'Stoic Comedy is not an Oxymoron' by Michael Connell

‘Stoic Comedy is not an Oxymoron’
How you can help create a Stoic comedy show

‘Laughter, and a lot of it, is the right response to the things which drive us to tears’ – Seneca

I’m currently trying to write a stand up comedy show about Stoic philosophy, and I’m hoping you can help.

Why do I need your help?

Is it because Stoics are emotionless robots? Is creating comedy around such cold, austere philosophy too difficult?

No, that’s not it at all.

I think some of the ancient Stoics were quite funny (perhaps without meaning to be).

When reading the discourses I sometimes smile at how tough Epictetus was on his students, and there’s a sort of black humour to some of Marcus’ Meditations.

While I can’t prove it, I’m sure many of the ancient Stoics had good senses of humour. For a start, Chrysippus died from laughing too hard.

And looking at more modern thinkers, Albert Ellis could be hilarious.

Listen to some of his lectures on Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (which is pretty much just a stripped down version of Stoicism) and you’ll hear points where he gets huge laughs from his audience. People attending his Friday night therapy sessions would sometimes describe him as a Stand Up Philosopher.

No, Stoics can definitely be funny.

Just as with a bit of study you’ll find that Stoicism isn’t about becoming emotionless, you’ll also find it’s not about becoming humourless.

Still, writing a Stoic comedy show hasn’t been easy.

I’ve only been getting into Stoicism for the last couple of years, whereas I’ve been doing stand up for over a decade.

Writing this show I’d often find myself facing what I thought was a conflict between what was Stoic and what was funny.

For example, comedy is often about getting worked up over external events – the exact opposite of what Stoicism teaches.

Think about all those comedians with routines about annoying telemarketers or how frustrating it is to open a packet of peanuts. That’s not very Stoic.

We don’t tend to laugh at what’s logical and rational, and being logical and rational is what Stoicism is all about.

In the show I want to explain the basics of Stoicism, but how could I do that if these idea were too logical to be funny? I want people to laugh at what I’m saying, not just sit there nodding in agreement.

Even worse, for a while I worried that if, thanks to practicing Stoicism, I stopped getting upset about things I’d also lose my ability to find inspiration for comedy routines.

A lot of people argue that comedy comes from comedians turning feelings of anger, sadness or frustration into comedy. Think about all those cliched “tears of a clown” stories you hear about comedians with depression.

If practicing Stoicism meant I wouldn’t experience those feelings as much, where would I get inspiration for my comedy?

After a bit of thought, I figured it out…

Stoicism says the solution to your problems lies within you, and I’ve found a lot of comedy is in there too.

Instead of criticising the outside world (e.g. ‘Airline peanuts are stupid. Opening them makes me frustrated…’), in the Stoic comedy bits I’ve written I’m criticising irrational reactions to the outside world (e.g. ‘I’m stupid. I make myself frustrated opening Airline peanuts…’).

Examining my own irrational beliefs like this has helped me write some routines that I’m really pleased with.

I think it’s also helping me become more Stoic. Looking at my irrational beliefs and making fun of them is kind of like the disputing technique used in CBT.

And the best part of mining my irrational thoughts for comedy inspiration?

I’ll never run out of material.

I don’t know if a Sage wouldn’t make a good comedian, but I’ve certainly got a lot of crazy to draw from.

The other challenge of writing Stoic comedy is that audiences aren’t very familiar with Stoic ideas.

Sometimes I’ve written a routine about how I reacted irrationally to something, and when I perform it for the first time the crowd will just stare at me because they see my reaction as normal.

For example, if I’ll say I was being crazy for getting upset about a delayed flight. The crowd will stare at me like ‘Well, of course you’d be upset when things don’t go your way…’

Usually I can fix the routine and get a laugh by just taking more time to explain why my reactions were irrational. “Would getting angry make the plane leave on time?” etc.

Sometimes though, I just can’t seem to get people to understand why some way of thinking is irrational.

For the last couple of months I’ve been trying to write a bit about how weird it is to think other people can control your emotions.

In the bit I point out that if you say telemarketers make you mad people nod and agree, but say extraterrestrials make you paranoid and SUDDENLY YOU’RE CRAZY.

To me, that’s a great concept that I should be able to get a lot of laughs out of, but so far every time I perform that routine people just stare at me.

