A Comedian Avoids a Tragedy: Vinny's Story
by Barry Michels
Vinny was loud and caustic; a stand-up comic who, as he boasted, “put his balls on the line” every night in front of total strangers. I would never have pegged him for an avoider, but in his first session I quickly realized he’d elevated it to a new level. Vinny strenuously avoided doing anything that would help his career.
There was the time his manager got him invited to an A-list Hollywood party, full of film and TV executives who hire comics. Vinny showed up drunk and disheveled and managed to insult half the guests. And in a more recent incident, his manager had lined up an introduction to a powerful club owner, the kind who can make or break careers, and Vinny hadn’t bothered to show up for the meeting.
Vinny didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. “I’m not a morning person and my manager should know that by now,” he groused. Worse, he rationalized his behavior as virtuous. In his mind, he was defending a proud comedy tradition of not selling out. “You kiss someone’s ass at a party, it seems harmless. Maybe they do you a favor. Next thing you know, you’re hosting ‘The New Hollywood Squares.’”
DEATH AND COMEDY DON’T MIX
At first, all I was able to do was get him to admit that he didn’t like being stuck on the small-club circuit after ten years. After a while, he admitted that maybe this wasn’t his manager’s fault. Finally, he admitted that he was tired of being a bitter, limited version of himself, spending his nights in cheesy clubs or hanging out with the same tight-knit group of loser friends he’d known since high school, smoking dope and playing video games. That was where he felt safe, but he knew it was killing his career.
We uncovered the reason he’d alienated everyone who could help him. He hated needing help—asking for it felt humiliating to him. This started early on. “I came out of the womb in a clown suit,” Vinny told me. “As a kid, I was always trying out new material on my father’s customers.” Unfortunately, his father ran a business that wasn’t exactly compatible with stand-up comedy: He was an undertaker. Furious, his father would regularly beat Vinny and call him names when he would cry. Little wonder that when he left home, Vinny vowed he’d never give anyone the chance to cause him pain.
VINNY LEARNS A TOOL TO FACE HIS PAIN
Anyone can empathize with how uncomfortable it would be for someone with Vinny’s background to ask for help. But by avoiding this vulnerability, Vinny had effectively dead-ended his career. The only solution was for him to learn to move through the pain so that he could do the things that less-talented comics did routinely—asking for help from club owners, sitcom producers, casting directors, etc.
I taught him a tool called the Reversal of Desire. I explained that in his case, the tool would propel him through the pain of asking people for help. He had to be willing to face this pain or his career would never have a chance. I practiced the tool with him many times in my office. At first, I instructed him to use it on less daunting types of pain—forcing himself to go to bed earlier, eat better, be nicer to his girlfriend. After several weeks, Vinny was ready to tackle something bigger.
Part of cleaning up his life required a call to the powerful club owner he’d blown off. It was intimidating enough asking him for a job, but now he also had to ask his forgiveness. Vinny’s assignment was to use the Reversal of Desire every time he thought, “No way, I can’t do it.” After two weeks of doing this, he shocked himself and made the call. The guy didn’t get back to him for five days, which gave Vinny a chance to use the tool hundreds of more times.
Finally, the dreaded return call came. The owner chewed Vinny out. “It was the longest five fucking minutes of my life,” Vinny said. Then the owner got another incoming call and put Vinny on hold “for another five fucking minutes.” Vinny used the Reversal of Desire for dear life, expecting more abuse —but the other call was a cancellation by a comic for that very night. The club owner offered the slot to Vinny—who “killed.”
Not long after, his greatest dream came true: he won the lead role in a TV sitcom.
THE TEMPTATION TO PUT HIS FEET UP
A few days after his victory celebration, I saw him in my office. I told him he was going to need a realistic plan to deal with the pressures of his new situation—getting along with actors he felt competitive with, reading lines that might not be as funny as he’d like, etc. He didn’t seem to hear me; instead he launched into a self-satisfied rant about all the celebs he was meeting and how funny they thought he was. Evidently, he wasn’t done celebrating.
Alarm bells went off in my head. “Vinny, this is the point where people self-destruct. If they aren’t used to success, they think they can stop working on themselves. But reality hasn’t changed. You need the Reversal of Desire even more than before.”
He said, “Doc, have you seen how the world treats stars? I’m on easy street from now on.” I had the distinct feeling that I was watching a train wreck in slow motion; Vinny had left reality for fantasyland.
I was stupefied, but I shouldn’t have been. Most of my patients had the same pattern of behavior. They’d try the tools, love the results they got, and then stop using them. Why?
Every one of us has a “magical something”—a relationship, job, achievement or possession—that we fantasize will rescue us from the treadmill that is real life. For Vinny, the “magical something” was fame. Now that he’d achieved it, he believed that struggle was a thing of the past. We call this fantasy of an effort-free, undemanding life “exoneration.”
Vinny ended up paying a huge price for quitting the tools. Predictably, he quit therapy and slid back into his Comfort Zone, showing up hung-over and late for work, refusing to learn his lines (“I improvise 100 times better than they write”), and being nasty and uncooperative with his fellow actors. The situation worsened until eventually, he was fired.
He returned to therapy deeply depressed. I had to convince him that the only way back to the land of the living was to start using tools again. I told him, “Only The Tools can restart you and restore a sense of meaning to your life.” But how do you get someone who has lost all hope to make the effort to use The Tools?
GETTING BACK ON TRACK WITH ANOTHER TOOL
The answer is willpower. It’s an amazing gift because it’s always available to us. As long as you’re conscious, you can always use a tool. But most of us don’t know how to generate the willpower to do so. Most commonly, we wait until we’re at risk of losing something important to us: a job, a relationship, our reputation. We’ll stay up all night to write a report because we know we’ll be fired if we don’t hand it in. But there’s a problem with this way of generating willpower: it’s episodic; once the report is handed in the danger has been averted—and with it goes the willpower..
If we could find something that sustained that sense of being in jeopardy, it would be a permanent source of willpower. We don’t like to think about it, but there is something you’re always at risk of losing: your future.
I demonstrated this to Vinny by asking him to close his eyes and imagine that, defeated by his own depression, he never used The Tools again. “What would your life look like after a few years?” He grimaced immediately. “I’m a decrepit, three-hundred-pound loser, lying in bed … Oh my God!” Something had terrified him. “I’m living in my mother’s house!”
This wasn’t funny to Vinny, it was a disaster. Every person has their own version of a future destroyed by their passivity in the present. That’s the ultimate source of jeopardy, and the ultimate source of willpower. The fifth tool in our book, called Jeopardy, uses your awareness of this danger to trigger the sense of urgency you need. It creates unstoppable willpower.
I told Vinny to use Jeopardy whenever he needed a tool but felt too demoralized to use one. He used Jeopardy to get himself to use the Reversal of Desire, at first on simple things, like getting up early and getting some physical activity every day. Soon he began to feel better, and he was able to use the Reversal of Desire to tackle something tougher—making amends to the people he’d alienated. A few refused to take his call, but most forgave him, and several actively helped him restart his career.
I was worried that once his career took off again, he’d stop using the tools, but before I could even say anything, he laughed and said, “Don’t worry doc, whenever I get the urge to quit, I see myself living with mother. That'll keep me using the tools for the rest of my life.”
That’s when I knew that Vinny’s psychotherapy had been successful.