Method: Eight Things Stand-Up Comedy Teaches Us About Innovation

Every comedian has a process — and at some point, they ditch it to follow their gut.

This is the ninth piece in the 10x10 series by innovation firm Method. Read more from the series here.

Comedy, especially stand-up, is widely regarded as the most difficult gig in show business. Similarly, successful product innovation is so difficult, it could be regarded as the stand-up comedy of the business world.

E.B. White once said that analyzing comedy is like dissecting a frog: Few people are interested and the frog dies of it. However, a sacrifice must be made to help more great ideas see the light of day, and studying how good comedians work can reveal insights into how innovation can benefit from the same advice.


1. Know Your Audience, Then Ignore Their Advice

When it comes to innovation, the customer is rarely right. At least, they're rarely right about what they want next. Businesses run on process, and the traditional market research process of concept testing is indeed an efficient process: Nothing kills ideas faster than concept testing. That doesn't mean research has no place in innovation development; the key is to use it to understand, not to evaluate.

A comedian doesn't ask the audience what the next joke should be about, he has the skill to tell them. Great comedians are tremendously astute observers of human beings. They know how people think, what experiences we have in common, and how to direct (or misdirect) our attention. They have to be ahead of their audience, but not so far ahead that they baffle us instead of amusing us. Similarly, the best market research is aimed at understanding how customers interact with a given product category, not asking them what should come next.


2. Data Does Not Replace Insight

Don't just collect data about your audience, study them. Data doesn't tell you what to do, insight does, and insight is the responsibility of the innovator, not the audience. It's the lifeblood of both comedy and great design. It can be sweet, crude, or startling, but it is always brutally honest.

Why did it take so long for Heinz and its competitors to introduce the "upside down" ketchup bottle? We all knew that getting the last third out of the bottle was a huge pain, yet it took decades for bottle design to acknowledge this universally held understanding. The data was always there, it just needed to be recognized. The head-slapping "of course!" moment of seeing this bottle is much like hearing the punch line of a joke?it's as surprising as it is familiar.

The operative skill is in seeing the basic truth that has been ignored, forgotten, or actively denied by the audience, and then revealing that truth in a new and unexpected way. When successful, it lets the audience see the most familiar things?especially themselves and how they interact with the world?in a fresh, but relatable way. That instantaneous discovery of the knowing self-recognition, is what makes us laugh and what makes us buy.


3. Keep It Fresh

Comedians can't rely on the same routine for very long, no matter how successful it is. The same can be said for successful brands. As long as the approach and the tone are identifiable and consistent, the brand itself can and should change and evolve over time.

George Carlin kept his same scrutiny of language and hypocrisy consistent over a 40-year career, even though the material changed constantly. He was a relevant and vibrant comedian well into his seventies.

Radio Shack changed its name and logo to The Shack, but visit the store, and it's like the last 30 years never happened. The mix of merchandise and limited store format is the equivalent of still telling the same joke from the 1970s. Meanwhile, Amazon has evolved to sell streaming television episodes and digital storage space, as well as the latest hardcover novel, all of which still fit within the brand's point of view of broad reach and efficient delivery.


4. Develop Your Own Point of View

Late-night television talk show hosts all have the same daily news to work with, yet they each put their own spin on it. Leno takes a safer angle, which is why he tends to appeal to the broadest audience. Letterman will be more crass and juvenile, which might explain why he has greater appeal among men than women. Conan will be more cerebral, perhaps even surreal. Jon Stewart will simply let politicians provide all the necessary absurdity on their own. The content changes constantly, yet the various points of view stay consistent night after night.

Apple has the same access to components and contract manufacturers as its competitors, but Apple makes more interesting stuff out of it. It's not that Apple has better or more data; in fact, they studiously avoid traditional market research. Instead, they consider not what people say they want, but what they are ready for. Then, they design the product according to their own point of view, not that of the audience. David Pogue of the The New York Times called Apple's "secret sauce" a mix of "simplicity, intelligence, and whimsy." The results, from the iMac to the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, are unmistakably theirs, as iconic as Letterman's Top 10 list.


5. Create a Story Around the Material

Think of the story leading up to the punch line. Few comedians during the past 50 years have survived by merely telling a series of jokes. Instead, most are excellent storytellers. Good comedians and designers constantly play with the expectations that are built into the patterns of storytelling.

