The Statistical Irrelevance of Comedy Competitions

My friend, Shawn Donovan, a very funny comedian and self-destructive malcontent, has for years been making an argument against performing in comedy competitions. While I agreed with him, I sort of dismissed him because of my own desire for success through these stupid things. However, I have decided to look into the validity of his argument:

Success in comedy competitions does not correlate to success in comedy.

Why am I doing this? Bitterness, mostly. I was recently involved in the Magner’s Comedy Festival, where I performed in two quality shows and I had, in my opinion, very good sets. Unfortunately, the judges involved in determining who was funniest did not feel I was in the top 6 in terms of originality, stage presence, audience response, or the fourth metric that I forget (probably why I didn’t make the top 6). I also had a similar experience at the Boston Comedy Festival, where I had a very good set, but didn’t advance to the semi-finals. It is a very disgruntling feeling to know that you were very good on a show, just not “good enough”.

An alternative situation happened to me at another festival, the New York Comedy Contest, where I had a very good set performing a character and moved on to the next round. A comedian that I beat came up to me after the show and asked, “Do you ever do REAL comedy?”

Comedy is a very subjective art form, and judging a “comedy competition” would be like judging a music competition if the genres ranged from Afro-Cuban jazz to hardcore Christian punk rock. I’ve never seen that level of musical diversity on American Idol, so I feel like that is a fair comparison (and, if you’re wondering, the music equivalent of my comedy is “abstract folk jazz”).

For this analysis, I decided to first look at the TV show Last Comic Standing to see if success in that show correlated to a more successful comedy career. Arguably, many of the people on LCS already were fairly successful to begin with, but it is the only comedy competition that I could easily acquire multi-year data on.

My analysis of succes was performed by plotting the ranking of a comedian in the LCS show against the number of shows they would be performing next month (February 2012, just as an arbitrary metric). The number of shows were determined by the shows listed on their website. The assumptions of this are:

  1. A successful comedian will have an active website that they maintain.
  2. Comedians with regular shows on their website calendar are more successful than those that do not have shows.

I chose the metric of number of shows as it was the easiest to quantify, but I am considering a more useful metric such as “performance fee” to redo this analysis. Nevertheless, I determined if there was a correlation between the ranking in LCS and the number of shows that a comedian would have in the month of February.

I plotted the rankings in reverse order on the X axis against the number of shows. If a comedian did not have a website (or had a dead MySpace page), I omitted those data points. I plotted this against a control group of comedians: Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Russell Peters, Jeff Dunham, Bill Burr, Louis CK, Mike Birbiglia, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Dane Cook. This control group was believed to be a sample of 10 of the most successful comedians performing standup currently.

There was no difference in slope between this control group and any season of comedians in LCS. Furthermore, the slope of all seasons did not deviate statistically from zero. This means that positioning in the show Last Comic Standing has nothing to do with how successful a comedian is.

I would argue that this would also apply to smaller comedy competitions. So, I used the data set from the 2011 and 2010 Boston Comedy Festival, and the list of winners of the Boston Comedy Festival to see if winning the festival had any bearing upon having more shows.

Based upon an one-way ANOVA test, there was no significant differences between the three groups. Therefore, I would conclude that success in comedy competitions has no bearing on the ability of a comedian to get any more work those that did not succeed in competition.

So, what is the point of all this? If there is no difference in winning and losing a festival, I would argue that comedy competitions serve no purpose other than creating more resentment between comedians. We are a community of “artists”, and as such we should be trying to foster relationships, not begrudge our colleagues for succeeding in a competition where we did not.

Just as nu-electro-funk musicians don’t object to the success of Christian rock, we should not judge other comedians because we don’t like their comedy. We are each performing our own type of comedy, and we should be working to be best in the type of comedy that we perform, and not worry about how one-liner or character comedians are doing, or how prop comedians and ventriloquists get more TV time than we do.

Comedy competitions just support this unfair comparison between comedy styles, and creates a sense in the audience that comedy is intended to be judged, rather than enjoyed. When you have a lineups equivalent to jazz, hip-hop, punk, country, reggae, and metal bands performing on the same show, we have audiences saying the equivalent of: “I liked the jazz band but not the reggae band.” That is an unfair comparison. What the audience should be saying is “I am not a reggae fan, but the reggae band was good for a reggae band.”

The ultimate beneficiaries of comedy competitions are those that run the competition, and never the comedians. Therefore, I suggest we end the lie that competing in competitions helps our career, and hopefully we can put an end to competitive comedy.

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6 thoughts on “The Statistical Irrelevance of Comedy Competitions

  1. Pingback: A Night of Comedy in India | Raj Sivaraman

  2. Reblogged this on J.D. Epps and commented:
    Not really relevant to my research, but I thought it was interesting. There may be a correlation-causation issue, as well. In general, this gives me confidence that I’m not a nut for wanting to study standup!

  3. I would like to make a case for the “World Series of Comedy” competition held in Vegas. It is judged by a number of bookers and club owners. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose because if a booker/owner wants you at their club it’s a perfect place to connect with them to showcase for them. Talk to them. Get on their radar. I didn’t win, but I got 6 different offers to perform around the country. Joe Lowers also sets up events where you can drop your press kit right in their hand and interface. I’m sure there were at least 25 + key individuals and they were all their to be chatted up.

    • I agree there is some value to meeting bookers from these competitions; however, could the same end not be achieved without the “competition” format? The overall notion that there is some comedy that is inherently better than others is a flawed one, in my opinion.

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