“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”–Steve Martin
“It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.” –Eddie Cantor
Is it just coincidence that two famous quotes above were both said by (American) comedians?
- Both performed hundreds, if not thousands, of live shows before people across the US knew their names.
- Both have crossed into multiple new media platforms in their lifetimes. Cantor was born in New York City in the 1890s; he paid his dues in vaudeville and film before moving into Broadway, radio, and television. He composed music and songs, at least two are standards or still referenced in pop culture 70 years later (Makin’ Whoopee, Merrily We Roll Along). Martin was born in California in the 1940s; he paid his dues in comedy clubs and produced comedy LPs before branching into television, writing, directing, and acting in movies, writing novels, and yes, creating a twitter account with 4 million followers. His banjo albums have won Grammys and he’s touring the country with Edie Brickell right now.
- Both have (in Cantor’s case, had) other talents beyond standup (see previous bullet).
I think in today’s marketplace, you can be very good at what you do and yet it’s easy to be overlooked or feel ignored for awhile.** There’s a lot of options pleading for people’s attention, and there’s even more people seeking attention for themselves. And with so many options, it can be complicated figuring out the right venue to get the attention of your potential fan base.
I think it’s easy to read Martin’s quote and think, Hey if I have talent but I haven’t been discovered yet, maybe I should just quit already. Or, I like something but don’t have an immediate knack for it, so I shouldn’t bother with improving, it’s wiser to just give up.
But I don’t think that’s what he was saying. I think what Martin meant was that a comedian (or any performer) needed to be good, but they had to be committed, and be persistent to getting your message out. There’s a lot of repetitive performance among different audiences and gaging the reaction. By being persistent, a comedian (for example) gets even better at being funny:a razor sharp wit and excellent comic timing aren’t developed telling one brilliant joke that one time in a bar.
Today’s online technology may make delivery quicker at getting a comedian’s message out than say, a traveling tent show in Cantor’s era. But unlike Cantor’s era, the audience isn’t paying undivided attention even if they paid to be there. Things got easier in some ways, but got harder in others.
I don’t have scientific statistics, but I suspect the rate at which things “catch on” among millions of people today, at once, is about the same speed it was in Cantor’s lifetime. Even then, there’s no such thing as 100% “the universe knows your name” fame.
Over time, the kind of legwork a comedian or other performer has to do to get their message out changes, but I don’t think the necessity for, and the persistence of all that legwork will ever change.
It may not take 20 years, but the commitment to be willing to put in 20 years is a necessity. Getting a big break is always worth it, but I think it takes a lot of personal and professional breakthroughs and practice to get there.
If you would like assistance getting your message out there, you can contact me here on the blog, on twitter at currying_favor, or via email, firstname.lastname@example.org.