It used to be that the comedy “game” could only really be played one way – in order to succeed you needed to win over the gatekeepers (Hollywood executives, comedy club owners, etc.) and convince them to give you a career.
This was extremely difficult of course, but you could take some level of comfort in its simplicity – there was a clear map to success and understandable rules of the game.
But now, as the comedy business has been disrupted by technology in recent years, the game has changed and you’re forced to figure out for yourself what game you actually want to play.
This is a tremendous opportunity of course, but many comedians don’t see it as such. It’s easier to get frustrated and confused. To get bitter as your peers figure out ways to succeed by playing a game that you didn’t even know existed.
In comedy, just like in life, some people embrace disruptions while others run from them. But nothing good ever comes from running from a disruption.
So faced with this comedy disruption, here’s a question to ask yourself:
Are you playing a game you can win?
Let me explain. Most comedians I talk to have set goals for themselves that literally can’t be achieved. They’ve framed their entire career around a mission they can never accomplish regardless of how hard they work, how talented they are, or how many breaks they get.
They’re essentially playing a game they can’t win, and that’s why they often wind up frustrated with the results.
For example, here’s a common phrase I hear from comedians when they talk about their career goals.
“I want to be a great comedian.”
What does that really mean? You want to be talented? You want to be famous? You want to be memorable? You want to sell lots of tickets? You want to impact people’s views? And who defines what makes a comedian “great?”
Were George Carlin and Richard Pryor great? Lots of people think so, and lots of others don’t. Is Dane Cook great?
When you set out to become a “great comedian,” you’re playing a game you can’t win. You’ll never achieve an intangible goal like that, and you’ll likely wind up frustrated at some point despite whatever level of success you do manage to attain.
And, more importantly, how do you come up with a plan of action to become “great?”
It’s important to frame your career in a way that allows you to be successful. There’s literally thousands of comedians out there trying to “win” at comedy by doing the exact same things – performing at the same clubs, following the same “rules,” chasing the same agents/managers/bookers, telling jokes about the same stuff to the same audiences, and waiting for Hollywood to discover them and make them a winner.
Why would you choose to play that game? Why be just another comic playing the same game?
Instead, why not increase your chances of success by creating your own game to play? One where you establish the rules, where you define victory, where you don’t have all that competition, and one where you have a competitive advantage based on your own particular strengths and skill set?
I know this all may seem a little philosophical, but here’s a few concrete examples of comedians who have played and won their own game in the comedy industry.
• Bo Burnham now headlines clubs, but not because he spent years playing the open mic game. Instead, he created his own comedy game by building his own fanbase for the funny songs he created in his bedroom and posted on YouTube. And he won.
• Justin Halpern was a struggling comedy screenwriter who worked as a writer for Maxim and had connections to lots of comedy blogs. He played his own game by creating the Shit My Dad Says twitter account, using his knowledge and connections to the Internet comedy community to promote it, and wound up “winning” himself a major TV deal for a show based on the account.
• Marc Maron was a relatively successful comedian who spent decades playing the traditional comedy game. But his career jumped to an entire new level when he started playing his own game by creating a new venue for his talents with his popular WTF podcast. How many other established comedians could have done that had they just taken the initiative to do so when Marc did? They’re all trying to play Marc’s game now, but that’s the point – there’s a huge advantage to being the first to play a new game. Everybody else is just trying to play catch up.
So, as you continue to move your career forward I encourage you to take a moment to stop thinking about how you’re going to succeed in the comedy game and think first about what game you actually want to play.
8 thoughts on “Are You Playing A Game You Can Win?”
I think that this is tremendous advice … the grind of hitting open mic after open mic – driving an hour – or more – for as low as 4 minutes of stage-time can be crushing … It is (sometimes) all too easy to forget why you are even going through the paces – in theory – it is to have fun – to get better at the whole craft of making jokes and to get people giggling. Anyways – that is why it is nice to be reminded that there are a bunch of avenues to get to a lot of different places.
