Why Vaudeville Was the Epitome of the Lean Startup

The following is adapted from Shtick to Business: What the Masters of Comedy Can Teach You about Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, and Building a Serious Career.


There is a saying in Silicon Valley, “Launch early and often.” 

To be successful launching early and often, it is critical to limit the downside. Failures are fine, but failures should be low stakes, especially for startups with few resources to waste. 

Today’s most successful comedians know the benefits of starting small—it’s better to hear crickets at the local comedy club than in front of a live TV audience. For example, Chris Rock will just show up at comedy clubs near his home with a yellow legal pad filled premises for jokes and run them by a surprised audience. 

Trying out jokes early and paying close attention to the customer’s reaction was honed in Vaudeville.

A Vaudeville performer would test a bit, dump the ones that didn’t work, and improve the ones that did. Modern stand-ups do the same thing. They fail fast. They release their earliest prototypes to their target audience, get feedback, and iterate for improvements.

Startup founders and Fortune 500 leaders can learn a lot about failing productively by mimicking the best practices that allow comedians to develop best jokes for when they count the most (i.e., for a taped comedy special).

Setting the Bar Low

When Jay Leno was doing The Tonight Show, he would go to the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach every Sunday night and do a set. He’d stand at the mic with note cards and try out jokes that he would use for his monologue that coming week. Jokes that were good were more likely to end up on the air. The jokes that weren’t, he would either revise or kill.

Just like a killer app, a great keynote, or a software as service solution, a joke causes a moment of discomfort when it fails, but when successful, a joke can make a career. Just ask Stephen Wright, who is still known for, “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.”

Starting with a proof of concept helps you test ideas to ensure they are on the right track, before investing gobs of time, money, and energy. The premise for the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia came from a scene shot on a crappy camera in an apartment. It cost $85. (For fans of the show, you can see this bit played out in Episode 4 of the first season – called Charlie has Cancer.)

Setting the bar low and raising the stakes from there is an approach many comedians have mastered, but unfortunately, too many businesses don’t bother to test while the stakes are small. As a result, when they fail, they often fail big—a mistake most companies, but especially startups, cannot afford to make.

A Failure to Test in a Failure to Launch

Comedians seem to understand the value of testing, so why did so many business professionals miss the memo? 

Part of the reason business leaders fail to test is the glorified idea of the entrepreneur as a bold, needs-no-input genius. For example, CEOs cite the famous quote by Henry Ford as their permission to barrel ahead with an idea without testing first. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” 

Though this quote is his most famous, they might want to adjust their thinking. There’s no evidence Ford ever said it. 

CEOs also cite Apple’s success launching disruptive products. Like Ford, Steve Jobs is lauded as someone who doesn’t listen to his audience; he leads them. He’s often quoted as saying, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” 

And Jobs was somehow able to hide the development of the iPod, iPad, and iPhone before revealing them in big, splashy launches.

No More Splashy Launches

Steve Jobs and Henry Ford are idolized by countless business leaders, but here’s the secret: Apple and Ford are the exceptions that prove the rule. There are just as many instances of splashy launch failures (e.g., Segway, One Laptop Per Child) as there are successes. 

For example, Google hid away its “game-changing” Google Glass and never fully tested with the kinds of people it affected. So when they released it to the world in 2014, it was a spectacular flop. It wasn’t that the technology didn’t work; it’s that no one liked it. 

CEOs and other managers misinterpret the Henry Ford quote. Customers will indicate the need that needs to be satisfied. In Ford’s day, people wanted to get from place A to place B faster. It was up to the entrepreneur to figure out how to make a car instead of a horse. 

Instead of mimicking the exceptions, startup leaders should follow the example of comedians and test while the stakes are small to avoid spectacular failures. An agile mindset requires listening to customers early and often. Get your feedback while the bar is low, and your company will be ready when the spotlight eventually turns your way.

For more business advice from the genius and madness of the world’s funniest people, you can find Shtick to Business on Amazon. 

Dr. Peter McGraw is a behavioral economist and global expert in the scientific study of humor. He directs The Humor Research Lab (HuRL), hosts the podcast I’M NOT JOKING, and is the co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. Peter’s work has been covered by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, NPR, and CNN. He’s a sought-after speaker and professor who teaches MBA courses at the University of Colorado Boulder, University of California San Diego, and London Business School.