Where Is Your Locus of Evaluation
This week I met up with the excellent comedian Barry Ferns to have a big chat about process, and making stuff, and so on, and Barry introduced me to a psychotherapy theory I found really illuminating in terms of how I go about making comedy, and how I think about comedy in general, and I thought I’d share it with you all! This theory is called the “Locus of Evaluation” theory, and explores where we look in order to evaluate ourselves, where we source our concept of good/bad, right/wrong etc. People can have either an internal or external locus of evaluation, meaning the values and standards by which they judge their self are either based on things inside themselves, or on things in the external world. People with an internal locus of evaluation tend to have a more consistent, coherent, predictable sense of self that doesn’t shift or alter much in different contexts. People with an external locus of evaluation are dependent on particular kinds of feedback from the outside world in order to feel like a “good” or “right” or “proper” person, so will shift and adapt themselves based on the environment they’re in, and so may appear to have multiple selves, or multiple different tones or facets to their personality.
I’d not heard this theory before, but immediately recognised myself as someone with an external locus of evaluation – I can be a very different person depending on who I’m with, veering through different levels of formality or seriousness or thoughtfulness or goofiness, and the status I allow myself to have in a room varies wildly depending on what room I’m in. I’ve not read enough about this theory to know if one model of being is supposed to be “preferable” to the other – personally I’ve never felt like I have a problem with feeling like I can allow different tones or aspects of who I am to come to the fore or recede into the background depending on what sort of situation I’m in. But perhaps an external locus of evaluation speaks more deeply to a kind of discomfort in oneself, or a neediness in terms of requiring specific evaluative feedback from the external world. I’m not sure, all I know is that for the time being I’m not overly concerned about it.
But it did make me think about my own experiences making comedy over the last few years, and my thoughts on observing other people being very good at it. I’ve written here before about how impressive I find it when I watch other comics who have a pinpoint certainty about who they are onstage, about exactly what their comic viewpoint or persona is, and how to filter any idea that occurs to them through the lens of that persona. It’s something I’ve always struggled to do myself, and since chatting to Barry I wonder whether that’s partly down to my having an external locus of evaluation. Perhaps the comics who are most consistently brilliant at going onstage and presenting a crystal-clear distillation of what their comic perspective on the world is, have an internal locus of evaluation, and can simply allow their onstage selves to be the funny person they are offstage. When you have an external locus of evaluation, your sense of who you actually are might shift depending on who you’re with, so how can you square this with the idea of being in front of a different audience every night? What version of yourself do you need to be in order to be funny for these people? It was these sorts of thoughts that led me to stop performing for the best part of a year back in late 2017, and now I see that perhaps what I was struggling with there was trying to find a coherent sense of who I actually was when I wasn’t in front of an audience. Who was I when I was alone? I needed to be alone for a while to figure it out.
This is a cool piece of art Miranda and I saw at the MADRE Contemporary Art Museum in Naples. It was a bunch of mirrors in front of skulls. It feels relevant to what I’m talking about somehow.
I think one of the things I’ve been doing in my work since that enforced break is finding ways to give the audience the coherence and the confidence of presenting them with a single, coherent self I can believe in, while also finding ways to allow myself the freedom to express more varied and nuanced shades of myself than that would normally allow. My 2019 show, in which I wore a beard and sunglasses and called myself Mr Fruit Salad in order to trick myself into feeling more comfortable and in command onstage than I really did, gave the audience a bold, clear, confident character who knew who he was and could present all his ideas through a single comic lens. The show behind that beard fragmented into various shades of chaos and anxiety and melancholy and I attempted to give some indication of who I felt I was while channelling it into something coherent and consistent. I realise I’m doing the same this year with Blink – the central character is a high-status magician who believes he is one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever seen. That persona is the lens shown to the audience, and everything funny about the show is made funny through that lens. But the show is also acutely aware that that character is not what he thinks he is, and again, his sadness, his shame, his stupidity, his anxiety, are all expressed as the show itself moulds into a more unusual shape.
I’ve not been conscious of any of this, but having talked this theory through with Barry, I wonder if the characters I’ve been conjuring over the last three years are attempts to give myself a single, coherent self I can permit myself to be onstage that knows how to be funny in itself, without being dependent on external feedback. But because I know that’s not a true reflection of who I am, the shows I’ve built around those characters have been an attempt to express my perspective on the world despite the consistency and coherence of those characters. I dunno. I’m just spitballing here. What do you guys reckon? Do you think comedians need to have very strong, clear, coherent personas and outlooks on the world in order to be funny, or do you think there’s space for comedic work to explore more varied shades of humanity than that? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this, I’m really enjoying reading up on this subject!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Ellie White and Natasia Demetriou’s sketch pilot from a couple of years ago has been adapted into a great new full series, and you can watch it on iPlayer! Give it a watch, I really enjoyed it.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I performed at the Paddock this week (had a lovely time, thanks for having me), and one of the films they screened was this absolute masterpiece by Connor O’Malley. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages. It’s also not for the faint-hearted.
Album Of The Week – Artifacts by Beirut. Like everyone, I was a huge fan of Beirut while I was at uni. They’ve continued to bob around in my favourite artists ever since, with their 2019 album Gallipoli being particularly brilliant. This is their first big release since then, and is a massive collection of all their EPs, B-sides and early stuff. It includes a bunch of stuff I’d never heard even during my peak Beirut era. If you enjoyed them back in 2009, this is well worth checking out.
Book Of The Week – My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life: Adventures In Anxiety by Georgia Pritchett. A key writer on shows like Veep and Succession, Pritchett’s memoirs are a collection of fragments exploring anxiety that shift slowly from the hilarious to the profound, and they also include loads of brilliant insight into the world of professional screenwriting. Excellent book.
Film Of The Week – Jurassic World: Dominion. I went in fully aware of how much this film has been savaged by critics, and was excited to see the worst film of the summer. Do you know what? Everyone’s been needlessly harsh to it. It’s not that bad. It’s a perfectly average summer dinosaur blockbuster. It’s a solid 3-star film, and doesn’t deserve all the 1-star panning. If anything, the fact that it’s a 3-star film makes it quite disappointing after you’ve been revving yourself up with all the terrible reviews.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know your thoughts, and if you enjoy the newsletter, feel free to recommend it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe! See you all next time, and take care of yourselves in the meantime,
PS Here’s me being granted access to a key prop from John-Luke Roberts’ new Fringe show.