Oscar Abello

5 Things Global Development Can Learn From Stand-Up Comedy

Early in his stand-up comedy career, Steve Martin started jotting down notes after each of his performances, evaluating what worked, what to tweak for the next time and what to throw out entirely. You can read more about those notes and Martin’s comedy career in his book, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, a memoir and a portrait of the love triangle between innovation, failure, and success.

The love triangle lessons therein are not unique to stand-up comedy. Fast Company’s Co.Design blog published a post titled “Eight things stand-up comedy teaches us about innovation.” In the spirit of Co.Design’s post, here’s five things stand-up comedy can teach us about global development.

1. Trial-and-error is King

Stand-up comedians don’t just get up on a big stage or get booked for a Comedy Central special and wing-it. In the lead-up to a big show or in the early days of their careers, comedians take to tons of tiny stages and hole-in-the-wall comedy clubs to test out jokes and bits and gags, seeing what sticks and what doesn’t; what punch line wording works best; and how to sequence jokes, bits and gags.

Some nights a stand-up comedian bombs completely; other times they kill. Most of the time they’re somewhere in between. Steve Martin’s story illustrates vividly how years of constant self-evaluating of what works and what doesn’t allowed him to build up a pool of material that was refined, replicable, and successful at having his intended impact on his target audience: making them laugh. It’s more than metrics or monitoring and evaluation; it’s knowledge management.

2. Storytelling is Queen

With a few very rare exceptions (Steve Martin being one of them), history’s greatest comedians don’t really tell jokes in the way everyday people do. They tell stories.

Dave Chappelle comes to mind as a recent master of onstage storytelling. It doesn’t have to be a completely true story; one bit from Chappelle starts out with him encountering a Native American in a Wal-Mart. In the process of introducing himself to the man and accompanying him on a tour of his reservation, Chappelle embellishes numerous details to accentuate the comic elements of the story.

Chappelle gained a ton of notoriety thanks to his sketch comedy show, but the storytelling tactics he and show co-creator Neal Brennan used to write those sketches were refined on stage with nothing but a microphone. Stand-up is where they learned how to connect with audiences and to take audiences with them through a story.

3. Things Get Lost, and Found, in Translation

Stand-up comedians travel a lot. It’s rarely glorious, staying in motels and staying awake far past midnight sometimes, just waiting for their turn on stage. Two nights here, three nights there, and on to the next city. Successful stand-up comedians tend to pick up on different responses to different stories and punchlines depending on where they are – northeast, idwest, deep south, west coast, northwest, Texas, city, suburb, rural.

From place to place, stories and punchlines may not resonate across every audience, but some do and some may affect an audience so strongly it becomes a whole new bit to tell another audience about that audience hearing a punchline. Stand-up comedians that travel a lot gain a sense of the limits of what works in different contexts and gain insights from one context that can inform another.

4. Success Can Undermine Innovation – Warning: Spoiler Alert!

After just a few years selling out stadiums and concert halls everywhere and appearing on Saturday Night Live, Martin had become the most commercially successful comedian to date by 1983. A year later, he quit stand-up for good.

The reason he stopped – spoiler alert – was because rather than constantly improving and trying out new things and taking risks to see what works and what doesn’t, Martin found himself merely living up to his audiences’ expectations. The lesson here: Success cultivated an appetite for what works, at the cost of sacrificing the process to discover – and push the limits of – what works.

5. You Can Do a Lot on a Tight Budget

It’s no secret that comedians don’t earn much, but it also doesn’t take too much to put on a stand-up comedy show. With rarely more than a microphone, stand-up comedians can achieve their intended goal of making the audience laugh.

Martin’s signatures were his banjo and a slew of other props for bits he refined over his career. While some frown on props, in part his career showed that you can bring tools you’ve developed over the years into a variety of settings and become successful, and those tools don’t have to cost much. These days Martin tweets, but he does so with the same comic ethos he’d developed elsewhere for other media that didn’t require Internet or smartphones. It’s the thinking and the execution that makes for success, not the tools.

So, is there anything else you can think of that development can learn from stand-up?

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