In my experience in the world of stand-up, being a comedian is a lot like being human.
Not entirely, of course. But still, much more than I would have guessed.
For example, whenever a comedian does a comedy show, he or she is actually doing two comedy shows. One is comprised of the words the comedian is saying. The other consists of all the things he or she is thinking.
One show consists of clever observations and funny stories, and can be heard by the whole room. The other show can only be heard by one person. And it’s not nearly as funny.
Because it’s more like a constantly-updating bulletin of self-doubt. “Uh oh, why aren’t they laughing? Oh man, I rushed that joke… Hey that one went well, but then I messed up the ending… This crowd just does not seem to be connecting with me… That guy seems to be having fun, but could his wife be frowning anymore vigorously than she is now? Wait, how did I forget that line? I wish I was half as funny as the comic who went before me was… I hope I get through this…”
It can make it tough just to keep standing up.
[Image via Haley's Comic]
Now I realize that most of us don’t stand on stage telling jokes to strangers, but whenever we put ourselves out there, in any context, we can find ourselves dealing with our own internal monologue of self-doubt. And suddenly there are two shows happening: what we’re saying, and what we’re thinking.
It’s so frustrating. Here we are, attempting to do our best, and this faint, but unmistakable voice inside is predicting the worst. Right when you need to be at your most confident, it’s quietly telling you you’re not good enough, you’re going to fail, no one wants to hear what you have to say, you don’t have what it takes.
Self-doubt is an unpleasant and unwelcome tenant. And a story about comedians Jay Mohr and Buddy Hackett can show us how to evict it…
The book is about his two years as a writer and performer in the competitive world of Saturday Night Live. I heard about it via an XM radio series called Unmasked, where host Ron Pennington has candid, deeply personal conversations with comedians like Louis C.K., Brian Regan, Lewis Black, and others. It’s funny, and fascinating. When he had Jay Mohr on the show, Mohr referenced an anecdote from his book about the time he met legendary stand-up comic Buddy Hackett.
Of course, if you’re under the age of 50, you probably mostly know him as this guy:
Hackett was a huge comedian in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s… he performed for decades, and starred in many films. And he was the voice of Scuttle in The Little Mermaid.
“One day Buddy asked me what my ‘monitor’ onstage was. I asked him what a monitor was. ‘A monitor,’ Hackett explained, ‘was the number of distracting thoughts in your head when you’re onstage.’ Thoughts such as “What’s that sound?” “Why is the waitress talking so loud?” and “Why aren’t those people laughing?” are all part of the negative and counterproductive side of your monitor. Basically, any thought that inhibits the projection of your natural self is a piece of your monitor.
“Buddy’s theory was that the first time a comic goes onstage, his monitor is almost 100. Standing onstage is so foreign and standing in front of a live audience is so frightening that being yourself is the hardest thing to do. Yet in spite of nearly everything in your brain working against you, you still earn applause. Even though you had used less than 1 percent of your natural talent, people still saw a spark in you and wanted you to come back.
“Buddy went on to explain that as you do more comedy and spend more time onstage, your monitor naturally begins to decrease, and eventually it becomes so small that you can stand onstage and give the audience nothing but your true, funniest self.”
Pretty smart for a seagull.
Two Pairs of Crazy Eyes
Because Hackett’s story about being a comedian captures something all people deal with. In any given situation, there’s a voice running through our heads. A voice that is judging us. A voice no one else hears. Yet he was claiming that, over time, that voice could actually decrease.
A commitment to the repetition of risk.
The more we do something, the more comfortable it becomes. The first time is always the worst time, sure, but you have to get used to it before you can get good at it. So accept that while the starting point may be awkward, you will progress past it into something more natural and confident, and that you’ll keep growing the more you work at it. Over time, even the most unnatural action can become second nature. Things that are terrifying at first can become familiar, even enjoyable.
A recognition that your audiences are your allies.
The more you practice whatever it is you want to be good at, the more you realize that ultimately the crowd is on your side. The more you stand in front of your audience, whatever that might look like for you, the more you realize that ultimately most people just want you to do well. We are not surrounded by people who want to destroy us, but by people who want us to succeed. The people who know us have a much more forgiving standard for us than we have for ourselves. So why not switch out your standard for theirs?
A realization that insecurities are insanities.
Insecurities are little things that we obsess over until they become externalizations of why we think people want to reject us. Because we don’t voice them, we don’t give people the opportunity to point out how ridiculous they are. This process of obsessing over our shortcomings makes it easy to forget that we are paying way more attention to them than anyone else is. Most people don’t even notice the exact flaw in us we assume they’re paying the most attention to.
A decision to accumulate affirmation.
We are really good at coming up with reasons why whatever we’re doing is not going well. If we pay more attention to the reactions of the people around us than to our own insecurities, the monitor will start to decrease. When someone compliments you on a job well done, let it in. Really listen to it. Don’t block it with a sarcastic comment or a joke or with your own insecurity. Accept it as true. Over time, these compliments will accumulate into a stream of positive reinforcement that will help you view yourself in a much more positive light than you might have otherwise.
Over time, I feel like my monitor has decreased, yet, like most people, I still find there are times when self-doubt inhibits me from being my true self.
It’s the version of me that feels validated by the people around me, convinced there is value in what I say and do, and confident in my right to share that process with others. At times, being my true self can feel out of reach, and at other times it can feel like the most natural thing in the world. But I remember every incredible moment when, as Buddy Hackett, described, my monitor is turned down to nothing, and I’m simply enjoying the conversation, or performance, or moment I find myself in the middle of. In those moments it’s easy to accept that people believe in me, because I believe in myself.
This is what I discovered about how to silence self-doubt.
You simply do what you find most difficult over and over until you’re good enough at it to stop worrying about the outcome and simply enjoy the process. And along the way, you develop the habit of taking repeated risks, welcoming positive feedback, questioning the lunatic logic behind your own insecurities, and deciding that, unless they indicate otherwise, the people around you would rather see you succeed than see you fail.
Because the best version of myself is the version that believes in myself, as much or more than anyone else in the room.
If you do that long enough, eventually your monitor will be so quiet you won’t even be able to hear it, or even be sure if it’s still on. Because you’re too busy enjoying the way life feels to just do one show at a time, instead of two.