It happens to every comedian. You wake up one day realizing that your comedy material is not building the way you wanted it, the open mic scene leaves you tired and unmotivated, you feel like you don't have a creative bone left in your body, and you want to throw in the towel.
You are stuck in a rut and you don’t know how to get out of it. You might feel like you are the only one that feels this way but this creative slowdown is very common and only temporary.
So where do you start? How to get out of that funk and stop spinning through the same cycle, prolonging your dissatisfaction and distress?
The guidance below is just a simple approach I take to remedy the situation and get into a healthy, creative flow once again. Please keep in mind that we are all different and that mental health is important so you should always talk to professionals about your specific situation.
Recognize where the rut is coming from
Your rut can have many different causes and a little self-exploration can yield answers right away. Is it really comedy or something else in your life is pulling you apart and leaving you emotionally depleted? How are you gonna be creative when your life is leaving you disoriented? Being a comedian on top of everything else going on in your life can really be taxing. Maybe you are dealing with health and family issues, or experience (seasonal) depression. It’s very important to look into yourself first and see if there’s an underlying problem that you need to address first, and if that requires therapy. As comedians we always think that we constantly need to be out there, hustling, staying relevant and well connected. It’s this merry-go-round of comedy scenes that sometimes makes you forget that other things in life matter too, and they matter more. Sometimes you have to put comedy on the back burner. It doesn’t mean quitting, just prioritizing.
If you think that your rut is strictly comedy related then you have to do a little more soul searching than you’re prepared for. Check the list of all your comedy goals. Are they attainable, are you being realistic, are you enjoying the process of achieving them, and not just focusing on the reward of completing them? Is being a comedian important to you?
It’s a common misconception that comedians just hop on stage and crack jokes. Your favorite Netflix special was not created overnight, but by decades of soul-searching, writer's block and climbing out the rut one day at the time.
Shake up your RUTtine
We are all creatures of habit. We feel so good when we figure out our perfect routine and we enjoy being comfortable and content, but sometimes we stay there too long and the comfort zone starts to feel like a trap. Creatively, that’s exactly what it is, a trap, and in order to get out you have to shake things up. You can’t be mad that things are not changing for you when you are not changing things. If you are struggling creatively, chances are you lack newness. That premise that you just can’t complete with a hilarious punchline, needs a new perspective. You are not gonna get that by marching in place. Rut can make you think you'd be happier if you made a change, but it's more comforting to stay the same and mope about it.
The biggest killer of one’s success is unwillingness to learn. This includes exploring and adapting. Whenever I feel like my comedy is not leaving me excited I know I have to vanquish the enemy within. I’ve been on autopilot for too long and the only way to move forward is to move. Move aside that notebook that has the same jokes you’ve done for months, move your body by getting outside in nature, move away from people and screens that are taking too much of your energy, just move. Your brain needs a break in order to pick up fresh ideas and add variety to your life. If you can, take a break from comedy. I’m not talking about sabbatical, more like a short vacation. You don’t want to stay out for too long, just long enough to feel inspired again. But how to get inspired? You need to add new experiences to your life.
If you can, take a quick trip, it can be a few hours hike in the mountains or several days in some resort. If you can’t afford to travel you can explore neighborhoods in your city or the city nearby and try the most random things: visit a zoo, or an art exhibition, go watch a game (this is even better if you hate (that) sport cause misery loves comedy), try a class in your area (hello Groupon), go on that date that you just know will be a disaster (or will be?), visit family (I’m sure it’s partially their fault you are a comedian), try a new restaurant, volunteer, spend time around children and animals, etc. The options are endless, the key is to do something you don’t do on a regular basis so that you can trigger new feelings which will generate new jokes. I remember years ago I was listening to Whitney Cummings’ podcast where she said that she can’t expect her sitcom writers to stay late at work all the time, because it’s important that they go home to their families and experience life in order to write relatable content for her show. The same goes for writing stand-up material. How are you gonna relate to people when you are not experiencing life? You have to find that balance where you find time for both, otherwise you are not gonna be a happy individual and comedy writing will be a gruesome task.
On top of adding new experiences, try adding new techniques to your writing. One of the good sources is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Comedy Writing by James Mendrinos. It beautifully explains different aspects of writing and it has been very helpful in my comedy journey.
Profit from your insecurities
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most insecure of them all? You are. I am. We all are insecure of something. If you’ve analyzed the most successful comedians on the planet you will notice that profiting from their insecurities have been major in their comedy. What if your rut comes from the fact that you are afraid to talk about things that you have the most original thoughts about and can be a total game-changer for your comedy? This one is major, in a sense of work and a reward.
Years ago I spoke to a comedian who's now getting featured on Comedy Central and Netflix, and he pointed out a very interesting thing: we don’t really dig deep into figuring out what we are so insecure about and how we can benefit from it comedically. That’s the material that will get the biggest reactions cause it’s so relatable it’s impossible to ignore.
Whatever you have going on, that thing that keeps you awake at night, triggers your most sensitive reactions, hurts you to your core, that’s something you need to free yourself from and the best way to do that is expressing yourself through your work. Writing about weather, politics and pop culture is great but what if you are sitting on a gold mine and the only thing you are afraid of is digging? I can tell from my personal experience that once I started exploring that field I noticed such a shift in my comedy writing, my confidence, and the response from the audience and other comedians. I recently wrote a bit about body positivity inspired by my weight loss struggles and I got so many messages about it. Once I started getting positive reactions from comedians that NEVER in my 8 years of comedy complimented my work I knew I was onto something. I mean these boys are ruthless, nothing impresses them, so getting their attention was an eye-opener. The material is raw, it’s real, it’s relatable and it strikes a cord. Make it funny and you are on your way to becoming undeniably good.
Your appearance is just the tip of the iceberg. The fun part of comedy is that comedians are encouraged to share when they are not having it all together. Your insecurity can come from struggling with, let’s say, mental health. I recommend you check out Taylor Tomlinson’s Look at You Netflix special where she talks about her struggles with bipolar disorder, panic attacks and mental health stigma.
Being stuck in a rut sucks but comedy writing is an art, not a science. Start by choosing the direction that seems the most attainable for you and build up from there. With each step you’ll increase your self confidence and before you know it you’ll develop a fresh routine, on and off the stage.
Got questions or something to add? Comment below and let us know your thoughts.