I’m excellent at self-deprecating humour (hereinafter SDH, because I’ll use the phrase a lot, and Britt gave me a word limit). No one knows how I suck more than I do, and I use that knowledge as skilfully as anyone. It feels like a necessary skill. In the UK, we don’t like people getting above themselves, we cut people down to size, and so a pre-emptive shot of SDH is a disarming show of humility and magnanimity. We’re also taught to fear people like me, a big hairy brown man, for some combination of those traits. So as someone who hosts improv nights and facilitates improv sessions and frequently puts myself in positions of elevated status, lowering myself through SDH levels me with the room and I’m convinced that I’ve relaxed everyone else.
Watch Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s revolutionary stand-up hour. It’s courageous and furious and sprawling and dense, and you’ll get a lot out of it. She talks about the importance of SDH to her comedy and to the experience of the other as they try to fit in. She then tells us that it’s “not humility, it’s humiliation”, for someone already on the margins, to “put myself down in order to seek permission to speak”. I felt this hard. I wanted to be liked, not feared, so I would shrink myself in various ways including SDH, to plead with people not to fear me, to put me on the team. In wishing not to be feared, I volunteered myself to be mocked instead, because that feels similar to being liked (after all, if they’re laughing at my joke about me, they’re at least laughing because of me). But it is so not the same thing. Liking someone is predicated on respecting them. To mock ourselves is to disrespect ourselves, and invite others to disrespect us too, and they can’t like us if they disrespect us, especially at our own invitation.
That’s to say nothing of the cumulative psychic damage. Every instance of SDH is another reinforcer of some limiting belief or flaw about ourselves, so it keeps being true when instead we could have reinforced ourselves as beings of growth and change. An act of mental self-harm, opening the wound to release the tension of living as a person we don’t like. Temporary relief, that sets back the permanent healing from coming to accept and love oneself. Easier to mock ourselves than love ourselves, and harder to love ourselves each time we mock ourselves.
Gadsby said she “will not do that anymore, not to [herself] or to anyone who identifies with [her]”. Someone on Twitter remarked that they replaced SDH in their discourse with jokes about how awesome they were. I thought I’d snatch that as my New Year’s resolution: replace self-deprecating humour with self-extolling humour. (‘Self-extolling humour’ is a phrase I had to contrive because English doesn’t have a widely accepted antonym for ‘self-deprecating’.)
So, “I’m too busy, I’m an idiot who can’t say no” becomes “everyone wants me, I’m too good at improv for my own good”. “I can’t afford that; I don’t know how to make money” becomes “they’re so jealous of me that they had to price me out”. “I forgot your name, I’m an asshole” becomes “I’m sorry, it’s just that I seem to attract a lot of great people.”
Early findings. It takes just as much intellectual effort to do SEH (yep) as SDH. Still, it’s harder initially to talk ourselves up, it’s unnatural; we’re fighting a habit of not just our lifetime but of generations. And yet, it’s really fun! Delivered with a bit of cheek and a twinkle in the eye, a room will really go for a display of SEH, even more so because it’s positive and uplifting and sooo transgressive. Oh: I lift other people up more too, whether just by demonstrating that this is allowed, or proactively, since being generous to myself has opened a wellspring of generosity towards others. When I’ve wanted to resolve a status imbalance, rather than putting myself down I’ve found that the better leveller is to raise everyone else up. I’m OK, you’re OK. You chose to hear from me because I’m good at this, and you have excellent taste. In all, I’m a more confident host and session leader, and the people I’m with have a better time. They laugh just as much, and leave feeling more positive too. They dig that big hairy brown guy.
Now, I had also been perceptive to how my peers give away their power, to relieve themselves of the unease of being in charge, and of the vulnerability of presenting themselves and their work. Offering a self-deprecating joke as an apology for a mistake or misspeak, making a gag after having made a point (or permitting one from elsewhere), giggling through a sentence, calling out the size of the audience (essentially insulting those that did show up), stuff like that. It saddens me.
Let’s believe that we are enough, that our performances and workshops are worth presenting, worthy of attention. Let’s cut out the SDH. Let’s not seek permission to speak but assume that as humans we have it anyway. Let’s not flinch from our size or power but tell our audiences they are equally magnificent. Let’s invite people to respect and like us by showing them we think we’re worthy of that, removing signs of our own doubt that we might not be (and going by my experience, those doubts happen less). It’ll be better for improv, when we present our wares proudly, congratulate our audiences for choosing us, and thank them for lending us their precious attention and the effort it took to get up and get here. Most importantly, it’ll be better for us individually and as a community, since loving ourselves and each other gets us to heal and grow and open up to connection.
You fell in love with improv because it taught you that people would delight in you if you showed them yourself instead of some diminished version. Remember that, when you’re leading others in a rehearsal/class/workshop or hosting a night. I came to hear from you, I’m here to see you. And I have excellent taste.
Juwel Haque is The Nursery’s Theatre Manager. He improvises with our house ensemble Dinner From Scratch, Somewhat Theatre, The Improvised Play, and elsewhere. Juwel’s currently on a break, chilling with his cats, who you can meet on Instagram @manlikejuwel. He’s sorry about the word count, Britt; it was all gold.