Doing 5 minutes of stand-up comedy is on my bucket list. I can’t think of anything more terrifying than standing in front of a crowd of people who are watching and waiting for you to make them laugh.
With stand-up, it doesn’t matter who you are, who you know, or what your net worth is — if you tell a joke that doesn’t work, it’s painful. Painful for you and the audience. I get so uncomfortable watching a stand-up bomb that the thought of being the one onstage makes me sick to my stomach.
Steve Martin wasn’t actually born standing up, but he did dedicate 30 years of his life to perfecting the art of telling jokes on stage. Ten years of learning, another 10 years of floundering in tiny clubs, and finally, ten years of growing success.
By 1978 he had become the biggest concert draw in stand-up comedy history. By 1981 he walked away from stand-up altogether. His life’s work! He reached the top, looked around, and decided he was ready for something new.
His memoir, Born Standing Up, is a story of perseverance and tenacity. Here are some lessons from the wild and craaazzy guy:
“Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.”
Naïveté gets you started. Children have it. They approach things without the baggage of past failures and outside voices saying, “you can’t do that.” We could all be a little more naive while chasing our dreams.
Get Your Reps
“My act was eclectic, and it took 10 more years for me to make sense of it. However, the opportunity to perform four and five times day gave me confidence and poise. Even though my material had few distinguishing features, the repetition made me lose my amateur rattle.”
Steve performed in clubs for over two decades before making it big. It’s not that he wasn’t in front of the right people when he started, it’s that he wasn’t ready for the big time. He needed to get his reps.
“The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.”
Don’t be a hero, be consistent. They say practice makes perfect, but that’s only half-true. What’s more true is that perfect practice makes perfect. Instead of celebrating the nights that he “killed,” he shifted his focus to becoming a stand-up that was consistently good each and every night.
When you run out of naïveté, become delusional
“Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”
Delusions of grandeur aren’t always evil — sometimes, they’re needed. When I do my five minutes of stand-up someday, I’ll need to harness the the power of delusion in order to have the confidence.
Delusion leads to confidence. Confidence leads to skill. Skill leads to certainty.
When Steve quit stand-up, he decided he wanted to do movies. Stand-up comedy was his life’s work. It was all he ever thought or cared about his entire life. He was in his late-thirties and had millions of reason not to quit, but he lost his flame for stand-up.
What he realized was that inspiration doesn’t disappear, it just moves.
He went on to make hugely successful movies like The Jerk, Three Amigos, Father Of The Bride, and dozens of other cult classics.
Leverage old skills for new opportunities
Steve Martin didn’t start from scratch when he started making movies. He was able to use everything he learned from stand up to start writing scripts. He knew what worked and what didn’t. He could stand in front of the camera and deliver lines and in his head feel how the audience would be reacting to the material.
The magic of experience is that we get to take what we learned from one opportunity to next.
“…a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punchline, released it. I didn’t quite get this concept, nor do I still, but it stayed with me and eventually sparked my second wave of insights.”
Even the simplest jokes follow the basic arch of storytelling. Create tension and release it. The more tension, the more potential there is for a big release. Easy, right?