How do you become famous? Not famous in a Britney Spears sense, but famous in a way that allows you to keep your credibility intact?
It’s an interesting and pertinent question, because whether you’re an author, a performer, a consultant, or a thought leader, your audience is now increasingly nationwide. Which also means your competition is nationwide: that is, you are competing against all those other struggling authors, consultants, thought leaders, etc. just to make an impression.
To compete successfully, you have to be noticed. And this, in effect, means making yourself famous. It’s a fascinating marketing problem. So how do you make it happen?
Once, for the benefit of a friend who wanted to become nationally known as a writer with a comedic bent, I put on my Machiavellian MBA goggles and did a competitive analysis of three of the most famous “intellectual” comic writers, specifically Steve Martin, David Sedaris, and John Hodgman. I wanted to find out where they came from, how they came into the public eye, and how they became celebrities. My goal was to find out if there was anything that my friend could replicate — essentially to see what it would take to become famous himself.
The result was surprising. As different as they each were individually, all these subjects followed a common path that gives you insight into the nature of fame and celebrity — and how much toil, luck, and blind faith it takes to be famous. What follows is what I learned.
Analyzing the road to fame
By studying the biographies of our Cerberus of Intellectual Comedy, one thing is very clear: you do not become famous by accident. Nobody gets discovered at a soda fountain. Fame requires work, and dedication, and long periods of going nowhere for little reward. Based on my research, all of our subjects really wanted to become famous, and each of them spent at least 7 years prior to their breakouts trying to become famous in their own random ways. Steve Martin performed at Knott’s Berry Farm; David Sedaris scribbled short stories, and occasionally did monologues; John Hodgman put on pseudo-literary entertainment events for several years, where he MC’ed and made connections with the New York alternative entertainment community.
(A side note: perhaps due to the evanescent nature of publicity in the Internet era, John Hodgman’s entertainment past is particularly hard to find. Frankly, I wonder whether he is systematically destroying it, or merely letting it vanish without a trace.)
All of our subjects had prosaic day jobs while they struggled. Martin wrote jokes for others and opened for country bands. Hodgman was a literary agent, which sounds romantic, though literary agency in reality is a fairly sucky job, with little hope of advancement or recognition. And Sedaris was essentially a maid who scrubbed toilets really, really well — it’s hard to romanticize that.
Generally, we think that famous people simply broke out with their well-known persona like Athena fully formed, but that is quite rare. During their years in obscurity, each comic attempted several random sallies toward fame, each with its own persona or shtick. Eventually, for reasons unknown, one shtick gained public recognition, and that became their unique voice — what marketers would call a brand. Steve Martin got recognition for anti-comedy, jokes without a punch line. Sedaris received acclaim by exaggerating his own life, taking advantage of every self-deprecating possibility. Through his events, Hodgman developed the persona of the mock know-it-all. None of them started off with these brands; these were just the shticks that made audiences respond, and they evolved toward that.
In effect, all the comics engaged in test marketing: they tried out their persona in a smaller market that reproduced what they would experience at a national scale. By carefully observing and adjusting their performance and persona, they were able to create a tried-and-true “property” suitable for national distribution. Moreover, they could do this testing inexpensively, with a relatively small investment of personal time.
Crucial to test marketing is choosing the right test market, and each comic wisely chose to base himself in big cities at the hub of a major national media market. Martin worked in Los Angeles; Sedaris lived and performed in Chicago; Hodgman worked in New York City. Big cities are essential to the development of a cultural brand. They are open to the new and novel; they inspire and make you depressed; and they provide a support group of likeminded individuals, who kick your butt, but also prevent you from getting by with a retreaded brand. In other words, big cities provide access to sophisticated audiences, collaborators, and competitors that are essential to building a brand ready for the prime time. I think it is doubtful that any of them would have made it living life in Cleveland, Orlando, or Phoenix.
Moreover, it was living in the big cities that gave each comic the fairly accidental and serendipitous opportunity to go national. Martin, after years writing for Laugh-In, finally got his chance to do standup on Johnny Carson. A pre-“This American Life” Ira Glass discovered Sedaris doing his “SantaLand Diaries” on a small stage in Chicago and put him on NPR. Hodgman cashed in all his New York City connection chips and used his first book tour to introduce his shtick on national television. This is the first “moment of truth” — the point where the potential celebrity is put on the national stage for evaluation and appreciation. It’s the moment of breakout or wipeout: will the national audience like the persona refined after so many years in the crucible?
Catching the public’s eye, and staying in it
Breaking out on the national scene used to be a big deal, the province of only a few TV networks and film studios. Now, however, the Internet has broken that monopoly, and one-time, Joe-the-Plumber-style or YouTubated success is easy. It is staying in the public eye that is hard, and that is what it takes to achieve celebrity. It requires consistency, to reinforce your original promise, and it requires depth, because the public demands “the same, but different this time.” Once you go national, you are presented with dozens of opportunities to repeat and expand on your celebrity, and these are the most crucial moments of truth — the ones that determine whether you are a flash-in-the-pan, or here to stay.
