NOTE: This post has a fair bit of swearing in it (as it quotes some standup comedians). If swearing turns you off, you may want to skip this one!
So ... I’ve been getting some really awesome entrepreneurial advice lately, and you’d never guess from who (or “from whoooom”, I suppose) ...
Just to be clear: I don’t know professional uber-goof Pete Holmes whatsoever, but I am a voracious listener of his podcast You Made It Weird, in which he interviews — sometimes for 3+ hours — comedians, actors, and the occasional academic.
Aside from the fact that I just really like Holmes’s completely ridiculous and often NSFW conversations, I’ve also come to realize that he and his pals give some of the best startup & writing advice I’ve ever heard (wrapped up, of course, in relentless jokes about porn, dating, psych 101, and Hitler).
After listening to Holmes interview comedians such as Bill Burr, Tig Notaro, and John Mulaney, I’ve come to realize that comedians — whether they know it or not — really are the most badass lean-startup practitioners around.
Think about it: Comics work by building up a little material — which they know in advance is mostly crap — then test it out on an often hostile, dismissive audience. And their success metric isn’t some anonymous, low-commitment act like a user signup. Their performance is measured by their ability to elicit a live, spontaneous, wholly involuntary response from complete strangers.
One of the things that sets truly successful comics apart is the fact they seem to live for the testing phase. They’re happiest when they have some time to head down to the club, try out some material, and figure out which bits work and which don’t. Bombing is a hallowed, unavoidable rite of passage — one they’re destined to repeat regularly for years before they get a little traction and start their climb to fame.
Most normal people dread the testing phase. We can’t help but want to circumvent failure and rejection, even if doing so results in us producing & publishing NOTHING for months or years at a time.
Here’s one of my favourite snippets of conversation from Holmes's podcast, about the importance of switching from a perfectionist to an iterative approach to creativity. It’s an old episode in which Holmes interviews comedy writer Megan Ganz about, among other things, her experience writing for Community (Ganz eventually left to write for Modern Family).
About 2 hours and 10 minutes in, Ganz says:
“[The writing culture at Community] made me really fearful. I wasn’t just pitching things for the love of pitching them, I was only pitching things if I really thought that somebody would like them…
“Now that I’m [writing for Modern Family], the first thing that I had to learn was to stop editing what I was thinking were 'bad' jokes out of my system … I will pitch things now that I would have never said out loud before, and people will genuinely like them. Then I’ll look at it a day later and go, ‘That’s not a hacky joke!’ Like, I was so convinced that was a hacky joke, but it’s not.”
Holmes chimes in: “Yeah, a lot of the responses to my tweets are ‘Booo!’ and ‘You’re better than this’ … For every 5 positive [tweets], you’ll get someone who’s like, ‘Boooooooo!’.
“But I’m like, ‘Motherfucker — I’m in the business of green lights.' Do you understand? The way to a good joke is PAVED with bad jokes!"
He then goes on, in classic Holmesian fashion: “The one that really stuck in my craw, even though I’m sure he didn’t mean it … was a guy who was like, ‘How do you get work?’ because I tweeted something [silly].
"And I was like … ‘by tweeting stuff like that, cocksucker! Do you understand??'
"You can stay in your dark corner and censor yourself and wait until you have the one gem of the week, or you can be me, like Neo in the fucking helicopter, and mow the entire floor of agents down so Morpheous can jump onto the plane.’ ” [laughs].
Now, I don’t know about you guys, but “Motherfucker, I’m in the business of GREEN LIGHTS” might have to be my new creative mantra. So liberating! Stop censoring those "silly" ideas. Just get them down on paper. Be a badass and feed them to the lions. Then take the scraps that remain, sort through them fearlessly ... and make them better!
And if it bombs completely, don't say "I failed" ... because you didn't fail.
It was just a bad set.