Michael Bierut | Essays

Seven Things Designers Can Learn from Stand Up Comics

Clockwise, from upper left: Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Louis CK, and Chris Rock. © HBO

The premise of HBO's hour-long special "Talking Funny" is simple: invite four top-ranked comedians — Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis C.K. — turn on the cameras, and let them talk shop for an hour. There are laughs, of course, but the most interesting parts focus on the technical craft of getting those laughs. This is serious business. Stand up comedy is a high-risk creative enterprise, executed in real time in front of a critical audience. I didn't tune in looking for lessons for designers, but I found seven.

And please note, they have nothing to do with being funny.

1. It's all about the basics.
"I love jokes so much," says Jerry Seinfeld towards the beginning of the show. "I love them so much." He loves them because they're the indestructible building blocks of comedy. The others agree. "So many of these young guys think it's all attitude," says Chris Rock. "But you have to have jokes under your weird persona, under your crazy glasses, under your crazy voice." Design has basic building blocks too: scale, proportion, hierarchy, contrast. Get those right first. Or, as Seinfeld concludes: "You can put in all kinds of furniture, but you have to have steel in the walls." 

2. Once you've mastered the basics, make your work your own.
"Do you think you have to have a thing?" asks Ricky Gervais."Well, you've gotta figure something out," responds Seinfeld. Between all the "things" and "somethings," we know exactly what they're talking about. Every successful comedian is different. The best have an immediately identifiable attitude, whether it's Henny Youngman, Demetri Martin, or the four participants in "Talking Funny." The best designers are no different. Think of how many ways there are to design something like, say, a Vladimir Nabokov book cover. A good designer is a problem solver. A great designer can figure out a way to solve a problem that's completely unique.  At one point, Seinfeld tells a Louis C.K. joke his way, and asks, "Is that how it goes?" Louis CK replies, "Well, that's a completely Seinfelded version. You made it...nice." It's one of my favorite parts of the show.

3. Respect your audience.
Chris Rock says: "A lot of comedians have great jokes, and they're like, 'Why is this not working?' It's not working because the audience doesn't understand the premise. If I set this premise up right, this joke will always work." The comics talk about ensuring the audience — so demanding, so easily distracted — is with them for every joke during the act. This doesn't mean talking down or pandering. Rather, it's good old-fashioned respect. I sometimes tell students that every design needs a welcome mat and a doorknob. The first helps a person realize, "Hey, this is for me." The second gives them a way into the design. Good design, like good comedy, is about surprise. But surprise can't happen in a vacuum. It needs a context that establishes familiarity. If you respect your audience, you provide that context.

4. Know your tools.
The tools of a stand up comic are words. Some are good for every job. Some are more powerful and should be used sparingly. All of them are potentially crutches. Louis C.K. says that Jerry Seinfeld once told him, "The F word is like a Corvette." "And I thought," says Louis C.K., "that means that it's fast and it's cool and it's got power and thrust to it. But then I thought, wait a minute, this guy grew up on Long Island and collected Porsches. So to him, a Corvette is a piece of shit, with a Chevy engine, just a flashy bullshit car." Your own favorite tool may be a typeface, or a Photoshop effect, or a certain color combination. Seinfeld says he stopped using the F word when he realized it had become a crutch. Of course, one man's crutch is another man's secret weapon. Or, as Louis C.K. observes, "Where I grew up, a Corvette is an awesome car."

5. Honor your craft.
One striking running theme of "Talking Funny" is that each of the comics works extremely hard, creating challenges where they might just as easily coast. Chris Rock reinvents his entire show every year. Louis C.K. regularly takes his closing bit — the strongest part of his show — moves it to the beginning, and forces himself to create a new show designed to top the old climax. Ricky Gervais says, "Oh, it's not just being funny. It's being proud of your stuff and doing things that other people couldn't do." Louis C.K. adds that, for him, "Easy laughs, cheap laughs, they don't exist." Chris Rock: "How many unfunny comedians have ever sustained a career not being funny?" Mastery of craft is tied to perpetual self-improvement. And, just as in design, mere technique is never enough. Louis C.K. is nervous when he feels he's relying on technical skill. "This bit is working because I know how to do stand up, not because it's something that's important to me." Hone your skills, but make certain they serve ends that are important to you.

