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Cast A Wide Net: Improving Stand-Up Comedy Through Diversity Part 1

April 4, 2011

I love to oversimplify things. For this reason I will now break down all people in the world into two categories:

The Specialists

In this movie Sylvester’s specialty is running away from fire.

The Jack (or Jill) of all Trades.

Remember that show Home Improvement?  Me neither.

Which are you?  When you go out to a restaurant, are you always trying new menu items, or do you stick to one reliable dish?  Do you fill your spare time with a variety of hobbies, or are you passionate about one or two ? Are you a social butterfly, with a foot in many social groups, or do you have one or two close friends who mean the world to you?

I think it’s important to remember that neither is better.  They simply have their strengths and weaknesses.  For example, a specialist might enjoy:

1) More respect from their community

If you show up every week without fail to book club, your opinions will be given more weight than someone who attends sporadically.

2) Greater sense of pride
Focusing more practice time into one area will see you improve faster at it.  As a result, you will pull ahead of people who spend less time.  I explore this concept as it applies to stand-up comedy in this article on Time Travel and Stage Time.

3) More lucrative

Specialty is like a pyramid.  By the time you get to the top, there are very few peers who can equal your expertise.  This is why tradespeople are paid so well.  Not everyone can fix a car, or rewire a house.  Those that can have made themselves extremely valuable.

This guy is going to FLIP when he hears about debit cards.

However, like anything in life, being a specialist has its downsides:

1) Becoming obsolete

If the world decides your skill is no longer needed, you have wasted a lot of time.  Consider how my grade nine geography teacher felt when he graduated with a degree in cartography, only to realize that the world had already been mapped.  My dad used to repair typewriters when he was younger.  If he didn’t move with the times and start learning computers, he would have been screwed.

2) You rely on others to do everything but your specialty for you

Albert Einstein was one of the smartest humans that ever lived, but to the people around him, he was a little like a baby.  He had trouble with the basics like feeding and dressing himself because he was so wrapped up in his E = MC2 business.  The more you specialize, the more vulnerable you become.  Just ask the dinosaurs how they felt when their bodies, optimized for tropical weather came up against an ice age.  Peace peace peace dinosaurs, you’re done.

3) You miss out on the thrill of being out of your element

No doubt it feels good to be the best at something, but there is a certain thrill to be had in improving at a skill.  If your ego can handle being crappier than everyone else at first, you get the reward of a building process, and all the insight, strength, and wisdom that comes with being out of your comfort zone.

I’m the dude… man!

What about being a generalist? Ups:

1) You are actively exploring the world. You never have to worry about settling

The first performance art I tried was improv.  Then I tried dramatic roles in plays and short films.  It wasn’t until I took a shot at stand-up that I discovered true love.  I enjoyed improv and still do – but if I had just stayed where I was, I never would have figured out that stand-up comedy is more suited to me.

2) You are more socially flexible because you can talk about a ton of subjects with enough depth to get by

I love to meet new people because you never know what they’re into.  There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being halfway through a conversation with a stranger and discovering they are as nuts about some obscure topic as you.  This occurs more often when you cast a wide net of interests.

3) You have built up a series of transferrable skills that complement each other

One thing that amazes me is how much life overlaps in completely unexpected ways.  In university I studied English with a minor in Biology.  People would often remark that it was a weird combination.  Maybe so, but I was very surprised how much these two seemingly disparate subjects connect to each other below the surface.

This inforaphic was probably a hand-out in the

“Obvious Things That Don’t Really Need Saying 101” class.

Downs of being a generalist:

1) You’ll never be the best

It feels so good to be the champ, and if you’re a generalist you probably never will be.  You simply can’t compete with the people who funnel all their time into it.  I feel this whenever I play video games online and adolescents whip my little ass with impunity.

2) It can become frustrating watching people move ahead faster than you

Time is the enemy of the generalist.  They might spend years getting to a place where a specialist covers the same ground in six months.  Again, this is neither good nor bad, just a personal choice you make.  A person who constantly obsesses over comparing themselves to others will be miserable as a generalist.

3) It takes high confidence and willpower to constantly be starting at the bottom

People have finite amounts of energy and it takes a lot to start something.  Just getting this blog going took several days of learning how WordPress worked, blog etiquette, marketing, blah blah blah.  Before I wrote one word of this blog I was exhausted.  Do you have the energy to constantly be investing start up capital of time?


I’m not here to talk about being a specialist, because that’s not what I am.  Today I wanted to give a fair and balanced look at the pros and cons of each approach.  Tomorrow we will discuss how you can go about applying the generalist mentality to performance art.

We’ll end off with a video of a kid that has picked an interesting skill in which to specialize.  Keep stacking, bub.


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