10 Things Photographers Should Learn from Stand up Comedians

Eriq+Law

Editor’s Note: This is a syndicated blog post from photographer Nicola Bernardi. It is being used with permission. Also be sure to check out our Creating the Photograph post featuring his work.

At the beginning of August I packed my belongings in a backpack and moved to Melbourne.

There are a million reasons why I decided to and this is not the moment to talk about it. However one of the main reasons is the fact that I want to work with comedians, and Melbourne is Australia’s Stand Up Comedy Capital.

In the first six months of being here in Melbourne, I went to every single stand up comedy gig I could afford. I studied the scene to further my knowledge in how to work with them.

In doing so, I found myself spending a ridiculous amount of time with stand up comedians.

In doing so I discovered that stand up comedians and photographers feel very strongly towards their passion and, surprisingly, in a very similar way!

Here are 10 things that stand up comedians taught me.

1) Try

How many times have you had an idea for a photoshoot, a weird lighting scheme, a new project but in the end you didn’t actually do it?

How many times have you found an interesting location/setup but actually never used it and just waited for an opportunity to show up?

I don’t know about you guys, but that happens to me ALL THE TIME.

And I justify it to myself saying “I’m waiting for the right time to try it” and most of the time, that moment never comes and I simply forget about it.

As photographers, we don’t try our ideas enough. Stand up comedians try new material on stage all the time. Heck, there’s even specific nights where all the comedians do NEW MATERIAL only to see how people react and therefore to improve it.

Next time you have an idea, just DO IT. Call a friend and ask him to pose for you, take a self portrait, find 5 minutes in your next photoshoot to try it.

Don’t be afraid to fail, good things are not born out of thin air, but rather through trial and error.

And besides, what’s the worst that can happen?

 

2) Real community vs online community

There’s a gazillion of online forums literally swarming with photographers from all over the world talking about gear, ideas, concepts, and photography all around.

One might say it’s actually one of the most discussed things online and there’s a very active community ready to criticize, share, support one another.

But ask yourself : “when was the last time you actually met in person with photographers for a coffee, beer, lunch or dinner to do those things?”

As photographers, our community is most of the time limited to our computer screen : behind that LCD everyone feels safe and, frankly, not many people are able to speak from their heart without looking at someone right in the eyes.

There hans’t been a single stand up comedy night I’ve been to where I didn’t see some comedians in the audience. And after every show, a lot of comedians just hang around, have a beer with each other, and talk about their craft.

Find some local photographers that you like and organize a coffee/beer with them. Invite fellow photographers to your creative photoshoots, sit down with people you like and respect and talk about you passion, your ideas, your struggles. There’s literally no harm in getting off your butt for once and you’ll see that when creatives meet in person, the juices flow for real!

 

3) Don’t be afraid to share

In my opinion, way too many photographer are terrified of sharing their ideas with other photographers. There’s this insane fear that, if you tell someone else your idea, they might steal it and, say, destroy your career forever with it.

Now, to be honest, yes, sometimes certain photographers do actually steal other people’s ideas. But seriously, that actually happens way less often that you would think.

And on top of that, even if someone does take your idea and uses it, is it such a big deal?

I believe that talent resides in BEING ABLE TO COME UP WITH IDEAS, not in the ideas themselves.

The ability to think of something, to link the dots together, to see things with a twist and to translate that into photography is something no one can ever take away from you.

Stand up comedians are of course just as scared of someone stealing their jokes. But nevertheless, after every show I’ve seen them talking about this new bit they are writing, this idea they had, this thing that happened that they want to turn into a story. And you know what happens? Other comedians listen and share their thoughts on it, tell you how they would use certain words and not use others, suggest another direction for the punchline ecc ecc

The outcome? You figure out other points of view that in a way or another help you to build the joke even better, and everyone gives their brain some exercise. Everybody wins.

 

4) There’s no shame

How many times have you heard the sentence “Fake it until you make it?”

And if you’re not a stubborn little man, you know it doesn’t work. EVER.

Every photographer, for a SOME TIME had to wait tables, wash dishes, take pictures of kids in the park, organize shelves of a supermarket.

No one EVER picked up a camera for the first time and got called to shoot a big advertisement campaign the next day. EVER. PERIOD.

But for some reason, most photographers try to hide it the best they can, like there’s some sort of stigma in not being able to live off your passion alone.

Stand up comedians instead use that to their advantage : taking stories from real life situations, using what they are going through the best they can.

I have never met a comedian that is ashamed of any second or third job he/she has to do to pay the bills.

Screw shame, be honest with everyone: worst case scenario, you are telling that agency director or future customer that you’re not only talented in what you do, but also that you bust your chops to achieve your goals and that you are seriously committed to your passion. Which is all VERY GOOD.

 

5) You’re as good as your next show (we fall to learn how to stand back up again)

Sometimes things go wrong: no one is bulletproof.

It might be the rain, it might be some piece of equipment not working properly. Heck, it might even be your memory that sometimes ruins things for you : we have ALL at least once forgot about something crucial like remotes, batteries, that particular lens, the backup SD or CF card.

Or it might simply be that the idea you had for that photoshoot really didn’t work, or that you couldn’t connect at all with your subject.

There’s a million things that can take a photoshoot and trash it down in seconds. And we tend to feel the hit way too much, to judge ourselves and our ability or talent on failures better than successes.

In stand up comedy, there’s even more elements out of your control that can influence the outcome of a gig : that annoying heckler that keeps interrupting you, a specific crowd that doesn’t react well to your jokes/humor, not physically feeling well that night.

And yet, after a bad show, stand up comedians get off stage, suck it up and start thinking of the next one.

