Listening to comedians discuss their craft never ceases to fascinate me. In fact, I sometimes find it more interesting than watching their act.
A great source of these discussions is the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, on which Jay Leno was recently a guest. Leno rolled out a few stories I have heard him tell in the past, but one point he made about ‘working clean’ really stuck with me:
You have a lot of [comedians] now that rush to the middle and then stay there for twenty years.
He goes on to describe a phenomenon where new comedians are very quickly able to reach the middle of the pack because they can milk swearing or vulgarity for a cheap laugh… but then their careers hit a wall and stall.
It’s really easy to take a clean joke and make it dirty. It’s almost impossible to take a really funny dirty joke and make it clean. When the punchline is some four-letter word, what do you do with that? Where do you go with it? You can’t take it past a certain point.
The warning here is obvious: if you take shortcuts to success, you’ll eventually be stranded without the tools to progress further. It’s easy enough to learn what certain words translate to in Spanish, but if you don’t understand how to conjugate verbs and construct sentences you’ll find it difficult to ever carry a conversation in that language.
A comedian who relies too heavily on cheap laughs runs the danger of never actually learning the craft of comedy. Eventually the novelty of your vulgarity will wear thin and if you don’t have the skills to write new jokes, so will the laughs you receive.
Granted, there will always be a receptive (but transient) audience for those who lean on tried-and-true tricks, but the real success is reserved for those willing to work for it.
Most people want to play the audience where they get the best laugh… But if you just play rooms where everybody laughs at everything you say, you never get any better.
Leno is talking about comedians in this interview but he may as well be talking about anybody with any serious ambitions. Shortcuts and low-hanging fruit abound, as do people who will pat you on the back and tell you what you want to hear. Don’t be afraid to climb a little higher and seek feedback from the people you fear you’ll never impress. Eventually you will find the higher, riper fruit and get a laugh you know you earned.