The other day I watched the Behind The Music special on Public Enemy and noticed several things about the group’s success that seemed applicable to the comedy world as well. Here’s a few things comedians can learn from the success of a militant old school rap group (believe it or not)…
1. Each Group Member Had A Unique Role
I think one of the things that made Public Enemy compelling as a group was that each of its members were very different from each other and they each filled different roles. Chuck D was the politically aware lyricist, Flavor Flav was a crazy sidekick, criminal, and clown, Professor Griff was the militant head of security, and Terminator X was the DJ with the futuristic collage of sound.
When you think about it, they were each so different that you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be in the same circle of friends, let alone in the same group. But that mixture of personalities and ideas made the group way more interesting than they would have been if they were all like Chuck D or all like Flavor Flav.
In thinking about comedy groups, (whether formal improv groups or informal cliques), it’s interesting to me that most of them feature a bunch of guys (or girls) who are essentially the same. Same look, same viewpoint, same style. And in most cases, the “same” isn’t nearly as interesting as different. It was in the case of Public Enemy, and I bet it would be in the case of comedy as well.
2. They Weren’t Above Their Audience
There’s a story in Public Enemy’s Behind The Music about how the group insisted on not arriving to their gigs in limos or fancy cars, instead demanding to arrive in nondescript trucks or vans. The reason? They wanted their audience to be able to relate to them and to send a subtle message that they weren’t above their audience despite their success.
One of the things I’ve noticed in all entertainment recently, but particularly in comedy, is that audiences seem to have a lot of resentment toward the idea of a comedian being above them. I’m not exactly sure why – though I would guess it has something to do with the fact that any kid in their bedroom can now show off their own “talents” to the world via the Internet – but it seems like audiences revolt at the idea that you’re somehow better than them because you’re a “professional.”
However, the flip side of this trend is that they eagerly embrace you if you convey the message that you are one of them. For example, I imagine that some of the success that Chris Hardwick has had in recent years since branding himself as The Nerdist has come at least in part because it’s a persona that emphasizes that he’s on the same level as his audience – he’s one of them and they love him for it.
Being “the Nerdist,” is a much different message than being “the guy who co-hosted Singled Out on MTV.”
3. They Were About An Idea, Not Just Music
Public Enemy stood for much more than its music. The group stood for an ideology, and had a clearly defined viewpoint that people rallied around. My guess is that this got them a lot of fans who may not have necessarily loved their music, but loved what it represented and wanted to support the movement behind the music.
Comedy’s much different than music, but the same thing can apply. Sure, guys like Doug Stanhope and Bill Maher are great comedians, but I’d also bet that a decent portion of their fanbase is attracted to the ideas they represent just as much as the jokes in their acts.
4. They Were Original
When Public Enemy first came on the scene, there was nothing like them out there. They were a true original – so much so that record labels didn’t know what to do with them and didn’t want to touch them, until Def Jam took a chance on them. And what did Def Jam do with them? Put them on the road as an opening act for a white hip hop group (The Beastie Boys) whose audience was primarily suburban white kids – the same kinds of kids that were in many ways the “bad guys” depicted in Public Enemy’s music.
But Public Enemy’s originality and the originality of Def Jam’s plan for them cut through all of that to turn the group into one of the first true multicultural hits in hip hop. That’s how powerful originality can be.
It’s tough to be an original, especially in a comedy world that seemingly has seen it all at this point. But the more original you can be, the more success you’re likely to have.
5. They Embraced Their Mistakes
Not only was Public Enemy unafraid of being original and taking chances, they actually embraced the mistakes they would make along the way. When the band was developing what would ultimately become its signature sound, they had more than their share of screwups – an accidental scratch here, an offbeat drum there, and the occasional out of tune guitar riff.
But rather than getting rid of those errors and trying to make their sound more polished, they decided to include the mistakes because they thought that having a rough sound would reflect what the band’s message was all about. As a result, their music developed a truly unique sound that a perfectly polished production style never would have achieved.
In comedy, most things also don’t turn out perfect. But it’s too easy to scrap projects or forever tinker with them in your quest for comedic perfection. All that does is prevent you from moving forward.
Sometimes, like Public Enemy learned, your rough edges can be more interesting than you think.
For more rapper-inspired tips, check out these things I learned from Kanye West.
4 thoughts on “5 Things You Can Learn From Public Enemy”
These are great tips from an act that has lasted a long long time. Particularly the part about “not being above the audience”. Last time I saw PE live they didn’t even leave the stage at the end of the show. They walked to the foot of the stage and started shaking hands and signing autographs. Brilliant.
People expect artists to be accessible now. And of course, a lot of comedians are very shy and have trouble talking to people one-on-one. But I’ve found that going out and meeting the audience before the show makes them more friendly to me during the show.
All the other comments are spot on too. But I’ll shut up so my comment isn’t a mile long. 🙂
That’s cool re: them not going off stage at the end of the show. The band Ozomatli always ends their shows by walking off the front of the stage and playing their encore in the crowd as if it’s a street party.
It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had at a concert and just realized it fits right in with what I’m talking about here…
Good article, you make a lot of great points.
Also in response to your comment about Ozomatli, when I saw the band Peelander-Z perform they brought all their instruments into the middle of the crowed and started playing their last couple songs
Awesome piece! Great observations.