Inside Jokes: 5 Career-Building Commandments from Apatow and More Successful Comedians
Filmmakers can learn a lot from comedians.
Building a career in comedy is a lot like building a career in film. Both are fragile art forms. Both are notoriously unforgiving. Both require rigorous amounts of time and commitment. Both depend on the kindness of strangers, an audience who is waiting to judge your most personal offerings. In short, both film and comedy have similar ingredients–and it’s not just a matter of taste.
So what’s the recipe for success? NFS was in Montreal at Just For Laughs 2017, the world’s premiere comedy festival, to find out what filmmakers can learn from the Kings and Queens of Comedy.
We’re talking comedy with a capital C. At some point in the last decade, the comedic sphere exploded into a bonafide Golden Age. The simplest way to explain it is that comedians are—somewhat ironically—beginning to be taken more seriously. Parallel to the rise of streaming movies and binge-watching TV, comedy has become a centerpiece of freewheeling internet entertainment. We’ve traded theater-going for expanding platforms—to the point where a teenager’s Instagram videos can find an audience almost as readily as a Hollywood director’s summer blockbuster.
But don’t confuse accessibility with ‘easy’: it’s easier than ever to fail. The proliferation of content means way more forgettable junk. And it’s harder than ever to rise to the top. That’s where Just For Laughs comes in, celebrating its 35th year as a showplace for comedic talent. It’s both a Mount Olympus for comedy gods—Jerry Seinfeld, Judd Apatow, Kevin Hart and Jim Carrey were among those who attended this year’s fest—and a Pantheon for up-and-comers.
“It’s like the wild, wild west out there. Just put in the time, be you, and trust that good things will happen.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Getting into JFL is huge–but then it’s do or die time. “Success is my only mothafuckin’ option, failure’s not” boomed through the theaters on St. Laurent Street as each fresh face stepped up to the Mic in the festival's "New Faces" section. Any filmmaker who’s been in a festival knows the very same pressure: months, years spent working on a project, all culminating in a screening that can either extend your career…or end it abruptly.
How do you get yourself an invite to such a make-or-break moment? NFS questioned scores of JFL participants, seeking insight–and came up with five essential ingredients for success as an artist.
1. Thou shalt build community
You can’t do this alone. The worlds of film and comedy are tight-knit, incestuous groups–and there’s good reason why. Whether filmmaker or comic, you need Community. You need peers, collaborators, mentors, and patrons to support your work; you also need the right audience, so that your voice—whatever that may be—finds a home.
Like so many festivals, Just For Laughs is a microcosm of both artists and audience. Judd Apatow, a repeat-attender and a one-man studio in his own right, describes JFL as a refuge: “For a comedy nerd, the idea that there’s a place where your favorite comedians are performing and you can jump around from show to show is just crazy,” he said. “And the crowds are so receptive: smart, warm, enthusiastic…They encourage you you to take risks. To experiment.”
“Our videos didn’t really click until we found a DP who vibed with what we do.”
Blair Socci, a female standup who’s new to the festival this year, explains why JFL matters to her. “This event feels like family,” she said. “Most people don’t know how hard it is to do stand up. It makes it hard to date, you miss so many weddings, it’s a massive sacrifice. The silver lining is that you see your friends when you’re working. You get to bond, you find people with your sensibilities, you support each other.”
Women haven’t always been given a big platform in the standup scene, but Socci confirms that that’s changing. “And it’s not just about letting us in the door. Male comics are finally hearing a female perspective through our jokes. A lot more than most men ever hear,” she laughed. “So they actually turn into some of the best, most supportive guys out there.”
Community soothes many pains—but it isn’t just a tool to keep yourself sane. It helps you find the right mentors, collaborators, platforms, audience—all those things that filmmakers and comics (or comics who have become filmmakers) need to succeed.
Handsome Dancer’s James Manzello and his partner, Matt Pavich are prime examples. “We never thought we’d be video artists,” Manzello said, “we were theater people. Onstage sketch comics.” Then came YouTube. “We started posting our own little videos— but we had no community. For a while, it felt really lonely.”
