I came across an article from Geoff Edgers of The Washington Post that briefly described Chris Rock’s preparations for the much anticipated Oscars opening monologue. This post retained the title of the article: “Here’s How Chris Rock Practiced his Oscars Monologue.” As I read the article on The Washington Post site, I was able to discover what Edgers thought was the key to Rock’s success: what Edgers calls “workshopping” and what I will describe here as praxis. But there’s a kind of “haunting” to what Edgers calls “workshopping” and that is this ephemeral conception of “habit.” In other words, when describing Rock’s rehearsals, Edgers own post cannot decide whether the key to a good performance lies in the “workshop” or just in “habit.” This post will lay out how the article manages to make both arguments and then conclude with why that is and what to do with it.
Practice as Habit – Excellence Without Risk
When I decided that I wanted to write a quick blog post, I clicked my “Press This” button in my Mozilla Firefox toolbar in order to automatically create a blog window that would link to the article. As it usually does, “Press This” opened a new blog window that was already titled as the original source was titled and created a “Source” link (found at the very bottom of this page).
But in the otherwise blank body of the window (presumably waiting for me to add some commentary) it put this sentence:
He showed up to the Comedy Store ten times.
I presume this tagline is somehow embedded in the metadata of The Washington Post article and was therefore transferred over automatically with the rest of the information according to Word Press’ algorithm. But the weird thing is that this particular sentence, “He showed up to the Comedy Store ten times,” never appears in the original source. Instead, the first paragraph of the original article, which appears below a photo of Rock performing, which appears below the author’s handle, which appears below the article’s title, reads as follows:
Here’s an amazing thing about Chris Rock’s most-eagerly-awaited-monologue-on-Earth: Turns out the comedian showed up about 10 times over the last two weeks at the famed Comedy Store in West Hollywood to work through his material.
It’s telling that when the original post was designed, the title begged a particular question: “how exactly did Rock prepare for his monologue” and that embedded in the metadata that would transfer to my Word Press was a quick and dirty answer to this very complex question: he showed up, ten times to be exact.
This is problematic because it suggests that excellence is a habit, which doesn’t capture what is most compelling about Rock’s rehearsal practice, which is “workshopping.” So that begs the question: why make “habit” – or “showing up ten times” – the crux of an article that has much more to say on the subject of practice? On my view, it’s because habit is accessible and safe. It is, for example, not that hard to set aside two hours every day, from 2 – 4, to “work on” your public speaking (or whatever else you aspire to do). If you do that thing, every day, from 2 – 4 that is a habit and then habit gets you to excellence. What gets lost in that time is the struggle, the fact that one can do something every day, from 2 – 4, and in fact not get any better and never be great. Certainly habit is necessary – no one will get better at anything unless they have a consistent relationship to that thing – but it is not sufficient for mastery. What habit also needs is struggle and that is the part of Rock’s performance that Edgers and The Washington Post choose not to emphasize for their audience.
In fact, in contemporary society we have come to valorize habit quite a bit I imagine for this exact reason. You may have heard, for instance, of this quote supposedly written by the famous Greek Philosopher Aristotle:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
In this quote, risk is nowhere to be found. We are what we repeatedly do; we are not, then, what we repeatedly do not do well . or put differently we are not what we repeatedly risk. Not surprisingly, Aristotle never said this (Aristotle would have understood that habit is a necessary but certainly not sufficient condition for excellence.) Frank Herron of the awesome blog “The Art of Quotesmanship” attributes the phrasing to Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers.
In part VII of that book, dealing with “Ethics and the Nature of Happiness,” Durant sums up some of Aristotle’s thoughts. After quoting a phrase from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (“these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”), Durant sums it up this way: “…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”
Durant’s paraphrase isn’t wrong, but it isn’t entirely correct. It is true that excellence is a performance not a quality of being (not a “virtue” in other words) but what Aristotle describes as “doing the actions” is not the same thing as habit. Habit, in many instances, may not qualify as an “action.” For instance, if you go to bed at the same time every night, is that an “action?” Yes and no. It is certainly something that you “do” – a verb so to speak – but whether going to bed a 9 every night has effects in the world is a different matter entirely. Aristotle, in other words, is not making a statement about what excellence is but rather what excellence is not: a virtue or a quality of being. And on this point, I agree: excellence is attributed to an action (and may in turn be attributed to proper name as the signifier of a culmination of actions) but it is not a quality of that name or, indeed, of that action. And with that, on to the more practical question: what, then, is excellence if not habit alone? Or, to put it even more directly to the point: how do I become a better public speaker if establishing a habit isn’t enough.
