Don’t Let Anyone Steal Your Crown: Self-deprecation and Comedy

Last night I witnessed a performer utterly annihilate themselves on stage. They talked so much trash about their dear sweet self it was upsetting. It looked painful. And it was all in the name of comedy.

I was relieved I was hiding at the back, low down on a sofa, staring at the back of a lot of heads. I wouldn’t have been able to handle looking anyone in the eye. Waiting to go on later in the comedy variety show, I tried to not let the tension in the room affect me. You could have cut it with a chainsaw. Because I’m an improviser I was sitting on that sofa waiting with a duo partner and so I knew I wouldn’t be up there alone. I knew she’d have my back. We were there to celebrate ourselves which remains one of the things I love so very much about improv. It’s an energy that pulls upwards and not a weight dragging anyone down.

There’s still a sacrifice being made for a lot of comedy – ‘I’m going to punch myself until I bleed and you, my audience, are going to watch me.’ It seems to happen a substantial amount in stand-up still. This culture has prevailed even years after Hannah Gadsby’s infamous genius show Nanette.

If you have not watched Nanette, you should. It’s a raw, authentic, dark show that addresses how comedy often shares a very close relationship with tragedy. Gadsby illustrates highly effectively how stand-up comedy is not therapy for the simple reason that comedy pulls the punch. It turns it into a punch line that tickles, instead of telling the truth about the pain.

“And at that point I’d realised that I’d been telling my stories for laughs. I’d been trimming away the darkness, cutting away the pain and holding onto the trauma for the comfort of my audience.”

Hannah Gadsby

Holding onto your trauma can become a hostage situation if you are hell-bent on keeping other people comfortable. Once upon a time, I also used to put myself down a lot for laughs. When I started telling the truth about my personal tragedies, I found I stopped needing to chase approval through self-deprecating humour. I stopped being a punchline myself and I started being a human.

I have, on numerous occasions, given my characters in improv my real-life struggles. It can feel very cathartic and it is often surprising to see how others react. Mostly they respond with empathy and understanding. During a workshop on telling your truth in improv, I spoke about my dad’s death through a character. Afterward, I got approached by another participant who could understand my experiences of grief and we became good friends.

Instead of alienating us from our audience, the truth has the power to draw the audience towards us. I often find that my characters who contain my own truths tend to be my most memorable. They’re the ones I get approached about after a show by audience members.

This may not be as strange as it sounds. We can isolate ourselves with our pain and shame but Gadsby suggests that telling our truth, brings us closer to the world and in doing so actually does connect us to our audience. Through the guise of a character, the truth can still give us the power to connect. I also believe it gives us some power to let go. We can imagine the character takes those struggles away with them when we call “Scene!”

Gadsby talks about how she was holding onto her trauma for the comfort of the audience. She was even holding onto that pain to create laughter for others.

“I was connecting other people through laughs but I remained profoundly disconnected. What was the purpose of my human?”

Hannah Gadsby

Gadsby reminds us that the purpose of humans is so much bigger than all of us so we get to make up our own minds about what we do while we are here. And what we do with the complexity of our one precious life.

Will you spend your life beating yourself up for breadcrumbs or would you be better off celebrating yourself?

I’m familiar with the voice of the self-loathing gremlin. I heard it for many years. And I can’t stand listening to it anymore: not in myself or in others. You’re you – unique and flawed and finding your way. Like all of us, you have eccentricity; your thoughts work differently from the next person; you are alive and you get to decide your purpose and what you’re going to do about it.

I did a stand-up comedy course myself a few years ago. I felt I needed to be brave. Looking back, it was more a form of punishment for what I considered my shortcomings. On the course, we were taught how to metaphorically punch ourselves. For one exercise, I did a set of jokes based on my hair which is big and curly and has been known to collect debris in its wake. Sometimes crumbs or couscous. Mostly fluff.

I dutifully told these musings about my hair on stage. Some peers in the back row produced loud groans of disgust. I was mortified. I cried inconsolably all the way home on the train.

I think perhaps I thought stand-up comedy could toughen me up, that it might help take the edge off my sensitivities. Although in hindsight, why the earth would I want to do that?

In improv, our sensitivity is a super-power but here, in stand-up, I had abandoned a prominent feature and a big part of my identity for the prospect of a laugh. And it felt horrible.

When it came to the stand-up course final showcase I stood on stage and told three jokes. And then I stopped. I had more jokes to say but something had just occurred to me: I didn’t have to do this. There was no gun to my head.

