On Bill Maher’s HBO show, he has a recurring bit where he jokes about what goes on in the Republican bubble. The basic idea is that Republicans who get all their news from FOX News and Rush Limbaugh wind up only hearing what they want to hear and in turn it completely alters their version of reality.
In short, they’re living in a bubble.
While it happens in a completely different way, I see a lot of comedians out there who are also living in bubbles of their own creation. Here’s a breakdown of a few of the bubbles that I see comedians comfortably clinging to:
THE LOCAL BUBBLE
Maybe it’s because I live in Los Angeles so I have a different perspective, but it’s incredible how many comics who live in places other than LA, New York (and maybe San Francisco and Chicago) have a completely warped view of where their career is at in the big picture.
Both the positives and negatives of whatever’s going on in your local scene can easily get blown way out of proportion and you can convince yourself that you’ve either made it or you’re doomed to never make it – when neither of those things are actually true.
Just because things are going well in your town and the local club owners or promoters are booking you regularly and telling you how great you are, that doesn’t mean that in the grand scheme of things you are. All that means is a couple local guys – who may or may not have any idea what they’re talking about – like you better than the other comics in your area. And those comics might suck, so don’t believe the hype as Public Enemy used to say.
On the positive side, if you’re struggling in your local market that also doesn’t mean that you’re doomed. It’s possible your act might not fit your market, or you’re just still developing, or the guys in power in your area just happen to hate you for some reason. Remember, you’re probably not as good (or as bad) as your local bubble would lead you to believe.
THE INDUSTRY BUBBLE
Don’t worry, I’m not going to let the big markets like LA and NY off the hook here – they’ve got their own bubbles to worry about. But in those cases it tends to be more of what I’ll call an Industry Bubble, which basically refers to the conventional wisdom of the comedy industry that is based in those cities.
If you get close enough to the Industry Bubble, it can become very easy to forget that what the industry likes and what actual people around the country like are not always the same thing – and usually they’re not.
Industry tends to look for more of what they know think already works. They see a Sarah Silverman break big, and they look for the next Sarah Silverman (see: Whitney Cummings?). But outside of the Industry Bubble, real people generally aren’t looking for that – instead they’re looking for the next NEW thing.
Living in the Industry Bubble will start to convince you that there’s rules to this game and that you’ve got to fit a particular mold. But that’s not really true, so try to remember there’s a lot of real people on the other side of that bubble.
THE VENUE BUBBLE
One of the easiest bubbles to understand is the Venue Bubble because it tends to be based around simple mathematics. Here’s an example of one way I see this play out in Los Angeles – though I’m sure versions of it happen everywhere.
I love the UCB Theater and certainly respect what they’ve done and the quality of talent they’ve come to stand for. But, they’ve also created their own bubble for comics who regularly perform there or aspire to.
Here’s a few things you don’t hear often about UCB shows – their Los Angeles theater is small (around 80 seats I believe), the audience consists primarily of hardcore comedy groupies, and the crowds tend to be friendly if they feel the performer has been “blessed” by another popular UCB comic.
What this all means is that if you perform there and fit those criteria, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve made it because you can regularly make a friendly, small crowd laugh. But by comparison, an 80-person crowd in the Improv across town is a half-empty room full of people that are likely a lot more skeptical of your act. And performing outside of Los Angeles is a whole other story entirely.
Again, my point isn’t to suggest that UCB is bad (it’s actually pretty great), but it’s just an example of how a focus on a single venue can alter your perception of the overall business and what it really takes to build a career. It’s great that you can pack an 80-seat venue with people who enjoy what you do, but if they’re really just fans of that venue (more than they are of you), are you really progressing in your career? Don’t get fooled by a Venue Bubble.
THE SELF-IMPOSED BUBBLE
Outside forces aren’t the only things that can entrap your view of the comedy world in a bubble. Too often, comics narrow their own viewpoint of what a comedy career can or should be and they essentially put themselves in a bubble.
Don’t be afraid to try new things, to go against the conventional comedy wisdom, or to experiment with new material or a new approach to your career. Most comics limit themselves more than they should and in many cases they prevent themselves from discovering new aspects of comedy that they will ultimately enjoy. If you break out of your bubble, you might be surprised at what you find.