Simon Rich joined Altucher to talk about his new show, the architecture of his jokes, and how much the people around us matter. This was Rich’s second interview with Altucher, here are the notes from round one.
Altucher gets right to it, asking Rich about what it’s like to have a new show and Rich says he’s, “super nervous.” Despite the difference in ages and stages, all the comedians on the show have had similar comments about their work. In episode #66 Carol Leifer told Altucher that you have to be on the edge of failure. “If you’re not failing then you’re not doing something right because it’s through these failures you really get better.”
Rich has a nice chance to fail, though that’s not what he’s seeking. Failure is the output, what Rich is getting a chance to play around with is the input. Altucher highlighted this in his TEDx talk, noting that we shouldn’t be praising failure and, in his words, “failure porn.” Instead we should think in terms of experimentation. He gives the example of Thomas Edison and how we explain his work as experiments, not failures.
Getting a framework to work in is equivalent to a plant in a greenhouse rather than outside. Past guest Scott Adams advocates experimenting within your systems. He writes:
Think of healthy eating as a system in which you continually experiment with different seasonings and sauces until you know exactly what works for you. You want to be able to look at a vegetable and instantly know five ways to make it delicious, at least two of which don’t require much effort. When you change what you know about adding flavor to food, it will change your behavior. You’ll no longer need much willpower to resist bad food because you will be just as attracted to the healthy stuff.
Back to the interview, Altucher asks Rich what he’s been up to and Rich has a litany of things since the last time they spoke. He tells Altucher there’s his new show, Man Seeking Woman, along with some books and movies. This “project pipeline” is similar to what past guest Steve Scott mentioned in episode #18 on his own podcast. Scott explained, “What the book project pipeline is… something that helps me manage multiple projects at the same time. So in a given week I’ll be working on three books at the same time. The three books are the books I’m developing, the book I’m writing, and the book that’s in post production.”
All these projects have kept Rich busy and Altucher asks what has been the most anxiety inducing moments. He tells Altucher, “trying to keep up with everybody.” It’s quite the crowd – he’s working with writers from some of the all-time best comedies; The Simpsons, The Onion, and Seth Rogen among many other talented people. And trying to keep up is a good thing.
In an email to Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell explained why surrounding ourselves with the right culture and the right people can make us a lot better than we otherwise might be. Gladwell frames this idea in terms of why Jamaican sprinters are so good. Their best youth runners are better than the adults in many countries. Gladwell writes:
So why are the Jamaicans so good? There are many reasons, but the simplest is that the effect of peers on high performance are REALLY strong. In Jamaica, EVERYONE sprints. There are 20 heats in the 100-meter regional championships. And because everyone sprints, and the average quality of sprinting is so high, everyone’s expectations are raised accordingly. The psychological ceiling on elite performance if you are a high school sprinter in Kingston is, like, a foot higher than if you are a high school sprinter in America.
Rich has lifted the psychological ceiling on comedy writing and tells James he seeks this out, wanting to “feel like you’re barely holding up.”
This challenge also makes his skill set more diverse. Even though the act of comedy seems straightforward, it’s anything but. Different mediums require different techniques. Rich tells Altucher that “you can’t shoehorn things” into a show or movie like you can in a book. In his books he can diverge and take the scenic route, in TV he has to be moving in an arc. Leifer found the same thing, getting a writing job on Seinfeld because she didn’t have TV writing experience. She told Altucher that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David were looking for people with a fresh perspective. Dave Berg, producer of The Tonight Show, told James that monologues are different than stand-up which is different from sketches. Even storytelling can differ from one place to another. Alex Blumberg said that what it took for stories to succeed on the radio was not the same as TV.
Altucher asks Rich what an average day is like and Simon gives him the birds eye breakdown about what happens. First the writing team spends a few weeks brainstorming what’s going to happen and then “breaking the stories” and getting the natural character arcs. Craig Turk, executive producer of The Good Wife said their process is similar. (And it’s a good interview about the entire writing and production podcast)
Altucher asks Rich for his tips on becoming a great writer and Simon gives him one big piece of advice:
Make something great don’t worry about whether it fits in any economic landscape – Simon Rich (Tweet This)
Rich also tells Altucher that he’s glad he thinks the clips are “YouTubable” and hoping the joke, scene, and concept all stand on their own.
About working with FXX Rich says that he “feels really grateful they let us do it.” Gratitude is one of the best mental exercises we can do. Research from UC Davis concludes that people who take time to record reasons of gratitude exercise more, complain less, get sick less, and feel better about their lives overall.
Altucher suggest we engage in “creative gratuity.” In his TEDx talk he says that being grateful for things like our family is “emotional sugar.” Quickly satisfying but not lasting. To get the real effects, we need to breakthrough a certain limit. It’s the same framework as his idea muscle, when coming up with ideas we often flounder when we get to number six or seven, but it’s in these moments we can push forward and see real changes. Rich could have complained about the things he didn’t get – a better time slot, more writers, a bigger network – instead, he appreciated the things he did.
In his book Excuses Begone, past guest Dr. Wayne Dyer, breaks down the different ways we can be grateful. That we have the ability to get online with our computer or tablet. That you can read these words. One prayer from Thich Nhat Hanh that also works is: “Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky. I join my hands in thanks; for the many wonders of life; for having 24 brand-new hours before me.”
Switching projects, Altucher asks about what it’s like to work with Seth Rogen, to which Rich says: “The biggest thing with a movie, is the story working? Are the character moving in the right direction? Is the pacing right? Is it high enough stakes? The actual jokes and oneliners, those come along the way. You can’t really build a movie on jokes.”
Rich says that the secret to his success is tapping into a real feeling in an absurd concept. His new show clearly does that, and only the trailer can do it justice:
In the last set of notes there were a bunch of books mentioned, and in this one Rich shares a few things that inspired him while creating the show; The Adventures of Pete and Pete, anything by Kurt Vonnegut, and Kids in the Hall.
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