by Michael Connell
Comedians and philosophers have a lot in common. They both try to come up with theories to explain phenomena they’ve observed, spend long hours in introspective contemplation, and constantly seek new ways of looking at things. Also, they’re both fascinated by death.
In the last few years I’ve been getting into Stoic Philosophy, a major theme of which is the contemplation of death, or Momento Mori. If you think that’s a bit gloomy, then you might be surprised to hear it’s also a frequent topic of discussion among comedians. Being a stand up comedian, I often find myself backstage with other comics talking about death.
“Ugh, that was death…” they say after a laugh free gig.
“Geez, he’s dying up there…” they’ll say watching another comedian fail to get laughs.
OK, so we aren’t talking about a literal death, but comedians fear it almost as much as the real thing. I certainly did when I started out in stand up. I’ll never forget the first time I died onstage. It must’ve been my second or third gig, and my jokes just weren’t getting laughs. My mouth went dry, I started sweating, and I began to rapidly mumble through the rest of my set. Stumbling off stage I was so stunned I could barely walk. Dying onstage made me wish I’d died for real – at least I wouldn’t have too feel embarrassed afterwards. The next day I swore I’d never put myself through that again. I sat down and wrote a whole bunch of new jokes, learnt them off by heart, and practiced, practiced, practiced until the day of my next gig…
…where I promptly died again.
In fact for the next year or so, I was dying more often than not. Even when I had a gig where I got a few laughs I was only doing OK, just barely not dying. I couldn’t understand it. I hated dying onstage, I was working so hard to not have this happen, and yet I was dying all the time.
I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong, but might have if I’d read more philosophy.
Stoic philosopher (and emperor of Rome) Marcus Aurelius points out: death
…is one of the things required by nature… Like a new set of teeth, a beard, the first gray hair. Like sex and pregnancy and childbirth…This is how a thoughtful person should await death: …simply viewing it as one of the things that happens to us.
The Stoics go on to point out that, since death is inevitable, it is foolish to fear it and acting out of this fear can have some pretty negative effects. For example, some people work hard to be rich, since poverty leads to hunger which can lead to death. Through becoming rich, they try to put themselves as far from poverty and hunger, and therefore death, as possible.
Unfortunately slaving away to become rich won’t stop them from dying. It can, however, mean they spend their days working jobs they hate to get money rather than doing anything more worthwhile. In trying to avoid death they cease to live.
Another way people try to escape death is by striving to be famous. They think that if they can become famous enough people will remember them after they’ve died. They’ll live on in the minds of others.
Unfortunately, death makes fame pointless. As Marcus Aurelius said; “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.” A couple of decades after they’ve died (maybe a few centuries if they’re REALLY famous) anyone who’s ever heard of them will be dead. Even if they’ve managed to be part of the tiny handful of people remembered long after they’re dead (like Alexander and Marcus), what good would it do them? Once dead they won’t be able to enjoy any perks of fame, and chasing after fame while alive only prevents them from enjoying the fullness of life.
This is the message the Stoics want to drive home: The surest way to stop living is to try and avoid dying. Acting conservatively won’t stop you from dying (that’s impossible), it will just reduce the quality of your life while you live it. This was also the lesson I was learning, through painfully slow trial and error, when I kept dying in my early comedy career. I was so afraid of dying onstage, I’d try to write the safest jokes I could. I’d sit down and write routines I felt couldn’t possibly fail, took no chances, and did the sort of gags I’d seen other comedians safely do thousands of times.
Of course, saying a routine is “safe” is another way of saying it’s boring. The safer I made these jokes the more I died. I wasn’t living, just existing. Eventually I got sick of the situation. I decided I was going to just go out onstage and do whatever I wanted to do. Doing this would open me up to the possibility of dying onstage, but I didn’t care; being “safe” was killing me.
It’d be great if I could say I that as soon as I let go of this fear of death I became an amazing comedian. Unfortunately that’s not what happened. Some of my jokes died. Sometimes even whole routines died. However, I also started getting good laughs from other bits that I’d written. Letting go of the fear meant some of my bits died, but it also meant some of them really lived.
Over time I gained experience and improved as a comedian. Today I rarely die onstage, and when I do I’ve experienced it enough that it doesn’t bother me.
Through experience I’d learnt two lessons the Stoics were writing about over two thousand years ago. First that death only seemed terrible because I believed it was.
As Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it:
People are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible… …the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible.
I feared dying onstage because in my mind I’d made it some terrible thing. Having died onstage over and over again, I now realize it’s just a part of being a comedian. I have to keep trying out new routines onstage, and sometimes those routines are not meant to live. Just like in real life, death is a natural thing that happens to us all.
Secondly, I learned that “the source of all human evils, and of mean-spiritedness and cowardice, is not death, but rather the fear of death.” – Epictetus. At any point my jokes could die, a routine could stop working, and I could bite the dust onstage. But that’s what makes it enjoyable for me, and exciting for the audience.
Nobody wants to watch a comedian survive through a set. Getting middling laughs from a safe routine that could never put them at risk of death, but never really soar either. I must not let fear of stage death prevent me from fully committing to my comedy, just as I shouldn’t let fear of death stop me from engaging with life. The key to a beautiful stand up routine is the same as a beautiful life: bold action in the face of the constant possibility of death.
Four reasons to use comedy in teaching philosophy
1. To be more accessible
Putting comedians and philosophers together on panels, podcasts and other public events is a great way to stimulate interest in philosophy. Several popular philosophy podcasts (e.g. The Partially Examined Life, and Modern Day Philosophers) regularly invite comedians to be guests. In the UK a group of philosophy academics has teamed up with comedians to tour universities with a comedy debate show called Stand-Up Philosophy.
Comedians can help academics loosen up, while philosophers tend to pull out the comics’ insightful side. Doing public outreach like this can help fight the misconception that philosophy is a dry, inaccessible field of study.
2. To spark debate
Trying to get students to debate gun control? Jim Jeffries has a whole routine on that. Want to get the class to discuss the drug war? Bill Hicks had some thoughts to share. Talking consumerism? George Carlin has a great bit on “stuff”.
Like Socrates (or perhaps Diogenes), comedians are always asking why society is the way it is. You can find their musings – on everything from euthanasia to racism – and with a little searching on YouTube. Showing one of these clips at the start of a class or lecture is a great way of getting students into a more Socratic frame of mind.
3. To create new perspectives
A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found comedians’ humor often came from a tendency to connect odd and unrelated ideas. Trying to answer a question such as “how is a pigeon like a stockbroker?” can lead to some strange and pretty funny ideas.
If you find your students have difficulty thinking unconventionally, why not challenge them to create connections between seemingly unconnected ideas? The surreal, unexpected responses they come up with will encourage them to look at things from different perspectives and stop trying to find the “right” answers.
4. To increase comprehension
Laughter is an involuntary response to the mind being surprised by an idea. It’s your body physically reacting to the mind comprehending something, possibly the deepest level of understanding a listener can have in response to a speaker.
It’s hard to do, but if you can come up with a way to explain a point that makes your audience laugh you can be sure they’ve understood it. If you’re up for a challenge, see if you can surmise a key point in a joke. Pass any student who laughs.
Michael Connell is a comedian and student of Stoicism. You can watch his Stoic Stand Up Comedy show here.