5 Principles of Success in Comedy (Success Compass) 1200x629 Featured Image

Comedy by it’s nature implies frivolity. But achieving a successful career in comedy, either as a writer or performer, requires an abundance of work. Sometimes that work can seem tedious.

But when you start hitting those moments of success, the thrill of the show makes all the work worth it.

On the way to the goal here are 5 principles of a professional comedy writer or performer that can help guide you to your ultimate goal.

A couple of things off the bat. One of the best pieces of advice I received in comedy is “Treat yourself like a professional now, otherwise nobody else will.”

This is my driving truth and underlying that truth are these five principles.

  1. Discipline
  2. Accountability
  3. Ethics
  4. Persistence
  5. Good Company

Discipline

Inspiration and motivation are two words that appear a lot in creative spaces, but your real advantage is discipline. When motivation fails you, discipline gets you out of bed.

Setting up your time blocks to write is utterly important. You have to schedule your writing time. You will have moments of brilliance in the shower, at the gym, on a walk, during sex (yes, this happened to me which is one reason why I divorced), but scheduling your writing time will create more inspiration than waiting and hoping something comes to you.

I’ve come up with brilliant ideas seemingly out of the blue, but I’ve come up with 100x more jokes by sitting down and writing them using structure and technique, and I’m not over exaggerating.

By utilizing technique and focused writing approaches I’ve been known to generate 80-120 jokes a day.

I’m not saying this to brag. I struggled for a long time to get passed 3 jokes per day.

I never thought that kind of volume was possible but I learned through hiring mentors who were doing that exact thing way before me. That exposure to those professionals propelled me beyond what I believed were my limitations.

Accountability

Constructive Criticism is Not a Bad Thing! Own your shit!

When you start in comedy or any art form you’re going to get critics. Some critics are their to help you succeed.

Some are there to make themselves feel better by being critical of your work.

Learn to be able to tell the difference between the two.

In a professional setting, the vocabulary can help you set them apart.

If someone says to you, “Can I give you a note?”

It’s usually constructive. Don’t turn it down. Always listen to other approaches. It may open up the world to that particular idea or transform your life in many ways beyond just your comedy writing. That person’s experiences are unlike your own.

They may see something you could never see until they point out that possibility. Now guess what? That possibility is now on your radar for the next joke or bit.

Own your shit!

Another important part of accountability is knowing when you fall short. If you’re late to a meeting, if you forget an assignment, if you play hooky or neglect your writing schedule, own it! Admit it and promise to do better.

So many people are afraid to be flawed. Newsflash! We’re all flawed.

So don’t hide your flaws or your mistakes. Own them, because in this business and I think any business, we take leaps in our learning because of our mistakes.

Identify those mistakes and learn from them. Hiding from them doesn’t provide growth, it just keeps you at your same level and you will continue to make those same mistakes.

At first it’s hard to admit to a mistake, it becomes easier, then you realize that it is actually empowering, because it sets you apart.

While most people are walking around sheepishly attempting to hide their flaws like an addict hiding his track marks, you’re boldly taking accountability.

“Haha! I shit the bed on that one! I’ll be sure to get it next time!”

See, that didn’t hurt!

Ethics

This is a super important principle as you might’ve guessed.

Be original. You can learn and be inspired by others but don’t plagiarize, don’t steal. It WILL come back to haunt you in the worst way and at the worst time.

Besides, using someone else’s material doesn’t help you to grow as an artist. It might seem super tempting, but don’t do it.

I’ve had a lot of jokes stolen from me over the years. Once in a while I’ll be at a club somewhere and hear someone doing one of my bits verbatim. I sit patiently then call out the punchline and say, “It was a lot funnier when I wrote it.”

When you write a joke, a bit, a sketch, a script, that material is your intellectual property. And if someone uses it for monetary gain and you can prove it’s yours then you could sue that person or business for damages.

Not to mention it can ruin your career. Carlos Mencia is a very talented performer, but he developed a horrible reputation for stealing material. Mencia had a quick rise to fame and a highly rated show on Comedy Central. That show’s cancellation coincided with pressure from well-known comedians, including Joe Rogan, who called him out at the Comedy Store in a video that subsequently went viral.

Mencia hasn’t done a special since 2011.

Do yourself a favor and write your own shit.

Persistence

You might not know this now, but persistence is the core of almost all success. As Calvin Coolidge once said:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

In this business I like to add a variation to that theme and add that polite persistence is key. Work hard, seek expertise and press on! You will succeed.

And when you feel like all hope is lost, remember your discipline!

Good Company

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. This relates to the law of averages, which is the theory that the result of any given situation will be the average of all outcomes.

I don’t know if I believe this in it’s entirety or that it’s the be-all-end-all, but I do know that when your circle of friends is better than you, you tend to want to be as good or better than them so you amp up your game.

Not only that, the information that comes from surrounding yourself with expertise–especially in the specialty that you are focused on–can help you with breakthroughs in knowledge like nothing else.

Deliberate practice with expert feedback is the absolute quickest way to develop expertise in anything.

I mentioned earlier that when I was writing everyday on show, I was producing 80-120 jokes per day. I believe the only way I was able to achieve that volume is by surrounding myself with experts who had been doing it way before me.

That’s why I coach comedians, many of whom are now full-time professionals.

They say there are no shortcuts to success, however I do believe surrounding yourself with successful people is the next best thing.

Success is the Best Revenge

Getting that first paycheck for doing what you love to do is one of the greatest feelings in the world. I can literally say that although writing for a living is hard work, I don’t feel like I’ve worked. Creating jokes, bits, sketches and scripts brings me so much joy.

Teaching those techniques to others is the icing on the cake.

In closing, I remember one day I was in Target shopping for stocking stuffers. I had been writing for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for several years at this point.

In front of me in the checkout line, I spotted my high school career counselor.

I said, “Mr. Campbell!”

In this overly brusk voice, he was like, “Who’s asking?”

I said, “My name is Jerry Corley. You were my career counselor at Royal High School in ’81 and I’ll never forget the advice you gave me.”

He said, “Glad to hear it. What was the advice?”

I said, “You said, Mr. Corley, you can’t joke your way through life.”

He said, “Sounds like something I might say… so what have you been doing with yourself?”

I said, “I write jokes for a living.”

My point in this story is this: If you have a dream, chase it. Get the tools, develop the skills, follow the principles and never let anybody steer you off course.

Especially if they spend 8 hours a day in a cubicle on a high school campus.



Jerry Corley
Jerry Corley

Jerry Corley is a professional comedian of nearly 30 years, working nearly every venue imaginable.

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