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.
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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.
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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.

48 thoughts on “NPF: CONFIDENCE GAME”

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Why is it that I feel like that dog on the RCA Victor label, sitting by the gramophone, "Waiting for his master's voice…"? *

    *Boy, am I showing MY age?

  • Waiting with bated breath…..

    Of course with a teaser like "check back soon. it's good" I have high expectations.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Don't hold your breath. Enjoy the holidays and eat like a pig. Promise to go to the gym later.

  • Anyone who goes into a business that provides immediate feedback has some degree of self esteem issues. The better they are at it, the more issues invariably lie underneath it.

    Artists in many fields are driven by two things: a desire to be great at what they do and a fear that they won't be recognized as being great at what they do. It's not limited to comedy. When they lose that fear, they lose the edge that makes their art great, whatever that art is. Very few artists have a complete lack of self awareness at how people react to what they do. Applause and laughter is why you walk on stage to begin with. (Interestingly, a complete lack of self awareness can make one a great salesperson, which is a different skill set than being a performer).

    Except for Paul Reiser. He seems to sit at the center of the scale. He's neither funny nor unfunny. He's certainly talented. He has neither too much nor too little self confidence. He's not afraid of failure, and not bothered when he fails.

    Jim Gaffigan is good at what he does because he's afraid that someday he'll wake up and not be good at what he does. It drives his work and creative ethic.

    Stock up on Marc Maron WTF episodes and you'll get to the root of a lot of this.

  • It's amazing you managed to keep this a NPF, because I bet the exact same thing could be said about politicians.

  • As it happens, there's an entire podcast devoted to the mental health issues surrounding comedy, entertainment and related fields.

    Cured some of my envy toward "successful" comics.

    With the recent explosions of "alt comedy" and internet comedy, every swinging dick seems to think it's a path to quick gratification. The truth is that it takes an unforgiving work ethic, and probably some profound psychological damage, to take it to the next level, which you'll never quite feel that you've reached.

  • OliverWendelHolmslice says:

    This pretty much defines all of the self-annointed financial genius masters of the universe. "I deserve my huge salary because I was the genius who told my bank to save $30 at the clerks office by not recording our liens properly and using MERS instead!" How these fuckups keep their jobs and then have the audacity to claim they are being unfairly persecuted is astounding. But hell, if you are a millionaire, you must be smart!

  • "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."

    This statement has actually been confirmed by research. There was a study about 10 years ago which found that the more competent a person was the more self doubt they had and vise versa. This makes sense to me; people with doubts will spend more time thinking about what they are doing and presumably produce higher quality results.

  • My first job out of college was tending bar at a 'prominent' comedy club in L.A., which meant that we got both established comics on the weekends, first-timers on Mondays and Tuesdays and their dreaded open-mic nights, and the in-betweeners in-between. Ed's experience reflects mine–when the comics would come over to me before their routine and confess that either A. they needed a stuff drink to quell the voices in their heads telling them they sucked, or B. they only wanted a Diet Coke because alcohol would fuck up their concentration, which they were barely holding onto as it was, I would nod and know that they'd probably be fine. (Not all of them–that's one lesson you learn quickly: *Everyone* bombs. *Everyone.*)

    But if they came in telling me they were going to fucking burn this place down with the white-hot fury of their talent, I would know to pull up a chair, popcorn in hand, but always at a safe distance from the blast zone, because the bay doors on the Enola Gay were about to open over that stage.

    The nice thing about comedy is that it *does* tend to offer instance chastisement of the hubris-enhanced, in the form of silence. I note on the Huffington piece that the interviewed comic who saw that spectacle initially had the impulse to let the silence do its job. Indeed–heckling does not work, because it usually got the crowd on the side of the comedian, mostly because the hecklers themselves were even less funny than the comic, and because when the heckled comic would panic, s/he'd actually trot out some A-game humor in responding to the challenge. The smug, talentless comic is usually greeted not with mockery, but the soul-killing stare of a crowd–the same gaze they reserve for the guy sitting across from them on the subway who just shat himself and doesn't seem to know it. Instant karma–gotta love it.

