Stephen Kearin, one-third of Three For All, said something fantastic when he taught his workshop in Austin a few weeks back…
He talked about self-hate.
Now, I’m confident that his three-minute digression during his longer lecture was just that: an improvised digression. I get the sense that his mind moves so fucking fast he has a tough time keeping up verbally. So his talks take the form of bubbles: individual (usually fascinating) opinions that aren’t clearly connected. His mind is hopping around. This was one of those hops…
He said—knowingly, as all comics must—that self-hate is an elephant in the room. It is present, very present, in our lives. Stand-up comics know about self-hate all too well—it’s both their motivation and their source material. It fuels them and gives them a tight 25-minute set. The best comics, in my opinion, are in a glorious romance with their self-hatred.
Improv is different. Improvisers don’t have the luxury stand-ups do, of sitting quietly in a room picking at their personal hate, anxiety, fears, bizarre beliefs, etc. Improvisers cannot ease toward vulnerability over the course of months and years of open-mics.
But! But also, improvisers don’t have to be vulnerable in order to be funny or entertaining. They can sneak through individual shows without confronting their self-hate. I’ve done it myself plenty of times.
This cannot sustain though. An improviser who doesn’t at least acknowledge their self-hatred can never transcend. They impose a ceiling to their skills, a limit their improv might eventually hit.
I’m convinced that lack of commitment is the death knell of improvisation. And what prevents us committing? Self-hate. That hatred convinces us not to commit, because to commit is to be vulnerable. It’s why some of those silly Improv 1 warm-up games are still so valuable: they force us, even for just a few seconds, to ignore the self-hate. They bring us fully into “the moment.”
Which is why what Stephen said in that workshop resonates so clearly:
There’s a self-hate machine running inside of us. It’s coughing and sputtering and chugging along. But we can place it into a room, like a tiny utility closet. We can place our self-hate machine into this dark room and just leave it. It can do its work, but it’s just in this tiny room. It can’t control us. We won’t turn it off, we’ll just tuck it away in one of many rooms.
I’m paraphrasing. But you get the idea. And that idea has some Buddhist underpinnings. The Buddhist notion of observing our thoughts instead of being them. I like that. And it’s an easy way to handle our self-hate. Just notice it. Then move on.