How many jokes does it take to change a light bulb? How many failed jokes does it take to be brilliantly funny? 10,000 according to Joan Rivers, George Lindsey, aka “Goober” and Thomas Edison. Fifteen years ago, as a contributing writer for The National Speaker’s Association’s “Speaker Magazine,” I had the opportunity to interview Actor/Comedian George Lindsey, “Goober,” of “The Andy Griffith Show,” fame. The column was called “Leading the Way to Laughter.” In this less than 500 word article, there was much left out from my interview with amazing character actor, George Lindsey, including his connection with Joan Rivers.
George said he had worked with Joan Rivers at a coffeehouse where she nightly waited tables, and her turn to get on stage. The first night he saw her perform, “she bombed—BAD,” he said. She left the stage and went straight to the ladies room. “We could hear her crying.” But in just a few minutes, with her make-up dabbed and her Soul undaunted, Joan was back serving up both food and laughter to her tables while waiting for the next set. “Joan just wouldn’t quit.” Night, after night, she got up on that stage and learned the tricks and tips of her comedic style. And, that’s what it takes for someone to earn their chops. “I knew I wasn’t funny,” George told me, “but I knew I could be. I just didn’t have the tools. Nobody can tell you how to be funny. You have to learn and earn your craft.” That’s exactly the way both George and Joan did it.
Years later, I saw Joan Rivers live at Gammage Theater in Phoenix, AZ. As a Professional Speaker & Humorist since 1991, I was anxious to see what her audience would let her get away with. Which was EVERYTHING. All seven words Comedian, George Carlin, said we cannot say were used, abused and repeated at least three times and in combinations that were hysterical. She was “lose fluids laughing” funny. I watched the audience as much as I watched her. They LOVED her. Was it because she made us laugh out loud that we immediately forgave and craved even more of her caustic, crass, potty month? Or was it because she told her truth, which is the first tenet Joan and George Lindsey shared in their journey to funny. It must be your truth. Otherwise, the audience won’t buy it.
I paid extra for the back stage pass and reception to meet and greet Joan Rivers. Her “handlers” were on each side of her, sternly, steadily and skillfully guiding her though the maze of a hundred people who had paid to be in the presence of the greatness called Joan Rivers. Our encounter was at least three whole seconds of a one pump hand shake. But what I remember to this day is that as I looked down at this tiny, 5’2” giant of a woman, there was warmth in her eye contact with me. She only had a second, but she sincerely met me, eye to eye. And then she was moved on to the next person beside me. I don’t even remember if words were exchanged between us. But I know I met the great, Joan Rivers, that night performing at Gammage Theater, in Phoenix, AZ. From a coffeehouse to a concert hall. Another tenet of two great comedians, perform whenever, where ever and for as long as you can.
Thomas Edison said he didn’t fail, he found 10,000 things that would not work. Comedians perfect their routines the same way. In common comedian jargon, they either “killed” or they “died” on stage. When their performance is over the top received well, accepted and responded to with “losing fluids” laughter and applause, they KILLED. They nailed it. They were exceptional. Both their personal performance and the audience exceeded their expectations. When the reverse is true, comedians and humorist may say they “died.” They did not meet their objective of delivering and creating the above mentioned audience experience and response that they wanted. Sometimes the laughter maker will name, blame the audience, the mic, the room, the vibe, their material. Like Edison discovered, it could be 10,000 things. And truth is, if you do this comedy/humor thing (or anything for that matter) long enough, eventually, you will experience failure. Keep learning though it and you’ll experience success!
As a Keynote Speaker, I’ve lived through both. From the standing ovation to the “Where is the nearest exit out of here?” My worst experience resulted in me calling another dear humorist friend and crying, “I blew it, I knew it and I don’t know how to get though it?” “Do you have it in writing?” My humorous friend replied and continued, “I have it on Company Letterhead. It’s not official until you can read it over and over and over.” We laughed so hard and I knew I would learn through it. Flash forward two years, my interviews with some of the NSA Legends became the most listened to and most requested return segment on the National Speakers Association Voices of Experience Audio Newsletter. The title? “I Blew It, I Knew It and What I Learned Through It.” People loved hearing that others “blew it,” too, and, they lived through it. How many times must Joan Rivers and George Lindsey have died on stage? According to George, “It takes ten million failures to find the right stuff.” Tenet three: Don’t be afraid to fail. You will. And, like Joan and Edison did so many times, reverse it, get back up. Learn through it.
Joan Rivers is said to have given “Comedian CK Lewis, a pep talk after a tough show.
“Think it’s been easy?” she said. “I have gone up, I’ve gone down; I’ve been bankrupt, I’ve been broke. But you do it. And you do it because … because we love it more than anything else.” There is tenet four; “Be of good faith.” Faith, hope and love “and the greatest of these is love.” Oh, how Joan Rivers loved and was loved! Not by all. But by those who mattered most to her, those whom she made laugh out loud. We will miss the Legend, we will remember the laughter which, to quote her beloved daughter, Melissa, is what she lived for, to make us laugh. Joan Rivers, loved, craved and drew breathe to make us laugh. Her gift, her legacy, her legend is that she “killed” before she die. She brought us to tears in laughter. As George Lindsey said, and Joan Rivers knew, “be of good faith, it’s just easier that way.”
What Joan Rivers, George Lindsey and Thomas Edison knew is what they lived before they died. Truth, Perform, Fail and Faith. Stand in and state your truth. Perform where, when and for as long as you can. Fail often and don’t be afraid. Keep the faith—it’s just easier that way. Even if it takes 10,000 times. That’s how many jokes it takes to be brilliantly funny. How many jokes to change a light bulb? Just the one that makes it laugh.