Q: How do you make use of Stoic philosophy in your comedy?
The Stoic Comedy special I just released was a bit of a passion project for me. I’d been doing stand up for a long time, discovered Stoicism and been delighted with how it had improved my life. Whenever I’m passionate about something I want to talk about it in my routine, but with Stoicism I found that hard at first.
Stand up is usually focused on the outside – cats are weird, mother in laws annoying – and all about getting emotional. Stoicism is so focused on being rational and not being lead astray by emotions that I couldn’t find the jokes at first. Eventually though I figured out the comedy was in my irrationality. I’m a long way from being a Sage and find myself acting unstoically all the time, and by looking inward (as Stoicism teaches) and laughing at my foolishness I found the funny. In the special I make fun of people for getting upset when the trains are late, but if I’m honest those “people” were me.
Outside of my material I use Stoic philosophy in my comedy career all the time. The Stoic approach of looking for solutions from within yourself, has been a huge help in dealing with the tough crowds and fickle gatekeepers of the comedy business. Stoicism helps me focus on what’s important – being a better comedian and improving my act – and ignore the rest. If I’d discovered it sooner I may have saved me years trying to win over industry figures I was never going to win over.
Q: How did you first become interested in Stoicism?
Comedy is such a competitive field that I’m always looking for ways to improve myself. I heard somewhere that Stoicism was a useful philosophy that could make you more effective at business (I think it might’ve been in a blog post by Tim Ferriss), and picked up a copy of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good life.
Reading the book I was surprised at how familiar many of the ideas were; learning to do stand up I was taught to focus on what I could control, hardships made me a better performer, etc. What I’d never considered though was that these principles that I’d been using in my art could be made into an entire philosophical system and applied to my life.
Q: What’s your favourite Stoic saying or idea, and why?
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live” – Marcus Aurelius
In my life I’ve often played it safe, I was looking for security. I thought if I just did all the right things one day I’d find myself in a perfect position from where could do all the things I wanted to, or knew I should, do. I wanted to be secure because, ultimately, I was afraid of death. For example I was afraid of starting a business because I might lose money, and if I lost money I wouldn’t be able to buy food, and if I couldn’t buy food I’d starve and die. No, better to avoid all that and play it safe. What I’ve learnt though (partly through studying Stoicism) is that you can never really achieve security; there is no permanence in an impermanent world. Death is an inevitable part of live and will come one day no matter how much little risk I expose myself to. The “safe option” is actually not the safe option, it just stops you from fully engaging with the ever changing universe (which is really the only security you can have in this world). All this tends to be hard for me to remember though, so this quote is really useful.
It’s also fun to drop into conversations to make everything seem more dramatic.
Co-worker: “I want to go get a coffee.”
Me: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?
How long have you got?
I love the “now what?” attitude that Stoicism has. When I was younger I used to get quite angry when things were unfair. After completing my university degree I was left owing quite a bit of student debt. I sat around thinking how unjust the world was that I, a brilliant artist, was saddled with this burden that stopped me from going out and enjoying life. Through reading Stoicism I came to see that complaining the situation was unfair didn’t help me solve it. I had this debt – now what?
I went out and got a job, moved into a very run down share house, and started living off rice and beans. I kept thinking about Epictetus’ advice (“Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. For what purpose? you may say. Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror.”) and Seneca’s habit of practicing poverty. The job was hard, the share house scary and the rice and beans pretty bland, but rather than feeling depressed I felt like I was slowly overcoming a mountain.
After a few years I managed to pay off the debt. I was very happy, not because I’d paid off the debt, but that I’d lived through this period of hardship without becoming depressed or angry (at least not for any significant amount of time). If I could live through gruel work, bad food and street crime (the share house was in a very rough area) I could face anything. By applying Stoicism I began to feel that no matter what the world throws at me I’m going to be OK.
Q: Chrysippus reputedly died laughing at one of his own jokes, about a donkey. Do you find much humour in the ancient Stoics’ sayings/writings?
Yes, I think the ancient Stoics are quite funny at times.
I often laugh at Epictetus because he’s so direct, he really doesn’t sugar coat any of his advice. He calls his students fools and blockheads (depending on your translation), and I imagine he’d be a pretty harsh teacher.
Marcus I think is funny when he’s making insights into human nature. He really didn’t seem to have a very high opinion of the people around him (“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness” etc.), and anyone reading today might get a few chuckles of recognition. Seeing that he was emperor and had to put up with all these people pestering him for something all the time, I’m sure a good sense of humour about the foibles of his fellow man must’ve been part of his Stoic toolbox.
I’m sure the ancient Stoics had a sense of humour. The story you mention about Chrysippus has always fascinated me. If I’m remembering this correctly he is supposed to have got a donkey drunk on wine then fed it figs while joking about it. I don’t know what was so funny about that (kind of sounds like animal cruelty to me), but I plan to find out in my next comedy festival show; “Michael Gets your Ass Drunk”.
Q: If he could time-travel to the present day, what do you think Marcus Aurelius would make of your act?
I think he’d be surprised to see his face on the t-shirt I’m wearing during the special, but he’d be immune to the flattery. He’d probably be a pretty tough audience; as I was telling the good jokes he’d be mentally preparing for the bad ones that were inevitably coming.
Q: What have you learned from audiences’ reactions to your Stoic routines?
That people have a hard time letting go of the idea that external events cause their emotions, rather than their interpretations of the events.
Whenever someone starts heckling or talking during one of my Stoic bits, nine times out of ten it’ll be this idea they’re taking issue with. It’s a bit wearying, I always feel like saying “Sir, philosophers have been pointing this out for over two thousand years now, I doubt you’ve got anything new to bring to the table…”
For a long time I was working on a routine about how people think others can shape their emotions; “He made me mad”, “she’s making me depressed”, etc. I never quite figured it out because I just can’t seem to find a funny way to explain that no one can make you feel anything unless they’ve got some sort of mind control powers. It seems people just don’t want to accept that truth.
I suspect this is partly because people don’t want to see the truth. It’s easier to say that someone else is making you feel bad, and therefore it’s up to them to change, than to go through the messy process of dealing with your own thoughts and emotions. This might be why Stoicism isn’t more of a mainstream philosophy, people don’t want to take full responsibility for their lives.
Having said that there are people who DO get it and they are wonderful. Some of the messages I’ve got through Facebook and YouTube are really wonderful, and I’m very glad that I could create something so many people have found useful.