    No matter how much they swagger and blame the crowd afterwards–and they do, a lot–those 5-10 minutes of death are punishment aplenty. And the nice thing is, the more arrogant will come back next week, and get kicked in the balls again!

  • anotherbozo says:

    I've heard Marcel Proust's line several times about "the certainty of the second-rate," but I've never seen a chapter-and-verse citation. Anybody know where it's found in the Proust opus? Maybe some one of you scholarly literati can enlighten me.

    The phrase certainly recalls itself often enough. Every kind of mediocrity in every kind of profession is so damn SURE of himself*… and as Ed says, the more knowledgeable or skilled, the less confident.

  • anotherbozo says:

    note: I Googled the Proust phrase and was led back to G&T, to a comment I made a year ago (April 12)! Talk about your hall of mirrors…

  • Intelligent people are often interested in obtaining perfection or seeking to obtain perfection because they understand that any practiced art does have an ideal. The inability to obtain perfection can lead to self doubt and frustration over one's creative output. Stupid people are not interested in arrivnig at an ideal because they don't understand that it's art. For them, it's an exercise in ego reinforcement.

  • "I want to figure out the secret to the Fountain of Eternal Confidence"

    Maybe they are taking antidepressants.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I was an actor in regional theatre for years, and it's the same way with us.
    If you're nervous an uncertain, you usually give a fine to great performance. It's when you're NOT, that you suck.

    And the worst actors are also usually the cock-sure ones. But not ALL of them, and man, I HATE those people who can

  • c u n d gulag says:

    …be so confident, and then kill up on stage!

    And most of the "big" actors I've met, have been very, very nice.

    It's some of the ones on the way up who are assholes – and quite a few of them on the way down. They still think they're "somebody," and want to be treated like that.
    You wanna tell them, "Hey, hotshot, sit down and stfu. This ain't Broadway. It ain't your trailer at the movie set. At readings like this, no one gets a "Green Room," and no one gets to dictate what color M&M's you get. Want one color, f-face? Buy a few bags and pick them out like the rest of us have to!"

  • So, could you name a field besides comedy where lack of confidence is a key to success? I'm having a hard time.

    Maybe other fields of creative art. Successful musicians seem to span a range of confidence, but some genres demand a show of it. Even though you'd think success in empirical fields would hinge on hypercritical hypothesis-testing, lack of confidence won't get you very far there, either. Science also requires a whole lot of salesmanship, and people who are actually good grow gigantic egos often enough. (I think it tends true for people of more modest success in technical fields though.) Self-assurance runs rampant in management and finance, where Dunning and Kruger positively rule the game. And of course confidence is pretty much the only thing going when it comes to attracting mates. Low confidence is the one thing society agrees that it utterly can't stand.

    And it's funny, because I look around me, and I don't think anybody knows what the fuck they're doing.

  • I never thought much about the goings on in a comedian's brain until I started listening to Marc Maron's WTF podcast.

    For those unfamiliar, Maron is a pretty bright comic who has enjoyed some level of success although certainly not that of some of his good friends and contemporaries (like Louis CK, Bob Saget and many others).

    What I've learned from the podcast (which is often brilliant and always an entertaining listen) is that to be a great comedian requires incredible dedication. To stand in front of a mic for 5 or 10 minutes and make people laugh is a gift; to make people laugh and not appear like you are working hard is a testimony to the performer's professionalism. And the folks who can get up and knock out a 30 or 60 minute set are just genius.

    Maron found his calling when he started to do the podcast. If you've never listened to it, it's worth an hour of your time.

  • @Keifus:
    I think the difference in comedy is that failure is so obvious and immediate. Who knows that Abraham Lincoln was racked with depression during the Civil War? How long did it take anyone to check the ledgers at Enron?

    "When you become famous, you've got like a year or two where you act like a real asshole. You can't help yourself. It happens to everybody. You've got like two years to pull it together — or it's permanent."

