Kind Of A Funny Thing: Geeks and Comedians

At first glance, the worlds of information technology and stand up comedy appear to have very little in common.

Comics tend to be the center of attention in their worklife, where in the IT world, if you’re in front of a room full of people…odds are good it’s because something went wrong and you’re explaining why.

I don’t know a lot of geeks that like the night shift…but that’s when most comics are just getting warmed up.

Kind of a funny thing though…they have a lot more in common once you look below the surface…

So, as you’re probably aware by now, I’ve started hanging around in a world populated by stand up comics…a world I haven’t been a part of in close to 20 years.

And there’s your first bridge between worlds: just like in the IT world, just because you used to do something…that doesn’t really mean a damned thing to the people still actively doing it.  You might be accepted initially, but you’re going to have to prove you belong.

Another quick and easy parallel is that in either world, the environment will not adapt to you, and so you will have to adapt to the environment.  It doesn’t matter if you can write code that does magic tricks in PhP…if your target environment doesn’t support it.  It doesn’t matter if you kill with knock-knock jokes…if you’re not at your eight year old niece’s birthday party.  Awesome, you’re a java codeslinger…doesn’t matter in a server farm full of IIS machines supporting C#.  You might have the greatest twenty minute set in the world about sex and drugs liberally sprinkled with f-bombs…but that’s probably not the set you want to use at the church fundraiser.

You also have to stay fresh.  You can’t keep trotting out the same jokes week after week to the same crowds and not expect to see some yawns or table conversations taking place, just like you can’t sit back and rely on the java methods that you learned eight years ago to carry you for the rest of your life.  It’s probably time to retire the “Married With Children” show jokes since the rooms are full of people that only know Ed O’Neill from “Modern Family”, and maybe it’s time to augment your mainframe skills with a front-end or middleware language to make yourself a better developer.

The next thing I noticed is that there a lot of would-be comics that could stand to read Don’t Be That Guy: Overblown Sense of Entitlement Guy out at  And then they should probably read it again.  And then they should probably have a printed copy stapled to their forehead.

As an example, I’ve seen one particular young comic perform three times now:

I watched him flame out spectacularly to the point where he was visibly pissed off and screaming at the crowd (and not in the good, old school Sam Kinison way, either) and had completely lost mental track of his set.

His second performance was markedly better – he had obviously prepped.  He knew his material, kept his composure even with a heckler on his ass, and deservedly got some applause at the end of his laughter-inducing set.

Third time’s the charm, right?  Wrong.  Another flame-out.  Mercifully, his set was cut short, and he shuffled to the back of the room with the look of a beaten puppy on his face.

The kicker?  Three hours later he’s sending off text messages about how he’s heading out of town for a little over a week to hit some other clubs…and when he comes back…he’ll be ready to headline.

You have to love the exuberance of youth…but someone needs to sit the kid down and tell him that the only thing he’s ready to headline is this blog entry.  Hitting a series of clubs for a few days isn’t going to make you a room-headlining comic, just like taking a certification class for a week isn’t going to make you an expert developer.

You can’t walk into an interview for a gig claiming to be the world’s greatest developer…and then not know the most basic of technical questions.  You can’t shoot your mouth off about your killer set…with a 66% bomb rate.

And there’s our next similarity: not only do both worlds have to deal with entitlement guy, but you’ve got to pay your dues.  All comics want to be the headliner filling arenas, just like most geeks think they’re one session of beer and brainstorming away from being at the head of the conference table for the next Apple.

If only it were that simple, right?


You might be trapped hitting open mic nights for two years before you get anywhere, just like you might get stuck on midnights being the tape monkey watching backups run before you get a chance to start writing a line of code.  You get your chance, you expand a bit, and you move into a new role.  Maybe now you’re the opener for a show that does ten minutes…or maybe you’re the new junior developer on a seasoned team.  You absorb, you learn from those around you, you get better, and you handle yourself well…and maybe you get bumped up in responsibilities and role again.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Plus, always remember that in either world, you’re only as good as your last gig.  Sure, once you’ve been doing it for a few years and have a body of work to point back at, it’s a little easier to overcome getting fired or booed offstage…but especially when you’re just getting started, it’s critical that you’re on point all of the time.  Perception is far greater than reality in both worlds, and your reputation will speak for you…whether you want it to or not.

Which brings us to my closing point: networking is critical to both worlds.  We ramble on about that here on a constant basis, but it’s just as true in the comedy realm.  You make friends.  You get to know people.  You watch who you talk about because you never know where, when or how that’s going to circle back around and bite you in the ass.  Even if you’re not lighting the room on fire with laughter each and every week, a solid and dependable “utility” comic – one that can keep a crowd happy, delivers a consistent set, doesn’t piss off the club owner or the emcee, and knows their role – will always have work.  Just like you don’t have to be a “rock star” coder to always be gainfully employed – a solid and dependable coder that always meets deadlines, doesn’t cause office drama, and handles themselves well probably won’t have any problems pulling a steady paycheck.

Start burning bridges and alienating people, and it can get awfully hard to find a room with a mic, or an office with a desk, in which you’re welcome.

Oh…I guess there is one more, final parallel that can be drawn: in both worlds, the people that need to read and understand things like this the most…are almost assuredly the ones who won’t get it.

Damned shame.

That’s all for this time, folks.  Go check out something else on the site.  I’ve got to go work on my material.