It’s relentlessly tested and tweaked onstage over a period of months.
Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:
When beginning to work on a new show, Rock picks venues where he can experiment with new material in very rough fashion. In gearing up for his latest global tour, he made between forty and fifty appearances at a small comedy club, called Stress Factory, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, not far from where he lives. In front of audiences of, say, fifty people, he will show up unannounced, carrying a yellow legal note pad with ideas scribbled on it…
In sets that run around forty-five minutes, most of the jokes fall flat. His early performances can be painful to watch. Jokes will ramble, he’ll lose his train of thought and need to refer to his notes, and some audience members sit with their arms folded, noticeably unimpressed. The audience will laugh about his flops— laughing at him, not with him. Often Rock will pause and say, “This needs to be fleshed out more if it’s gonna make it,” before scribbling some notes. He may think he has come up with the best joke ever, but if it keeps missing with audiences, that becomes his reality. Other times, a joke he thought would be a dud will bring the house down…
For a full routine, Rock tries hundreds (if not thousands) of preliminary ideas, out of which only a handful will make the final cut… By the time Rock reaches a big show— say an HBO special or an appearance on David Letterman— his jokes, opening, transitions, and closing have all been tested and retested rigorously. Developing an hour-long act takes even top comedians from six months to a year. If comedians are serious about success, they get on stage every night they can, especially when developing new material. They typically do so at least five nights per week, sometimes up to seven, and sweat over every element and word. And the cycle repeats, day in, day out.
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