Once I met two successful people from a comedy team. It was my first day of work and I really respected them. I made a joke to one of them along the lines of “When are you going to ditch that other guy?” And he said pretty much that this was the go-to joke that every unfunny interviewer ever made to them.
I felt ashamed.
I wonder what is the idea behind my shame at making a bad joke.
Was it that it was untruthful? That I didn’t really think it was correct that people can’t be friends, and the premise of my joke was that everybody is out for number one, so I had said something I didn’t really believe? So I felt ashamed that I wasn’t true to myself and my truth?
A little. But that can’t be the whole story. When we are joking we are often trying out what we believe or might believe, looking at different sides of an issue. I don’t think comedy writing partners can’t be friends, but I think there is also a side of the story in which each member of the partnership chafes at the bit, and would like to be the sole star.
Was it just that I tried to do something — come up with an original joke — and failed? Sure, although even the funniest among us probably has a batting average no more than .300. Why be ashamed at a joke that fails, rather than just try again?
I think it may be because I thought to myself it was a courageous joke but it was actually a cowardly one. I thought — this is a bold move, touching on the idea that these two guys might secretly be jealous of each other — but in fact it was an easy joke to make. It was not courageous at all.
That seems to me to capture some of the more biting cases of shame. When we claim to a moral virtue — in this case courage — and realize that not only didn’t we achieve it, but we thought we did and it was clear to everyone we respect that we didn’t.
For example if I think I am saying something kind to someone and I learn that it actually came across as condescending and hurtful. I say “Hey how is your Mom — is she still sick” and the answer is “She died two weeks ago, and I told you, and you forgot.” That is a shameful realization. In an instant I go from seeing myself as kind to seeing myself as a self-obsessed, callous person, helping himself to the story of how kind he is.
Shame is unpleasant but I wouldn’t want to press a button that caused me to lose the capacity to feel it; because I don’t want to be that kind of imposter — it will keep me from ever being the real thing..