When I talk to other comedians and they talk about their role models, it’s all Tina Feys and Amy Schumers, but no one can explain why. “They’re funny.” Yeah. We got that. But one of the reasons they’re so loved is because they each do something unique really well. Tiny Fey’s self-deprecating humor has been the Holy Grail for young comedians who only go on bad dates and really just want to stay home making sweet love to mac & cheese and Friends reruns. Amy Schumer is aggressively blunt about her sexuality without making it inaccessible. When I’m planning my career, I look to Amy and Tina. But I also look to John Cena.
Yes, we’re talking about the same guy, the hulking wrestler who body slammed Kevin Federline in 2007 (that was genuinely the worst year for Britney). He has been a staple in the wrestling community, but he’s also done voice work, hosted award shows, and improvised sex scenes. The world has watched a Heavyweight Champion become a comedian in only a few short years and he’s done it with enough grace to actually sustain this choice as a viable career path. We all blinked and missed Cena’s oddly seamless transition into the world of successful comedy work. He has the type of career that most young comedians dream of (and I don’t mean wearing a lot of tight muscle tees), and just became a new role model for so many looking to break into the industry. Granted, this man has had a good amount of help in his rise to his newfound comedic fame, but the way that he’s done it breaks down easily into a case study that young comedians can use as their own road map.
You’ve probably seen Cena around. He played into his strengths (and his strength) and found his niche as the hulky, handsome boyfriend in Trainwreck and the tatted drug dealer in the Fey and Poehler flick Sisters. One of my big takeaways from his career is that whether you’re a performer or a writer, the first step in your journey is to figure out what you bring to the ring.
When you’re starting off, use this rule of thumb: If you’re a featherweight, don’t start by body slamming a sumo wrestler. In a comedian’s world, that translates to knowing your voice and your type. Find a sweet spot.
Cena’s career took off as a pro wrestler. As such, he gathered a fan base through his successes, and parlayed that into a quick WWE-based string of TV movies. Most of them have angry-looking, extremely sweaty men on their posters. He did some early voice acting for a Scooby-Doo/WWE crossover movie and after a significant amount of these, he made the leap into the primetime network TV and movies.
John Cena has been good at one thing for a long time, and that’s punching people. And he knows it. He picked something he’s really, really good at (looking scary) and added a script. He’s not always playing himself, but he understands his character extremely well, so the roles that he started out with helped him make his mark as a particular type of character. They were parts that no one but him could play. Over the years, he moved from a few sketches on MADtv to some small roles on Parks and Recreation, Psych, and Daddy’s Home. He proved he could do the thing.
The next twist in his rise to the top was to develop something genuinely unique and figure out how to make it his own. Most of early work in comedy is finding your voice. Once a comic knows what they’re good at, they parlay that into building out their sense of humor. Cena settled into his humor with the movies Daddy’s Home and Sisters. He started developing this tough-guy deadpan humor that brought him to the top of his game, because he was the only one doing it. If you mimic someone else’s humor, you’re probably going to come in second. If you develop your own, you can’t come in second to yourself.
The latest turn of his career was to go a little bit bigger and a little bit better. He started to push the boundaries of what the industry thought was possible from a wrestler-turned-comedian. He booked his breakout part in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck as her ultra-sensitive sort-of-boyfriend, Steven, who might be into dudes, but is definitely good at improv. During Cena’s audition for the movie, he was asked to improvise part of a scene, and he wanted to make sure that his character didn’t come off as just a meathead. Apparently nailing the audition, he brought the improv into the bedroom when he improvised some of his movie-stealing sex scene. He stayed true to the character, true to his voice, and started to build on a proved talent.
Now he’s got hosting gigs at the ESPYs, appearances on Maya and Marty, some serious life coaching from the incredible Leslie Jones, and is unleashing a little pent-up WWE fury of his own (probably from his days of WWE/Flintstones crossover TV movies. I don’t blame you, John).
Cena proves that it’s all about making your mark. Though not every comedian will start out with his celebrity status and cool nicknames (‘The Face that Runs the Place’ is a real thing people call him), young comedians can try and identify their voice early, build on their successes slowly, and break into the industry with a strong hold on their place in the hierarchy.
If John Cena can be a comedian, then I’m pretty sure I have a good shot at pro-wrestling. No? Understood.