What Stephen Colbert can teach us about bombing
The 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. YASSSS!!!! It was magic.
Looking back, it's obvious that the roast was a defining moment for political comedy in America. But think how it must have felt to be Colbert before he took the stage when he still had time to Abort, Abort, Abort. Watch them call Colbert's name, and pay attention during those few seconds when he stands up from his chair and makes his way to the mike.
If I had to guess, I'd say he's thinking, "I sincerely hope I don't crap my pants right now."
Because he knew what he was about to do. Colbert - who, at the time, was NOT a superstar, just a comedian with a low-budget show on basic cable - was about to get in front of 3,000 Very Important People and make them RILL mad. "I'm about to call out the president of the United States - to his face - with no backup. Here goes!"
Think about what it takes to commit to that. To refuse to pull any punches, to be totally committed to your material, to say "Well, eff it! I'm gonna go for it and we'll see what happens!"
Here's what happened:
Bush hated it. The whole room hated it. I mean, you do not need to be a body-language expert to get an idea of what is going on here:
But Colbert kept going.
Recently, Larry Wilmore was on Colbert's show, and they compared notes on the gig. Colbert said:
That is a really tough room....Those people have the launch codes, but they can't take a fucking joke.
After Colbert's bit, nobody would even make eye contact with him. The press tried to pretend it didn't happen. The New York Times and Chicago Tribune covered the dinner but didn't even mention his remarks. On his show, Colbert joked that the unenthusiastic reception was actually "very respectful silence" and added that the crowd "practically carried me out on their shoulders" even though he was not ready to leave. The Washington Post looks back and calls it the most controversial speech ever given at the event.
How was Colbert able to find the courage to keep going in the face of so much stony silence and seething hatred?
Because he was not afraid to bomb.
In this <3 GQ article, he says:
“'You have to learn to love the bomb.’ It took me a long time to really understand what that meant. It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.”
Did Colbert bomb? Well, to comedy writers watching C-SPAN at home on the couch, he was hilarious. But in the banquet hall, nobody was laughing. And these are people that have the FBI and Secret Service on speed-dial. So at the time, Colbert might have thought for a hot second that he was in over his head. But he believed in his material. So he went for it.
To have control over your own existential terror is to be in possession of a true superpower.
How can you develop this magical quality in yourself?
Don't be You. You are YOU all day long - doesn't it get old? Wouldn't you like a break from yourself? Well, guess what, you CAN take a break - when you are onstage. Colbert is a persona, after all. And you don't have to be a performer to put on a mask. You can play this game any time you are putting your work out there in the world. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield talks about the artist distancing herself from her instrument - "meaning her person, her body, her voice, her talent; the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological being she uses in her work. She does not identify with this instrument. It is simply what God gave her, what she has to work with."
Get your love somewhere else. Rehab centers are full of celebrities who took audience approval seriously.
Fuck Up Real Bad and see what happens. This one is an advanced technique -- high-risk, high-reward. Mostly, nothing will happen - at least not in the real world. In your head, of course, the world will end. You may feel like you're going to die - but you won't. And once your ego has burned to ashes, you'll realize the earth is still spinning, and your ego wasn't doing much for you anyway. You'll be horrified for a while and then you will get over it and you'll realize that it's OK. You were OK fucking up when you were a kid, and you can learn how to be OK with it now, as an adult.
As Ken Robinson says, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."
So go for it. Try. Fail. Try again. Try until you love it for the effort alone. And then - THEN - you will know what the view is like from on top of IDGAF Mountain.
I'll end with this quote from the interview, which is a must-read:
The next thing he said I wrote on a slip of paper in his office and have carried it around with me since. It's our choice, whether to hate something in our lives or to love every moment of them, even the parts that bring us pain. “At every moment, we are volunteers.”
Tune in next week, when I will be writing something about either a) the South Pole, b) Far Cry 2, or c) Hamlet. Anything's possible.
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