Photo from a Chris Rock Comedy Special on Netflix

Modern Agile Comedy

I love seeing great comedians perform. The truly great ones can make me cry with laughter and keep me laughing throughout their set with their insights, timing, intonation, expressions and body language. Yet did you ever wonder how such hysterical performances became so funny?

In his marvelous book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries, Peter Sims reveals what star comedians like Chris Rock do to create comedy gold.

Sims calls it a rigorous experimental discovery process. Chris Rock routinely shows up unannounced to a tiny comedy club near his home in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The audience of barely fifty people are thrilled to have this star comedian perform for them. But soon after Chris Rock takes the stage, the audience discovers that he isn’t so funny or animated. Sims explains that when Chris Rock tests out new material, he doesn’t “launch into his familiar performance mode that fans describe as ‘the full preacher effect,” when he uses animated body language, pitchy and sassy vocal intonations, and erupting facial expressions.” Instead, Chris Rock sits on a bar stool beside a legal pad filled with ideas and casually tests out each idea while observing his audience intently, “noticing heads nodding, shifting body language, or attentive pauses, all clues to where good ideas might reside.”

Developing a great new set takes hard work because comedians are operating under what Eric Reis, author of The Lean Startup, calls “conditions of uncertainty.” At the start, it’s unclear what will or won’t be funny. Rigorous, frequent testing is required. It’s a grind and comedians must perform night after night to discover and develop the few gems that will consistently make audiences erupt with laughter.

Chris Rock’s process for developing a new comedy set follows Modern Agile’s four principles. His goal is to make his audiences laugh hysterically (Make People Awesome), which will also help him land TV specials and sold-out arena performances. He evolves great new comedy by working in small, safe venues (Make Safety A Prerequisite). He rigorously tests hundreds (or even thousands) of raw or uneven pieces of content (Experiment & Learn Rapidly), gradually refining them into gems. And he evolves a great new set by performing night after night (Deliver Value Continuously) for weeks or months until his set is ready for a bigger audience and venue.

Chris Rock and other great comedians are successful because they are not afraid to be unfunny while they discover and develop comedy gems. When operating under conditions of uncertainty, a “rigorous experimental discovery process” is a perfect fit. And if you look closely at how comedians execute that process, you’ll find Modern Agile’s four principles at work.