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3 Lessons In Career Development From Comedy Greats Who Flopped


Evie Nagy

May 15, 2014

There’s a saying that every romantic relationship you ever have will fail, until it doesn’t. The same could be said for a creative career, as most successful artists or entrepreneurs have any number of efforts in their past that died on the vine.

Splitsider looked at the careers of three comedy titans–Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart–who all suffered the blow of having their first big show canceled in short order, before eventually moving on to successful outings that better fit their strengths. The point is that failure is not really failure, even when it feels like the end of the line.

Here are three lessons from Splitsider’s survey of the comedy legends’ early setbacks, and how they got back on track.

Define Your Identity, Even If That Identity Is Giving Others the Spotlight

The original Johnny Carson Show that premiered on CBS in 1955 followed the lead of screen-dominating comedians like Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar, but Johnny Carson was not that kind of comedian. The network and viewers couldn’t settle on Carson’s identity, so the show was canceled within a year.

But Carson was eventually hired to host the game show Who Do You Trust?, proving his strength as an interviewer rather than a focal point. When Jack Paar retired and NBC hired Carson to host The Tonight Show, he turned the spotlight on his guests. “He put out a better product across the board because he was smart enough to know how to give room to funny people, to engage people, and let them shine,” said Carson biographer Bill Zehme.

Find Your Creative Circadian Rhythm

The David Letterman Show was slotted in NBC’s morning schedule in 1980 to replace low-rated game shows, and while it was critically praised, the absurd, sardonic Letterman was not what people wanted with their Cheerios. “Morning shows needed glee (however fake), not irony,” writes Splitsider’s Ian Goldstein. The show was canceled after four months, but Carson liked Letterman so he advocated for him to take the slot after The Tonight Show. Late Night, while thematically similar to The David Letterman Show, was much better suited for the midnight crowd.

The time of day that you do certain kinds of work really does matter, not just for entertainment audiences, but for your own inherent strengths and weaknesses. Use any degree of scheduling flexibility you have to figure out what they are.

Even The Best Product Needs Marketing

The Jon Stewart Show, which launched on MTV in 1993, was a success out of the gate thanks to Stewart’s interviewing skill and smart likability that resonated with MTV’s young audience–until the show left MTV and went to syndication. Then it got no consistent publicity, and ratings tanked. When he was hired in 1999 to replace Craig Kilborn on The Daily Show, it was a show with a strong brand and an existing audience in a format that highlighted all of his best strengths, and 15 years in it is one of the most well-respected shows on television.

The Jon Stewart Show – 1994 Highlight Reel

There’s no question that Jon Stewart is excellent at what he does, balancing great interviews with smart satire and just enough low humor in a way that audiences respond to. But when his show existed in a diffused, undermarketed state, it floundered. Even if you build it, they won’t come unless you have the properly targeted messaging.

[Images: Letterman, Carson]

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