Practice as Praxis – Habit + Risk
I want to reiterate that habit is important for excellence. As the great choreographer Twyla Tharp described it in her book, The Creative Habit (you’ll find a very useful summary at Kim Manley Ort’s photography blog) Tharp describes the importance of the “creative ritual.” But the ritual is very different than the habit. A habit speaks to empiricism, observation, the fact of the routine; ritual, however, speaks to the lingering superstitions of humans and the importance of settling into an environment. Ritual, in other words, speaks to not only habit – the doing of an action repetitively – but also of habitat – the environment (physical, emotional, spiritual) in which that action is done. I agree with Tharp that to excellence requires have some kind of consistent habituation but only to the extent that the habituation creates tension with the inherent risk of improvement and innovation. That is to say that as soon as habituation becomes another defense mechanism against the risk required for excellence then it no longer serves its purpose.
For instance, when I sit down to write – for real write, like struggle through ideas and try to make sense of them, not read books or edit grammar or whatever – I make myself this special chai tea latte that I love. The Chai latte is kind of a warm and fuzzy ritual that counterbalances the inherent suffering of writing (am I good enough? why can’t I figure this out? does this make sense? will anybody want to read this? can i keep doing this my whole life? etc.) But let’s suppose I go on vacation and I wake up one morning with every intention to write and there’s no tea, so I sit there for five minutes and then just close my laptop to go to the store to get the items for the tea. Then I spend an hour getting it all set and ready to go and by the time I sit down with the tea, I’ve only got twenty minutes, so I just get up and go do something else because what’s the point? And maybe I even just sit there drinking the tea writing Word Press blogs like this one? Then my “ritual” has disrupted my “habit” and they are working at odds.
So, again, although ritual and habit are necessary elements for excellence, they are not sufficient to produce excellence. They also require the one thing that Edgars article hints at but does not ultimately isolate as the key to Rock’s success: risk or what Edgars describes as “workshopping.” “Showing up” to a comedy club was certainly important to Rock’s practice – how can one workshop if one has nowhere to workshop? – but there’s more to it than that:
He really trimmed the fat and made it real lean,” said Eget. “There were some, even after day four, he’d say, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this joke.’ But then, you’d hear him do it again and he’d have tweaked a word or two. Instead of saying ‘p—–,” he’s say bedroom.
Rock didn’t just show up and he doesn’t just practice, he takes risks with his ideas. Rock, then, doesn’t “practice” so much as praxis. Praxis is neither practice nor theory; it is “the gap between theory and practice, text and world” to borrow from the OED. New public speakers often dissociate theory from practice. Theory is what you do when you sit down to write: you know what to say, you say it by putting words on a page, then the theory is finished. Practice is phase two: now that you “know what to say” you go and you say it, the same way, several times, until it is “memorized” or until you basically have it memorized maybe with the help of a few note cards.
Praxis is a much more dynamic process, as Rock demonstrates. He takes material—not a script—to a club and he “workshops” it, “trims the fat,” “makes it lean”—and he does it ten times, sometimes working on just a few minutes of material, sometimes running through the whole thing, sometimes running through more material than he even needs, just to see how different presentations of material affect its force (something classical rhetoricians described as the practice of copia or finding many ways to say the same thing).
In Rock’s pre-Oscar praxis or workshopping, then, there is both the inherent risk of looking silly, finding out a joke doesn’t work, and the pain of eliminating something on which you have worked so hard because it doesn’t work. But there’s additional risk: the audience rejecting the joke, the pain and time of roads less taken, the pressure of having to make a joke that you’re saying for the tenth time feel like the first time to the audience. And then there’s an even additional risk for a high profile character such as Rock, which is having his material leaked and the punch line being officially ruined, so to speak. This is an anxiety that Edgers already expresses in the form of a series of questions:
With all of the #OscarsSoWhite buzz surrounding Rock’s hosting gig, it may seem shocking he showed up at a club, in public, to workshop his jokes. What about TMZ.com? What about the joke thieves?
But Edgers misses the point: there is no “workshop” without the risk – of joke thieves, of punchlines not landing, of managing one’s own anxiety about being creative and unique. Therefore the answer to Rock’s practice routine is neither practice nor routine – neither habit nor showing up – but risk and risk is often that which habit seeks to avoid. Habit without risk is masturbation.