“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Winston Churchill, Attributed Quote
“Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”
Jake the Dog, Adventure Time
Hi, you. I’ve finally returned to this blog. I trust you anticipated the moment of my return every day. Alright, well, at least I assume you maybe thought about the last post from day to day. Ok, well I hope you have read my last post. And I hope you are willing to go into another bout with me as I ruminate on that dreaded bugbear of any pursuit: being bad it.
There’s this Ira Glass quote[note]This one’s just chock fulla quotes! This guy’s nothin’ but quotes ova here![/note] on beginning to work on a project about taste that my friend, the academically vulgar Dan Weflen told me as we were on our way to some open mic or other[note] Full quote here: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/309485-nobody-tells-this-to-people-who-are-beginners-i-wish[/note]. To paraphrase the quote- when you start in a creative field it is because you have taste. You know enough about what you like and don’t like and you’re trying to make things similar to what you like. Whether it’s a novel, a poem, a dance, or an improv sketch, you’re trying to make something that matches your standard of taste… and you’re failing. Boy oh boy are you failing. For years. And you can cash your chips in there or stick with it.
But that decision isn’t what I want to talk about here. I trust that you have enough sense in your head, reader, to decide if you want to pursue something even though you’re terrible at it[note]Pst! Give yourself permission to fail. Acknowledge the failure, live in the failure, find a way to let the failure make you stronger. If you get this reference, dear reader, hit me up. You’re cool.[/note]. Rather I would like to focus on failing and, more importantly, watching other people fail.
Before I go into my main argument, I’d like to touch on the emotional side of failure. Failing, for lack of a better term, sucks. You can end up feeling humiliated or overly self-critical or even just like you’re bad at doing something you love. The thing of it is, failure is an inevitable part of the learning process so you’ll need to be okay with it emotionally. My advice is, like with swimming or existential philosophy, to jump into the deep end. That way you can rip away most of your fears like a Bandaid. Remember that you want to do this (whatever creative pursuit you have put your mind to) and you’re still learning. Failure can lead to a bruised ego and feeling foolish, but fear of failure definitely leads to never actually trying anything. If the failure gets to you, let it get to you. Experience that loss and shame fully. But don’t let them stop you and don’t turn them into something they’re not. One bad set doesn’t mean you’re a bad performer. It just means you’re learning. Turn your anxiety into excitement. Turn your self-criticism into awareness of your strengths. Turn your failure into a lesson. Swallow your fear and screw your courage to the sticking place. For today is a sword day, a red day, ERE THE SUN RISES! You’re about to create something.
Improv comedy is nearly always a team sport, as I’ve said before, and because of this it is typically more supportive and forgiving of failure. Your failure is a team failure and if someone can find a way to help your performance, they will try to. As I’ll discuss more in a future post, team creation, discovering the strengths and weaknesses of your classmates is as much part of the improv learning experience as the basic rules and forms. And everyone has your back.
But any creative pursuit fill find you in a room of like-minded people feebly attempting to create something great. In other words, you’ll be at practice. Say you’re at a Voodoo Comedy Playhouse Level 1 Improv class[note] Learn improv of the course of eight weeks and then perform in front of a live audience! Reasonable prices! Fun and wise instructors! …They are hosting my posts here, folks.[/note]. And you’re watching people make obvious (to you) mistakes, or worse, they’re making a scene that is repugnant (to your taste). This happens while honing any sort of creative skill; practicing involves watching a lot of your peers do it poorly. Performing improv, even poorly, feels thrilling and seems to only last a second. Watching bad improv feels painfully awkward and seems to last days. And the worst part of it is you have the suspicion that while you’re performing, your classmates are having similar feelings about you.
Now at this point the good people at the Voodoo may be reconsidering having me write these posts. But what I’ve written above I fully intend to be a recommendation for taking the classes. Watching and experiencing these failures are key to making any sort of progress. Given time and encouragement from the Voodoo’s wonderful teaching staff[note]Level one starts at less than $150 for twenty two total class hours. That’s only about six dollars an hour, what a steal! Please don’t delete this blog![/note] you will learn to see these failures for what they are: gifts.
Before I elaborate I want to take a moment here and macro-out the focus of the point I’m driving at. Because it’s not just improv. God knows it also happens in stand up comedy[note]Watch it happen live at any local open mic. I heartily recommend 5280comedy.com as a resource for any stand up fans in the Denver and greater North Colorado areas. If you’re anywhere near an urban area you’ll probably find a similar site near you.[/note]. I’m not good enough at sketch-writing to have this experience in that realm yet. But I remember as a weird teenager[note]There are no other kind.[/note] I took piano lessons. I was fine. At one point I could read sheet music and even play Tom Waits’ Georgia Lee and the big band classic The Chattanooga Choo Choo. I knew good piano playing from bad. But during our annual class recitals I would sit through piano playing that ranged from people flubbing relatively easy tunes to professional-level playing of classical masterpieces. Comparing myself to these people I couldn’t see myself as anything except alternately mediocre and judgy. So I gave it up. I wasn’t in a band and you can’t exactly lug a baby grand onto the quad to woo a potential date. I couldn’t possibly see myself getting over the hurdles required to be where some of my peers were – playing by ear or even without sheet music. I didn’t even get to the most important lesson you learn from being bad at a new pursuit: failure now lets you know how to succeed later.
So, say you and your classmates in your Voodoo improv Level 1 class[note]They can even do payment plans if you ask nicely! I’m sorry for bringing up pianos! Please keep me on your site![/note] put on a scene that you think was dumb and bad. But stop and ask yourself these questions: Why was it bad? Why was it dumb? Was it because the scene was distasteful or bigoted or unfunny? Or maybe because the scene was classless or hack or inscrutable? It’s important to define exactly what went wrong and why before you can work on not doing it again. I see this as a further defining of what got you into this mess in the first place, your taste. The more granularly you can identify why something you’re seeing is against your tastes, the easier you can begin to identify countless and just-as-granular ways to create something that isn’t. This broadening of your vocabulary is an important addition to your creative pursuit related toolbox.
To summarize so far: watching someone perform bad improv can be torture. Performing bad improv yourself, while fun, can be worse. But it is important to perform poorly and even watch people perform poorly so you can begin to identify how to start performing well. To paraphrase a Dan Harmon quote: repeated failure is the key to success.
And… I tricked ya! You could’ve just read the second quote in the article and gone to eat a Carmello in the time you read this article and still get my point!
…No. Of course not. I hope that going into this level of detail was important in understanding what a gift watching failure can be. And I’ll finish up with a thought about personal failure.
For me, failing at creating humor is easier than failing at other pursuits. If I mess up a performance and end up looking like a ridiculous clown that is, in a way, good. I can lean into the mistake and play it up and relieve some of my embarrassment from being a failure. And, frankly, after two years of doing stand up comedy open mics[note]And another twenty six of being a human on Earth.[/note] it takes a lot to embarrass me. Looking silly in front of people while performing comedy is not only part of the learning process but also technically counts as performing comedy. Especially in improv comedy where looking silly in front of your peers is inevitable and encouraged. And with that embarrassment taken care of all I’m left with is a frank, constructive critiques of my work. Who can’t handle that?
I leave you with this fifth and final quote[note]This guy thinks he’s King Quotes ova here or somethin’![/note]:
“That is the saving grace of humor, if you fail no one is laughing at you.”
Comedy Writer A. Whitney Brown, The Big Picture: An American Commentary