Genius is voluntary insanity, not a high IQ
On creativity and madness.
I'm standing backstage, wiggling my mouth to make sure the fake mustache on my face isn't going to come loose. My friend is wearing a wig that you'd probably call a "Karen" haircut. She's going to play the disaffected wife to my idiot husband. For now, though, her expression is anything but disaffected. I see primal human fear in her eyes.
Somewhere deep in her limbic brain, she thinks she’s about to get torn apart by a proverbial saber-tooth tiger. In this case, the saber-tooth tiger is potential social humiliation. No matter how many times we assure ourselves it is an “irrational” fear, we still manage to fear it more than death. For most of human history, getting kicked out of the tribe was the same as a death sentence. We feel that.
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The band is playing. A sold-out audience is sitting in the cool darkness, waiting for the show to begin. We're opening.
"I've got your back," she says. "We're going to kill it." I take a deep breath, touch her back, and mutter, "I've got your back, too. I’m glad you’re the one doing this with me."
"Clear!" the stage manager yells. That means it's time to go. "Clear," we respond, running our hands over our costumes one last time to make sure nothing is missing. Hair, glasses, shirt buttoned all the way to the top, pleated khakis…
We creep out on the stage in the dark. Little strips of glow tape are on key pieces of the stage and furniture. There is a plate of pasta and wine glasses set out for us that I can't see yet. We sit in the darkness while the band continues to play an instrumental cover of some popular song. Now I can hear the murmur of the crowd mingling with the drums. I assume the dumb posture of my character. I'm not sure if this is funny anymore...
Suddenly, bright lights are in our eyes. The band stops dead. I’m looking at my friend, her face now the stone-cold expression of a disappointed wife.
It’s quiet. "You were the one watching porn, not me," I say, and I get the first real laugh. If it's possible, I'm going to try to have some fun.
You might have noticed – I haven't been writing these essays for the last 12 weeks. That's because I've been writing and performing sketch comedy at the Groundlings.
My (non-comedy) writer friends who came to the show said to me after, "I couldn't believe that the guy I was watching on the stage was the same guy I had all those philosophical conversations with."
Despite the ribbing, people mostly seem to understand that comedy is hard to do on some level. Or, at least, they would never want to do it themselves. Maybe they can't exactly put words to why it's hard -- but they know, for example, that a comedy actor is more likely to be able to do serious drama than a drama actor would be able to do comedy.
But, your parents aren't going to be happy you got into comedy. Comedians perform a magic trick of status -- by being as low status as possible (literally a f*cking clown) on a stage, somehow, a very small percentage of them, transcend and become stars. But, that almost never happens.
Anyone with a functional place in the world would be better off staying far the hell away from comedy. Why risk status and respect for a few jokes? What sort of person would do that?
You’d either have to be genius or insane – and nobody can tell the difference, except maybe in hindsight.
The Groundlings is one of those hallowed places that (imperfectly) tries to sort out who is a genius and who isn’t.
I didn’t mention it at the top, but the established “Groundlings” watch us perform and then haul off to a clandestine meeting after the show, discuss each of us, and vote on if we should be allowed to keep performing at that theatre or not.
We all dream our particular insanity might be sellable to the storytelling behemoth of Hollywood. On a deeper level (mostly unexpressed), we want to elevate our particularities and quirks to archetypal and make ourselves immortal. That’s what it means to become a “star.” Most people pursuing this, in my experience, are tortured but not killed by the beast – never quite hacking it, but never failing hard enough to leave. Day by day, they sacrifice their youth to the new gods of Hollywood and don’t have much to show for it in the end.
But, some people are so shattered by crushed dreams they end up mentally unwell on the streets. I actually had a cousin that died on the streets of LA from a drug overdose. My dad conveniently forgot to mention that until I had been out here for years.
The homelessness problem in LA, while I’m sure it has its economic and political causes, also feels like a spiritual plague. This is a place of great highs and terrible lows. Heaven and hell. Angels and demons.
The filthy tents that line nearly every surface street are a constant reminder to everyone who left their parents in the middle of the country: prove your vision to the gods of entertainment, or end up like this.
A guy approached me in line at Chipotle. "Hey man, can I get some food?" he asked me. "Yeah, sure; what do you want?" I said. He stood next to me and we started to chat. It quickly became clear that he was out of his mind. "I'm King David," he said, "Or, I mean, sorry, not really. I don't want to be famous or anything like John Mayer. I just want to make things and show people something beautiful. Are you Jesus?"
