Does it Really Take 10 Years to Find Your Persona?

There are several reasons that finding your persona is an important part of your development as a comedian. 

It makes you more memorable and helps you to stand out from the crowd. And that’s always important in terms of reaching a level of success.

But how do you find it? And How long does it take?

Some people on social media have said with absolute certainty that it takes “10 years for you to find your persona,” like that’s some magical number or something.​ 

There is a more streamlined approach to finding your persona and it’s easier than you might think. 

I discuss that in this video.

You can also read the transcription below:

The 10-year myth

Hi, it’s Jerry Corley. Stand up comedy clinic dot com. With another episode of Ask The Joke Doctor in this episode, we’re covering the question, Does it really take 10 years to find your persona?

Welcome back to ask the joke doctor. I just got a question the other day from a student of mine, he tweeted at asked the joke doctor. He said, “Joke Doctor, does it really take 10 years to find your persona?”

Around town, and on social media, I’m hearing from comics that say it takes 10 years to find your persona. First of all, let me address that. I don’t know where this magical number “10 years” came from. Like, you know, Hey at nine and a half, you’re almost there, but you got to wait a few months and then you’re going to hit 10 years. And then, that’s magically when your persona will appear.

And that’s ridiculous.

Stand-up comedy is a relatively new art form

Think about this, stand-up comedy is still relatively new as an art form in our history. If we go back to fine arts, if we go back to sculpting, if we go back to painting, dancing music acting, they go way back to the Greek days and standup comedy, as we know, it’s pretty much about 75, 80 years old in this country.

So it’s still a relatively new art form. People throw around rumors and innuendo and urban lore like it’s actually fact, anytime anybody paints anything with a broad brush, you’ve really just got to kind of shrug your shoulders because they think they know it, but they don’t really know it. 

I mean, despite the evidence of everything to the contrary being right before their very eyes, they’ll cast out facts. Like it takes 10 years to find your persona. Like, you know, that’s the rule.

Let’s take a look: 

Jerry Seinfeld didn’t take 10 years to find his persona

You want evidence? Jerry Seinfeld, from the very first day he stepped on stage in his early twenties. I think he was 20 or 21 when he stepped on stage at Catch Rising Star in New York City. That first time on stage where he froze for his first five minutes, I think he was up there for like a minute and a half and he just walked off the stage.

Then he came back again some time later, and could only do premises. Then he just kept working and kept working from that day, five years later, five years later, he was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

And pretty much from that day on, he’s never really changed. His “what is it with bugs,” still the same guy he was back then. So five years, 10 years. I don’t know. What’s the quotient, right? How do you know?

Be the guy you are around your friends

Lots of guys have their own individual approaches towards comedy? I mean George Burns, the famous George Burns. He reinvented himself, I think five to eight times before he finally hit on George Burns. So you’ll go through evolutions. The first goal, as far as persona, I think is to find out if you can be the guy you are around your friends on that stage in front of strangers, that’s the first goal.

If you can do that, you’re off to a start. As far as finding your persona, your persona may evolve.

I started out emulating Jerry Seinfeld

When I started out, I started out very “Seinfeldian,” you know, despite the fact that I grew up listening to George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Cosby.

I wound up being more “Seinfeldian” in my early days.

It was bad, like to the point where I was actually ridiculed by Seinfeld!

I was actually on stage at the laugh factory and it was doing stuff like, “You know, I saw a sign that said ‘Positively No Smoking’ as opposed to “Negatively, Smoke Please.” That’s kind of the way I started. And Seinfeld was standing right there. He had done a set earlier, just kind of looked at me and went, “Yeah, Whatever.”

The “tip” from George Carlin that changed everything

So eventually I found my voice. It was after I met George Carlin and he said to me, “take the shit that drives you absolutely crazy and make that funny.”

So that’s what really turned me on. That’s how I started to find my persona if you will. Which is basically just me being myself and being pretty cynical about the sociopolitical mess that this country is in. And we’re always in some sort of sociopolitical mess. Aren’t we?

There’s always something going on that we can pick on. So the five-year ten-year thing, there’s no such thing. People say, some people say seven years, some people say 10 years…

Most comedians spend their early years just figuring out how to write a joke

Here’s the deal, When you first start, you’re spending the first three to five years, just trying to figure out how to write jokes. Isn’t that true?

