skimping on prep

Recipes list prep time for a reason. There's nothing worse than getting four pans bubbling on the stove only to realize you needed a chopped onion thirty seconds ago.

Fresh out of college, I made videos with friends and shared them at parties. This was pre-YouTube, so the only goal was figuring out the process and having fun. But I wanted to do a good job, yet I only prepared in the vaguest possible sense. The stakes, like the budgets, hovered near zero, so I didn't take it seriously. When we didn't have a prop we needed, or the location didn't work for the shot, I'd improvise a solution or, more often, accept a subpar take: "We'll fix it in post!" Post-production was me figuring out how to edit videos by clicking buttons in Final Cut until something worked. It never got fixed in post.

I'd blame youth, but simultaneously my contemporaries Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg, and Jorma Taccone used the same gear to make the same kinds of videos. But they had the humility to do the work. They prepared, and their preparations landed all three on SNL.

Preparation is a machine for turning humility into success. This is ironic because success kills humility. That's why the problem of prep never really goes away. For example, when Dana Carvey left SNL, he assembled a crack team of writers led by Robert Smigel to create The Dana Carvey Show. Saying that Smigel's writing staff, which included Louis C.K., Stephen Colbert, Charlie Kaufman, and Bob Odenkirk, had every reason to feel cocky would be the ultimate understatement. Television hadn't put that much comedy talent in a single room since Your Show of Shows. But Smigel made the mistake of acting on that confidence instead of ignoring it.

ABC, eager to assemble a comedy block on par with NBC's Must See TV, placed Carvey right after Home Improvement, also helmed by a famous comedian, Tim Allen. With Home Improvement at number one in the ratings, this was the best slot you could get.

"Sounds good," Smigel thought to himself. "The bigger the audience, the better. Bring it on." At the time, the only thing Smigel knew about Tim Allen was that he'd spent time in jail for cocaine possession. The only other thing he knew about Home Improvement in general was Pamela Anderson. Based on these two facts, Smigel blithely assumed the show was raunchy and politically incorrect—a perfect lead-in to the gonzo sketch comedy he and Carvey wanted to do. Smigel and Carvey went to work.

"It wasn't until four weeks into the show that I actually watched an episode of Home Improvement," Smigel later recalled, "and my jaw dropped." By this time, of course, the damage was done and The Dana Carvey Show, a ratings disaster, was well on its way to cancelation. If Smigel had known that Home Improvement was only so popular because parents watched with their kids, The Dana Carvey Show wouldn't have debuted with Carvey as Bill Clinton nursing puppies, kittens, and a baby with a set of eight prosthetic teats. (The documentary Too Funny to Fail chronicles the whole frustrating saga.)

Do the prep: Research your topic. Complete a competitive analysis. Outline every chapter. It isn't more work. It's less. In any case, how much prep work have you ever regretted after the fact? Likewise, how many times have you bitterly regretted a lack of prep?

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