This is where those long years of obscurity were helpful, because during them each comic developed a back catalog of ideas and shticks that they could deploy later. Steve Martin dredged up the arrow through the head, the banjo playing, and any absurd thing he could think of, inserting it into his routine. David Sedaris tried to have success with both his short stories and reminisces, and eventually gave up, succumbing to the NPR-listening public’s apparently insatiable demand for his “true” autobiographical stories. John Hodgman showed off his humor, acting chops, and ready made “expert on nothing” persona via Apple ads and what eventually became a regular spot on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
One other myth to puncture: While each of these guys had to break out alone, it was impossible to do so moving forward. Once they had their explosion of fame, followed by a few ricochets, each comic began working with an army of writers, producers, web designers, publicists, and agents all looking for the next big thing to point eyeballs at. That’s the point at which persona becomes product, and business savvy is almost as important as talent in keeping the gravy train moving.
You’ll also notice that every five or ten years, each of these comics has renewed his brand with a new persona. Steve Martin gave up on standup, went into movies, and now mostly writes or performs music for fun. David Sedaris is now more of a comic monologist than writer, and I’m sure that’s where most of his income comes from. Hodgman has essentially become a comic actor — he produced another book that was merely a retread of the first, and heck, nobody read the first book anyway. Did he write it himself? Nobody cares.
This is the natural progression: the public gets tired and bored of the old personae. As long as the celebrity keeps delivering novelty — more of the same, but a little different — then it’s enough. If you don’t deliver novelty, you may be famous for a moment, but you soon become a has-been, a Whitney Houston: on top of the world for a moment, next on the back of milk carton.
Why being famous matters to the idea worker
Most of us don’t think we need to become famous. In the age of the Internet, however, that’s wrong.
With the Internet, markets are now national, if not international. If you are selling services, you are often competing at a national level. If you are selling ideas — say writing, entertainment, or just new ways of doing things — you may even be competing at an international level. To be really successful at either, you need to be famous. Not household-name famous, necessarily, but at least known in your community, and ideally, known by the people who will benefit from your ideas or services.
This isn’t surprising to writers anymore. If you want to be an author who actually makes a living off of your writing, you need to be a celebrity — perhaps a minor one, but it’s required nonetheless. Who else is going to help you? Publishers? Please. Publishers now mostly select authors who bring fame with them. So you need fame first, and then your contract.
The same forces are happening to all experts and idea workers. If you want to be a service professional and market to people outside of your area code, you need to become famous. Even if all you want is to transform people’s minds and make things better for a large group of people, you need to be famous.
I’ve met many would-be experts who don’t want this to be the case. They just want people to discover them without really having to put themselves out there. And while this might work, it most likely won’t. In my opinion, the sooner you leave the land of denial, and face what you need to do in very Machiavellian terms, the sooner you will have success. If you’re not willing to do that, then you will have a very long haul ahead.
I’ll point out one last sad fact: the paths to fame that worked for Martin, Sedaris, or even Hodgman probably won’t work for my friend today, or for you. Johnny Carson is dead; likewise, many old media models no longer work. To figure out what strategy would be successful nowadays, you can’t imitate the old-timers — and you should consider anybody who came up more than 10 years ago an old-timer. Rather, you need to study the recent up-and-comers. You need to study their often obscure paths to success and divine their secrets, as these will most likely reveal what could still work today. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, business genius is 1 percent innovation and 99 percent imitation.
How to become famous, in a nutshell
So how do you become famous? Simple:
- Be actually talented. You may be good, but expect to spend a lot of time trying to be better. (Some say that even geniuses take 10,000 hours of practice to be excellent at anything.) Do a few different things. Try to do them well. Hope one works.
- Go to the big city. Metropolises are where serendipity happens. Plus, the plethora of competing voices forces you to up your game. For the best chances in the US, go to New York City or Los Angeles, but other very large cities can work too.
- Seek out fame ardently. You must have an audience, because celebrity is a Darwinian process: the audience will naturally select what you are truly noteworthy for. See what has worked for other newcomers, and don’t stop throwing yourself at the flame.
- Find your space. Call it a shtick, a brand, or a speciality. Find the one thing that you do well that makes you unique. Your audience will tell you when it’s working. If it doesn’t take you far enough, try another.
- Seize your moment. When life says gives you the opportunity to go national, take it. And when that moment of truth arrives, milk it for all it’s worth.
- Give them the same, but different. Institutionalize your shtick with a website, with books, with entertainment, with endorsements. If you have the opportunity to sell out, do it: there’s no such thing as too much visibility, unless you suck (viz. Jude Law).
- Show off your hidden talents. Keep going; find ways to take advantage of your shtick. Use your hidden talents to deploy it in new and unusual ways. Don’t get bored; explore yourself.
- Get help. Assume that you won’t be able to do it alone. The world is just too big and complicated. And read those contracts before you sign.
Being talented is hard; I can’t help you there. But there is a process for becoming famous, and the sooner you plainly acknowledge you’re on that path, the better the chances are for making it to the end.