Some comedians are such good performers, they can transcend what would otherwise be quite ordinary material. Likewise, a Michael Graves toaster may not toast bread any better than a plain GE model, but through such products, Target changes the storyline for what everyday products are expected to deliver. That story serves to differentiate Target from WalMart and provides a rationale for paying a little more for functionally identical merchandise.


6. Even Friendly Audiences Need to Be Won Over

Getting people to laugh is probably even harder than getting them to buy. Buck Henry put it very well when he said "to make someone laugh is to disarm them." Deciding to buy is as much a release of tension as laughing, especially when people aren't buying on the basis of need alone.

People may watch a comedian expecting to laugh, but they still need to be disarmed and won over. It's a competitive environment, just like business. What does a comedian say after he leaves the stage with the audience cheering? "I killed 'em out there." What does a great salesman say after a fantastic quarter? "I made a killing in the market."

Brands have to do more than just meet expectations, they have to penetrate the built-in resistance to commit. That energy and insight has to be supplied by the performer, not the audience.


7. Don't Expect Everyone to Get It

Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Andy Kaufman were not for everyone, so their appeal was not as broad as Milton Berle, Jay Leno, or Jerry Seinfeld. Switch the core audiences between these groups of comedians and, from the response, you might conclude they were all lousy comics. Similarly, the audiences for a Toyota Prius and a Cadillac Escalade are not all that different demographically, but they don't "get" cars the same way.

Good branding and design, like good comedy, is often the art of sacrifice. You are defined by who and what you're not for, thus freeing you to excel within the audience that gets you.


8. You Can't Test Your Way to a Decision

Comedians know what they think is funny, but they can't test their routines in a vacuum. They might try out new material in smaller clubs, after hours, before making it a part of their main act. Even so, there's no guarantee that what works in one club will work in front of a larger audience in a different city.

Similarly, research predicted that New Coke and the new Tropicana packaging were sure-fire hits. Meanwhile, both Herman Miller's Aeron chair and the Seinfeld pilot bombed in research.

The problem is not that respondents lie or that the researchers are stupid. The biggest mistake is in the willingness to cede control of creative decisions to the consumer. Research is an aid to judgment, not a replacement for it. It still comes down to a judgment call, and that judgment should be based on understanding the consumer, not in asking their permission to proceed.

No, but seriously, folks...

Innovation, like comedy, is a messy, often counter-intuitive business. It's an iterative loop of creation, feedback, revision, rejection, and creation again. Used correctly, research fuels the understanding that leads to real breakthroughs. In the wrong hands, it all but assures the death of originality.

So, I killed some frogs here, but if one more good idea sees the light of day, perhaps they did not die in vain.

Method is an award-winning, international product, service, and experience innovation firm. 10x10 is a series of thought pieces written by Method that explores 10 emerging, industry-challenging topics. Read more about 10x10 here and download this article as a PDF here.

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  • Nancy Bistritz

    What a great article. And another thought: Poorly thought-out innovation (just like poor comedy) can rear its head pretty quickly. Fail often ... fail early ...

  • Steve Whetstone

    LOL. The headline led me to believe this article would be humorous.

    Q: How many innovators does it take to change a light bulb?
    A: it's best if only one innovator at a time tries to take the lightbulb out of the box.

  • Elena Patrice

    Great article - thank you! Very well written and thought out. As there are the really "stand out" comedians, so there are the really "stand out" innovators. Talk about a tough gig! Whew! Ah, but those who hit the mark and make you roar with laughter or sit in wonderment trying to simply comprehend what is before you make history. They travel to the beat of their own drum, don't apologize for it, and falling down only makes them get back up stronger (and funnier). ;) With kindness, Elena

  • Jody Urquhart

    A good joke requires a set up and a punch line. The punchline must be unexpected by the audience.
    If you have heard the joke before you roll your eyes in disgust. It is not funny because it is no longer unexpected.
    This relates to the idea you have to keep creating new innovative products and ways of marketing them. The more unexpected and unique a commercial or product is the more memorable.

    Also the best comedy material comes from the tough challenges in our lives. The more your life sucks- the funnier it is. There is nothing funny about a perfect life. This is what allows the audience to relate to the material, we all go through rough times and laughing at it is such a great stress release.
    Just like a good product or service is designed to help people with some challenge in life.

  • Paul Valerio

    All good points, Jody. I think your comments would apply to storytelling in general, since there is no story without conflict of some kind. I don't know that suffering is absolutely necessary for good comedy — if the joke can be at someone else's expense, then they suffer, not you. But you're right of course - the most influential comics also seem to know how to make anger, pain, and confrontations funny. Thanks for posting.