“Why did I stay and suffer? The door wasn’t even locked.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed: Stop Pleasing, Start Living

My next joke was to be about my traumatic birth when my head got stuck and I nearly didn’t make it through. I’d been telling this one for years. I knew it back to front. I looked out into the darkness, my vision obscured by the bright stage lights, and I realised – it wasn’t worth it.

I wasn’t going to abandon myself for another laugh at my expense.

Not anymore.

“Thank you. Goodnight.” I said firmly and I put that microphone back in its cradle. There it could stay for the next sensitive soul to wield as they saw fit.

Not once over these years since have I regretted that decision. It was an act of self-love. Not the first, but one of the most memorable because it opened a flood gate to recognising how I could be more compassionate towards myself. After that experience, I made a decision. Not only was I no longer going to abandon myself for a laugh; I became determined to not abandon myself, full stop.

It occurred to me that there were lots of jokes I’d been telling for many years which were highly unkind towards my sweet self. Why was I doing it? What was I trying to say? Was this even my real authentic voice? I’d started to suspect it was far from it.

I realised I’d been creating an armour. I was trying to beat the bullies to the punch. I had in doing so internalised my bullies. I’d installed them inside myself and even bought them popcorn. They could sit inside me on their laurels, laughing along, as I continued their misguided cruel work.

“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour… and I don’t want to do that anymore. Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.”

Hannah Gadsby

Are you seeking permission to speak through self-deprecating humour? Can you give yourself the permission to be heard without being the butt of a joke?

The question of who identifies with you is a really important one when it comes to comedy. An early lesson I remember from stand-up, was when you are creating consider who it is you want to be connecting with. I learned this when a wannabe comedian kept getting on stage and telling jokes about sexual abuse. Our teacher told him that when you do that there are two people you speak to in the audience: the person for whom that was the worst day of their lives and the person who would commit such an act. Is that really what you want from your comedy?

This is also a really interesting reflection when it comes to self-deprecating humor. Who in the audience are you trying to connect with by putting yourself down? The bullies? The mean and ruthless and intolerant? It may not feel like it, but I think when you stand on stage and rip yourself apart for what you perceive as your failings and people don’t laugh, that’s a win. Your audience doesn’t want to laugh at you being mean to yourself. That’s a decent audience in my view.

When we have invited the unkind voices in to take up residence within us, it’s easy to assume the audience is also mean. To become part of the gang, we might try to get the biggest blows in before they can. Wheezing and winded from our own crippling self-critique it’s hard to notice that no one is there to bully us anymore. We are no longer in school. We can walk away from mean behaviour.

But when that behaviour is inside your head, it’s harder. As we go through life, we can collect the ghosts of so many ‘mean girls’ in our minds that we project them outwards. We see ‘mean girls’ all around; we see bullies where none exist.

I didn’t watch Mean Girls, the movie, until a couple of years ago. I came late to that party. I watched it as research for an improv show I was part of creating. I took notes on the Plastics, a group of privileged, entitled, petty, school girls. I wanted to play one but I continuously struggled. I tried to connect to the emotion of the mean girl and yet it evaded me. What was my motivation?

I realised I really didn’t understand the mean girl type. Maybe they are mean because when it comes to emotions they don’t even go there. Their power is in numbers and in imitation which is why they misunderstand the independent thinker, the authentic eccentric, the curious creative. Maybe the ‘mean girls’ deep down hidden motivation is actually fear.

Many of us in comedy have been bullied at least a bit at some point in our lives – maybe at school, at work, or even in our family of origin – and if that becomes a pattern it can be hard to break. But it’s worth working at changing those voices. You don’t have to be your own bully. You deserve better than that.

As Kesha sings, ‘Don’t let the mean girls steal your crown’. And if those mean girls are inside you, do you really want to give them a megaphone? Centre stage? The mic? Or would you rather get them the heck out of there?

Many have said that the best way to deal with a bully is to ignore them and hope they bore quickly. I suggest instead to try noticing how those inner voices sound. Notice how the voices are not you. Catch yourself when you speak unkindly. Replace the script with your own positive improvised vibes. Find ways to celebrate yourself. Connect. Collaborate. Create. Restore your faith in other creatures.

Find the joyful purpose of your human. And if that is the pursuit of comedy, can you do it without beating yourself down? How could you change the script to build yourself up? And keep hold of your own shiny-ass crown.

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