The Best Comedy Advice I Ever Had

The most important piece of advice I ever received about being a professional comedian didn't come from a comedian. It didn't even come when I was pursuing a career in comedy, and it wasn't even advice about comedy, necessarily.

It came from Tom Thornburg, one of my poetry professors in college. On the first day of his class, he asked why we should listen to anything he had to say about poetry. He pointed out that our styles would likely be wildly divergent and that we might not see value in his opinions because of that. He pointed out our differences in age, and political opinion, and role models in writing. He pointed out that we may just hate his course and feel there was nothing of value in it.

“Why,” he asked, “should you listen to me?”

We thought about it for a bit in silence. Someone raised their hand and he waved them down.

“That was rhetorical,” he said. Then he told us why we should listen to him, and you know what? It made sense. Total sense. Mind-blowing, amazing, incredible, ohmygod I should've already thought of this but hadn't sense. What he said was this:

If you want to publish something, never take advice from someone who isn't currently getting published.”

Then he pulled out books of poetry he'd written, magazines he'd been published in, and current acceptance letters. Then he told us to make up our minds about whether or not we cared what he had to say. Immediately after, he began to teach and never mentioned it again. His advice was golden, though. Absolutely golden.

I made Tom's advice my comedy business mantra, albeit altered a bit. “If you want to make money at something, never take advice from someone who isn't currently making money at it.” Words to live by. Your family's opinion of your act and how you handle business? Doesn't matter. Significant other's thoughts? Nope. Best friend's innovative ideas? He's an English teacher. You're like a brother, man, but... pass.

The guy you have the chance to talk to after his second show on Saturday? Yes. Even more so if his style is what you aspire to. The woman who just blew away the crowd on Thursday? Talk to her. She obviously knows something you don't. Talk to comedians, bookers, club managers, club owners, anyone who actually makes money from the business. Their thoughts are the ones that are valuable when making money at comedy, they drive the business.

I make it a point to learn something new from everyone I work with. Usually, this is easy. Occasionally it's hard, especially when my ego wants me to think I'm a better performer or writer or comedian or whatever than them. Doubly so when I don't find their act particularly funny. But they're making money at this for a reason. They're doing something right. So I watch them and try to figure out what it is they're doing right on stage, and how I can apply that to my act. And if I can't figure it out from their act or stage work, then it becomes doubly important for me to talk with them after the show and get to know them a bit. Sometimes it's about how they handle themselves professionally, or who they know, and how they treat people.

It's a pain in the ass, but it's on the job training. And it's something that has guided me through the world of comedy. I learn from the people I work with. There's no school for comedians, no training course or seminar. And there's no consistent measure of success... In the end, we are only who we make of ourselves, and we should be using every tool at our disposal to be successful. But only if you want to make a living at it...