I believe to build a successful comedy career these days you have to also be an entrepreneur. Perhaps more so than ever, the ability to understand and pursue the business side of your comedy is as important as the creative side.
In thinking about this, I’ve realized three of the most significant developments in the comedy business in recent years came as a result of comedians’ business instincts just as much as their comedic talent. Here’s three stories of talented comedians who furthered their own careers and launched many others because of the businesses they created.
The Upright Citizens Brigade
The inspiration for this post came when I was listening to Amy Poehler being interviewed on a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. In the interview, Poehler discussed the early days of the UCB Theater, of which Poehler was a founding member.
She explained that back in 1999, before the group was famous, they decided to open their own theater. Their belief was that having a theater and teaching classes might help them stand out from all the other sketch/improv groups in the New York scene at the time and would allow them to make some money to support the theater and themselves.
Little did they know that launching this business would ultimately spawn the hottest wave of comedic talent in the last decade – eventually expanding to a bigger theater in New York and adding a second theater in Los Angeles. Countless comedic stars have come out of the UCB program and the idea of a “UCB comic” has come to signify a certain sensibility and level of talent.
Sure, there were lots of talented people in UCB back when it started, but it’s likely that none of this happens if this small group of comics doesn’t decide to start a business.
The Comedians of Comedy
In the mid-2000’s, the Comedians of Comedy tour burst on to the scene seemingly out of nowhere and revolutionized the possibilities for stand up comedy tours. Featuring a group of “alt” comics that included Patton Oswalt, a pre-Hangover Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn, and Maria Bamford among others, the tour took comedy into indie rock venues and out of the traditional comedy clubs.
This was a revolutionary business model – inspired partially by guys like David Cross – and one which would require a lot of work to make successful. It would have been much easier to just do a comedy club tour like most comedians did at the time.
But Patton Oswalt was willing to put his own time, money, and effort into trying to invent a new business – and it worked. The shows attracted devoted crowds, built fanbases for its comics, spawned a film, and ushered in a new model for comedy touring.
Again, while the talent on the bill was great, it never would have happened if Oswalt hadn’t been willing to be an entrepreneur and build a business.
Funny or Die
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are funny guys who had well-established Hollywood careers before they launched Funny or Die in 2006. But despite their level of success, they were willing to embrace the growth of online video and put some of their time and effort into creating a new website to showcase comedy online.
Funny or Die has had its ups and downs, but there’s no denying it has influenced online comedy and stands as one of the premiere comedy websites around today. Plus, it’s led to a TV show, become a hub for breaking new talent, a go-to spot for celebrity viral videos, and much more.
But none of this happens if these guys don’t commit to launching a business.
Time and again we see many of the most successful developments in comedy come when talented creative people make the decision to launch a business and not just wait around for people to give them opportunities.
You can admire the talent of comedy’s biggest stars as much as you want, but you should also recognize that in most cases, they’re not just creatives – they’re business people too. And that’s a big part of why they succeed.