    -Bill Murray, presumably on Chevy Chase

  • I have been considering doing some open mic, around here…largely because the most I've ever learned from a public performance/speaking gig has been when things *didn't* work. And I can say, with certainty, that things would *not* work if I did open-mic. [I guess that self-assurance in my own inadequacy might, by your argument, be a marker of greatness. But it's not. I actually think I can be a pretty funny guy. I just don't think that I am good at writing jokes or bits/routines, which don't involve some common knowledge that the audience and I share.

    [Hence, I suspected I could effectively roast my friend, in front of our common friends, effectively. But the instant he brought family members in, that I not only didn't know, but who lacked my "secret info", half of my jokes were either no longer funny, or potentially offensive.]

    But who knows, maybe the trial by fire, falling on my face will be educational. If I can spend some time actually drafting some jokes, I'll give it a shot (but I'll bring some burly friends to carry me out if the failure is too much for me to bear on my feet.)

    I wonder, though….does my absolute confidence that the heckler is *not* funny out me as an arrogant lameass?

    [In my field—computer networking—confidence is helpful to success, in getting others to see your solution as the best. I thin Keifus might be right. Or Ed may be wrong. Or something. Because
    (1) Confident guys seem to do better with ladies
    (2) Comedians seem to do well with the ladies

    and I am skeptical that they are two non-overlapping segments of people that do well with the ladies…]

  • duck-billed placelot says:

    Was she really 'getting her due'? Seems like there was a heavy dose of misogyny at work. But sure, she's a crap comic.

    And as for the cock-sure – how much of that is real and how much of that is cover? I've met plenty of Masters of the Universe young guns who, while hideously confident out and about, are basically one live, exposed nerve of fear and insecurity once you know them at all. W, Bush always struck me as one of those; an idiot with something to prove to daddy.

  • Re: Jim Gaffigan — Andres Segovia practiced 4 hours a day until he was deep in his dotage. I imagine that comedy has this in common with music: there is always another level of improvement lurking out ahead of you somewhere.

    This heckling incident reminds me of another real life vignette. When I was getting my Chemistry M.S. every grad student had to present a paper once a year on a library research project of current interest. One guy, who evidently had no outside life, would do his own research of every other student's topic, and them embarrass them during Q&A.

    It's hard for me to understand what would motivate this, but — oh, well.

    Late in the year it was his turn. I didn't witness the event, but the cadre of grad students conspired to give him his own treatment, and it was devastating.

    He transferred to a different school and as never seen nor heard of again.


  • Keifus –

    So, could you name a field besides comedy where lack of confidence is a key to success? I'm having a hard time.

    I don't think that's the point. It takes tremendous confidence to stand up in front of that mike. The corresponding self-doubt is coming in from another personality dimension. Don't be surprised by the dissonance.


  • I was always the same way when I was really good at playing the tuba. I would go into an audition and kill it but when I came out of the room all I would want to do was hang myself because I knew I was out of tune at some part or I screwed up some rhythm someplace else. Then I would find out I earned first chair in the section or acceptance into some national/regional band or another.

    I think part of it is also that if you really DID suck you don't have far to fall. You have the ability to say "See?! I told you I sucked!" because that's where you started from and disappointment is much more tempered. And if you do really well you get the fun of saying "Well, I guess it wasn't THAT bad."

    I think this behavior normal for people who know they are good but are terrified that they will be proved otherwise.

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    I think the reason we find low confidence distasteful is because we assume a person ought to have reasonable knowledge of his/her abilities, and if you're telling me that you suck, you must really suck. After all, you should know, right?

    I think the trick, and it's not easy, is to have enough confidence that you believe in yourself and know that if not this time, you're going to nail it one time soon, while at the same time being open to the possibility that maybe you do suck and should find a new line of work. It's a fine line to walk, and I know I haven't mastered it.

  • Crocodile Chuck says:

    Wilt Chamberlain used to throw up before every game. So did Miles Davis! (before performing)

  • Yeah, but Miles Davis was on heroin. Also too, I think lack of confidence often stems from perfectionism. Overconfidence often from ignorance of one's limits.

