Power, Proximity, and Standup Comedy

The most pure expression of power you’ll ever see is standup comedy. 

I don’t mean the greatest magnitude of power, mind you. Most standup comedians are broke, and most comedy acts fail to gain real momentum in popular culture or create any snowballing path to fame and influence. Only a few select people work their way up to being Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock. On average, the stakes involved in a comedy set are tiny. 

But in terms of the purity of the exercise, show business is the most distilled, pure form of what power actually is. Because the hardest skill in the world is making a crowd of strangers laugh, under your control. 

Getting a crowd of strangers to laugh is a different challenge from getting a single stranger to laugh, or getting your friends to laugh. To get a single stranger to laugh, you need funny things to say, but that’s the extent of the challenge. To get your friends to laugh, you don’t even have to be that funny; you just have to be close with them. In contrast, getting a crowd of strangers to laugh under your control is a bigger challenge, because you need to create temporary intimacy among strangers. That is what is hard. People who can do that, in a controlled fashion, are powerful. 

Pure power – not the power of institutions or structures, but raw, personal charisma that lets single individuals lead groups of people – isn’t actually all that complicated. It’s rare and difficult; but it’s not complicated. There are only two variables: proximity and intimacy

On the X axis here, we have proximity. Proximity here means, “how close together are you?” This can mean many things: physical proximity is one, but also the degree to which a group of people considers themselves peers. Total strangers who have nothing in common and do not see each other as peers have low proximity. Neighbours have high proximity; not only because they’re physically co-located, but also because you’re likely to see one another as peers (similar levels of income, similar social groups, similar values). 

On the Y axis, we have intimacy. Intimacy here means, “Do you see yourself in the other person?” It can be positive, negative, or zero. Intimacy requires proximity. You can’t be intimate with someone far away from you; there’s zero intimacy there, neither positive nor negative. In contrast, two people in close proximity to one another – friends, neighbours, coworkers, penpals, spouses – will see themselves in the other person, a lot. This can break in one of two ways: positive intimacy, or negative intimacy. 

Positive intimacy means, when you look at the other person and see yourself in them, it makes you feel good. You’re unified, and you’re at ease.Negative intimacy is the opposite: your intense proximity and similarity makes you feel bad; you’re acutely aware of tiny differences and what they reveal about you; you feel defensive.

This critical difference between positive and negative intimacy is the difference between a crowd or a team – which is powerful, aligned, and wants to exist – versus a collection of smushed together individuals, which is antagonistic, internally hostile, and doesn’t want to exist. 

Without intimacy, proximity only provokes hostility. (Dante’s concise definition of hell, in fact, was ‘proximity without intimacy.’) This antagonism runs really deep in how humans operate. Elias Canetti opens Crowds and Power (the definite book on this whole topic) with chilling paragraph on The Fear of Being Touched: 

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. All the distances which men create round themselves are dictated by this fear. The promptness with which apology is offered for an unintentional contact, the tension with which it is awaited, our violent and sometimes even physical reaction when it is not forthcoming, the antipathy and hatred we feel for the offender, even when we cannot be certain who it is – the whole knot of shifting and intensely sensitive reactions to an alien touch – proves that we are dealing here with a human propensity as deep-seated as it is alert and insidious; something which never leaves a man when he has once established the boundaries of his personality. 

It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. 

Canetti goes on to describe a powerful phenomenon, which is the release of energy that happens when a group of individuals all of a sudden throw off their differences and defensiveness, and merges into a crowd. Crowds form when the perceived distances between people drop to zero, and intimacy within the group suddenly swings from negative to positive. This can mean a physical crowd – one common place people have viscerally felt this physical “coming together” is at sports games or concerts – but the same thing happens during team formation, when there’s this distinct moment where a group of individuals aware of their differences suddenly transforms into a united crowd that becomes capable and powerful.

Canetti calls this moment the “Discharge”. The discharge is the moment when crowds form out of individuals, and it’s the moment where intimacy is originated. It’s called the discharge because it feels, almost physically, like throwing a weight off your shoulders. If you’ve ever been on a packed, sweaty dance floor at a concert, you’ve felt this feeling: it’s very intimate, and you are completely under the power of the person who created this intimacy, which is the band leader. (If the hardest skill in the world is get a group of strangers to laugh under your control, the second hardest is to get them to dance. You can’t fake it. It is a skill that takes both innate talent and years of practice.) 

