7 Tenants of Programming Like a Comedian

Programmers like Stand-Up comedians. Every one of them. There’s a strong link between the two professions. Both have this odd individual isolation aspect of their lives.

A stand-up comedian gets on stage and talks to a crowd while no-one else is able to talk back. That’s similar to how a programmer works at his desk and leverages the Internet for knowledge, while the Internet cannot ask anything back.

A stand-up comedian has to fail over and over and over and over for hundreds and thousands of hours to get a few good “hours” of comedy. An “hour” of comedy, by the way, is that one hour comedy special most people eventually see on TV. A programmer has to spend hundreds of hours of crafting code over and over again to get one good app.

Louis CK has a lot in common with Mubashar Iqbal.

Tenant 1: Go Out in the World

If you’re a comedian, you’re on the road. The same people seeing your same act again and again will not get you better at telling a joke. Why does every comedian get out in front of different audiences?

Programming is about exposing yourself to new ideas and concepts. A lot of networking and packet routing came from observations of ant colonies. What that means is a person with engineering skills bumped into a person with ant skills and they had an epiphany. If you’re reading hacker news and techmeme every day you’re getting exposed to the same bubble that everyone else is, it’s table stakes. You’ve got to get into different spheres and bring ideas from there into your act.

Tenant 2: Say What You Think

Louis CK literally went on Saturday Last Night and talked about how good pedophilia must be. He said that in front of a live studio audience. Forget that millions watched from a screen like the one you’re reading this from, a live audience watched him tell that joke.

Programmers don’t say what they think, they type it in github, slack, and trello. But talk to people and say those awful things that you think and know that the world will be just fine afterwards.

Tenant 3: Know you’re not alone

There’s a Jerry Seinfeld story where he’s at a party and Chris Rock sees him from across the room, goes up to Jerry, and with an exasperated tone says ”Thank god, a comedian!”

When you’re writing code, getting deep into your messiah complex, like you’re the queen of the realm whose code will save all humanity from the suffering of existence you’re probably a jerk. On the flip, you’re also a jerk if you’re feeling like garbage when your code isn’t performing well, when you’ve banged your head against the wall for 6 hours on the same 3 lines, and aren’t changing it up. Grab a programmer buddy and say “a programmer! help!”

Tenant 4: Be as Dumb or Smart as Possible

This is a Bill Burr thing. That guy is either brilliant or the opposite depending on which sentence of a joke you listen to. Have you heard his joke about gold digging whores? You can’t listen to it and not think he’s the opposite of brilliant. But it’s funny, so his job is done.

It’s a cliché that programmers are smart. What a lie THAT is! Programmers are just a susceptible to being the opposite of brilliant as anyone else. It doesn’t matter, if your code runs, you can go be dumb. Dumb as you like, be a brute, an oaf, look at some Ryan Lochte interviews and let him be your guide.

Tenant 5: Don’t ruin the Illusion

When you listen to a stand-up comedian say “So the other day I was at the supermarket and I saw this little kid yelling as his mom…” It’s a lie 99% of the time. In those cases, the comedian is the mom and it’s her kid. But by making it someone else, it makes the comedian seem like they have a life, and makes the joke work better. That comedian will never betray that illusion while performing — and why would they?

When you’re programming and playing loose with the who what where and how of an explanation to make a point to a client, a boss, a peer, don’t ruin the illusion before you’ve made your point and gotten the reaction you need to keep doing your job. And if you think you don’t need your stakeholders to need you to play loose on occasion, you’re failed.

Tenant 6: Tell a Story

Duh comedians tell stories.

The good programmers are able to weave stories into their code. They can take an Internet browser (I mean a person, not Chrome) and guide them down a path of interfaces to eventually get the action they desire. Do that.

Tenant 7: Treat the Internet as a Distribution Mechanism

Comedians use netflix and youtube and the rest of it to distribute their work. But they don’t generate it there. They go to bars, theaters, stadiums, and get their names made in front of real live people.

If programmers can learn anything from comedians it’s this. It doesn’t matter if you get 500 upvotes on hacker news if no one in your town is benefitting from your work. Programmers too often think the Internet is important to the detriment of what’s around them. Your real life, the one with human eyeballs looking back at you, is where you’ll do your work. The Internet will distribute it if it’s any good.


Hey that’s all I’ve got for tonight! Thanks for reading! Press the heart button if you liked my piece and I’ll be active in the comments below if you want to chat. Thanks!