Imagine: going to open mic nights at 10 pm and waiting, waiting, waiting. You finally get up at 3 am. There are two people left in the audience. You run your basic bits and routines. One of the guys gets up and leaves. The other one is on the brink of passing out. And it is Tuesday. While this is a harsh scenario, it is not uncommon when starting out in comedy. Yet every single one of these experiences adds to your repertoire, to your bag of tricks. Every one is designed to make you stronger, a better performer. Does it really matter if you sucked on stage at 3am in front of one drunk guy? No. Does it matter that you got up there anyway and did your routine? Yes. You’re running the miles. You’re putting in the time. You’re doing it. Even if it doesn’t feel like it’s working, it is working. This is about stage time and getting as much of it as you can. Building comfort in an otherwise uncomfortable environment. You’re doing it despite not feeling it, which is an excellent artistic muscle-builder. It is also a great discipline. We have to do many things despite not feeling like it, especially when it comes to building muscles.
After getting fourth place on Last Comic Standing, Amy Schumer went on tour with the other top three winners. She says that she bombed terribly even after doing well on the show for four years. She remembers going up and then going back to the tour bus and crying about how poorly she did. This happened dozens of times. And yet she kept at it, and kept at it, and kept at it. It’s hard to know what it is that keeps these performers like Schumer going, but that is the key: they never stop. They keep going. Their competitive spirit keeps them going. They keep pushing through the hardship of improvement. It may sound masochistic to keep putting oneself through such terrible difficulty. But there is something about calcifying yourself through repeated harsh environmental stage exposure and then emerging a wise, honed comic that can take on any crowd anywhere. You cannot walk into the store and buy that. It must be earned through experience and hardship and struggle.
The comedic greats all have early performance stories like Schumers’. They all relate because they lived it. It takes tenacity and sticktoitiveness and metaphorical balls. These are certain character traits that people choose to develop and hone and whittle away at set by set. And with each set they get better. They get braver. They get more courageous. They get more outrageous. They get tougher. They get more competitive. They also wonder where their potential truly lies. If they’ve come this far, what else are they capable of? What venues haven’t they played? How long can they go for? Who else can they take on and win?
Another thing the comedic greats do is they take the time to mentor the next generation of up-and-comers. Garry Shandling was one of the comedic greats to do just that. Judd Apatow talks about that in his book. Shandling hired Apatow to be a staff writer for his show The Larry Sanders Show. Apatow remembers how supportive Shandling was during the entire process of TV production and joke writing. He vividly remembers Shandling saying: You’re going to learn so much. Apatow took advantage of the opportunity to test himself and his chops and worked hard during his time at the show. From there, he went on to direct some of the funniest movies of the last 15 years. Apatow still talks about those years spent working for Shandling and what an incredible opportunity it was for a comedic writer to get better and learn.
One of the things seasoned comics tell the young guys is that it doesn’t matter how well you do early on. What matters the most is stage time. Getting up there and working the stage and building comfort with it as often as you can. Nearly everyone’s early sets suck bad. this was just something they had to get through. It wasn’t something they wanted to be bad at. It was simply a set of harsh early experiences they had to get through to emerge victorious, wiser, and more competitive on the other side. They also had to put in the time to find their comedic voice. It doesn’t come out in 6 months. It rises after years of difficult training and hardship and performance. How well you did early on is irrelevant. The fact that you made it to the stage and performed over and over and over again is what is relevant. That’s tenacity in the face of hardship. That’s competitive spirit. That’s developing talent muscle over time.