Success in comedy, or any career, according to Poehler, stems from one of its most basic tenets. “It all goes back to improv,” she said in a Fast Company profile. “It’s all about flexibility, about not knowing what’s going to happen next. You have to listen and stay in the moment. You have to play with people who will support you. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Of course, with improv comes plenty of room to fail: “I’ve listened to notes that I knew weren’t right. I’ve pitched ideas and let other people change them, knowing that it was the wrong choice. The question you have to ask yourself is: How do you want to fail? Do you want to fail in a way that feels like it respects your tastes and value system?”
“For many years, I thought that hard work was the only way you could succeed, but it’s simply not true,” Kaling told Variety. “Particularly if you’re a woman of color, you need people to give you opportunities, because otherwise it won’t happen. Talent is an important part of success, but you also need mentors to find promise in people that don’t necessarily seem like they will fit in.”
She also cautioned against what success can bring: “Almost no one who is funny when they were younger is still funny when they’re old. Success is terrible because as you get more successful, it leeches away your talent. It makes you rich and it makes you complacent.”
Fey’s memoir Bossypants is chock full of words of wisdom, particularly for ambitious women like herself (who became Saturday Night Live’s first female head writer after a mere two years at the show). Check out a few of the Wine Country star’s choice words about making it in comedy (and beyond) below:
“Here are a couple of things I want to impart to ladies who want to be in comedy: One, you don’t have to be weird or be quirky to get your job done. And two, comedy skill is not sexually transmittable. You do not have to sleep with a comedian to learn what you’re doing. Male comedians will not like that advice, but it is the truth.”
“People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. ‘You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.’ Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.”
With more than 30 years of stand-up and writing experience (and a new Netflix special dropping May 21), Sykes is one of the most seasoned comics in the business. So you can trust her to understand the mindset of a comedian.
“To me, there’s nothing like hearing people laugh,” she said on Herlarious, a special that aired on OWN. “I think that’s why we do it. So, of course, it’s natural to say, ‘I want to play theaters and bigger shows,’ because it’s like a drug. You make one person laugh, now I want to make two people laugh. Now I want to make a theater laugh. Now I want to make an arena laugh.”
For aspiring comedians, she urges keeping your eyes on the prize: “When you have that goal of, ‘I want to be the greatest,’… everything else just falls into line. You have to love this to do it — and to be good at it.”
DeGeneres has had such a prolific run as a talk show host that it’s easy to forget her career was almost destroyed at one point. A year after DeGeneres came out both on her sitcom and in real life, the show was canceled and its star found herself in the wilderness. But she’s since realized the value of the experience and the sense of self-acceptance it brought her.
“I didn’t really come into my own power and understanding of who I am until probably the last 10 years,” DeGeneres said in a 2017 Time interview. “I was very shy. I was insecure. I needed to feel liked and loved, which is why most people go into this business. I wasn’t ever motivated to say, ‘I’ll show them.’ I kept doing comedy out of love — when it works, there’s nothing better than making people laugh. There’s no better feeling.” She added,”“Everything in my life is exactly perfect in the good things, and especially in the bad things — they made me who I am, and they’ve made me a more compassionate person. So I wouldn’t change anything in my life, including the way I came out.”
Silverman is known for her taboo-demolishing comedy, and her decidedly feminine perspective on such topics earned her pushback in the male-dominated comedy world of the ’90s. “My mentors were male…the people that influenced me and taught me. But they said, Paula Poundstone is a real comedian because you can take her material and a man can do it, and it would be just as funny,” Silverman said on Fresh Air. “She’s not talking about tampons and stuff. That’s what hacks talk about. I really took that as truth; I just accepted it as the way things were…But that that was the only way to be a ‘real’ comedian, the fact that I accepted that, looking back, is so odd,” she continued. “And there was a conceit that you had to make the men laugh because the women were just there on dates and they would only laugh if their dates were laughing…It took years for me to realize: F— you! Comedy is about talking about my own experience, and I’m a woman, and that’s my experience, and just because it isn’t yours doesn’t invalidate it.”
Tiffany Haddish emphatically believes in the power of failure. “In failure, there can be success: By that I mean you can learn what not to do. I find the funny in a lot of failures, because I’ve had enough of them,” she told W magazine.
As far as comedy technique, she offers this in her memoir The Last Black Unicorn: “In stand-up, you do need to be having fun up there like Richard Pryor said, but you have to know yourself well, too. You have to know when you make different faces, or do different things, you get certain reactions. You start learning and it’s like playing a piano. You just know exactly what keys to stroke, ’cause really with comedy, you’re like fiddling with people’s souls. You resonate on the same frequency as them, trying to get them to relate.”
“A big part of becoming a funny person was a major defense mechanism,” Schumer said in an interview with Time. “Onstage, especially as a woman, I’ve had to be really tough. The second you show a crack, the audience can literally leave.” That toughness has served her well: “As someone who has been told a million times they are fat and ugly, it does not matter!” she said in a New York Times interview, adding, “Being cool is powerful in this industry, but there’s nothing more powerful than not giving a f—.”
And for women who struggle with online harassment, she has a three-part solution: “Therapy, meditation, weed.”
Wong taped both of her acclaimed Netflix specials while pregnant, taking what’s often seen as a stigma for women in entertainment and weaponizing it. “I had a talk with Chris Rock about getting married and having kids,” Wong said on a Fresh Air interview. “And I expressed to him that I was really anxious about it, and I was really worried about how it would affect my career. And he said to me, you know what Ali? I think that if you do get married and have kids that you will actually have a real shot at being truly famous…because most of America is married and has kids. And that really changed my perspective, you know, because then it was kind of the beginning of me thinking about how to use my marriage and my pregnancy as not a source of downfall and weakness but instead as a source of power and relatability.”
Jones spent multiple decades toiling on the comedy circuit before she got her big break on SNL. But that time gave her the opportunity to hone her performing style, and she’s grateful success came when she was ready to handle it. “When you’re young, you don’t understand the energy that you have. But if you learn how to use it the right way, it’s one of the best weapons you have,” Jones said in a New York Times interview. She added, “I believe that you hit it when you’re supposed to hit it, and I hit it as a nice, seasoned comedian. I know what I do, and I’m going to give you what you want.”
And what you want is plenty of that energy. “People get hung up on writing smart s—,” Jones said in a New Yorker profile. “To me, it’s more about performance. Lucille Ball and Moms Mabley, they had face. Before they even said a word, they made you crack up.”