Although this quote is often mangled, in his essay "The Triumph of Stupidity" Bertrand Russell offers the best one-sentence summary of all that ails modern industrialized societies that I have ever seen or that I am likely to see: "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." Yep. That's pretty much it.
Not only is that true, but it's widely applicable as well. In the spirit of No Politics Friday, I want to talk about my year-and-a-half of experiences in comedy and the baffling relationship among stupidity, confidence, and talent. You may already have seen this viral video of an asshole heckler-turned-comedian ("comedian") getting her due on stage; if not, watch it now. Be sure you watch long enough to hear her "joke". (Update: Video appears to be removed, but read the HuffPost Comedy summary if you missed it.)
One of the most amazing things about being around comedians – including some Very Famous Successful ones with names you would recognize – is that the ones who are good are almost unanimously A) intelligent and B) wracked with self-doubt and low self-confidence. Conversely, every person I've met who remains convinced that he or she is great is complete shit and usually dumber than a sack of marbles to boot. It is absolutely stunning how little confidence talented people have and how much the total hacks can manage.
The young woman in this now-infamous video is a good example. She just knows she's awesome. She knows that her material is great (A female comedian talking about her vagina – what a revelation! What next, a male comedian with dick jokes?). She even reveals on stage that everyone in the room hates her because they don't like women. It's not that she was an asshole who got shitfaced, heckled, and interrupted everyone else who performed all night. Nope. They hate her because she's female and she's, like, too real or something.
People who suck at comedy are fantastic at that kind of excuse-making. Everything just rolls right off their backs. Nothing sticks. Nothing shakes their conviction that they are great. They can walk off of a stage after 8 minutes of material without one single laugh from the audience and immediately dismiss it – the audience was tired, the audience sucked, the audience wasn't able to understand his/her complex material (about dicks and boners and pooping), the room is bad, the previous comedian "killed the energy" in the room, and on and on and on. There seems to be no part of their brain that says "Maybe the problem is that you suck."
Then I talk to talented unknowns, Famous Comedians, and people who have succeeded and whose work ethics are legendary among comics. Jim Gaffigan, for example, despite being successful beyond most of our comprehension, continues to work 3-4 open mic nights per night in New York to improve his material. This is a guy with TV specials and movie credits and albums who sells out big venues at expensive ticket prices. And yet he constantly feels the need to improve. I once saw Famous Guy do a show in Atlanta with a 45 minute set of near-uninterrupted howling laughter. He walked backstage and the first words out of his mouth to me were a lament about the punchline he missed and the new joke that was "just OK". This seems to be par for the course for people who are actually funny.
I wish I understood this, and I wish I could fake the kind of self-confidence that some of these people have. I know I'm not terrible – people actually laugh when I am on stage – but all I do is beat myself up. I'm hardly unique in that respect. Most comedians I know are the same way – I screwed this up, I blew this punchline, I totally bombed tonight (even though there was plenty of laughter), my material is lame. We're all more than a little amazed at and envious of these people who manage to avoid even the slightest hint of critical self-analysis. Everything's the crowd's fault, or they simply imagine that the crowd laughed even when it was silent. Nobody likes them because they're (old/young/black/white/female/fat/skinny/"too real"/etc).
Comedy is one of the few things I've ever done with the potential for some outcome other than complete failure and royal suckage. And I want to figure out the secret to the Fountain of Eternal Confidence that seems to be known only to douchebags. Maybe it's just a front in some cases – i.e., they put on a brave public face but cry a lot when no one else is around – but more often than not it seems quite real. These people honestly think they're awesome, and no amount of evidence to the contrary can dissuade them. That's a pretty useful superpower to have.