Addition by Subtraction

“Dangerfield eliminated everything from his act

but the setups and punchlines”

Alex Halberstadt’s essay on Rodney Dangerfield is a masterclass on how to improve by reduction. Dangerfield worked for decades as a comedian until he figured out the thing, his insight: “by eliminating every extraneous element, you could isolate what makes it work and just do that.”

Dangerfield reduced his act to just two lines: setup and punchline.

There are other examples. Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge, Get Out) uses only micro-budgets of $3-5 million per film. This limit doesn’t come solely from frugality. Rather, from the idea that

“Anytime you limit somebody, it always – in terms of resources – kind of creates opportunities. Our movies have few visual effects”

Blumhouse films have grossed over $2 billion worldwide.

Steve Martin writes about this in his memoir Born Standing Up. He describes more than a decade of performing with only marginal success before it occurred to him to reduce his act:

“What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation”

In this case, Martin’s constraint was to deny the audience the very thing they expected to be at the core of a comedy routine.

Constraints can apply to fields beyond entertainment. I’ve written before about how USV applies a series of constraints to guide our investing framework. Those include a specific investment thesis, small fund size, single office and collaborative decision-making.
Willie Nelson once remarked that “three chords and the truth — that’s what a country song is.” This legendary graphic from the Sideburns zine gets even more specific:

In working with entrepreneurs I often first ask them to consider what to remove from their service or application. Maybe this also applies more generally. We could then regularly embrace what happens simply by applying constraints to what we do.