The other night, I was telling an improviser-friend of mine how funny he was, and he wasn't buying it. "Tell me I suck," he said. "Then maybe I'll trust you."
Put that in your pocket for a second.
Cut to a party, where I'm talking about vulnerability. Most parties I'm either talking about vulnerability or just feeling it. So I'm at this party, talking to some polite and curious person who asked what I do for a living, and they're a massage therapist or something easy to explain, and so when I say I perform and teach comedy, they ask lots of follow-up questions. And then, when I explain that my subset of comedy practice is rooted in individual authenticity and vulnerability, they tip their head, and say, "Do you know the work of Brené Brown?"
Oh, yes, trust that I get down with some Brené Brown! I'm eternally grateful to her. She made vulnerability cool. She made it hip, human and bankable. And she continues to be a resource to me for her canny ability to provide METRICS to what I have always believed as a clown: that the root of my power IS my vulnerability. My absolute strength IS my absolute weakness. And she's got science to prove that? My shero.
Here's what Queen Brené says about the relationship between vulnerability and creativity.
"No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. It is that simple. If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create."
What Brené is suggesting here is that in order for people to discover and create, to be artists, they have to feel safe. They have to feel that there is SPACE for them to fail.
Put that in your pocket too.
I was recently hanging out with a woman friend, brilliant clown/comedian. She had just taken a Via Negativa clown class. Just to fill in those lucky enough to not know what Via Negativa is—this is a style of clown teaching in which, supposedly, the clown finds themself through negative criticism; that is, after being told "you suck, get off stage" enough, presumably, the clown will find a way to stay on stage, not be told "you suck", and discover triumphant success despite all obstacles.
My friend was telling me about her experience in this class. "The teacher had us go on stage and introduce ourselves, so I went and said, Hi, I'm ______, and then he immediately goes, Get off stage, you're being insincere. And I'm like... wait... I paid a hundred bucks for this?"
Add that to your pocket.
Now, think back to my improviser-man friend, who needs to hear he sucks before he can believe that he's funny.
Is your pocket full-to-bulging?
Let's call that bulge the heady start to a conversation about Via Negativa, and its very real and complicated place in comedy pedagogy. Enjoy your bulge!
My personal experience with Via Negativa was my month with Gaulier in Sceaux, just outside of Paris: every day, 7 hours of training, maybe one minute of stage time, followed by two minutes of being told I suck as a human being without any specific notes I could actually use and apply, and then an evening crying over pastries.
The idea behind this style of training, I've been told, is that, in order to succeed, the clown must find their own cocktail of desperation and inner-strength. Once you are fired up enough to stop caring what the authority says, that is when you are able to really let loose and be free. Think Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Think Peter Finch in Network. I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE. When the oppression gets too much, the white man stands up and—oh shit, I'm showing my hand too fast. But let us just consider. Who's been set up their whole lives to potentially excel at a certain kind of maverick rebellion against authority? And who, perhaps, maybe, hasn't?
Look, we all hate comedy classes in which "everything's fine and everyone's great." We hate dishonesty in our comedy classroom. We yearn for someone to call out the garbage. And we are right to want that. And, sure, there can be real power in triumphing against oppression. It's what happened to me for the two days I actually triumphed and got laughs in my otherwise-absolutely-money-wasting experience with Gaulier. If you can kill in that room, that workshop in which everyone is oppressed—if you can rise to the top of that huddled, miserable pack, you've reached the American Dream, you've made it, you're unstoppable. I know, now that I've made that room really laugh, I can make ANY ROOM LAUGH. Sure, that's a little bit true.
And yet, I still think I could've saved myself a few grand and a month of crying over pastries, and just found an actual good teacher to study with.
It is possible for a pedagogic method to keep a classroom honest and not involve abuse. When I was learning how to ride a bicycle (at age 30, incidentally), someone told me to focus on the path I'm following and not on all the potential obstacles and things I could crash into. Focus on where you want to go, not on where you don't want to go. I use this with my students: keep them focused on the desired path. That doesn't mean I'm not being honest, it just means the focus is on the goal, not the mistakes.