But now their videos get millions of views. “You have to find your core group whom you like to make stuff with,” he explained. “Our videos didn’t really click until we found a DP who vibed with what we do.”
Pavich nodded. “Platform demographics matter too,” he said. “You have to experiment, find which one is yours. After two years on YouTube, Coincidance got 200,000 views. But as soon as we put it on Facebook, the views skyrocketed because Facebook algorithms work to promote its own videos. It’s at three million now. And it found the right people.”
In fact, now that YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and Instagram and more have become such strong platforms, this year’s JFL has broadened its scope. There’s a hot new category for video-comedians: “New Faces: Creators”–and Manzello and Pavitch are featured guests.
Another new JFL creator is YouTube star Quinta Brunson. Before making her million-hit YouTube videos (Prime Day is Coming, Natural Hair vs The Perm), she got her first taste of community at Chicago’s Second City. “Improv teaches you to work with other human beings, you get to explore real feelings.” She has sought out artist communities ever since.
“I did Instagram for a while,” she recalled. “I loved how the material coming out of my mouth went straight to the people. But then I found Buzzfeed: all these young people directing, shooting, editing, putting out work and reaching a wide range of people. I found like-minded collaborators and began refining my voice.”
Brunson now works at Buzzfeed 9-6, then uses their gear nights and weekends to produce skits. The formula works. Verizon recently bought her show up For Adoption, YouTube Red bought Broke…and ICM just signed her at Just For Laughs. Her frustration now: the low numbers of women and creators of color in her community. “The industry is what it is,” she reflected. “But I’m still going to an all white writers room and making my voice heard. You just have to fix what you can in your own small ways.”
Despite the industry’s lack of diversity, JFL showcases the cream of the crop. Like Cannes and Sundance, it’s a symbol of achievement for artists; it validates them in front of their peers. That’s important when you’ve spent years on your own, struggling, with no measure of success until you hear that applause.
Veteran stand-up comic Ryan Hamilton admits that he couldn’t survive without it. Known for his quirky observational style, he has opened for Jerry Seinfeld, and his first Netflix special, Happy Face, will come out on August 29th. But despite these victories, he still needs his peers.
“Those are the moments I lean on: when someone I respect comes up and says something kind, as simple as ‘I really enjoyed those jokes.’ You really need that as an artist, you can live on that for years.”
2. Thou shalt build confidence
Comedy and filmmaking are both scary. In order to succeed, you need to have thick skin. But most importantly, you need to believe in your ability to succeed. "Believe in yourself" may sound corny, but practically every artist whom we spoke with swears by this tenet.
So how do you convince yourself you’re going to succeed when you haven’t yet found success? Easier said than done. Pursuing your passion requires near inhuman levels of self-confidence. The rub is, you can’t get good at it overnight. And the foundation of your career is—often by necessity—built on failure, rejection…and worse.
One of JFL’s most hilarious new faces, Atlanta’s Yedoye Travis, laughed at the thought of his own career setbacks, “A rejection would be nice! Most of the time I’ll audition for a commercial and never hear back until I see the thing on TV. Or I’ll find out at the last possible minute after I’ve gotten the role and gone to a fitting…that they’re not looking for an interracial couple. Or something. As disheartening as those experiences are, you start to realize it’s not always about your or your abilities.”
"You start to realize it’s not always about your or your abilities."
Travis has already been on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Some call him the next Donald Glover, but when you see him perform…He’s the next Travis. Long before he was even being considered for commercials, he was grinding in NY, then LA, then NY again. Working 14-hour shifts at his day job for “Five minutes on stage at 3AM, in front of nobody. It started to weigh me down.” He eventually moved back to NY, where “at least if I’m broke I can walk to a show.”
Sadly, no one will believe you’re for real if you don’t. You need to be your first and strongest advocate, Travis learned. “Nothing was working. Then, as soon as I started saying to myself ‘This is what I do,’ I felt some sort of click. And when I finally got to the point where I could write ‘Comedian’ on my passport application without feeling weird, everything started to fall into place. I still feel weird about it at times,” he confided, “but I knew I had to commit.”
So what does he do when fear rears its ugly head? “I don’t always believe in myself,” Travis laughed. “But when the self-doubt hits, I just watch Netflix and take a nap. That usually does it.”
Another titan of online video comedy is Brian Jordan Alvarez, one of Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch this year—and a huge proponent of positive thinking. A self-described “gay Colombian-American actor/filmmaker,” Alvarez has already hit gold with his online web series The Gay and Wondrous life of Caleb Gallo and Boy Toys.
One key secret of his success: take bigger swings.
His web series follows aspiring millennial actors with hysterically realistic rapid-fire dialogue that would make Howard Hawks turn in his grave. They’re based on his own reality. “But all that will shift,” he promised. Two features are on the way, with Alvarez directing both; as his first nears completion, he’s already shooting a second.
“You literally have to make up your own life,” he explained. “The more things that you go after and get, the more you realize this. And then you have to want the next thing. Having purpose is what keeps me alive. It’s not that my goals are a finish line, but waking up and having something to want is the point of being here.”
“You literally have to make up your own life.”
Another big personality is Preacher Lawson, a new JFL face brimming with self-confident charisma. Lawson recently won “Funniest Comedian In Florida” and the Seattle International Comedy Competition, and he, too, has advice for filmmakers.
“Never focus on negativity,” he insisted. “I know I’m funny—but after watching all these other comics, I begin to get sad. Cause I’m like dang, I gotta work that much harder. And then I realize: this is motivation. It really fires me up.”
In between JFL shows, Lawson was prepping his final audition for America’s Got Talent, all steely resolve and forward momentum.
“It’s easy to doubt yourself. A lot of the most talented people I know are too scared, just messing around with their lives. If someone’s throwing negativity your way, that’s because they’re bitter about their own situation. It’s up to you to focus on the positive. Because whatever you focus on in life, that’s where you’re going. Do what you want to do, and don’t be apologetic for who you are.”
A week later, Lawson’s audition (below) worked. As for Lawson, however, it was no big surprise: he envisioned this success long ago.
3. Thou shalt take action
You may be thinking, 'Dial back the Harry Potter shit. Sheer thought alone won’t make magic.' And you’re right: believing something into being is only a fraction of the battle. So what are the steps in between? How did Preacher Lawson go from visualizing he would land America’s Got Talent to actually landing it?
Lawson vividly remembers the feeling of sleeping on cardboard boxes in the street. His solution to avoid a repeat of that very real nightmare? The power of setting concrete goals. When he first moved to LA, he didn’t just wait around to be discovered. Instead he made a very concrete list: get a job, be able to quit that job after a certain number of months, get an agent…He wrote his goals down and, over time, achieved every single one on his list.
“If your car breaks down and you start pushing it, people will see you moving, and they’re more likely to help you out,” Lawson explained. “When people see me working, they’re like ‘Alright, he’s for real.’”
Unfortunately for some, hard work can beat talent. Sure, you need both if you’re going to get into a prestigious festival, but you can’t survive on just one side of the equation. This was one of Lawson’s mantras: “If you’re super funny but you don’t have goals—specific places you want to be—you’re not going anywhere,” he attested. “I’m not the funniest person in the world. I’m not even close. But a lot of the funny people out there are just plain lazy. And I’ve realized that I don’t have to be funnier than they are; I just have to outwork them. That’s the sad truth.”
Yedoye Travis bowed his head in agreement, clearly thinking of specific friends. “It’s always the ones who are sort of wishy-washy, dubious about their own future, who don’t make it,” he sighed. “And that’s because they’ve already committed to not making it in their head.”
So how do you commit to making it? You create your own luck, with hard, hard work. Handsome Dancer’s Matt Pavich confirmed: “You gotta just do it. Just go out there with a camera and make anything. Every time you do it you’re gonna learn something. And if you really like doing it, you won’t stop.”
His partner, James Manzello, joined in. “That’s been our journey, and we haven’t looked back. Gradually, our videos started getting better and better…and now here we are at JFL.”
