Chris Rock is a very funny guy.
His routine on the many uses of Robitussin (‘tussin, for short) is a comedy classic.
The ‘tussin skit sets the context for the rest of this post.
If you haven’t seen it – or want a refresher — click to view it now.
I always assumed that Rock was a naturally funny guy who just stoked up and unleashed a stream of top-of-mind consciousness on stage.
I was surprised to learn that Rock takes his craft very seriously and toils long and hard to test and fine-tune his material.
Here’s a glimpse at his recipe for success …
In his book Little Bets, author Peter Sims reports:
Chris Rock has become one of the most popular comedians in the world and, while there is no doubt he has great talent, his brilliance also comes from his approach to developing his ideas.
The routines he rolls out on his global tours are the output of what he has learned from thousands of little bets, nearly all of which fail.
When beginning to work on a new show, Rock picks venues where he can experiment with new material in very rough fashion.
In gearing up for a recent global tour, he made between forty and fifty appearances at a small comedy club, called Stress Factory, in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
In front of audiences of, say, fifty people, he will show he will show up unannounced, carrying a yellow legal note pad with ideas scribbled on it.
He won’t launch into the familiar performance mode his fans describe as “the full preacher effect,” when he uses animated body language, pitchy and sassy vocal intonations, and erupting facial expressions.
Instead, he will talk with the audience in an informal, conversational style with his notepad on a stool beside him.
He watches the audience intently, noticing heads nodding, shifting body language, or attentive pauses, all clues as to where good ideas might reside.
In sets that run around forty-five minutes, most of the jokes fall flat.
His early performances can be painful to watch. Jokes will ramble, he’ll lose his train of thought and need to refer to his notes, and some audience members sit with their arms folded, noticeably unimpressed.
He may think he has come up with the best joke ever, but if it keeps missing with audiences, that becomes his reality.
Other times, a joke he thought would be a dud will bring the house down.
“There are five to ten lines during the night that are just ridiculously good. Like lightning bolts. He starts with these bolts and then writes around them.”
For a full routine, Rock tries hundreds (if not thousands) of preliminary ideas, out of which only a handful will make the final cut.
By the time Rock reaches a big show— say an HBO special or an appearance on David Letterman — his jokes, opening, transitions, and closing have all been tested and retested rigorously.
Developing an hour-long act takes even top comedians, like Rock, from six months to a year.
If comedians are serious about success, they get on stage every night they can, especially when developing new material. They typically do so at least five nights per week, sometimes up to seven, and sweat over every element and word.
Rock deeply understands that ingenious ideas almost never spring into people’s minds fully formed; they emerge through a rigorous experimental discovery process.
“He grinds out this material.”
As the original Grandma Homa would say; “Winning is 1% natural talent and 99% busting your ass.”
Apparently Chris Rock got the message.
Good for him.
Sims, Peter. Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries). Free Press