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The Lean Comedian

I had the pleasure of seeing Aziz Ansari, (an extremely talented comedian) sharpening his tools at the Comedy Cellar.

Comedy Cellar is a small comedy club in Greenwich Village, New York City. It fits ~80 people per show in a long, narrow basement venue. The comedians have a narrow, elevated red platform from which to deliver their jokes. It boasts Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart and many others as having performed there.

Each night at Comedy Cellar, there are 3 or 4 shows. There’s a host who warms up the crowd, and introduces each comedian. The comedians each perform a 15 – 20 minute routine.

We attended over Memorial Day weekend. Aziz Ansari was a surprise visitor. He had a stack of notecards with him. He wanted to try out some new material on us.

His bits were hilarious, but I was more interested in his approach (which I imagine is similar among top comedians):

Test jokes on smaller audiences

Aziz performs at large theaters. When he stands on stage with the bright lights on him, and a sea of faces, it’s hard to see reactions. In a smaller venue, you can see how many people are laughing (and how hard).


Nobody in the audience knew he would be there that night. Judah Friedlander (from 30 Rock) who was also performing was clearly more rehearsed in his routine. Testing ideas out is better on fresh / unexpected minds.

Don’t overpractice the routine

Aziz had notecards to remind himself of what he wanted to say. He was practiced and he was fluid. But rather than spending time to perfect the routine, he decided to validate whether or not the jokes were funny before getting the delivery perfect.

In comedy, great comedians use lean startup-like thinking to answer the question “How can I know if this joke is funny?” without having to tell the joke to an auditorium of people. Opportunities to use “lean” to remove uncertainty exist in every industry and in every profession.

Whatever your job, whatever you do, look at a problem you’re trying to solve. Figure out how you can answer important questions in less time, with less money, and with less work. You are the lean ____.