One of comedian Al Franken’s more enduring characters is Stuart Smalley, an awkward man who wears pastel and stares into a mirror saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
Superficially, the character is a parody of self-help “fake it ’til you make it” psychotherapy strategies, where it feels like affirmation mantras are said over and over but don’t really sink in.
This may well be how Al Franken meant it. I know that, for a long time, that’s how I took it. And frankly, there’s absolutely something frustrating about people engaged in hamster wheel affirmations.
At the same time, though, I feel a sadness in the caricature, and a sadness in the underlying theme. Smalley is the comedy equivalent of many people in karaoke bars, singing badly and well below their abilities because it’s safe.
It’s safe to laugh at affirmations. It’s much harder to admit: I don’t feel like I’m good enough. I don’t feel like I’m smart enough. I don’t feel like people like me. And I want to change all of those feelings.
One of my favorite songs right now is Demi Lovato’s “I Love Me”. The title is not an arrogance but an end goal: The lyrics show that, in reality, they really struggle with loving themself.
It is Stuart Smalley’s message, but with a straight face and much more vulnerable. “I’m a black belt when I’m beating up on myself,” they sing. “Jedi level sabotage: Voices in my head make up my entourage.”
The title is contextualized in the chorus: “I wonder when ‘I love me’ is enough?”
Lovato’s song also hints at a strategy that I’ve seen others be more overt about: “I’m an expert at giving love to somebody else.”
I belong to a support group, and one thing I’ve noticed repeatedly is that we’re good at holding each other up, good at praising each other, good at giving advice and encouragement to each other.
But ourselves? Not so much.
I was taught that talking about my strengths was bragging. I’m an excellent writer: Bragging! I have some great insights: Bragging! I’m really good at seeing complex patterns in mathematics: Bragging! Bragging! Bragging!
So I sing karaoke out of key. I doodle instead of committing to artistic quality. I write Vogon poetry and tell Dad Jokes and otherwise highlight my incompetencies.
And I mask my feelings of insecurity behind Stuart Smalley impressions.
The Smalley caricature is a double-edged sword. False, cynical self-help gurus who prey on insecure people deserve to be mocked.
But the nature of self-help? The concept that so many of us are desperately needing affirmation? The fear that we will share our innermost vulnerabilities and have them laughed at?
None of that should be mocked.
I have only done karaoke with a machine twice. The second time, a few weeks ago, I chose Panic! At the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” because I knew I would blow it and wouldn’t that be hilarious?
I blew it. It wasn’t hilarious. I’m not at a point in my life where that’s satisfying to me.
Later, I chose Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The ultimate party sing-along, except we were all sober so maybe the sing-along urge wasn’t very strong. And I surprised myself: I sang it for real. No goofiness. I tried my best, and there were moments where I was awful but there were moments where I was awesome. Moments where I’d wished the tape was rolling because, damn, that was that.
We don’t hit those moments if we don’t expose ourselves. If we don’t allow ourselves to fail, not as part of a joke, but for real. I was with friends that day, and I felt like I could fail without judgment. It’s rare that I’ve felt that way.
I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling like failure comes with judgment, but that success also comes with judgment. That it’s safe to just be mediocre and to pretend like it’s okay. Like wanting to be “good enough” is a punch line.
There is a sadness in Stuart Smalley’s eyes that I feel like is a sadness in Al Franken’s eyes: It is a mask of a mask, but it isn’t turtles all the way down. Somewhere, there is a core, a child that wants to be hugged and loved and told it’s okay to cry.
And maybe that’s me projecting. Maybe I’m transferring my own sadness, my own masks, onto him.
Going forward on creative endeavors, here is an affirmation for myself: I will do my best. I will create some mediocre things, but I will do my best. I will praise myself for the effort, and I will not downplay my efforts through the safety of pre-emptive self-ridicule. “Oh, this is just something I sketched. I know it’s not very good.”
I know I will run back to the safety of Stuart Smalley’s sheen of “I’m not really serious”, but each time I commit to sharing vulnerably and authentically, I am less prone to the safety of off-key karaoke.