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How Louis C. K. Became Funny and Why it Matters

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.

20 thoughts on “How Louis C. K. Became Funny and Why it Matters”

  1. Another interesting thing that C.K. does that even other comedians admire is putting his best joke from the last set at the beginning of his new set. In comedy it is a general rule for things to get funnier as they go on, so C.K.’s logic was to put the best thing at the beginning so everything that followed would have to be funnier. It seems like suicide -even to other comedians- but is one of the reasons he is so great. He talks about it in this HBO special “Talking Funny”. It takes you into the mind of the comedian and is entertaining. I think you would really find it interesting if you have the time.

  2. What’s also amazing, which you sort of skipped over, is that he still had to grind for four years to become successful even after adopting the much more effective form of deliberate practice. Now, compared to the fifteen years of doing the same stuff over and over again, that seems like a breeze.

    But when you think about, to live and work as hard as he did through those four years must have been so hard. So much work. So much introspection and effort. It’s not like he got 6 months in and then got bored and went off to do something else. He kept working, and working, and working, every day. And now he’s the best in the world.

  3. “It’s equally important (and hard) that you keep inviting the awful by pushing yourself to new places and new levels of ability.”

    That phrase above sums up what we as a human crave deeply from within, to continuously grow and explore. Thanks Cal for an awesome write up as always!

  4. Great post Cal. An important point that is alluded to in this post (which I may need to do in my career) is that we sometimes need faith to take a “leap of security loss.”

    I’m a CPA, and I temporarily lose money by taking time to study deeply (or market deeply) – because it means I’m not billing or serving my current clients as directly as I could. So it takes faith to give up hours I could bill right now to improve my tax knowledge. I must give-up temporary security for an increase in ability & skill.

    Your blog gives me courage to do the “important non-urgent” tasks more often.

  5. Thanks Cal, I really love how you can filter all these success stories through your mental framework and “connect the dots”. It always gets down to deliberate practice and this is so inspiring

  6. What a great speech! Make me think about by own output and how I’m hanging on old acts that works but what keeps me from doing new cool things and developing new skills.

  7. Robert Rodriguez the filmmaker had the same strategy about getting good at making films (
    “I read about this art class once. If half the class made 50 clay pots, they’d get an A. The other half had to make one perfect pot. As the one half cranked through their 50, they made 10 perfect pots because they figured out how to do it. The people concentrating on the one pot turned it to mud because they overworked it.”

  8. Hm, nice sentiment behind the article the premise is flawed. George Carlin didn’t throw away his material. If you watch his specials, he focuses on the same topics and discusses them in slightly different ways over the years. Sure, he adds stuff and subtracts bits here and there, but you can’t tell me he was a tabula rasa comic ala Louis CK, Bill Burr etc.

  9. A better thing to have written would have been to discuss Carlin’s former comic identity as a radio and Las Vegas performer then his eureka moment in realizing that he was writing and performing garbage that didn’t represent his true comic identity.

  10. Nice post. I agree that at times we need to wipe the slate clean and rebuild from scratch. The famous Japanese animator Hayao Miyazazki had to do something similar in his career. (

    “As a boy, Miyazaki loved the early manga of Osamu Tezuka, the creator of “Astro Boy.” But as Miyazaki struggled to find his artistic voice, he rejected that influence: “When I was finally forced to admit that my drawings actually did look like Tezuka’s, I took out the sketches I had stored in the drawer of our dresser and burned them all. I burned them and resolved to start over from scratch, and in the belief that I needed to study the basics first, I went back to practicing drawing and draftsmanship.”

  11. Came across a related example today on how-to video tutorial website I was watching couture sewing expert Kenneth D. King’s lesson and someone posted a comment about how talented he is. Here’s his response to the compliment, which you notice he tries to accept humbly while correcting the record: Thanks for the kind words. But you give me too much credit– this really isn’t talent, so much as practice. I’ve been sewing since I was four, and professionally for 30 plus years. I liken sewing to language–if you learn a language and move to that country, you’ll eventually be more fluent than if you study a language and visit that country periodically. I’ve been “speaking” sewing for quite a long time, living in that “country”, you know….


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