While hanging out after shows, i’ve heard dozens of comedians say the same thing : “You’re as good as your next show”.

Things can go bad, and it’s way too easy to just feel overwhelmed and give up. The right thing to do is accept it, analyze the reasons, and work towards not making the same mistakes the next time.

Evaluate yourself on how much effort you put on overcoming difficulties, on how much work you put on improving, on your ability to get hit, fall down and stand back up, ready to go on that stage the next night and rock it.

 

6) Be real (talk about yourself)

There is something unique in all of you. Wanna know what’s that?

It’s YOU.

Unique is your way of seeing things, saying things. Unique are your ideas, your thoughts, the way you perceive certain things. Unique is the way you feel attracted towards certain issues, your opinion on what happens around you.

“YOU” is the magic ingredient you use to create in a way no one else could ever do.

Than USE IT. Be real, use your photography to talk about what matters to you, in the way you see it.

Comedians always talk about themselves (sometimes directly sometimes not) and use their real stories for their comedy. And that’s why comedy is so good : because it’s REAL.

I once saw Melbourne based stand up comedian Greg Larsen do a 5 minutes bit on his depression, on suicidal thoughts and whatnot and let me tell you something: it was beautiful.

He cracked the audience up with his humor but also reached a deeper part inside of everyone of us : the part that seeks to empathize with other human beings, that seeks truth on top of any kind of entertainment.

Don’t be scared of using photography to tell what you are going through : be sincere every time.

 

7) Focus on the idea, not the punchline

Ok, we can all agree on this : photographers talk WAY TOO MUCH about gear and not enough about soul.

Seriously, how many online pages have been written about whether the new Canon 24-70 ƒ2.8 lens is better than the previous one?

How many heated discussion have taken place on whether Nikon is better than Canon, or Sony is better than Fujifilm, or whether mirrorless is comparable to full frame?

At the end of the day, no one really cares about the gear. Real photographers are out there shooting with old cameras, film, beaten up gear or iphones. And they produce images that live rent free in our memory forever.

I believe technology finally brought us all to a moment where we can seriously stop talking about HOW to shoot and start focusing on WHAT to shoot!

I have never heard a stand up comedian talk about the punchline (which in comedy would be the medium, the delivery, the gear) but rather always talk about the concept, the idea, the core of the joke.

When you hear two stand up comedians talking, chances are they are discussing and brainstorming about what to say, not how.

Focus on the concept, not the technicals (which by the way, you should have mastered!)

 

8) Endure, it’s a long way

Good things take time.

Wait, let me rephrase this : ALL good things take time. There’s no exception.

Nothing really worthy ever happens overnight. And it goes the same way in every field: photography, comedy, acting, cooking, reading a book, getting a degree, having a relationship. The list could literally go on FOREVER.

So why do we stress so much over things not being YET where we want them to be?

Relax, endure, suck it up, stick to it, cry if you have to but carry on.

In stand up comedy, venues and audiences play a crucial role. And to do a gig at certain venues, they have to invite you. How do they do it? Seeing the you did a number of good gigs in a smaller place.

Read again: I wrote A NUMBER of good gigs, not A good gig.

Stand up comedians are well aware that things come with time, you start playing in the city’s worst hellhole, with 3 drunk guys as audience. Every week. For months. Than someone hears about you, about the fact that those 3 drunk dudes cry themselves laughing week after week. So they invite you to do a gig at a bigger venue, where the audience is 30 drunk guys and two girls. And the game starts over again.

For some reason, a lot of photographers can’t get their head around the fact that they nailed one shoot, or published that mini editorial in a online magazine and yet no one is calling them.

Good things take time. Results take time.

To put it in simple terms: running 10k once does nothing to you. Running 10k every day MAY bring you one day on the olympic podium.

 

9) Research meticulously 

I met my now good friend and stand up comedian Eriq Law at a free comedy night at “Spleen” here in Melbourne.

What caught my attention was the fact that he had a little moleskine with a pencil and kept writing down things as the show went on.

I later asked him what he was writing. “I’m studying” he answered me.

He wrote down bits of comedy he liked to later go back to them and understand why he liked them, where was the humour in them, how to eventually make them better ecc ecc

That whole thing piqued my interest and I started asking comedians facts and notions about the topics they joked on while on stage. I soon realized that meticulous research plays a key role in the creative process of a comedian; do you want to joke about something? Start reading about it. Study the matter. Know your facts. Only when you have a in-depth understanding of the subject, you can successfully start creating jokes around it.

Photography is no different: studying, researching, acquiring knowledge on the matters that we want to talk about with our photos is an important milestone on the road to a successful project/photoshoot/body of work.

 

10) Work. Hard.

Last but not least: work hard.

Stand up comedians work on their craft immensely.

They write every day, they work on being funny (especially on WHAT is funny) all the time, regardless if it’s at the post office, at a party, or alone in their room.

They keep their mind active, they put themselves way out of their confort zone.

In photography, most people think it all starts and ends with the click of the shutter. I personally believe photography starts when you open your eyes everyday and finishes when you click that shutter.

The work is there, everyday, and it has to be done.

The long hours spent FAILING MISERABLY at it must be had.

The tears from looking for too long at a monitor, the moments of utter and complete creative block, all the doors slammed in your face, the long nights, the early mornings.

Work. HARD.

 

BONUS : Have a laugh

Comedians know this very well: no matter what the situation, it’s worth having a laugh.

Whether you are a photographer, a comedian or anything else, don’t make the mistake of taking yourself and what you do TOO seriously.

The road to wherever you wanna go is paved with hard times, misery, long nights, sweat, self doubt and a sprinkle of envy. You don’t have to make it any harder by not allowing yourself to enjoy what you do and why you are doing it.

Have fun!