The 'good' delusion | Luke Mcgibbon on the terrible open-mic comedians convinced of their competence...

The 'good' delusion

Luke Mcgibbon on the terrible open-mic comedians convinced of their competence...

A friend of mine once said: ‘You know who is a true friend in comedy? Someone who, after a gig in which you did badly, doesn’t say anything, can’t look you in the eye, and quietly leaves through the back door.

He told me this with his eyes, of course, as he backed out of the fire escape. 

If what he said is indeed the case, then in my time I’ve been a social butterfly for many people. I run an open mic night in a small scene, and half the work of promoting is simply apportioning out stage time to the correct people to create a night that is good in quality, lasts an appropriate amount of time for punters but is also constructive to acts. The nature of this scene means demand often outweighs what I can supply. 

How does someone choose people to give time to? Quality is one thing, sure, but to ensure the acts are using the stage time constructively I’m currently prioritising effort, which is a hard thing to measure and define. There’s the amount of fine-tuning and new writing an act brings, how dedicated they seem, whether they are coming to watch on nights they are not on, whether they doing gigs that aren’t necessarily going to be easy, things like that.

If they aren’t good yet, you cushion them between good acts until their quality stands by itself. It will come in time, but in this moment their effort is what is important to me. But there is one thing that undermines even that, which makes any amount of effort a complete waste of time. And that is delusion.

There’s a popular term in psychoanalysis: defence mechanisms. It refers to unconscious psychological actions we take to protect ourselves and our acceptable pictures of the world, perhaps from an uncomfortable truth. 

Some defences are necessary and even healthy (sublimation, or the channelling of pain into higher channels like art, is a good example of this), but many are gateways to mental pain. 

For example, a child abused by a parent could believe that they themselves are at fault (‘turning on the self’). And of course, the most classic defence mechanism of all is denial. 

When I said ‘delusion' earlier, I’m aware that it exists on a spectrum. I’m not saying bad open mic comedians are mentally ill. we all use defence mechanisms. We change the subject when the topic is uncomfortable. We avoid people who make us anxious. But unhealthy defence mechanisms are on very public display more often than you think, and dealt with improperly, in the worst possible places: comedy open mic nights and reality television.

I never used to watch the X-Factor beyond the auditions. I found myself watching with morbid fascination as terrible, terrible singers subjected themselves to public humiliation and were shocked to find themselves not showered with praise, but criticised by a handful of bored and awkward celebrities. 

Why go through such pain? When I watch with other people, they always say ‘nobody has had the guts to tell them they’re a bad singer’, or ‘some idiot has told them they’re brilliant and they’ve swallowed it whole’. 

There’s an assumption that this person has lived a life lacking in necessary ‘tough love’. That they have not had their belief that they are a good singer challenged enough. 

We see people like this on the open mic scene of course. Even if they do receive the ‘tough love’ from audiences who greet then with total silence or charity chuckles, we all know of six-year vets making no improvement, yet completely lacking in vital self-awareness of the fact. Scribbling down on notepads all the jokes in their dire set that ‘worked’. It’s not necessarily a lack of intelligence, and I don’t think the problem is an absence of tough love. I think that tough love makes things worse.

There’s a famous nonfiction book by Milton Rokeach called The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. It’s really very good. Rokeach, a psychiatrist, decides to conduct a massively unethical experiment. 

He gets three separate schizophrenics in his hospital, each one believing that they are the living, breathing second coming of Jesus Christ, and has them work and live together. Living together in an environment where their delusion of identity was constantly challenged simply by the other men’s presence was meant to, in theory, help the men recover. Rokeach also attempted to manipulate other aspects of their delusions by inventing messages from imaginary characters (He wasn’t a nice guy, I don’t think). 

He did not, as he had hoped, provoke any lessening of the patients' delusions. In fact in many ways they became worse.

While initially the three patients quarrelled over who was holier and reached the point of physical altercation, they eventually each explained away the other two as being patients with a mental disability in a hospital, or dead and being operated by machines.

 Under constant challenge, many of us simply retreat further and further into our defences and delusions. 

You see this in the open mic scene; good gigs invented from a silent crowd or the delusion that the crowd ‘did not get them’. You see this on TV as bad singers get challenged by the biggest names in the music business (questionable as Simon Cowell’s judgement and motives can be) and shrug them off. They’ll see. They’ll all see.

I’ve known maybe five acts over my five years as a promoter that I could say with near certainty were never going to get better because of this inability to see themselves honestly. I used to enjoy watching them; I found them fascinating. I bit my lip once as someone told me he wasn’t looking for a job, because comedy was his life. But at the end of The Three Christs, Rokeach says that only one christ was cured of his Godlike delusions. Himself. 

As a promoter now I think simply giving these people stage time when I know there is no chance of improvement is as unethical as the experiment. What is the solution? I don’t know if there is one. 

Perhaps some people should not be given the stage time with which to embarrass themselves or go deeper Into defensiveness, if they’ve had sufficient time to improve and not done so. 

Psychoanalysts who encounter resistance simply point out to their clients that they are facing resistance and try to interpret it. This can be a bit brazen, but may be helpful in the end. 

Person-centred therapists would look at the resistance in an empathic, nonjudgemental way. Maybe as promoters or fellow comics it would help to work on our ability to have difficult conversations with honest, empathic feedback, to be able to slip in the information they need without pushing them deeper into denial.

And Luke finished writing his article, and saw that it was good. Amen.

• Luke Mcgibbon previously wrote A Passive-Aggressive Guide To Running A Gig for Chortle.

Published: 26 Feb 2018

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