When I was in college I discovered and fell in love with Lenny Bruce. He was brave, he was lightning quick, he was so unabashedly himself. If Muhammed Ali had been a Jewish comedian…you get the idea. One of the pillars of Lenny’s ideas was that it was the suppression of a word that gave it it’s power and viciousness. That, by making a word so taboo and so terrible, it shouldn’t even be allowed to touch your lips; you are giving that word the immense power to hurt, and to scar. Lenny turned it on its head and preached that we should love the word, embrace the word, roll around in the word like a pig in shit, and then the power and vicousness of that word would disappear. Whether he realized it or not, Lenny was being a bit of a Buddhist advocating that a little bit of the disease can often be the cure. The idea is exactly the same when we stay away from pain -ultimately the pain of failure, never wanting to get anywhere near it because the potential for us to touch our failure is too much. What if we did the oppsosite? Failed, failed HARD, and then dared to pay attention. I’ll explain, or as Uncle Lenny would say, “dig what I mean…”
Coincidientally, speaking of Lenny Bruce, a patient of mine was interested in doing stand up. A sensitive kid who at times thought about suicide, he grew up often feeling alone in his feelings. However watching comedians like Richard Pryor made him feel connected to something, and actually helped to calm the anxiety he felt being young, male and sensitive.
“I want to start doing standup” he told me. “But I am so scared, I know I’m going to be awful.”
“Why are you going to be terrible?” I asked him.
“I’ve only done it maybe a few times, and it means SO much to me. I want to be good at it so so badly. If I actually get up to do it, I’m going to suck.” Made sense to me. Even if we go back to the gospel of Lenny, and realize that “people don’t understand the difference between a big piece of art with a little shit in the middle, and big piece of shit with a little art in the middle,” it sounded like my patient would be lucky even for the latter. And it is scary and serious business to fail in public, volunarily or otherwise.
“I want you to go do stand up,” I told him. “And I don’t want you to be good…in fact I want you to be terrible.” He looked at me, waiting, like there was more.
“Is this some reverse psychology thing where you tell me to be bad so I end up actually going and being good?”
“Oh no, not at all” I said. “Give me a little more credit than that … you’re going to be bad … and I want you to be.”
He seemed as if he didn’t know whether to be angry or confused. “It’s not an insult, you’re going to be bad because you’ve barely done it before. If you got up there and somehow white-knuckled your way through being good, you would have no idea as to why or how. You’d have no idea what it was that you did that made you a decent comedian, you’d just know that somehow it went well. We want more than that, we don’t want luck and fooling everyone, including ourselves, that we know what we’re doing when we don’t. We want to always be going for mastery, even if it is in small doses. If you can go be terrible, and then BARE EXAMINING WHY, you begin the process of mastery; learning what works, what doesn’t work and why. I don’t want you to get lucky when you build the house and it happens to stay up, I want us to know why it stands, and what we did to make it happen.”
We sat for a moment like we were both listening to the paint on the walls.
“This sounds painful,” he said. “Scary.”
“It is, yeah.”
He took off his glasses and pressed the space between his eyes, looking up at me. “ I could just kill myself,” he said like it was an inside joke between the two of us.
“I think you just made the whole point,” I told him.
“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”