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.