  • Philip Herr

    Loved this article, but I do have point of disagreement -- specifically about point #8. Most marketing decisions are made via testing and we never hear about them. But we do hear about the ones where the wrong decision was made -- New Coke for one. However, from everything I have heard and read, Tropicana did not test the new package. So as a researcher who has helped clients make good decisions for more than twenty years, I feel a need to go on record on that point

    Thanks for listening

  • Michele Anderson

    I love this! What's not to enjoy about learning from comedy? There's a comedian in most of us wishing we could be discovered! We all need to be innovative, too... and with these notes, we might kills two birds with one stone. Thanks, Paul.

  • RJ Johnson

    Great article! It could also be titled "Eight Things Stand-Up Comedy Teaches Us About Teaching" for those of us who are constantly innovating with our participants. These are great guidelines for being with others as we all co-create our environments and our futures.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

  • Paul Valerio

    Thanks RJ. Like comedy, teaching requires empathy with your "audience", and I imagine you certainly have to win them over every day. Thanks for the insight; I would have overlooked that one.

  • Al Kroch

    Paul, I have read a lot of articles and books in the past few weeks. This is by far the best I have read for quite some time. Thank you.

  • Lou Franson

    Paul, having done both stand up and Improvisational comedy, I think you missed the mark. Most stand up comedy is rehearsed and after hundreds of shows, can be rote. A stand up will modify their show but on a gradual basis.

    However, if you really want to "discover" new material, it's all about improvisation. You need to be able to do the 8 items you listed, but more importantly, you need to have confidence, make choices and then not be afraid to take a chance.

    And like buisness, you're not always going to be correct in all your choices in Improv.

  • Paul Valerio

    You raise an interesting point, Lou. I agree with your distinctions between stand-up and improv, but in using them as a metaphor for the business-oriented process of innovation, I think improv would fit better as a model of good customer service and feedback loops. As you point out, stand-up is based on a routine that is honed through that iterative process I referenced in the article. Improv is of course much more open-ended, but it still has a set of rules that guide it. Furthermore, it's a mutually creative process, often including the audience itself (i.e. customers) as participants instead of just observers.

    Good customer service reps work like that. They have a set of rules that they follow, but they react to what the customer is saying, and the specific conditions involved in each case. They are willing to depart from their scripts (improvise) in order to serve the higher goal of making the customer happy, as long as they don't go too far afield of their own interests.

    As you point out, great new ideas can come from this process, just like they do from good customer service processes. And yes, you're not doing it right if you don't fail regularly.

  • Michelle Troseth

    Really enjoyed your analogies. My work is about bringing innovative ideas to healthcare - and I have used prinicples from improv to connect and shift peoples thinking - to new ways of thinking that is desparately needed. Presenting to an executive team today of large healthcare system - you have given me some great ideas to share our "secret sauce".
    Michelle Troseth - Chief Professional Practice Officer - Elsevier CPM Resource Center (

  • Catalina B.

    While agreeing with the main ideas in this great article, I can't help but congratulate the author for a great writing style: concise, clear, persuasive and captivating.

  • Krassimira

    brilliant analogies! I love waht you say about Apple. I work for a software company and often I hear our managers say "we have to be innovative like Apple" Every company has to find "its secret sause" and what works for Apple might not work for us...

  • Carol Sanford

    Paul, I did improvisation theatre for years in the Bay Area (Left Feat) and what you say is so right from that perspective as well. I also applied the same ideas to design of management systems. My new book just released digitally (Hard Cover next week) adds a bit to your story I hthink. I talk about how to build Jazz Teams to operate improvisationally, which is a lot like a stand up comic. The same principles apply with a few adaptations. Thanks for the really fun and instructive piece. Carol Sanford, author, The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success, Jossey Bass. Named to CNBC Bullish on Books shortlist for 2011 reads in Biz.

  • Paul Valerio

    Thanks Carol. I will certainly take a look at your book when it comes out in the dead tree edition. As much as Method focuses on the digital realm, I still prefer the feel of a book.

  • Paul Valerio

    Hi David - I did see your piece when it ran, and I really liked it. It's kind of sad that Ricky Gervais' has to defend not appealing to everyone, all the time. I find the fact that anyone associated with the Golden Globes would be expecting some kind of gravitas ain't exactly the Nobel Prize banquet, is it? So, I take your compliment with genuine pride. Thanks.