Did you hear the one about the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner?
Well, if you're a comedy nerd, you did!
That was the night Stephen Colbert roasted President Bush all to hell.
These days, Colbert is at the top of his game. But back then he was still an up-and-coming perfromer, and this was a high-risk moment for him. Think how it must have felt to be him before he took the stage - when he knew what he was about to do, and he still had time to lose his nerve. 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 mic.
If I had to guess, I'd say he's thinking, "Here goes nothing."
Colbert - who, at the time, was NOT a superstar, just a comedian with a low-budget show on basic cable - was about to call out the president of the United States, right to his face.
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, F 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.
But Colbert kept going.
Soon afterwards, 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.
Apparently 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 called 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 disapproval?
Because he is not afraid to bomb.
“'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? Here are some Jedi mind tricks to consider.
Take a vacation from yourself.
You are YOU all day long. Why not take a break from yourself once in a while, and pretend to be someone you're not? The old Colbert Show guy was a persona, after all.
And you don't have to be a performer to put on a mask. You can play this mental game any time you are putting your work out there in the world. There's the professional you, and then there's the at-home you. They don't have to be one and the same. Was Prince born Prince?
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 at home, not on stage.
Rehab centers are full of celebrities who took audience approval way too seriously. Who cares if some people don't like your stuff? Does that really matter? Really? There's one way to find out:
Screw up in public - 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 screwing up when you were a kid, playing around and exploring the world, and you can remember how to be OK with it again, as an adult.
As Ken Robinson says, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."
So here is my message today: may we all just Go for it. We can try. Fail. Try again. We can try until we love what we're doing just for the doing itself. And then - maybe THEN - we will know what the view is like from on top of IDGAF Mountain.
I'll end with this quote from the interview, which is the greatest thing I have read in a long time:
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.”
Here's to bombing, y'all.
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