If your girlfriend dumped you for a magician, how many people would you tell? How long would you talk about it? Most people, finding it embarrassing (sorry to my magician friends), wouldn’t tell anyone. But when I saw Brent Morin last week, man, he was telling everybody. And yet, most of us would never spend an hour discussing our failures with anyone who wasn’t paid to hear them.
The Undateable comedian (this is the name of his show, not the state of his prospects) brought to light something very important for me last week in interviews promoting his headlining weekend at Laugh Boston: “comedy is about failure.” And, in a great many ways, he’s absolutely right. Consider the alternative for a moment: Christian Finnegan, after an 80+ lb weight loss, has no jokes about it in his act and says often “Success, in general, isn’t funny.” Or consider my other comedic encounter of the week, Kevin Hart. Few would argue things are going really well for him. Despite his recent (albeit absolutely deserved) blockbuster success, most of his stand-up is about him being embarrassed- by his parents, his friends, his children, and even once a raccoon.
But back to Brent. Why does his take on comedy as a means to express failure matter?
Because comedians have found a way to talk about failure in a way that most of us haven’t.
This isn’t about encouraging people to fear failure less, or to actually fail more. Most of us already find ourselves failing often. In fact, by the numbers, we have to fail more than we succeed. We have to apply for more jobs than we will ultimately be offered. We will date more (in some cases, far more) people than we choose to settle down with. We will meet more people than we will ultimately choose to keep in our friend circle. We will be bad at lots of things before we find what we’re good at! And yet the majority will balk at the idea of discussing this perfectly normal and incredibly common phenomenon. As so many of us are learning, this practice is disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst.
So what’s the alternative? Borrow a page from the playbook of so many comedians before you, and find a way to make your failure funny. Joke about it. Laugh at it. Giggle so hard mid-story that the shame, guilt, or embarrassment is replaced by an understanding that failure is a part of life.
Accept it. Yep, it happened to you. No avoiding it, no wishing it away, it happened. You failed. I don’t minimize this step by any means- after all, acceptance is the last step in the five stages of grief for a reason- but I place it first because nothing constructive can happen before it.
Normalize it. Most of the time, we find shame in failure because we think “Who does this?” or “Who does this happen to?” The answer, at least for now, is you. But chances are, the answer is “also, a lot of people.” Tripping in public, getting turned down for a job or a date, or even fumbling a speech (or hell, a comedy set!) in front of others can- and does- happen ALL the time. The first step is to recognize that fact. You won’t see it as a top story on Facebook, or adorned with hashtags on Instagram, but those moments are very real for everyone. Recognize that and you’re well on your way.
Step back from it. Notice I don’t advocate “running away from it.” But step away, and don’t hold it so tightly. That tight grip is often where a lot of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and instinct to hide lies. Once it’s loosened a bit, you can see it with the benefit of hindsight. You’ll see that in the grand scheme (“will it matter in ten years”) it will likely be a blip on the beat of your life, and you’ll perhaps even see that it could have happened to anyone. If it helps, imagine it as having happened to someone else! A friend, a famous person, or a fictional character known for similar missteps. This may take some time- there is such a thing as “too soon?” to laugh at something, but this step away will help move the process along.
Now, laugh. It’s next to impossible to identify why something is funny and something else isn’t. But I really like Peter McGraw’s “benign violation” theory, which ultimately means that the best jokes are ones that identify something out of the ordinary or unexpected, without being too dangerous or disturbing to laugh at. As an incredibly odd example: Raisins aren’t funny, aside from these ones. Cancer also tends to not be funny. However, finding a “mole” on your skin and being nervous that it’s cancer, but finding out a moment later that it’s a raisin? That has more potential to be funny. Examine your situation to find the intersection of everyday and a little weird, and see if a smile doesn’t at least cross your lips when you find the sweet spot of normal (as failure is) and unusual.
How will you laugh through your next failure? What makes you laugh? And seriously, who wouldn’t at least try to date Brent Morin? Just look at him.