So it’s like people are just trying to figure out the mechanics of what triggers laughter. But when you know how to write an early point, when you understand what triggers human laughter, like the Nine Psychological Laughter Triggers and the 13 Major Comedy Structures and what you need in order to pull those triggers, like through a reverse, or incongruity, or paradox, or comedic irony, or using recognition or ambivalence to trigger a laugh, then you’re way ahead of everybody already.

So it doesn’t take as long to find your persona,

Make it a rule to break the rules

But these rules that people layout, always blow my mind. It’s like, don’t listen to the rules. Picasso said, “You’ve got to know the rules before you can break the rules.”

That particular thing is not even a rule. It’s just something somebody made up, you know, 10 years to find your persona, you know?

Mark Lonow, who was the co-owner at the improv in Los Angeles here. He used to have this little orientation for all the new comics that were coming in that wanted to do an audition for a spot at the improv. And I remember during that orientation, he said to the group of new comedians, he said, “It takes seven years to become a headliner.” Like, again, that’s the rule. Like at six, six years and nine months, you’re going to go “Three more months and I’ll be headlining.”

It doesn’t work that way. When he said seven years, I said to myself, I’m going to beat that. And I headlined my first gig in three and a half years. When I said that to my class, one of my students said, I said, I’m gonna beat that. So he did it in two and a half years. He was headlining and also did TV before that. See, interestingly enough, this guy says 10 years…

Random “rules” can hold you back

I have a course called “How to be The Richest Comedian Nobody’s Ever Heard Of,” because it’s basically my blueprint for how I was making $250,000 a year with standup and nobody knew my name because I wasn’t JUST doing standup in clubs.

I was creating multiple revenue streams with my comedy and making money. So, but this guy put on my blog, “Hey, don’t even expect to make any money until you’ve been in this business 10 years.”

Again, some little number that popped out of the blue that he decides is a rule for everybody else. And the thing that bothers me about that, it’s like, you’ve got these people that want to get into this business that really eager about being comedians. And then they got guys who were making up these rules that make no sense.

Just stop listening to people with these arbitrary rules. Just be, you. Be the best you, you can be and I know how cliche that sounds, but just be you. Just be the best. You just go out there and start to explore, get out there and start, you know, being super confident with your identity, no matter who you are.

And even if you’re, even if your persona changes, just get up there and be you. And don’t worry about what anybody else is thinking and try to set goals, you know?

Somebody said to me, what seven years, 10 years to make any money really 10 years? It was less than two years that I was in this business that I was making money in comedy and it was doing it in corporate and not in in the clubs. So I mean $800 a gig to start. And that’s how I started in this business. 

Listen to your own voice

So don’t listen to these guys that come up with this arbitrary nonsense and try to paint something with a broad brush. You’ve got to take your own journey. Each individual will find their own way, but this 10 years stuff to find your persona, doesn’t have to be that way. 

It might take that long, depends on you, but in the long run, you’re going to do what you do.

And eventually you’re going to find yourself first goal, be able to be you on stage and not just recite material. You know, mechanics of the materials is one thing. The structure of the material is one thing, but being able to be in the moment and have a conversation with the audience, you’re going to find yourself. I skewed towards being cynical and doing socio-political material.

How Anthony Jeselnik found his persona

Anthony Jeselnik in his interview that I saw online. He actually said that he was just practicing doing jokes. He was just doing jokes with an audience and he hit a couple of dark jokes and it seemed like that’s what the audience was kind of responding to the best. So that’s the direction he went.

He actually was inspired by Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts” on Saturday Night Live, remember that little segment?

He would kind of write his material based off of versions of that. He started with Deep Thoughts and then came up with his own. And that was kind of his direction. And then he found out that the dark ones, the edgy ones, were the ones that people were responding to so he went in that direction with his material.

It’s not a random number, it’s your number

So 10 years, seven years, five years, two years, one and a half years. It doesn’t matter. Just get up there and be you and find your own voice and stop listening to these things. You know, maybe you found your voice and then, some guy says 10 years and you’re like, “Oh, I couldn’t have found my voice. Cause that dude said ’10 years.'”

It’s not nothing like that. Everybody’s an individual. They do to do their own thing.

And you can break all those rules that are out there and find your own way.

I hope this helped add value to your day. Remember if you have any questions, hit me up on Twitter, where my handle is @jokedoctor. Ask me a question, then hashtag it with #AskTheJokeDoctor, and I’ll do a video for YouTube and give you my best answer.

Great to have you here!

Jerry Corley
Jerry Corley

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