Three weeks ago I went to the underground Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village with my fiancé for a Friday night of laughs. It was the week that The Promise of a Pencil launched, so I figured there’s no better way to take the edge off than with my lady and some laughter. We got tickets for the midnight set, which usually tends to have the best comedians and most raucous crowd. The night’s MC kicked things off with a great set, getting us excited for the previously shared roster of comedians. But what came next was completely unexpected.
“Ladies and gentleman, your first comedian is a surprise guest. Next week he’ll be hosting Saturday Night Live, let’s give it up for Louis CK!” shouted the MC.
The place exploded, and arguably the top standup comedian in the world right now walked onstage. He was absolutely hysterical, and we left later that night quoting his lines in disbelief that we were so lucky to be amongst the fifty or so people to witness this unique performance.
Fast-forward ten days, and I’m at home surfing random websites. I come across Louis CK’s name, so I remember to search for his opening monologue from SNL to get in a few laughs. And here’s the reason I wrote this blog: He used many of the same exact lines, word for word, that we’d watched in the tiny, cramped, late night set at the Comedy Cellar.
For a split second I was disappointed, and then I realized three things.
1. Great Performers Put Themselves in the Arena.
Often times we’re told to practice a speech in front of the mirror. But you truly cannot know how others will react until you put yourself in the arena, standing with vulnerability as others witness you succeed or fail. The greats are great because they’re willing to fail epically, and in doing so are the rare ones that succeed.
2. It Takes More Courage To Make Yourself Small Than To Make Yourself Big.
Louis CK can sell out any arena in the country right now. But he wanted real, authentic, immediate feedback from a live audience and the only way to do that was to perform unannounced in front of a small room of people that didn’t go to the Comedy Club to see him specifically, but rather to be entertained. By proving that he could move that room to laugh, he proved he could move any room. That takes immense courage.
3. Practice is the Refining Alchemy of Perfection.
We often believe that society’s greatest performers are so good because of their raw talent. But it’s the countless hours of practice when few are watching that enables them to be so good under the spotlight. Just like how every fadeaway Kobe hits on national TV has been practiced thousands of times on a court beforehand, Louis CK delivered a brilliant opening monologue on SNL because he was willing to show up after midnight on a Friday night to his version of the gym and test out his new material. And strangely, as funny as it was hearing his jokes at the Comedy Cellar, they were just as good the second time around.