Comedy Culture

Impromptu Vulnerability – What Christians Can Learn from Standup Comedy

In our lonely, distracted age, people are longing to be seen and heard.

In response to this, words like authenticity or transparency have become buzzwords for churches across the West. They rightly strive to foster more authentic relationships or to be more transparent with their practices, but unfortunately, believers have also learned to fake it. We developed ways to use just enough honesty and still maintain control. If we ever want real authenticity, real transparency, we must step beyond our comfort zones, and we can learn how to do this (and how not to) through an unlikely ally: Standup Comedy.

Standup comedy is not about putting on a show

Many contemporary comedians use their real lives as the source of their material. Mike Birbiglia even jokes about his excessive honesty in the opening of his 2011 special Sleepwalk With Me. He begins the show by sharing how he grew up in a home where personal stories were discouraged. His father would say, “the more you tell people, the more they can use it against you.” After that, Birbiglia proceeds to tell the audience an hour’s worth of personal stories.

Since then, he has produced two other specials and currently has a show on Broadway. While the man is funny, what carries him further than others is his honest storytelling. When watching his standup, I find myself anticipating a heartfelt anecdote even more than a joke. The laugh is just a bonus.

Similarly, comedian and podcast host Marc Maron has made a career out of talking with comedians, actors, and other celebrities in his garage. His podcast, WTF With Marc Maron, receives nearly 3 million downloads a month and has included guests like Keith Richards, Barack Obama, and Paul McCartney.

There’s something special about being vulnerable that draws these types of high-profile celebrities in. They get excited to tell their personal stories without embarrassment. They want a break from performing and from putting on shows. Podcasts like WTF give them a chance to do just that. There’s no makeup. There’s no camera. There are just two people and a microphone.

We are part of a culture of curated authenticity

For the audience, the honesty is also refreshing. We naturally elevate people on the stage, radio, or screen, so when we hear them tell an embarrassing story or talk about how they eat at a restaurant we like, we feel like we share something with them. Like an adult kneeling to a child’s height, these podcasts and performances make the performer feel accessible. But accessibility is not the same as authenticity.

The problem is that the adult is not really as small as the child, nor is the performer really accessible to the audience. It’s an act, and while it may be a genuine act, it is still a performance. The authenticity gets filtered through all the structured planning, editing, workshopping, changing, and perfecting before it gets to the audience.

We can easily assume that, after all the perfecting of whatever performance, the people on the stage have it all together. They have mastered the art of perfected vulnerability, telling the audience just enough to make them believe in the vulnerability.

The hardest reality is that with Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, or whatever else, we are all in some sense on a stage, and we are the audience of other people’s profiles or feeds. We perform every day by curating how we can look a certain way. Even when we post about “transparency” or “authenticity” we promote an image of ourselves that we want others to see.

So is that real authenticity?

Complete vulnerability brings people together

Comedian Tig Notaro exemplified what it looks like to break away from the curated authenticity when she took the stage at Largo in Los Angeles in 2012. She had no intention of releasing her performance. It was not greatly rehearsed or workshopped. She just showed up, and as the audience welcomed her in, she began her surprising introduction:

“Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?”

People laughed, but it became clear that this was no joke. Over the course of the half-hour set, Notaro tells the audience about her previous four months that included a bacterial disease, a breakup, her mother’s unexpected death, and lastly, her diagnosis of breast cancer. She makes jokes intermittently, but most of the time, she just tells everyone what happened. Their laughter doesn’t really stem from humour as much as it comes from tragic absurdity, like laughter is all they have. Notaro understands. She tells her audience that regular comedy doesn’t feel right to her either. She can’t bring herself to tell silly jokes during the set. There’s just too much going on to “talk about how funny it is that a bee was taking the 405 freeway.”

Near the end of her time, Notaro starts to apologize for “bumming people out,” but they respond with encouragement. In the midst of tragedy, Notaro is able to get on a stage and be heard by strangers that paid good money to see a comedy show. Strangers who expected a night of laughter and escape, but instead got a woman telling them about her tragic life.

Those strangers chose to listen. They chose to see and hear.

Becoming vulnerable means openly bearing each other’s burdens

Notaro took the leap of vulnerability required to be truly authentic. Churches, and anyone else for that matter, can learn two things from this. First, we can learn to be like Tig. Her true authenticity came from stepping beyond the comfort zone into the weak, dangerous place of utter vulnerability. We too must learn to make ourselves vulnerable and to not be afraid to cast our burdens to one another.

Secondly, we can learn to be like the audience who bore the burdens of a stranger. They listened patiently as the person who was supposed to entertain them talked about her personal problems. They supported her and gave her the space to work it out.

The Church must be the kind of place where hurting people can be seen and heard. If we want an authentic Church, we must be brave enough to be vulnerable, and when the vulnerable come to us, we better see them and we had better listen.