Comedy and Humility

Posted on 14 December 2011

I have three degrees in creative writing. I have run several writers groups. I have been a raving artist since the day I was born. More than that I crave being a good artist. Certainly I want to be successful, but of even higher priority is respecting my abilities and respecting my creations enough to want them to be the best they can possibly be.

One of the most important skills you can develop, if you are committed to your work, is humility.

Personal humility is not the same as a willingness to be bullied or humiliated. It’s about emotional maturity and a supple ego. Someone with an immature and bloated ego will be unable to listen to advice that might help move their work to a professional level.

As comedians humility is an absolute necessity when facing an unappreciative audience. If your routine dies and/or people are heckling you, it is much more prudent for your career to maintain a level of graciousness. The instant you get angry with your audience and tell them so, you lose your audience, and are unlikely to ever win them back.

Here are some of the characteristics of humility.

* You are willing to accept your limitations.

If you are still unsure of your microphone technique, be willing to admit this so you can receive some help. If your spelling isn’t all it should be, don’t sweat it when someone points this out on your press release, and be open to finding a friend who can do some copyediting for you.

* You are willing to accept you may be mistaken or wrong.

You turn up at a gig thirty minutes late, because you are sure the venue owner told you your set started at 9pm not 8:30pm. The owner is furious with you. Instead of defending yourself, you apologise and admit that you must have misheard the time, then make an offer of appeasement such as helping with the clean-up at the end of the night. Now, you may have heard rightly, but memory, particularly short-term memory, is a tricky thing. Better to err on the side of humility and graciousness. It improves your reputation.

* You are willing to change your mind, if something else seems more right or true.

Don’t change your mind on those things you feel are good and true. However, don’t be so attached to them that with new information, you aren’t prepared to accept something else as better reflecting reality.

When I was a child I was fully into Creationism, because that’s what my family said was real. They said scientists were out to trick us into falling from the one-true path. One of the first required university courses I took was evolutionary biology. The lecturer was a kind man who was fascinated by plants. He was genuinely respectful of my religious stance, even though he was an admitted atheist. I could have listened to my ego and not seen the beauties of nature he was revealing, because that would mean I had been wrong for many years. Alternatively, I could shift my outlook to what seemed more true, even if it felt uncomfortable for awhile. I learned to not mind uncomfortable transitions. This was made possble due to that lecturer’s respect.

* You are willing to accept that someone else, regardless of status, could be more right than you.

I have to admit that I get annoyed with the advice of know-nothing know-it-alls who seem to think they are imparting the greatest of wisdom on my art when they have spent no time whatsoever in learning and/or practising that art. Watching television sitcoms evidently gives them a license to lecture. However, if the majority of your audience is not responding to certain aspects of your routine and they are all saying the same thing, such as you need to slow down your pacing…then you should probably slow down your pacing.

* You are comfortable with allowing varying views on the truth.

This takes us back to accepting limitations. I don’t know all there is to know about life, the universe, and everything…I could be wrong. I am also aware of the times I thought I knew the truth, then changed my mind, then changed my mind again (not that I’m always changing my mind). As such, who am I to judge someone else’s view on truth? They may be more right than I am. With a little time and experience they may even change their minds as well. Life is a process, and we and our understanding are also processes.

Living with uncertainty is a frightening thing for many people. They want to know that there’s a place for everything with everything in its place. That will never happen. Laughter is one of the best ways to help people find the resilience to allow for an ambiguous universe. Comedians play with the absurdity of life all the time. Sometimes two apparently opposing views are both true: light is both a wave and a particle. Tolerance makes dialogue possible. Dialogue makes greater understanding possible.

* You are willing to accept that you are not necessarily better or worse than anyone or everyone else.

We ARE all unique, but often we want to be absolutely and incontrovertibly unique. I am THE funniest person in Australia. I am THE most miserable person on Earth. No one else even comes near to my joy or sorrow. Yes, it’s ego, but I think we all slip into “three-year-old centre of the universe” mode upon occasion and feel those ways.

Humility makes it possible for us to say, “I may not be the biggest, smallest, goodest, baddest at anything, but that’s okay. I’m all I need to be and I’m happy.” All we ever need do is our best and leave it at that without comparison. Beginning comedians can kill their own careers with self-doubt, if they don’t learn this form of humility straight-away.

* You think neither more nor less of yourself based on other people’s assessments of you.

Styles change, public opinion changes, different people like different things. You will never be able to please everyone all the time. Relying on external validation for your self-esteem is a fool’s game. When someone compliments you, you accept that compliment with good grace and say “thank you.” It is a gift that deserves respect. When someone offers you their criticism say, “thank you.” It may have been offered in good faith, and deserves respect even if you don’t agree. If it wasn’t offered in a helpful fashion, say thank you anyway. Everyone is allowed an opinion. Sometimes it will be an opinion of you. You cannot stop that from happening. Like facing a stony audience, your graciousness in deflecting a negative comment will simply improve your reputation.

Now none of these aspects of humility are easy to enact in our daily lives. This is why I call humility a skill. They are well worth cultivating as a way to lubricate our social interactions, grow, and become better comedians.

Peace and kindness,


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