I keep rewriting it and trying to set it up so the audience gets why thinking other people can control your emotions is crazy, but so far I’ve had no luck.

The key to unlocking the comedy in these bits is to more clearly explain the Stoic idea in the setup (external events don’t make you feel anything, etc.), so I’m constantly searching for simpler, more concise ways to express key concepts.

If you’re a member of a Stoicism Facebook group or Subreddit might have seen me posting questions like “What’s a simple way to explain the concept of Eudaimonia?”.

I’m slowly making progress.

Despite the odd failed joke, I’ve been working on this Stoic show for about six months now and have come up with some short routines around Stoic ideas.

I’ve been developing them at comedy clubs and even performed a few on a community television show I was on (you can watch them by clicking on this link, or watch below).

While I’m generally quite pleased with how most of these routines turned out, the show was produced under very tight deadlines and I think all of them could be improved.

You can think of the clips on youtube as an early draft of the show I’m working on now.

Some of those bits I’ve scrapped entirely, some I’ve developed and made longer, and then I’ve written new pieces. Currently I’m putting these pieces together and trying to mold them into a show.

At the moment the show mainly focuses on the dichotomy of control.

I talk about how everyone strives for a life of flourishing, that there are things beyond your control,

That your beliefs are in your control, that changing your beliefs will change your emotions (this is the same video as the first one at the top of the post).

And that with practice you can come to joyously embrace life no matter what it throws at you.

My hope is to eventually film the show and make it freely available on YouTube.

From there I’d love to bring the show to comedy clubs and festivals, and maybe even combine it with a workshop on Stoic basics and deliver it in schools.

I’ve been talking to a producer (same guy who directed the community TV show I did the Stoic spots on) and we’ve got a tentative plan to film the special mid year.

At this stage I don’t know if the filming will actually take place – working in the media is a great lesson in what you don’t control – but I’m fairly confident I can get it shot at a decent community TV quality level.

Once the show is filmed though, there will be no way I’ll be able to make changes.

Even shooting at a community TV studio takes a lot of time and money, and I’m only really going to get one shot at filming this thing. So before that happens…

I want your input.

I want this Stoic comedy show I’m writing to be an amusing introduction for people unfamiliar with Stoicism.

There’s no way I’ll be able to give a complete overview of Stoicism in a single comedy show, but hopefully with enough input I can make sure I hit some of the major points and avoid making any major mistakes.

I want to make this show accurate as well as funny, so let me know your thoughts.

What are some mistakes other introductions to Stoicism make that I should avoid?

Too much focus on happiness (people say this about William Irvine’s book)?

Too much history (do I really need to say the Stoics hung out on a porch)?

What are the major goofs I should watch out for?

What point(s) should definitely be included in an introduction to Stoicism?

The dichotomy of control?

The Logos?

Epictetus’ fondness for beards?

What topics, concepts and ideas can I simply not leave out?

How would you clearly and concisely explain that point?

Brevity is the soul of wit. Try to explain the concept you’re suggesting as simply, and with as few words, as possible. Give it to me “explain like I’m five” style.

Concrete, real world examples are a real help. Like in this routine (as above) where I use late trains to explain the idea that it’s our thoughts that make us upset not events.

If you have a humorous way to explain a key Stoic concept I’d love to hear it, but don’t worry about being funny (that’s my job).

Just let me know what I should avoid, what I should include and a simple explanation of what you’re suggesting I put in the show.

If you have any thoughts I’d love to hear them. You can contact me via Twitter, Facebook, comment under my youtube clips, or just shoot me an email at Michael@michaelconnell.com.au.

Michael Cornell began getting laughs at the age of three in his back yard with the Hills Hoist acting as stage and curtain, and he hasn’t stopped performing since.

At the age of thirteen Michael added juggling to his already extensive talents and spent several years busking and touring with various small circuses. Then, in January 2000, Michael entered the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Class Clowns Competition and launched his comedy career.

Winning competitions such as the Class Clowns Competition (a search to find Australia’s funniest high school student), and the TREV Campus Comedy Competition (a similar search for the funniest university student), helped Michael become an established performer on Melbourne’s comedy scene.