This is a really inspiring post Josh. Thank god I spent time learning how to use the computer instead of doing my homework.
This may be your most important entry to Connected Comedy yet, but I’m hoping to dig deeper on this topic.
You mentioned Halpern had “connections”, and Maron was already a great and high-profile comedian before their respective e-successes. I don’t know intimate details of Burhnham’s success, but I have a hard time believing his career went thermonuclear without some serious help going viral.
I guess my question is: what separates success stories like these versus the dreaming wanna-be’s who annoy and spam the crap out of their friends and family to get a dozen views on their clip/podcast/blog? From what I gather, you almost need managment and big-media credits for audience to give you a fair shake without dismissing you as an amateur.
I hope you don’t take this as antagonistic…I’ve been chasing that answer for many years now! Thanks for offering this forum for feedback, I look forward to your thoughts.
Hey Tom, those are great comments/questions and some of them I should probably address in a separate post as opposed to just a comment. But in the meantime, here’s a few quick thoughts:
• Halpern had some connections, but he had connections that he had created because he was spending time blogging and connecting with other bloggers, which led to his job at Maxim (I think). Your connections typically come from where you spend your time/effort. When you spend 90% of your time doing open mics, then 90% of your connections are likely going to be with other open mic’ers.
• Maron had a fanbase obviously, but I believe his fanbase was a small fraction of what it is now. Yeah, it gave him a bit of a headstart, but it was the podcast that really introduced him to a new audience and fueled his career growth. The NY Times wasn’t writing about Marc Maron (and introducing him to new fans) when he wasn’t doing a podcast. So his pre-existing fanbase is kind of irrelevant to his recent success.
• Burnham was definitely helped by being in the right place at the right time – he was on YouTube early and benefited from the site’s explosive growth. But that’s kind of the point – he was playing his own game and was playing it before everybody else was so he reaped the rewards. Burnham launched his YouTube channel in July 2006 – that gave him a HUGE advantage compared to comics who are just joining YouTube today.
• Re: your question about what separates success stories from dreaming wannabes, I would say that they are separated by quality, commitment, and patience. You don’t need management and big media credits – it’s the exact opposite. The huge opportunity is that you no longer need anybody’s help to reach the entire world – these new tools have made it possible for anybody to reach everybody.
But, it only works if you create something great. It doesn’t have to be great for everybody, it just has to be great for some specific audience and then you have to be committed to working to find that audience.
And btw, what most comedians fail to recognize is that the audience is more powerful than the industry. If you get an audience, the industry will come knocking on your door begging to work with you. The flipside is not true: just because you get some industry attention, it doesn’t mean that the audience will care about you.
Thanks, Josh…that’s solid clarification of the key points. I also think you’ve identified a big problem in the comedy community: the deeper you go down the rabbit hole among comedians, the further away you can potentially get from the civilian-at-large community, i.e. your audience. That’s probably a whole other post as well!
All I can say is wow. After a very long hiatus, I got back into stand up two years ago only to find all of the rules have changed. Performing in front of 10 comics going over their notes at open mics is just slightly better than the “Bringer room” phenomenon that has taken place. It’s a game that I don’t want to play but felt it was because I’m lazy. Thanks a lot for this. I’ve been spending more time working on building a web presence.
I agree wholeheartedly with this and with Natty’s comment. I like performing at mics to work-out material but it gets to a point where you’ve got your 10, or your 30, or your 60 mins., or whatever and then the return on investments from open mics just isn’t there.
I think it’s important to always hone new material but it’s even more important to find some way to squeeze the ABSOLUTE most out of the material you’ve already honed.
The old approach to stand-up comedy, the mic and road grind is dying. And that’s both sad and liberating.
It’s niche marketing and it’s the only way to succed in this economy whether it’s comedy or anything else! Get a Booker on the phone and tell them “book me I’m funny” equals classic fail. You have to first know who you are on stage then get really good at that!