This past weekend I watched The Pixar Story, an excellent documentary about the origins and success of the world’s most successful computer animation company.
In watching it, I noticed several things comedians could learn from the story of Pixar’s success and I thought I’d share a few of them with you here.
1. There’s Never A Guarantee Of Success
One of the the interesting things about Pixar is that from the beginning the company (and its founders) never had any semblance of a guarantee they would be successful. And I don’t just mean successful financially, I mean successful at even creating a computer animated movie.
When the company and its animators first began, there was no such thing as computer animation – let alone a computer animated movie. These people took a huge leap of faith to believe they could literally invent a way to use computers for animation, figure out how to make a movie using the tools they invented, and then assume that movie would ultimately be successful.
But the people behind Pixar weren’t afraid to give it a shot and pursue their dream. They knew it had never been done before, but they chose to focus on what they believed was possible as opposed to dwelling on what was the reality of the time.
As a comedian, you also need to have a blind faith that whatever you’re hoping to create can become a reality. Pursuing a comedy career comes with no guarantees of success – it’s not like going to law school or medical school and coming out with a degree and a job. You have to recognize there’s no guarantee you’ll ever succeed as a comedian, but be willing to pursue that dream anyway.
Just because the odds are against you, it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed.
2. The Industry’s Interests Are Not The Same As Yours
There’s a great story in the documentary about Pixar’s head animator John Lasseter during his time working for Disney as a traditional animator (before he joined Pixar). At Disney, Lasseter managed to convince his bosses to let him create an experimental short film made solely with computer animation.
After spending almost a year working on the film, it came time for him to screen it for the Disney executives. They hated it.
At the end of the screening, the top executive asked Lasseter if this new computer animation would make it faster or cheaper to produce films than traditional animation. The answer to both questions was no. Then the executive said, “So why the hell would we ever do this?”
Less than an hour after that meeting, Lasseter was fired from Disney.
This story illustrates an important lesson for comedians – the interests of the “industry” will likely be very different than your own personal interests – but that doesn’t mean your interests are wrong.
Disney didn’t care about changing the status quo unless it was going to make their products faster or cheaper – they didn’t want to see the future possibilities of this new path because they were comfortable dominating the animation industry at the time.
But Lasseter, who then went on to team up with the people that formed Pixar, had different interests. He wanted to experiment, to push the boundaries of his industry, and to create his own path. His interests didn’t align with his industry’s and he was willing to find his own way. Ultimately, his interests wound up revolutionizing the industry as a whole and it was Disney who had to play catch up to him.
As a comedian, you’re going to get a lot of advice from people who will encourage you to align your interests with those of the comedy “industry” at the moment. But just because that’s what the industry thinks it wants now, doesn’t mean that it’s what’s right for you in the long run.
3. Be Prepared To Fail
As with most things that become successful, Pixar’s success didn’t come overnight. The documentary details the long and frustrating path it took for Pixar to ultimately succeed and points out that investor Steve Jobs poured millions of dollars into the company to keep it afloat for years.
Jobs believed so strongly in the potential for computer animation and in the vision of the people working for the company, that he was willing to be patient and continue to fund and chase the company’s goal. He understood it was likely the company would fail for many years before it ultimately succeeded.
As a comedian, you need to have similar patience. It’s going to take time to build a fanbase and grow your career and you’ll encounter a lot of failure before you ultimately find any success. But that’s ok as long as you go into it with that understanding.
While Jobs had to keep writing checks to keep the Pixar dream alive, you will need to keep working at yours and be willing to continually experiment with new approaches until you find the one that clicks.
4. Be Multi-dimensional
I’ve talked before about why I think it’s important for comedians to think about themselves in much broader terms than just being a stand up comedian – it’s important to be multi-dimensional. The Pixar story is another great example of why this is important and why it works.
You may not realize it, but Pixar spent years as a computer graphics company, invented software, and worked on commercials for years before they ever managed to launch an animated film. The company understood it needed to be able to use its talents in multiple different ways in order to survive and progress toward their ultimate goal of making animated films.
The same is true for your comedy career – it’s important to know what your ultimate goal with your career is but it’s equally important to be willing to use every tool at your disposal and explore different forms of comedy in order to get there. Don’t just be a stand up comedian – be a writer, podcaster, video maker, blogger, actor, and much more.
5. Be Honest About Your Own Creations
When Pixar landed its first movie deal with Disney for Toy Story, it turned in an initial cut of the movie and were shocked when the Disney executives hated it. In fact, they hated it so much they halted production and scrapped the whole project.
But the Pixar team, despite their massive disappointment, regrouped and looked at their film again. What they discovered was that they agreed with Disney – the film wasn’t very good. So they spent a whirlwind three weeks reworking the entire story and presented a revised cut to Disney.
Disney then loved the new cut and the movie was saved.
None of that would have happened if Pixar wasn’t willing to be honest about its own creation – it would have been easy to assume that the evil executives at Disney just didn’t get it, but they were able to honestly critique their own work and realize that it was flawed. Being able to make that judgment allowed them to fix it and likely save the movie (and the company).
As a comedian, you need to be honest about your own creations as well. You probably know what you do that’s good and what you do that’s not. Be honest with yourself and don’t be afraid to scrap things that aren’t your best work. The more you can be your own critic, the less other people will have to be.
These are just a few of the many things you can learn from The Pixar Story – I’d really recommend you check it out if you get a chance. Here’s the film’s trailer in case you’re curious: