Louis C. K.’s Plateau
A reader recently sent me the above video of comedian Louis C. K. speaking at a 2010 memorial to George Carlin. His brief remarks provide interesting insight into the reality of how people reach elite levels in their fields — and why it’s so rare.
As C. K. begins, when he first attempted comedy, he was, like most new comedians, terrible. But he wasn’t deterred:
“I wanted it so bad, that I kept trying, and I learned how to write jokes.”
This early burst of effort helped C. K. become a professional, with a full hour’s worth of reasonable material.
It was here, however, that he stalled. For a long time…
“About fifteen years later, I had been going in a circle that didn’t take me anywhere. Nobody gave a shit who I was, and I didn’t either, I honestly didn’t. I used to hear my act, and go, ‘this is shit and I hate it.'”
This is the lesser told story about the quest for elite accomplishment. It’s common to hear about the exciting initial phase where you’re terrible but motivated and therefore see quick returns.
But so many people, like C. K., soon hit a plateau. They’re no longer bad. But they’re also not improving; stuck in a circle that doesn’t take them anywhere.
Inviting the Awful
What makes this Louis C. K. clip interesting, however, is that he goes on to explain how he broke out of the circle of mediocrity that was trapping him.
This escape began when C. K. heard an interview with George Carlin. In this interview, Carlin said his method was to record one comedy special each year. The day after he was done recording, he’d throw out his material and start over.
At first, C. K. was incredulous, thinking:
“That’s crazy, how do you throw away…it took me fifteen years to build this shitty hour.”
But he soon realized something: Carlin’s sets got better each year.
The reason: writing material from scratch is a brutally effective form of deliberate practice. It forces you to seek out new topics and dive deeper and approach fresh what you think is funny and not funny.
It’s the essential process that makes you better as a comedian, and C. K. had been avoiding it for the past decade and a half.
Feeling “desperate” with nothing left to lose, C. K. adopted Carlin’s strategy by throwing out his material and committing to write something new each year: a process which he latter dubbed, to “invite the awful” — a reference to the difficulty of starting something hard from scratch.
The results were astounding.
C. K. spent fifteen years stuck as a nobody comic with a “shitty set,” but after only four years of applying the Carlin strategy, Comedy Central named him one of the 100 funniest stand-ups of all time.
This is a lesson I need to remind myself of on a regular basis. Getting started on the path to craftsmanship is hard. But it’s equally important (and hard) that you keep inviting the awful by pushing yourself to new places and new levels of ability.
If it’s easy to do, you’re not getting better.