Via Negativa, on the other hand, asks the student to focus on all the obstacles they crashed into. To wallow in what they've just done wrong. For my masochistic white man improv-friend, this is fabulous, because it reminds him that his shit stinks, which is apparently what some people seem to need.
But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that a lot of people, and definitely a lot of not-men, do NOT need to be reminded that their shit stinks. They've gotten plenty of that message already. And for those people, wallowing in their shit-stink (god I'm sorry this is the current metaphor) is going to keep them convinced that they're not funny and that they don't deserve stage-time. Highlighting failure is not the right teaching mode for people who already feel marginalized or not-privileged, and thus, I'd say it's a pretty problematic teaching mode, period.
So you'll have to excuse me when I come right out and say that Via Negativa, the practice of focusing on what's bad and wrong about what a clown is doing onstage—for the supposed higher purpose of encouraging the clown to "rebel" against authority and "do their own thing"—is patriarchal, misogynist, and, while we're at it, colonialist. It might've been very innovative in the 1960's. But today, let's just call it what it is: macho, abusive bootcamp-style sadism befitting frat houses and old-school military training. It's not teaching, it's bullying.
And sure, this Not-Teaching/Bullying technique might work for some, but I would argue that it mostly works for people who are already in a position of privilege in terms of their own entitlement to take up space. If your teacher is encouraging behavior that comes naturally to some because it's been culturally conditioned, and encouraging others to cower and hide because that's what's been culturally conditioned for them, they're not only Not-Teaching, buddy. They're perpetuating patriarchy.
As artists, we are commanded by the good sweet Satan to work another way.
Via Negativa is some actual bullshit, and I'm done making excuses for teachers who use it by saying nice diplomatic things like, "Well, it's not my style, but it works for some dot dot dot." No. I'm officially mad.
I'm officially tired of women coming into my classes having taken Via Negativa clown classes and thinking they're not funny when they're SO funny. The amount of traumatized (and very funny) women I've worked with is STAGGERING, friends. I am officially calling that out as un-cool. And not just women; I've seen a lot of funny performers of all genders fail miserably in an oppressive Via Negativa atmosphere and succeed big-time elsewhere.
And I've heard from so many people trying to make excuses for these Via Negativa teachers. Oh, he's really good at training men, just less-so with women. You know what else works great for men and not women? The fucking patriarchy. You are a comedy teacher and you're NOT doing everything you can to support the comedy of non-men? Well, enjoy yourself, I guess. But don't call yourself a feminist, don't call yourself a liberal or a radical or anything else. You're a status-quo-enforcer, pretending to dismantle the master's house and using the master's tools the whole time.
Set the gender issue aside for a moment and just focus on the concept of PEDAGOGY. Try this. Think of a skill you possess. Got one? Great. Now, how would you teach someone that skill? Would you break it down into manageable chunks? Would you encourage repetition and practice? Or... would you allow someone 0.5 seconds to try the skill before you yell at them to go away and stop trying?
Of course you wouldn't do that last one, right? Because that's not actual teaching.
I don't care how anarchic and bad-ass you think you are. If you think about teaching for two seconds, you realize that There's The Actual Way You Teach Someone A Skill, and there's Definitely-Not-That. Plus, remember what our friend and researcher-to-the-stars Brené Brown says: it's scientifically unlikely that true creativity is even possible in an environment where failure is not tolerated.
I for one am tired of all of it. I believe it was the great John McClane who, when trapped in a skyscraper full of terrorist robbers led by a German-accented Alan Rickman, said to some idiot cops, "Now, you listen to me, jerk-off, if you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem. Quit being a part of the fucking problem!"
So let's call teaching what it is, and not-teaching what IT is. Let's call macho, patriarchy-enforcing classrooms what they are. If you want to be an asshole to people trying to learn an art form, if you want idol-worship from people who love to worship idols, call it "live directing" and charge a lot less.
I propose Via Negativa be cancelled, bitches. Let's cancel this bullshit right now.
What do you say?