A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
Bill Grundfest, Founder of the Comedy Cellar, Golden Globe winner and three time Emmy nominee, recently spoke to an audience of entrepreneurial students as part of UC Santa Barbara’s Distinguished Lecture Series.
Mr. Grundfest has a nose for comedic talent, discovering and the launching the career of many notable comedians, including Steven Wright, Bill Maher, Ray Romano and Jon Stewart. He was also instrumental in Richard Pryor’s comeback campaign.
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You can watch a 12-minute excerpt from Bill’s talk below.
Find Your Intersection
Bill began by describing the disappointment his immigrant parents felt when they learned that he intended to open a comedy club, after graduating from college. In Bill’s words, “When I was a kid, I was all about comedy. This disappointed my immigrant family who wanted a doctor or a lawyer, and they just didn’t understand. They barely spoke English.” Despite his parental pressure, Bill pursued his passion and unknowingly began unlocking the secret to his personal and professional success.
Bill discovered that success can be found at the intersection of “things you love to do” and “things that make money.” He does not subscribe to the often told advice that young people should “follow their passions.” According to Bill, people who say, ‘I love doing, comedy, (or) stamp collecting, horseback riding, art, surfing, drinking, whatever… and I’m going to make a living doing that.’ end of becoming “starving artists” who are unable to support themselves. Conversely, people who disregard what they enjoy doing and only pursue making money are often similarly unfulfilled. Bill classified this money centric approach as leading to, “… a lot of failures… and a lot of unhappy people.”
Bill noted that the students should focus on the, “…very small subset in the intersection of these two sets. You’re looking to hit a pretty small target. The stuff you love to do and the stuff that’s monetizable. And how can we make one into the other? That’s the story of the Comedy Cellar.”
Know, See And Do
At 22, Bill opened a comedy club in Boston and it failed. He then moved to New York city and at age 24 he opened his second comedy club. It also failed. In 1982, at 25, Bill opened the Comedy Cellar and turned it into one of the preeminent comedy venues in the US. In recounting these failures, Bill highlighted to the young crowd that, “The object lesson that we can all take from this is (that) failing is okay, especially at your age. It’s one of your super powers right now.”
Bill noted that every time he failed, he subsequently realized that it was because he did not adhere to the Know, See and Do axiom which he used to launch the Comedy Cellar.
Knowing – “If you’re going get what you want, you have to know what you want.” Bill knew he wanted to create a successful comedy club in New York city.
Seeing – “You have to… envision yourself having it. Envision yourself with the thing you want. See it, feel it. See all the details. Where are you, geographically? What room are you in? What are you wearing? Who are you talking to? What are you doing? See it, feel it, be it, own it.” Bill had a definitive vision of what his comedy club.
Thus, after looking at several dozen dingy, rank possibilities, Bill’s visualization efforts paid off. As soon as he entered the basement that would eventually become the Comedy Cellar, he knew he had found a home for his club. Over 30-years later, he has a vivid recollection of that moment, “I stood in the middle of this place, and it had a piano, and it had low ceilings and brick walls, and I said, ‘This is it! This is it. I need to do whatever it takes to make this mine.'”
Doing – “What are you going do, what’s the action plan to getting it done?” Bill targeted an underserved section of New York and established a partnership with a restaurant that was struggling to provide its patrons with entertainment. He then consistently generated incremental customers and revenue for himself and his partner.
Like all street-smart entrepreneurs, Bill realized that he needed to solve a problem in order to succeed. In Bill’s case, the solution was to provide a novel form of entertainment in Greenwich Village. Bill recalls that, “(I) went down to Greenwich Village and I saw this sea of people and they all had a problem. The problem was they… had cash money in their pocket and they didn’t really have a lot to spend it on. I felt that, as a humanitarian. it was incumbent upon me to provide them with a place where they could spend this money. There were jazz clubs. There were folk music clubs. There were coffee houses. There were restaurants (but) there was no comedy club. I said, ‘Well, gee. I would really have to stink in order to fail here.'”
Overcoming The Caveman Objection
His location secured, Bill then realized another challenge confronted him. Many of the people he pitched the Comedy Cellar to were skeptical because there were no other comedy clubs in the area. The primary reason Bill found the location to be advantageous proved to make his fundraising efforts more challenging.
Bill identified this as “The Caveman Objection” and he cautioned the students that, “When you come up with your idea, I promise you the last line of defense is going be somebody saying to you, ‘If starting a comedy club in Greenwich Village was such a good idea, wouldn’t somebody else have already done it?'” He went on to add that, “When Og discovered fire. You know his wife said ‘Og, if fire was such a good idea, don’t you think somebody in cave 76 would have come up it with already? No. You. You’re the smart one. You’re smarter than everybody in cave 76. Fine, Okay. Fire, good idea.'”
Despite the pervasiveness of the Caveman Objection, Bill ignored the naysayers, realizing that with every opportunity, someone has to see it first and act upon it.
He knew that even if a number of other people had also realized that Greenwich Village might be a good locale for a comedy club, none of them had done the hard work required to see their vision to fruition. Bill inspired the class by telling them that when faced with the Caveman Objection, “The answer is ‘No.’ No, I don’t think somebody else would’ve come up with it. Somebody had to see the thing first. Somebody has to see the opportunity first, and it’s me. And let it be each one of you. Because no matter what you do, whether you’re an entrepreneur, whether you’re an employee, you’re going to have to take some kind of proactive action when you’re the one that sees the opportunity before somebody else.”
To this day, over thirty years since its founding, the Comedy Cellar remains a mainstay on the comedy circuit. The club has become the adopted home of a number of headliners, including: Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle. Such acts would come in for a free meal and a drink and on many occasions ended up doing an impromptu, 20-minute set. Such spontaneity from world-class acts helped establish the Comedy Cellar’s as one of the few US clubs with a national brand.
Comics were drawn to the club because, as a fellow comedian, Bill treated them with respect. Surprisingly, such deference was in short supply at most clubs, in which the owners typically had an adversarial relationship with the comedians. His secret weapon was simple: “Be nice. That’s all we did. Who were we nice to? First, we were nice to the comics. Being a stand-up, myself, I understood that… whatever business you’re in, whether it’s tech, or whether it’s a comedy basement, you’re always in the people business… because you can’t get it done without these wacky blobs of protoplasm that are walking around the planet. So, I understood that.”
It’s Always An Inside Job
Bill concluded his remarks by stating that the most likely thing that stops an entrepreneur is the entrepreneur themselves. “The world is not a dangerous place. The world is not waiting out there to beat you. The world is not going beat you. You will beat you. It’s always an inside job. It’s always you stopping you.”
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