5 Epic Life Strategies Stolen from Comedians

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The best comedy, it’s said, isn’t just funny. Jokes serve a higher purpose by becoming social commentary that make people think — about others, their careers, and life. Jokes can be teachers, too. Good comedy can instruct as often as it misdirects.

However, most of us compartmentalize how we learn. We limit who we’ll learn from. A message from a teacher, coach, or mentor may stay with us for a lifetime. But if a parent gives the same advice, we scoff at it.

So what, if anything, can you learn about life from comedians?

From the minds, habits, and epic behaviors of four of today’s best comedians, here are five strategies to guide your life.

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1. Bill Burr

Strategy: Constantly reinvent yourself.

Bill Burr is known as the ‘comedian’s comedian’: ill-tempered, ignorant, and blue-collar. He attributes this to his Boston upbringing. But these days, ‘ol Billy from Boston is dead. He’s Billy Big-Time now, and one of the most revered modern comedians.

Comedy fans know this story. A guy like Burr gets famous, then drops off because he loses sight of what got them there. But Burr knows this, and his strategy to prevent this is simple: keep widening his base. Outside of comedy, Bill’s escapades include flying helicopters, playing the drums, baking, and fixing cars. He’s constantly reinvesting in himself and his career by constantly engaging his mind and senses.

Money allows Bill to do what most can’t afford to: create a veritable life ‘curriculum’ for himself — an adult college-like experience, taking the sort of classes you might find at the South Harmon Institute for Technology.

The result? In this writer’s opinion, a better product. His bits still feel blue-collar, and his comedy is still classic Billy Burr. But it’s also deeper and more refined.

A commitment to his own education helps Bill Burr continue to uncover universal truths about the world we live in. He’s built himself a well that continually refills itself.

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2. Iliza Shlesinger

Strategy: Practice makes perfect.

Stephen Curry shooting three-pointers. Jiro Ono plating sushi. Iliza Shlesinger doing stand-up comedy. What do they have in common?

Study them and you’ll see how painfully obvious their work ethic is. Each performs their craft like a dance, rhythmic and balanced in its own way. All three emanate grace and confidence that can’t be faked.

Iliza employs a challenging stage act. She marries short sentences, sharp punchlines, and elegant, rehearsed movements. It’s orchestration disguised as comedy, which sets the stakes high. If her ‘percussion’ is even slightly off, the whole thing sucks.

To see what I’m talking about, watch Shlesinger’s special, Elder Millennial. Study her setup. Notice where she starts, then how she hits you. Watch her body language deceive you. Like a cobra, she waits until you’re close enough to bite. Once you are, she doesn’t miss.

Like Curry, obsessively honing her skills puts Iliza in a unique professional position. Her work ethic shapes her relationship with fans. She has faith because she’s done the work, and I have faith because my eyes tell me to. Intuition tells us both that if she keeps shooting, it’s eventually going in.

That’s quite a position to end up in. But that only comes with practice, and lots of it. Welcome to Fuckdome, Scott.

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3. Joe Rogan

Strategy: Celebrate ignorance — and quietly.

Say you’re invited to a dinner party. You look at the guest list and see Tom Segura, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Georges St. Pierre will be there.

Um, what? you’d think. How is that even possible?

That’s what Joe Rogan’s podcast is. His guests are so diverse and accomplished that it answers the question, “If you could eat dinner with any three people, who would you pick?” For millions, that fly-on-the-wall experience is part of their weekly routine.

And as amazing as that dinner party sounds, it would take only one thing to make people hate it: inviting a know-it-all.

The fact that Joe isn’t self-absorbed on his own show is at least partially responsible for people’s cult-like obsession with it. He is a master at letting listeners draw their own conclusions — about him, his thoughts, and what his guests, often experts, have to say.

It’s genuine, but it’s also a sly power move. Rogan, like a good politician, knows the game well. He walks a tightrope between unrelenting confidence and self-admitted ignorance. He absorbs, then regurgitates, facts, always crediting his sources. And when he’s praised, he uses one strategy: defer — wholly and swiftly.

He’s humble and relatable to his fans. It’s a longer-term play than sounding like as a genius, but the payoff is greater than having a few people think you’re a guru. (Read the JRE fan boards; you’ll see plenty of people think he is anyway.)

Truly, that’s the Joe Rogan Experience. Not the collective consciousness of great minds, but the unique juxtaposition of a king seated on his throne as a self-admitted master of none.

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4. Ellen Degeneres

Strategy: Go further than everyone else will.

As we age we start to understand people’s behaviors. We also learn what their behavior means for us. Our brain subconsciously goes, He’s unstable, so don’t trust him” or “she’s wonderful, I need her in my life.” Eventually, everyone fits in a box. We create our own stimulus-response chart for all of life’s characters.

At some point, though, we come across a character we don’t know what to do with: the comedian. Class clowns, jokesters, the funny guy at the office. We never quite find the right box for these people. Comedy, after all, is the art of misdirection. By its nature, its meant to fascinate, stimulate, and puzzle us all at once.

Take Rob McElhenney, for example. How are you supposed to understand gaining sixty pounds just for laughs? How are you supposed to process that logically, let alone respond to it? The answer: you aren’t supposed to. You don’t. And you’re wise not to because comedians are always prepared to go further than you will.

There’s no better example of this than Ellen DeGeneres’s Netflix special, Relatable. A global icon worth over $400 million, it’s unlikely at this point in Ellen’s career that she’d be enticed by childish “I’ll-show-them” motivators, right?

Wrong. She turned down Netflix’s offer multiple times until a helpful friend suggested that it’s probably a good idea she didn’t do the special — that given her fame and fortune, and after fifteen years away from stand-up, she might no longer be ‘relatable’ to her audience.

Watch her special, and you’ll see that she rips apart that narrative apart for sixty-eight minutes.

The Fifth Strategy

To learn from comedians, you must understand the goal of great comedy in the first place: to serve a higher purpose, to give people a reason to think, and in its own way, to instruct. And you must accept you won’t always understand a comedian’s behavior because it doesn’t fit in a box like you’re used to.

But if you can do that, there’s a lot you can learn from comedians. Because the truth is, there’s no difference between what you and Bill Burr or Ellen DeGeneres are capable of. It’s a matter of scale.

Maybe you won’t buy a helicopter, perfect your f*ck boy impersonation, smoke weed with Elon Musk, or book a $20-mil Netflix special because a friend bet you couldn’t. But that shouldn’t stop you from applying the final strategy to your life―a philosophy and guiding tenet that guides any comedic pursuit.

Don’t be afraid to do something, even if it’s just for the sake of doing it.

Get my “Oh, The F*cking People You’ll Meet” comedy list series here. It’s free!

A collection of humor essays and other musings. Benkissam@gmail.com

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