This critical moment – the discharge – is really the focal point of how power works; because it’s something you can control as an individual, with skill and practice. This is where standup comedians are such an instructive example.

When you earnestly laugh, that’s a genuine expression of who you are and what you find funny. That’s why getting someone to laugh in a group situation is much harder than getting them to laugh one-on-one. Unless, that is, you’re already all friends. If you’re all friends, you’re already intimate. So it’s very easy to laugh, and be yourself. But among a group of strangers, where there’s close proximity but negative intimacy, you all have your guards up at all times. If you laugh and no one else does, you feel naked and embarrassed. So no one laughs. 

So what standup comedians have to do is take control of the group by creating a discharge moment, where everyone throws down their guard and the whole crowd suddenly becomes intimate. This is why the opening line of a standup comedy set pretty much makes or breaks it. Watch one of these moments, like one of my favourite off-the-cuff openers ever, from Richard Pryor: 

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen… and we’d also like to thank the ELO [the opening band, Electric Light Orchestra], really fantastic. Gotta say, wow, they were cool… White folks can really play electricity.

Beyond the jokes, there are all these other elements of a standup set that contribute to the comedian’s power over the crowd. One recurring element is the physical environment of the comedy club, and why it’s important that the audience be physically uncomfortable. (Steve Martin talks about this direct relationship in his book, Born Standing Up: the more physically uncomfortable the audience, the bigger the laughs.) Physically squeezing the audience together is like a pressure cooker where you force the audience into a situation where everybody is equally uncomfortable, and it unlocks intimacy. 

Crammed physical environments, by the way, are important way beyond standup comedy. I’ve always laughed at the idea of people showing off open-concept houses with all the walls removed as “great for entertaining”, because that’s the opposite of true: the best parties happen in houses with several tiny rooms. In startups, same thing is true: it’s very important that your physical surroundings be actively uncomfortable. (There’s a famous Jane Jacobs line that ’new ideas need old buildings’, which is almost correct – it’s not the age of the building that actually matters, it’s the size and shabbiness of the rooms. An old building that’s been beautifully renovated with all the walls knocked down doesn’t count.) This is also why there’s real truth in the recurring anecdote that great companies begin their decline at the moment where they open a new fancy office building.

Back to standup, though. It’s fascinating to watch these titans of their craft talk among themselves about tactics and mechanics, because it’s the clearest window you’ll ever get into people talking tactically about how power works. (“When great artists hang out, they talk about turpentine.”) You kind of get this in Jerry Seinfeld’s show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but it’s not quite the real thing because it’s still very much a produced show that is intended for non-comedians as the audience. If you want to see what comedians actually talk about when they hang out together, watch The Aristocrats. Do not under any circumstances watch it with your kids.

As with many professions, the internet has had an interesting impact on standup comedy. On the one hand, the internet makes it much harder to follow the traditional path of making a living in show business, just as it has for musicians and other artists. But on the other hand, the internet is a massive leverage-magnifier. In a world of abundant leverage, like today, tiny expressions of pure power have way more legs than they ever had before. This true both for funny people pursuing careers in comedy (but which might take the form of, say, Twitch streaming), but also people pursuing more conventional kinds of power.

There’s no better example than Donald Trump. It was not lost on anyone, even the people who hate him most, that he’s genuinely very funny. He has a comedian’s gift for timing, and his huge campaign rallies were explicitly standup routines. Like, watch this and tell me with a straight face that this isn’t a genuinely good comedy bit:

Comedy is really two things: it’s revealing the absurd inside the logical, and revealing the logical inside the absurd. Comedians bring a crowd together in their sudden reveal; that’s what drives the discharge, and sustains the unity of the crowd. (The only person to my knowledge that’s ever done a good Trump impression – this guy – shows why; the essential element isn’t the content of what he’s saying, which is meaningless. It’s the absurdity of it that creates the moment of discharge, which is all that matters.)

If you can bring a crowd together and keep them together, you can accomplish almost anything you want; the trick is holding them together, not just getting lucky once. But if you can do that, then it hardly matters what you’re talking about; the power of the crowd itself is what’s important, and what people are drawn towards. Imagine if someone like Dave Chappelle ran for president. You can picture it. It would work.  

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