Last night I watched Talking Funny, an HBO program that features Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Ricky Gervais discussing what it means to be a comedian. Talking Funny offers a lot of comedic insights, but one of the most interesting comes from Louis CK, who most would consider the current king of stand-up comedy.
Here’s what I learned: Louis CK not only writes a completely new hour of stand-up comedy material every year — refraining from performing old material — he also used to begin his new comedy act with the strongest bit from the previous years act. Here’s what Louis says about this approach to writing his stand-up comedy act:
One of things I started doing when I was developing my hours is I’d take my closing bit, and I’d open with it. Just to f–k myself [so I’d be forced] to follow my strongest bit. […] You get rid of all your best weapons and you have to [rise to the occasion] or else your dead. It brings something out of you.
This revelation impressed fellow stand-up comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld, When Louis CK makes this revelation in the special, Seinfeld looks to Chris Rock and says:
That’s how he got good, you see this attitude. He’s a tough guy.
Louis CK’s approach reminded me of what Robert Greene, author of 33 Strategies of War, refers to as the Death-Ground strategy. The purpose of the Death-Ground strategy is to create a sense of urgency and desperation. In such a situation, you have two options: win or die.
If you cannot afford to lose, you won’t. Cut your ties to the past; enter unknown territory where you must depend on your wits and energy to see you through. Place yourself on “death ground,” where your back is against the wall and you have to fight like hell to get out alive.
Hernan Cortes employed the Death-Ground strategy in 1519. When Cortes and his troops arrived on the coast of an unknown land, they faced a more powerful army. Cortes destroyed all his ships, forcing his troops to focus on the task at hand, knowing that the only option was to defeat the enemy. Two years later, Cortes conquered the Aztec empire.
Is Louis CK a modern Cortes? Not quite. After all, the stakes are a bit different. But regardless, the death-ground strategy can be effective for conquerers and creatives alike. I am trying it myself with this blog. I had written over 50 drafts, and I scrapped every single one of them. Let’s see how that turns out for me…