Ryan Hamilton (the one who has opened for Seinfeld) sympathizes with people on their way up. He still considers himself a learner. And he knows how easy it is to wait another day, another week, another year.
“Don’t Wait. Do it now,” he urged. “Do it carefully—but also go for it, because your time is valuable.” Hamilton paused, looking back on his own journey. “Just remember: anyone can say ‘I want to be a stand-up comedian, I want to be a filmmaker.’ But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be great at it. And you need to know that, too. What the risks are. The sacrifices. And be willing to put in the work.”
How much work does it take? Impossible to quantify. Let’s say you’ve found people you like to hang with. Good. Let’s say you’ve found ways around that self-doubt. Great. Let’s say you’ve begun to take action, to make tangible progress toward your dream. Wow. But as good as this sounds, it still isn’t enough.
[Video above is by Matt Porter and Charlie Hankin of Good Cop, Great Cop ]
4. Thou shalt be persistent
Most professional creatives agree: persistence past the point of reason is the next essential ingredient. Persistence is believing in yourself—and acting on it—combined. At no point does it get easy. But it’s still the best way to create opportunities and make your own luck.
The hard truth is that ‘overnight success’ simply doesn’t exist. In this case, each of these comedians had been working for close to a decade before becoming what JFL calls a ‘New Face.’ Many of them recall crucial moments when they almost quit, but trudged onward. And now that they’re all at JFL, they credit their own perseverance.
Take the Sketch comedy team Good Cop, Great Cop: every week, once a week, for years, Matt Porter and Charlie Hankin made one-off videos. The videos didn’t get much attention, and many now make them wince. But they kept at it.
“We just weren’t precious about it,” Porter explained. “Rather than worry whether a video was good enough, we’d keep making new ones in order to bury past failures. That way, we kept improving without worrying about perfection.”
Since then, they’ve produced two seasons of their own Comedy Central series, New Timers. Their message: once you get some momentum, don’t look back—and rather than second guess stuff you’ve already made, make something better.
Juhahn Jones is another creator who rose to the top through disciplined absurdity. He started honing his short-form video skills on Vine and developed a following before the site went extinct. Then Instagram became his platform of choice, but this meant starting over from scratch. It was hard to keep pushing.
“I was making videos and it wasn’t going anywhere,” he recalled. “So one day I told myself I wanted to get one million followers. I posted an Instagram video every single day for a year. A ton of them weren’t anything special. But I got there.” Forcing himself to make daily videos helped him find his creative voice. He wound up bringing Vine’s throwaway quality to his Instagram output—and that was the key to reinventing his brand. “There’s no real formula to it,” he admitted. “It’s like the wild, wild west out there. Just put in the time, be you, and trust good things will happen.”
"If it winds up sort of shitty, don’t worry. It’s still valuable. You get better with every one."
As for Handsome Dancer, Pavich and Manzello spent years doing theater and sketch performances before making videos. And it wasn’t until 2014 that they found validation. Their pilot The Neighborhood won the audience award at the NYTV Festival, which led to an even bigger prize: representation.
“Moments of self-doubt? Ohh, baby.” Pavich laughed. “That stuff comes and goes constantly, don’t know if I expect it to ever stop.” Manzello agreed. “There were plenty of moments we almost gave up. Good thing we didn’t.” Weathering the rejections paid off—but even now, they’re still grinding. “People have this expectation that once you hit, you cross some threshold and you’re set forever,” Pavich shook his head. “And that’s simply not true. I mean…we drove here.” The pair cracked up. “Just do what you have to do to keep making stuff, do it on weekends, beg your friends to hold the boom pole, and if it winds up sort of shitty, don’t worry. It’s still valuable. You get better with every one.”
5. Thou shalt have substance
This last-but-not-least career-building tool is the one most often forgotten. What good is storytelling without substance? What makes your voice stand out—and how do you know when you’ve found it? The comics break it down.
Juhan Jones didn’t just make absurd Instagram videos every day for a year. Even his most nonsensical creations came from a place grounded in his reality. Hankin and Porter didn’t just film any old conversation in their weekly sketches. They filmed a heightened version of their own oddities.