6. Don't be afraid of failure.
Good comedians experiment constantly. Every time they test a new joke, they risk bombing. That's why they'll try out new material in smaller venues, polishing pieces in front of live audiences: they need to hear what's working and what's not working. Seinfeld admits that when he was starting out, "I was hitting 500. I would have a good show and a bad show, a good show and a bad show." His very first show was bad. "But success wasn't my objective." He was desperate to simply be on stage, and was willing to risk failure every other night to get there. Designers take risks for the same reasons. Trying something new means not being sure of the outcome. But it's the only way that anyone working in a creative field can hope to make progress. Ambition is a strong enough antidote to fear. Louis C.K. remembers how he idolized good comics: "I wanted to be one of them, and I didn't care if I sucked at it."

7. Finally, never forget you have a special gift.
Ricky Gervais, in a revealing moment, asks, "Don't you ever think, when we make people have this feeling of laughter, and they pay us money: what if they discover they can do it themselves?" The other comics are rather stunned at this. Seinfeld shouts, "But they can do it themselves!" Gervais, almost glumly asks, "Then why are they paying us?" Louis C.K. answers, "We're a high octane version of it. We're pros. They can play touch football, too." And Seinfeld adds: "But that doesn't hurt the NFL." We live at a time when the tools of design are more available than ever before. What client doesn't have a nephew who knows InDesign, or, better still, a spouse with a newly discovered enthusiasm for Powerpoint? Graphic design: anyone can do it, right? Well, yes. But the professionals still understand what it means to do something well. And that confidence makes its own statement. 

Near the end of the show, Chris Rock talks about what a pleasure it is to watch anyone do anything really well, even a great truck driver. "I just saw this guy park an 18-wheeler into this narrow space," he says. "And I said I guarantee you there's heart surgery that's not as hard as what this guy just did." Louis agreed.  "I watched a guy pull into a loading dock, and I stopped and said, 'That was amazing.' And he was like, 'Yeah, I know, I know.'" If you're a designer, it's easy to forget that what you do is, in so many ways, amazing. Appreciate that gift in yourself. Appreciate the gifts of others. And look for lessons wherever you can find them.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Media

Comments [25]

Wonderful essay Michael. It's funny how much easier it's become, with computers, to take what we do for granted in some way. I think the mere fact that you were able to find lessons for designers in this special goes along way in how designers themselves have a special gift looking at the big picture and at the same time, the details that matter most.

Great observations! I've been teaching design for about 10 years and been following stand up comedy for over 30. This resonates beyond craft, I've been using everything I've seen in comedy clubs as part of both my educational and professional approach for years. (Just don't let clients know how much 'failure' occurs in the process of honing craft). Your post also resonates as much as saying 'Drink Coke. Any questions?' in a Helvetica film. :P
steve mehallo

it still holds truth : *every person who is great and who is a master at his or her craft is humorous and they have great sense of humour and they are very humble ;))) great to find these thoughts manifest in your cute writing too :D
aybige tek

This is so easy...

Seven things designers can learn from hookers:

1.) Keep your eye on the prize. It's a business transaction. Don't be shy about the money, unless it's just a hobby.
2.) Tell him how big and wonderful it is. Clients always go for exaggeration and praise...no matter how big or small they really are..
3.) Make yourself presentable. Cargo pants don't cut it. Try a fake leather miniskirt and fishnet stockings. All the Pentagram folks do that. Big clients are impressed.
4.) Leave 'em smiling. A happy client is a returning client.
5.) Show your best talents. You have a natural gift for not gagging in the presence of clients. Work on it if you don't.
6.) Always ask what they want first. ( this should be Number One.)
7.) Follow-up. Take his wallet while you're down there.
Michelle Butt