The guy occasionally had an almost normal "LA" way of speaking. If you only heard a portion of the dialogue, you might think he was some mid-level producer. But it was mixed with a strange fixation on archetypal images. This, I realized, is the dark side of what we’re all striving toward out here. This guy just didn’t have a way of filtering out the quiet parts.
“The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.” – Joseph Campbell
Only 4 out of the 12 of us made it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of the 4. The rest of us mourn the loss – all secretly afraid it means we are not genius – we are insane. Or worse, boring.
I watched the video of the show. You know... I was good. I'm confident on the stage. Watching me, you trust that I'm not going to forget my lines (a real review I got). But there is a lack of an unselfconscious display of my inner insanity that holds me back. On some level, I wasn't risking everything. As much as I tried to let it all go, I just didn't. I was too afraid of becoming like the guy in line at Chipotle – kicked out of the tribe. If you look closely, you can see it on my face. A little smirk. A knowing smile that says, "Ain't this all a little silly?" And that's cute -- but it's not hilarious.
To really shine, you have not to care if you come across as a genius or a man babbling at Chipotle. Audiences can smell hedged bets from a mile away.
Great comedians take a leap of faith that most people can't understand. Of course, their audiences don’t have to know any of this. They just laugh. That’s an involuntary reaction to a deep subconscious click. Mostly, all of that goes unsaid – and that’s fine. What we’re doing right now in this essay is nerding out – but you don’t have to have any verbal understanding of any of this to be able to do it. You just have to do it.
The fact that we involuntarily reward (laugh at) these insane leaps of faith is a good thing. It's a sign of a healthy society to have reverence for comedians. It signals that our priorities are at least somewhat straight -- we believe on a deep subconscious level two things: the meek (humble) will inherit the earth AND that the truth will set you free. That’s what comedians embody: low-status truth-tellers.
A society that silences comedians is obviously unhealthy. That's pretty much a cliche at this point. But, we all feel it’s true – even if we struggle to put words to it.
To succeed as a comedian is to remain in a state of play even in the face of unbearable fear (the visceral fear we felt in the opening, for example). This play in the face of social rejection is an existential relief to the audience. They laugh because they want to believe that life is about play and not fear. That relief is expressed through an involuntary yelp – “HA!”
But, the pressure got to me a little. I can see that part of me was mimicking play, not really feeling it. That’s understandable. But, when you're in survival mode, you don't know who you are. Your focus is out there. You don’t remember what you think is funny – you just want to make people laugh to relieve your stress. Audiences can smell that on you. It reminds them of the fearful parts of themselves.
I didn’t knock it out of the park the way I wanted to, and that’s frustrating. But I also know that existential courage is something you have to practice.
My time at the Groundlings is finished for now, so, I'm coming back to writing these essays. I’m excited for that. I’m hoping I can use a bit of what I’ve learned to write these in a more honest way.
I’ll return to comedy at some point, too. Like a free solo rock climber, I’m addicted to the thrill at this point. I got some encouraging words and a couple of invitations to perform at different theaters. But I don’t have the same level of ambition that brought me to this city anymore. I’m much more interested in the act of play for its own sake. I don’t care as much about elevating my ego to the realm of gods.
LA will gladly promise to inflate your ego to demonic proportions. If you can keep your feet on the soil in the face of that, I think nearly anyone could have a bright experience here.
But, if you get caught up in self, you will end up sacrificing your youth and your sanity to this place. The same goes for any entrepreneurial or creative pursuit, Hollywood or not. If you don’t have a vision beyond the inflation of your own ego, life will crush you.
Don't listen to anyone who tells you to double down on your ego. And trust me, many people will. Humility (getting low) in the face of extreme pressure and fear is, paradoxically, the only reliable pathway upward. I’ve seen this first hand — that’s what the 4 who made it had in common. Humility. And if you think that sounds easy, it isn’t. It is one of the hardest things there is.
Give up who you think you want to become and have faith that whatever you need to express will transform you into someone you never dreamed of. Controlled insanity is the willing death of your current ego and the realization that you can’t imagine what – if anything – will take its place. That’s insanity – but it’s necessary.
5 years ago, I moved to LA to take classes at the Groundlings. 5 years later, I'm driving around listening to the same music I listened to then, full of self-pity because I didn't get what I wanted. But I'm not that upset because I know I got something much better.
It’s hard to sum it up without cheapening it, but here’s my best attempt:
The man at Chipotle was all insanity without control. He’s immersed into the world of archetypes and was terrified by what he saw. In comparison, the comics in my group who soared faced their insanity voluntarily and with a sense of play. They weren’t overwhelmed by it – they channeled it. That’s a form of courage that I have trouble understanding.
But I’m going to keep practicing.
“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.” ―Marcus Aurelius
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