Over the years Michael has performed everywhere from the set of Rove [live] and Her Majesty’s Theatre, to the main stage of the Melbourne Town Hall and the Telstra Dome during half time. Michael has produced hit shows at festivals such as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, The Melbourne Fringe Festival, and more. He is regularly in demand as a corporate entertainer, a speaker at high schools and universities, and as a performer at comedy venues across Australia.

Michael’s sensitive, intelligent and hilarious routines are beautifully developed to make everyone laugh, and are clean enough not to offend anyone.

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9 thoughts on “'Stoic Comedy is not an Oxymoron' by Michael Connell”

  1. Hi Michael, so great that you are trying to bring stoicism to a wider public through your stand up comedy! Your shtick on the late trains and our frustrated responses to them is bang on. It reminded me of some of Louis CK’s routines. There is one in which he talks about people complaining about long plane rides or about slow internet on flights. But a better, and more logical response would be something along the lines of, “Wow! I’m flying! I’m in mid-air, that is SO F*** Awesome!” Here’s a link:

    He also has this great stoic bit about dating and relationships. He talks about how incredulous he is that our loved ones allow us to touch them, caress them and hug them, and instead of celebrating this great, awesome privilege of touching someone, we just end up complaining about them more often that not.

  2. Well, here’s why I didn’t laugh at the bit about extra-terrestrials: given what people believe about them, it’s not crazy to feel paranoid, even if there are healthier (more Stoic) reactions! Similarly, given what telemarketers do, it’s not crazy to feel mad about their calls, even if there are healthier (more Stoic) reactions to them.

    It is crazy to believe that malevolent aliens are something we have to decide how to react to, but it’s not crazy to believe that telemarketers are something we have to decide how to react to. So your example seems to slide between irrational responses to actually existing things/events, and irrational responses to fictional things/events. So perhaps that’s why it doesn’t quite work?

    I love this project, by the way. Right now, it’s got me wondering whether the Stoics would classify fictional entities as ‘externals.’ Hoping someone knows the texts well enough to say….

  3. Just when I’d decided enough of the exponential growth in comedy entertainment….

    On the subject of others controlling our emotions, “puppetry” comes to mind. I see vague potentially amusing images but no further…

  4. On the specific aliens / paranoia point, have you tried turning the sequence round? “Why are people so unfair? When my friend says that aliens are making her paranoid they look at her like she’s crazy. When I say cold-callers are making me angry, everyone just smile sympathetically..”

    I am not a comedian, but I have noticed that failure tends to amuse listeners, just as truth tends to engage them. So one route might be to start with the failures and frustrations of your ordinary life, then the failures and frustrations, post-stoicism, of trying to control your own reactions, with the consolation being that at least this makes good comedy, then finishing up with the famous “arrow leaving the bow” analogy and the realisation that as long as you’re trying to do the right thing, stoicism doesn’t require you to feel frustrated by failure – “that’s the last bloody straw – where’s the comedy in that?”

  5. A breath of fresh air in Stoic philosophy. My favourite post to date. & the only one that offers/proffers a direct way to deal with the day to day irritations of life – the most problematic part of life for me that results in negative thinking & emotions; lots of gnashing of teeth & a complete breakdown of “stoicness.” Perhaps I should stop here before I quit laughing & enter into a rant about my some of my pet peeves & a “larger” issue that boggles the mind, but is not under my control, though perhaps I can figure our a way to intervene with a polite suggestion that might improve a difficult, needlessly difficult, situation. Something that is not rocket science to fix.

    In the meantime, thank you Michael Connell.

    1. Thank you !!! Brilliant!!! I love the idea. Not only funny but helpful for people as well.Good luck I will dwell on it and hopefully come up with some funnies . One of the books I have been reading The shortness of life started off so depressing how everyone does everything wrong I couldn’t stop laughing . I will go back to it soon.

  6. I think Epictetus is an example of being funny. He could be updated into modern language and attitudes:

    “Look guys. Gimme a break. I’m old and knackered with a bust leg. I’ll soon to drop off the perch so, just so that I can die happy, behave like Stoic for me. I don’t want to butt out thinking my time here has been wasted. And by the way Arian, what the hell are you writing all the time. That’s not exactly going to help Stoicism.”

  7. I think that if one has the right “comedic” personality, they can make anything seem funny. Not everyone in the audience will be familiar with stoic teachings, so a comedian would have to make the material current, just interpreted comically through a stoic lens.