An amazing essay. The idea that anyone who is seeking to master anything has a great deal in common with others seeking the same level of satisfaction in different fields is interesting. The reality that mastery is not really attainable but is still worth striving for helps make us good at what we do.
John Boland

Excellent post! We too often forget to value ourselves. Your 7 points are so simple but they are so key. Thanks!
Ryan Oetting

Wonderfully thoughtful Michael, I think there could be a theme developing on the connection between comedy and design. This is Paul Valerios recent piece on innovation and comedy.

Marc Shillum

I feel like a pussy admitting this, but I cried a little at the end of that essay.
Colin Santos

The welcome mat and the doorknob - brilliant. Too many double locks and 'keep out' signs around!
Jane Birkin

Thank you. I will remember this essay....it will make a difference in all that I do.

For the past year I've been doing a presentation on what UX designers can learn from the late Bill Hicks, who I was lucky enough to interview. I take a slightly different stance from this article. Sadly the presentation isn't online due to the heavy use of video, but you can find some excellent sketchnotes of it at http://www.tumblr.com/xcw2hn35u4
Ian Fenn

6. Don't be afraid of failure.

Yes. Good point, Michael.
Thank you!
Carl W. Smith

“Ambition is a strong enough antidote to fear.”
Such an amazing, and true, statement! Thank you.

Best post I've read in months (anywhere). Thanks MB. Insightful as always.
Troy Matheson

I saw this show and was truly taken by it. It's true - everything needs craftsmanship and honor. No matter what you do. Thanks for sharing this - so glad to know I wasn't the only one who thought this was a brilliant piece.
Beth Dickstein

Great article! I've been meaning to catch up and read this one--finally had the time today! Great way tos tart the day.

Awesome post. Great job practicing #7 and finding these tidbits for us.

Point taken for all, especially #7. Thanks for the reminder that a trained eye with knowledge and experience also comes with the expectation of doing things well not only for themselves, but especially for others.
Tina Moore

Thanks for the insightful post. The relationship between design and comedy is one that I first noticed when watching the Jerry Seinfeld documentary titled 'Comedian.' You can pretty much mentally replace the word "comedy" with "design" when watching that film and it still rings true. Mark Maron, another long-time comedian, has a podcast called 'WTF' that also examines the craft of comedy (read design).
Alex Egner

Talking Funny was great.
So is this.

Thanks and Cheers,
Derek Gabryszak

Is this your training for Command X? ;)

Great insight. I want to be you, Michael, and I don't care if I suck at it!

So glad I just caught this post! I saw "Talking Funny" over the weekend and loved it. It has all the electricity of a great design conversation. And your 7 points are a fantastic distillation. For myself, I would only add one more--a theme that ran beneath the entire conversation: ------------ 8) EMBRACE YOUR COMPETITION. YOUR PEERS ARE ONE OF YOUR GREATEST RESOURCES. ------------ I tend to think of my favorite comedians in isolation from one another. The same holds true for many of my favorite designers, I suppose. But Talking Funny challenged my thinking is this regard. It was clear from their conversation that all four comedians were VERY well versed in each other's material, and had been handicapping the "competition" for years.... Some of them even remembered obscure bits that the others had done going back to the 70s and 80s! Pretty amazing when you consider that these four comedians have very different styles, and rose to prominence in different eras. What ultimately unites them may be a desire and dedication to be at the top of their game. But personal ambition wasn't enough. It looks like the creation of great comedy--like great design--requires a broader community. So much for the myth of the lone gunslinger....
Christopher Sergio

enjoyed reading this post!!!

stand up comic = designers

i like!!

I learned more here than I did in the past 3 years of design school.

Thank you!
Nima Et.

This lessons from stand up make us feel proud of being a Designer.
Many thanks Michael Bierut
Regards from SP Brazil

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