When I have conversations with people pursuing a career in comedy, one of the things I always ask them is how they define themselves and their “job.” Essentially, what do they tell people that they do?
Inevitably, they often respond that they are (or they’re in the process of becoming) a standup comedian. I understand this, but I also have a problem with it because I don’t really believe that the career of “standup comedian” actually exists. And if it does, the ceiling for that particular career choice is incredibly low so it’s probably not the best way to define yourself. Here’s what I mean…
When you define yourself as a standup comedian, you’re essentially saying to yourself and the world that standup comedy is what you do and how you make a living. The problem with that is that in order to make a living as a standup comedian, you’re going to have to succeed at doing something other than standup comedy. The vast majority of successful standup comedians wind up having that success as a result of something they’ve done other than standup. Their success in acting, or writing, or creating content on the web, is what ultimately winds up earning them more money than their standup or getting them the notoriety/fanbase that allows them to make good money performing standup.
Very few comedians are able to have standup careers by only doing standup comedy, and those that are able to “make it” doing that inevitably earn a fraction of what comedians who have leveraged their skills in other mediums to fuel their standup career make.
You may think this is obvious and that when people describe themselves as standup comedians it’s implied that they’ll do other stuff as well, but in most cases I don’t think it is. Words are powerful – they can help motivate you, but they can also hold you back.
If you tell people you’re a standup comedian, that means that you’re thinking of yourself as a standup comedian. And if you’re thinking of yourself as a standup comedian, you’re focusing your efforts on being a standup comedian. And if you’re spending all your time working on your standup act, you’re not spending nearly as much time working on your writing, or acting, or creating other forms of comedy content – all of which you will ultimately need in order to enable you to have the standup comedy career you think you want.
By now, you either think I’m crazy and you’ve tuned me out, or you’re wondering what I think you should call yourself other than a standup comedian. I think that you should just call yourself a comedian. And more importantly, you should think of yourself as a person who gets paid to make people laugh through a variety of different mediums.
I believe you should approach your comedy career as if every medium is a weapon you have at your disposal and that all of them are equally valid in terms of growing your fanbase and career. Every possible outlet for you to be funny presents you with an opportunity to gain exposure and earn money – and none of these outlets is necessarily more important than another. Your standup act is just as important as your writing, which is just as important as your podcast, which is just as important as your YouTube channel, which is just as important as your acting.
It’s impossible for you to know exactly how your career will evolve and you won’t know where your breaks will come from, so you need to be committed to exploring all of these creative outlets. Too many comedians focus 90% of their energy on their standup, and basically ignore all these other elements which are just as vital to their career as a comedian. And the reason they ignore them too often is because they think of themselves as a “standup comedian,” so they convince themselves that the other stuff doesn’t really matter.
But it does. It matters a lot.
Think about it: if your goal is to build a career in which you get paid to make people laugh, are you currently doing everything you can to make that happen? Or are you just doing everything you can to make it happen in one way?