  • Introspection & self-awareness

    If you are introspective, you're probably a better comedian. Or at least a better observer of life. …..And by default, you are probably more self-critical.

    No introspection = the opposite of above.

  • trollkiller says:

    Something hinky with the way comments are chopped up as they post.
    The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.[1]
    Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others" (p. 1127).[2]

  • "Yes Grasshopper, true humility flows from understanding one's place in the universe and true self confidence follows that knowledge"

    I think the Shaolin Master (Keye Luke as I remember) said something like that to Caine (the late David Carradine) in the 'Kung Fu' TV series backs in the 70s.


  • It's not just comedy, as previous commenters have pointed out. I used to work in the music business, for an organization that took submissions for showcases. Oh, the shit that would pour in!

    People would spend thousands of dollars to press up records that sounded like crap, or send in Radio Shack cassettes of them caterwauling into their Radio Shack cassette recorder accompanied by snapshots of them in a too-small bikini stretch marks and all reclining on their cousin's rusted-out Trans Am.

    That's why people love showbiz: It's glamorous!

  • HoosierPoli says:

    Russel's key insight was not that confidence and stupidity are CORRELATED, it's that they're THE SAME THING.

    Socrates had a similar line of thinking, and it got him killed.

    So, yeah.

  • I was going to post/reference the Dunning-Kruger effect, but like 4 people beat me to it — it addresses precisely this phenomenon — but it doesn't seem to be catching on, for whatever reason.

    The gist is that: people who know shit about a field understand the depth of shit there is to know, and therefore how much they have yet to learn.

    People who don't know shit (and/or remain deliberately ignorant) assume they're fucking awesome.


  • Here's a question. Who lead the comp last year in batting?

    Now obviously that guy has some natural talent.

    Did he rely solely on that talent. Maybe show up for training once or twice a week, do a half a lap of the field, a push up or two, and one or two reps on the bench before heading for the showers and a massage?

    Or did he spend hours at training? How many hours was he in the batting cage a day? All told last year? Think of any athlete at that level, they spend hours at training. 100m runners need to work on their reaction time and getting out the blocks. Polevaulters and gymnasts need to constantly drill and practice.

    Now compare that to Gaffigan. As there's no equivalent to a batting cage for comedians what's he left with? Open-mic.

    Had you considered that like the guy who lead the comp in batting, the reason Gaffigan is so good is that he's constantly trying to hone his skills. It also helps him to dry run to control his adrenaline. Adrenaline is a fantastic thing, it can increase one's awareness and give that needed edge. However, if one isn't used to it, and is able to control it, it can cloud judgement and keeping one cognisant of what's going on in the moment. Trying to run your material on your friends won't spike the adrenaline. Going before a live crowd will. An added advantage of doing an open-mic as a known comedian is that not everyone would have heard of you, and therefore not as impressed with you. Therefore they won't be pre-qualified toward liking you. In an open-mic, you can try a venue that has an audience that isn't your normal audience. If you can get the crowd at Bob's Country Bunker laughing then you'll be doing all right.

  • An interesting fact in the Wikipedia page for the Dunning-Kruger effect is that it only applies to Americans; this result was not found in other countries.

    I wonder how much this effect correlates with education? Are college students more or less deluded when they graduate?

  • The Dunning-Kruger wikipedia page mangles the quote which Ed said gets mangled a lot.

    I think that's pretty funny, but I don't think it would work in a stand-up set.

    Also just as a general matter, wherever two or three are gathered in comedy's name, self-doubt and anxiety will be among them. Ie, will get discussed. Segments of Louie where a few are hanging out, the mostly-crap-but-sometimes-awesome Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn from a few years ago, that HBO special with CK, Seinfeld, Gervais and Rock just talkin' comedy, the various and sundry comedian podcasts. It's absolutely pervasive.

  • Bertrand Russell was OK. Yeats said it better: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

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