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11 Common Traits of Great Comedians and Successful Business Owners

by Emily O'Shaughnessy

Yesterday my four year-old asked me what I want to be when I grow up (I like her optimism in thinking I’m not there yet). Without missing a beat I answered “a Saturday Night Live writer.” Maybe it was because I recently watched last week’s 30 Rock and female comedy writers were on my mind. But honestly I’ve always thought that would be a fun job. I remember watching SNL back in high school, tears from laughing so hard thinking, “Who comes up with this stuff? I want to do that!” I was voted funniest girl in my high school senior class (I would have preferred “hottest date” but had no shot so got the consolation prize). Like many middle-agers, I occasionally wonder about the path not taken – how would things worked out if I’d tried my luck at comedy? Would I have made it to hang out with he cool crew at The Second City improv club in Chicago? Or would I have struggled living on ramen noodles for years and never broke into the biz? I’ll never know, because instead I chose the safer route – business degree then grad school. I learned a lot, but there’s a reason MBAs aren’t known for their sense of humor. Statistics are boring, and you can only be so creative balancing spreadsheets (ok, I suppose that’s debatable – but that’s a whole other topic for somebody else’s blog). So I learned to keep quiet, play along, wear a suit and use fancy words during my power point presentations.

But back to that dream job…my daughter’s question started me thinking what it would take to be successful in comedy, whether as a writer, a standup comedian, talk show host or a comedy actor in Hollywood. As I pondered the idea, I realized something. Strangely, many of the same traits that make successful comedians are the very same things that make successful business people. It was an ah-ha moment. And if anything, it made me feel better. Perhaps maybe us business peeps aren’t so boring and uncool after all? Then again…

11 Common Traits of Great Comedians and Successful Business Owners

1). Know Their Audience

Great comedians know their audience and prepare material accordingly. Just as small business owners must define their target market and develop strategies to reach those consumers, comedians know exactly who they’re trying to reach and tailor presentations accordingly.  For example, Larry the Cable Guy appeals to a decisively different audience than, say, Seth Myers. Can you imagine Larry speaking at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Considering the audience, Myers was a brilliant choice.  Then again, his jokes might not go over so well at a Monster Truck convention.

2). Up-To-Date

It’s critical for small business owners to stay informed of the latest happenings in their industry and local community. In order to stay relevant, they need to know what people are interested in and talking about in order to capitalize on those trends.  The same goes for good comedy writers. It’s imperative they stay up-to-date in news, tech, social media and pop culture. Some of the funniest material is based off of recent news headlines. My favorite part of SNL is the Weekend Update, where they put humorous spins on actual events. It’s hilarious, and what makes it so funny is that it’s relevant, fresh and current.

3) Always “On”

Similar to dermatologists being accosted at dinner parties by people who want to talk about their “mysterious bumps,” comedians can’t escape work. It’s a blessing and a curse, because they are expected to be funny at all times. For some, being funny comes naturally and the deadpans and puns roll off the tongue. But I imagine for many a break would be nice. Comedians and business owners are always expected to be “on” even when they’d rather not. Like it or not, they are constantly branding themselves.

4). Perseverance

Did you know Seinfeld, arguably one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, almost wasn’t a show? The original pilot tested “weak” and it was only after NBC executive Rick Ludwin, who believed in had potential, gave the go-ahead to create four more episodes. Seinfeld was different than anything else on TV at the time, and therefore people were leery to accept it. But because a few key people believed in it and didn’t give up, the “show about nothing” went on to become one of the most successful sitcoms in television history.

5). Quick on Their Feet

The ability to think quickly on their feet is a huge asset to comedians and business people alike. They have with witty comebacks and are ready to respond to unexpected comments or questions. Stand up comedians gauge the audience and adjust their performance as necessary. If they don’t get the laughs they hope on a certain subject, they steer the show in another direction. Just as small business owners need to make quick but well-informed decisions on the fly, good comedians educate themselves so they’re ready to respond appropriately.

6). The Power of Networking

Ah, networking. Is it just me or does it seem like there is a fun group of comedians that all support each other’s projects? It’s as if there’s a cool club, and they’re all good friends and in on the jokes Do they hang out together on weekends and have playdates with their kids? Judd Apatow instantly comes to mind, because I love his films and the characters seem like family. He frequently collaborates with the same actors (Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, Jason Segel and of course his wife Leslie Mann). You always hear about comedians who started out doing improv together, were roommates while struggling on the stand up circuit, then years later ended up huge stars doing cameos in each other’s movies just for kicks. Comedy, like all types of business, is all about who you know. And supporting those that support you. And remembering the “little people,” because in 10 year those little people may not be so little anymore.

7). Thick Skin

Can you imagine standing on stage in a crowded room, delivering a joke you’re sure will be a hit, only to be met with silence. Talk about an awkward moment. As comedians, you have to have thick skin. You’ll always have critics and you can’t please everyone. Sort of like in the business world, eh?

8). Know the Importance of Good Timing

Comedians know that timing is everything. An ill-timed joke can ruin a sketch, and something that’s hilarious one week might be washed up material the next. Part of being a good businessman is being ready for opportunities at the right time. Your product might be outstanding, but if it’s too late to market – or too early – it could flop for no other reason than bad timing.

9). Damage Control

Comedians often push the limits, which can be an effective way to make an impact. Until, of course, the approach backfires. Just ask Tracy Morgan, who last year was criticized for making anti-gay remarks during a live show, then derogatory comments about disabled children only weeks later. He was blasted by individuals and organizations for his actions. He made public apologies that appear to be sincere, but it’s hard to say what long-term impact his rants will have on his career. It only takes one inappropriate comment to ruin an otherwise promising career. We can all think of several businessmen – or politicians – whose careers have been cut short by inappropriate email forwards, Twitter pics, Facebook posts, ranting voicemails or revealing videos.

10). Excellent Team

Excellent comedians don’t do it alone. Maybe starting out they do, but by the time we’ve heard of them they have a team of writers, workers, vocal coaches, costume designers, etc. all helping them deliver that stellar performance. Comedians know they’re only as good as their team and coworkers. It seems the most successful ones know and appreciate those they work with, and happily give credit where credit is due. One thing I love about Ellen DeGeneres is that she often comments about and interacts with her team on the show, and expresses what a wonderful group they are to work with. It seems genuine, and her positive approach makes the audience love her even more.

11). Long Hours of Practice, Practice, Practice

This one isn’t glamorous, but can’t be excluded. The greats are never satisfied with good enough, but continuously challenge themselves to improve. They put in long hours practicing their skills, learning new techniques, re-writing and developing new projects. Most successful business owners I know have the same work ethic. The minute they decide to rest a competitor can swoop in, and suddenly they’re irrelevant.

Now that I think about it, maybe the grass isn’t always greener. Perhaps comedy writing isn’t so glamorous after all. I see one hour of television on Saturday night and think it’s all fun and games. But I don’t see what went on behind the scenes – probably a lot of late nights, re-writes, arguments, political mumbo jumbo, rehearsals, crisis, etc. in order to get to the end result. So I guess there’s a chance my dream job wouldn’t be so dreamy after all? But since it’s my dream, I’m going to keep thinking it’s the coolest gig around.

Just for fun, here’s a picture of me last Halloween dressed as Kristen Wiig’s Target Lady character from SNL. Gotta love her. And yes, that’s a wig…

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