How Programming Reminds Me of My Stand-up Comedy Days

Kevin Kim
Kevin Kim
Apr 2, 2018 · Unlisted

For about two years through my college and grad school days, my main hobby was writing and performing stand-up comedy. I would write jokes and half-jokes onto my OneNote, memorize and recite my set, drive out to an open-mic in the city, perform, record my sets, and analyze what went well and didn’t go so well. It was all perhaps a bit neurotic, but I was absorbed and fascinated by it all every step of the way.

Some of the best memories of my life were workshopping jokes together with fellow aspiring-comics, performing them at charmingly dinky nightclubs, then overanalyzing audience’s reactions together on the drive back.

The rush of adrenaline and pride I felt when a joke landed exactly the way I wanted it to though…there’s been nothing quite like it. Until I discovered programming that is!

As I near the year mark of studying programming full-time, there are mantras that I keep coming back to that ring especially true in both worlds of stand-up and programming. I will share a few here.

Make it work, Make it right, Make it fast

-Kent Beck

A famous mantra to programmers actually applies surprisingly well to the art of stand-up.

Make it work

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for beginning stand-up comedians is in just getting to the point of braving up and walking up on stage, then starting and finishing a set. Whether or not the jokes get laughs isn’t the point here. What’s important at this step is that you went up on stage, and you told the joke (mostly) the way you wanted it to.

A veteran comic in Denver once told me: “the more you write without going on stage, the more time you are wasting.” This was something I always heeded in comedy, and something I find especially relevant in programming as well. Whenever I catch myself wondering whether this function I’m writing is going to crash or not, I remind myself to just run the tests or the app. The terminal and the browser will always have the answer.

Make it right

This is the part where you make your stand-up routine actually funny. Rarely will a joke you tried land solid laughs the first time. You must debug your routine!

When I started, I used to just blow off some sets by going: “ehh, not my type of crowd tonight,” but in hindsight, I only had myself to blame. My setup may have been unclear, I may have stepped on my own laughs, (i.e. people were starting to laugh at my joke, but I started a new joke, thus silencing the audience) I was too nervous and the audience picked up on it, or my 90’s sitcom references (rightfully) flew over the younger audience’s head.

Whenever a function breaks in programming, a programmer wouldn’t just highlight it all and delete everything. Likewise, over time, I started to trust my comedic instincts more and not throw away an entire bit after trying it out just once. Many times, the difference between groans and belly-laughs was only a tweak or two away.

Make it fast

Ricky Gervais defines a joke as “ the shortest amount of words to get to the punchline.”

Time is so precious in comedy. At most nights, I’d be lucky to get five solid minutes in front of a decent crowd (that don’t consist primarily of other comics that’s heard all your materials before). Just because a bit got laughs, by no means was the bit complete; I had to cut out the fat, make it leaner and sharper and continue to compact my routine.

By either listening to a recording of my set or asking a trusted friend for an honest feedback of a bit, I could identify bottleneck points like a verbose setup, retelling or explaining the punchline, and jokes that may be cute, but ultimately not funny. Whenver I refactor my code to eliminate repetitive code, improve the execution time, and reduce error rates, I feel the same part of my stand-up brain fire again, which I find both eerie and exciting.

Embrace the Embarrasment

There is just so much failure in comedy — especially when starting out, but it never really ends. Telling ten new jokes and two of them having any type of potential, I considered that a good night. Even jokes that worked, when I revisit them again months and years later, I couldn’t help but cringe at how bad I was.

I think both successful stand-ups and programmers need to have a certain temperament to embrace failing while always looking to grow. Too many comics get to the point where they get just good enough not to bomb, and they stay there in this mediocre lane and retell the same bits and routines for months and years on end.

Likewise, I don’t want that to be me as a programmer. I want to keep placing myself in rooms where I’m the least experienced person there, and learn by just absorbing other’s work and asking solid questions.

I will inevitably make mistakes and write code that I’ll probably be bewildered by months down the road, but that only means that I’m growing as a programmer.

Relish in Being Able to Focus on the Art, Because Pretty Soon, You won’t be Able to.

In a podcast featuring Ari Shaffir, his advice for angsty comics trying to catch their big break was this (heavily-paraphrasing):

This is the best time of your life. Right now, you don’t have to worry about getting managers, negotating fees, saving jokes for specials, setting tour dates, getting sued for plagiarism, booking talk shows, etc. etc. Right now, all you have to do is just focusing on the art and just getting better.

As I’m officially a month removed from graduating from Flatiron School, the spirit of this advice rings especially true.

Over the past month, I’ve found myself busy with driving out to several Meetups, tech talks, workshops, and career fairs where I iron out my elevator pitch to be as un-robotic as possible, sending elaborately written thank you notes and cover letters to companies where I distribute out my periods and exclamation marks in a 70/30 ratio, all the while growing my online presence by reactivating Twitter and writing my first Medium post. (Yes, this one.)

With so much politics involved in getting my first break, whenever I get some peace and quiet to write actual code to build onto my portfolio, I cherish every minute of it.

Closing Thoughts and Self-Promotion

Thanks for making it through my first Medium post! I truly appreciate it and I hope you found it to be interesting and helpful. Please leave a clap or two below, (is that how clapping works?) and feel free to share it.

I plan on posting here at least weekly, so be sure to check back.

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Unlisted

Kevin Kim

Written by

Kevin Kim

Front End Engineer https://kevinyckim.netlify.com/

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