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 should instruct as often as it misdirects.
Unfortunately, most of us compartmentalize how (or from whom) we’ll learn. 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.
But what, if anything, can you learn from a comedian?
Now, no one consumes comedy solely to learn. Nor should they; it’s meant to entertain. But perhaps you can gain something by studying the behaviors of this eclectic group of people. After all, they think for a living.
From the minds, habits, and epic behaviors of four of today’s best comedians, here are five strategies you can use to guide your life.
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.
We know this story. People like Burr get famous, then drop off because they lose sight of what got them there. But he knows this, and his strategy to prevent this from happening 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 routinely engaging his mind and senses in new ways.
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 one writer’s opinion, a better product. His bits are still blue-collar, and his comedy is still classic Billy Burr. But it’s also deeper and more refined.
A commitment to continued education helps Bill Burr continue to discover universal truths about the world we live in. In a way, he’s built himself a well that continually refills itself.
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 it’s painfully obvious how great their work ethic is. Each performance is like a dance, rhythmic and balanced in its own way. All three emanate grace and confidence that can’t be faked.
Iliza, to her credit, designs a challenging act for herself. One that marries short sentences, sharp punchlines, and elegant, rehearsed movements. It’s orchestration disguised as comedy, which sets the stakes high — if the ‘percussion’ is ever slightly off, the whole thing’s gonna suck.
Watch Iliza’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. And 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.
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 to the table.
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 stays humble and relatable. It’s a longer-term play than coming off as a genius, but the payoff is greater than having a few people think you’re a guru. (And if you read the JRE fan boards, you’ll see plenty of people think he is anyway.)
Truly, that’s the Joe Rogan experience — not a collective consciousness of great minds, but the unique juxtaposition of a king seated on his throne as a self-proclaimed master of none.
4. Ellen Degeneres
Strategy: Go further than everyone else will.
With age, we begin to understand people’s behaviors. We also learn what their behavior means for us. “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.
But we often 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, it’s meant to fascinate, stimulate, and puzzle us simultaneously.
Take Rob McElhenney, for example. How is a normal person supposed to understand gaining sixty pounds just for a laugh? How are we supposed to process that logically, let alone respond to it?
The answer is you aren’t supposed to. You don’t. And you’re wise not to because comedians will always go further than anyone else.
There’s not a 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. That poor friend.
Lessons in Comedy (and 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 talk, and to instruct. And you must accept you won’t always understand their behavior because it doesn’t fit into 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 just a matter of scale.
No, you won’t own 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 this fifth comedic strategy to your life―the philosophy and guiding tenet of comedic pursuit. Don’t be afraid to do something, even if it’s just for the sake of doing it.