Lately I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries – in March, it was backup singers in 20 Feet from Stardom, and this month it’s stand-up comedians in Dying Laughing. (Please send me recommendations of what to stream next!) I love finding career advice in movies, and this doc did not disappoint.
The documentary features a who’s who of famous comics — Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, the late Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman and many, many more – sharing raw tales of what it takes to succeed.
What I found most fascinating and impressive was that these entertainers who are at the very top of their field were so willing to talk openly about their failures. And while I certainly didn’t think it was easy, I had never fully appreciated the angst and pressure that goes into the career of a stand-up. Comedy is no laughing matter.
Here were some of my favorite career advice takeaways from the film.
Everyone pays their dues
Sure, everyone wants to be the unknown comic who dazzles their first audience and immediately ends up on SNL with no looking back, just as many young professionals yearn for a fast track to the CEO suite. But this rarely happens in any realm.
Garry Shandling tells a story in the film about a newbie comic approaching him to ask “the secret” to bypassing the years of telling mediocre jokes in crappy small town clubs. “I know there’s got to be one,” he says. Shandling shakes his head with a knowing smile and says simply, “There is no shortcut.”
No one is immune from a bad day
The stories the comedians told about bombing were the most powerful, even tear jerking. They talked about bad performances and bad audiences. Material that sounded awesome in front of their mirrors and painfully unfunny when it came out of their mouths onstage. Even Jerry Seinfeld explained how easy it can be to fail: “When you first go on, you start from a dead quiet room full of unhappy people.”
Their tales reminded me that absolutely no one is perfect, and no one is always winning: One day we have an audience or a client who loves us, and the next day we are smacked down. I get it because my experiences as a speaker have also run the gamut. I’ve gotten criticism from some audiences and standing ovations from others. When you first walk into a room, you don’t always know which way the night will end.
The bombs are when you grow
The comedians in Dying Laughing reinforced that bombing has some upside. Every time it happens to you, you get a little better at figuring out what caused the bomb and how to avoid it — or better deal with it — in the future.
The career equivalents of bombing (getting reprimanded, demoted or fired, for example) can occur at any and every stage of your career; what changes over time is how you react and how you recover. “If you come back from the worst bomb of your life, you’ll make it,” notes Keenen Ivory Wayans.
You need your tribe
One of the the film’s most powerful moments comes when comedian Royale Watkins tearfully tells the story of the worst night of his career (the short version of the story is that he bombed in front of basketball star Michael Jordan), and how it all turned around when the late Bernie Mac supported him through it.
A bad day yields the tendency to hide in our shell and eat ice cream, but this film is a good reminder that you should do the exact opposite and reach out to someone who knows your pain. No matter what your career field, it’s critical to have mentors, friends and colleagues. You can benefit from a friend’s tale of a similar woe or even just a listening ear and reminder that you’re not alone — even if your career involves standing by yourself on a stage in front of thousands of people.
Hearing these luminaries share their bombs underscored another truth: Sharing stories of the tough times becomes a strength; it makes you more approachable and authentic. So next time I bomb at a speaking gig, I think I’ll give Jerry Seinfeld a call…
What have been some takeaways you’ve had about bombing? Remember what I said about the importance of sharing with others, and let us all know in the comments below!
Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!”
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