Voice is personal substance. Sure, part of your voice is the twist you put on it; but twist won’t help if you have nothing to say. Don’t panic, it won’t all be kick-ass: some content will rise to the top, other stuff will fall flat. But one of the reasons why it pays to keep at it—why Jones, Porter, and Hankin got so far with their constant video output—is because your persistence will force you to find your voice. And that’s what will get you recognized.
So when and where does personal taste meet mainstream appeal?
The answer is often topical. Art is a great mirror for society, and an even better tool for exorcizing hate. Everyone at JFL—both new faces and old—had jokes about gay rights, religion, racism. There wasn’t a set without a Trump joke. But the main ingredient was, and always will be, substance: the moment when artists share their own unique perspective, infused with their own DNA.
Blair Socci made her love life the topic. She teased the crowd like someone she’d just met, but trusted enough to spill her innermost secrets. “Women are raised to hate their bodies, then have to stay in them till they die” was just part of her story. The crowd laughed—not because it was funny, but because it was true.
“You have to give your audience whatever rings true in your reality,” she declared. “And trust that others will relate.” She hesitated. “One thing about voice, though: it’s always evolving. You can never really master it, which is part of what makes standup so compelling. You’re never done. I’m up there just being myself, saying what I want to say, and people tell me ‘You’re so weird.’ I take that as a compliment. But I don’t think of myself that way. I’m not worrying about other people’s assessments or where I fit in, I’m just doing it the only way I know how to do it. For me, truth-telling is like a compulsion.”
Know yourself. Play to your strengths and your weaknesses.
A big part of substance is self-awareness. Know yourself. Play to your strengths and your weaknesses.
For example, JFL comics are quick to admit how dorky, privileged, virginal, overweight, lesbian, and biracial they look. Taylor Tomlinson played off her sheltered Christian upbringing with a series of one-liners, “I’m like a wild animal during sex...more scared of you than you are of me.” Preacher Lawson impersonated his failed Tinder dates.
“You have to write for your personality,” he advised. “I wouldn’t do anything on stage that I couldn’t sell.”
Ramy Youssef—a comedian from New Jersey who has a role in Mr. Robot season three and Gus Van Sant’s next film Don’t Worry —introduced his set with, “I’m Muslim, like from the news. You guys get that show over here, Fox news?” He went on to cover gender fluidity, racism, and gay rights, then compared it all to incest. The crowd loved him—but for Yousef, it wasn’t just comedy. “The best standup, the best films, have an emotional core rooted in human feelings,” he insisted. “That’s the goal. Far more so than being funny. To me, the funny part is always the layer that gets added later.”
Figuring out who you are and what you feel is key. Not being precious, not fearing failure, not caring what others think, is what gives your voice legs. This year’s crop of JFL artists is proof: each and every one of them struggled with this stuff on their way up.
New Face James Austin Johnson—who some may recognize from Hail, Caesar —recalled his own internal struggle. “For years, I really thought entertainment was frivolous. I was studying to be a super serious lit professor, but I just kept getting notes, telling me to remove these unnecessary bits of absurdity from my papers. That’s when I started figuring out who I really was.” He paused. “Whatever your art form, you just have to play to the top of your intelligence. And do what makes you laugh—or cry—the hardest.”
Ryan Hamilton was more emphatic. “If you want personal substance, do not compare yourself to others. No two people become successful in the exact same way. Just compare yourself to your own potential, to whatever’s inside you that made you want to do this in the first place.”
Their final piece of advice? That all this advice is only advice.
Hamilton tried to sum it all up. “If I could go back in time and tell myself what to do,” he asserted, “it would be to follow my intuition as much as possible. I wish I’d done more of that. As artists we have all these advisors, these people we lean on for input—when so often we have all the information we need inside ourselves.”
But then, one of those trusted advisors actually stopped at our table and interrupted the interview. Hamilton introduced us, mentioned No Film School and told us “This is the person you should be talking to.” It was Judd Apatow.
Apatow was quick to leap into the fray. "Trust your first instincts—they’re usually good," he avowed. "Don’t be afraid to take control, but also don’t be a jerk."