing uncertainty (I know, it’s kind of a loaded question). Undoubtedly, you’re going to find the same exactly answer: they took risks along the way.
Why is this the case? Why can you choose any successful comedian and discover the same underlying fact? The ability to take risks is required to become a successful comedian. It’s not “a really good quality” to have… It’s a necessity.
But all risks aren’t the same. If you’re a comedian (as opposed to the aspiring comedians that are reading this) then you’ve already taken some risks. You wrote your first set and performed it without any guarantee that it would get laughs on stage. That’s a risk all of us share. Unfortunately, it’s a risk that gets us into the industry, not on top of it. The same is true for any joke we’ve written. So we all take some risks. Importantly, no amount of these small risks can lead to a big breakthrough.
To become a successful comedian you have to take different risks. The difference is scope. All comedians take a risk with writing material or performing on stage. The comedians that have risen to the top took the same risks… but they also took the risk of rebelling against the current norms of the industry. This is why embracing uncertainty is so important. Whenever you are creative you’re creating something that’s never been done before. By its very definition you don’t know whether it’ll work or not. There’s nothing to reference it to. You can take this a step further and say that if you’re able to get a good feel as to whether a joke or stage persona will work or not, it’s probably not very original.
So what do I mean by scope? Instead of taking risks on individual jokes you’re taking risks on larger factors that lead to originality. There’s a difference between someone’s “comedic voice” and their originality. Many might be tempted to think of Demetri Martin as having a great comedic voice. While this is true, it blinds us to the fact that in order to maintain that comedic voice he had to consistently take large-scope risks. Those large-scope risks lead to highly original material, which allowed him to become a successful comedian. For more on this read “Using Big-Picture Thinking in Stand-Up Comedy.”
As I discuss in Creativity For Comedians, this large-scope risks (high originality) is actually much less risky than the small scope-risks of writing and delivering new jokes. If you take the same risks as the other 100,000 other comedians today you’ll be competing with them head-to-head… that’s a lot of funny people. However, if you take large-scope risks, which few comedians do, then you’re not competing with anyone. Case in point, Demetri Martin doesn’t compete with any other comedian in the world because he’s so unique. It doesn’t matter how funny you or I am. He’s so unique that there will always be a sizable market that demands to see him (and is willing to pay a premium for the chance). That’s where you want to be as a comedian. But it doesn’t come from embracing safety. It comes from consistently embracing originality.
“I was seeking comedic originality and fame fell on me as a by-product” – Steve Martin
The Takeaway: Embrace uncertainty at all levels. Don’t be satisfied with doing what every other comedian is doing. Go deeper. Go for originality.