The New Yorker - USA (2022-01-31)

(Antfer) #1






he comedian Scott Thompson likes
to listen to the “Breakfast Club”
podcast while driving in Toronto. One
day, during the darkest part of the lock-
down, the self-help author Ryan Hol-
iday was a guest. The episode was about
Stoicism, and Thompson’s attention
was piqued when he heard Holiday
quote Epictetus. He remembers it as:
“We all have to die, but do we have to
die bawling?”
“That was it for me,” Thompson said,
on a recent Zoom call. “It hit me like a
shot to the heart.” He ordered the En-
chiridion, Epictetus’ Stoic advice man-
ual. When it arrived, he made a cup of
tea, sat down with his two cats, Rusty
and Dusty, and began to read.
“Epictetus says you’re a fool for try-
ing to control outcomes, that all you
can control is your reaction,” Thomp-
son said, seated before a cutout of Lou-
ise Lasser (“my muse”). “I’m at the point
in my life where I don’t want to be jerked
around by my emotions. This two-thou-
sand-year-old philosopher, he’s exactly
how I want to be.”
Thompson, who became well known
in the nineteen-eighties as a member of
the comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall,
then as a star of “The Larry Sanders
Show,” was looking for enlightenment;
COVID had shut down the writers’ room
he and the other Kids had set up to write
material for a reboot of their old televi-
sion show, to be streamed on Amazon.
Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium
in the third century B.C.E., expounded
upon by Seneca, and adopted by Mar-
cus Aurelius, has been having a come-
back. Holiday’s best-seller “The Ob-
stacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of
Turning Trials Into Triumph” repack-
ages Stoicism as a series of life hacks.
It came out a year after the launch of
Stoicon, a conference for practitioners
and academics. According to Penguin
Random House, e-book sales of Sene-
ca’s “Letters from a Stoic” were up three
hundred and fifty-six per cent in 2020,

and the ranks of Stoicism fans include
Arnold Schwarzenegger, LL Cool J,
Elizabeth Holmes, Cory Booker, Brie
Larson, and T-Pain.
Modern Stoicism might seem more
suited to Joe Rogan listeners than to an
iconic gay comedian. “I can’t like some-
thing that straight men like?” Thomp-
son said, with a raised eyebrow. “I’m
a classic old-fashioned liberal. This is
something that’s ancient and universal.”
Last winter, Thompson shot a short
film with his friend Paul Bellini, a “Kids”
writer who used to appear on the show
in a towel, about the four basic tenets
of Stoicism. “Prudence, justice, fortitude,
and temperance,” Thompson said. “I or-
dered all the stuff online: a green screen,
fake snow, gallons of blood.”
He continued, “I tend to write late
at night, and I talk out everything. I do
all the characters.” His building’s man-
agement company sent him a letter say-
ing there had been complaints that he
was throwing parties during lockdown.
The “Kids” reboot managed to film
last July and will be released this summer.
The series will feature an appearance
by Buddy Cole, Thompson’s barstool-
philosopher character, who did a lot
to change the way gay men are repre-
sented in comedy. Thompson consid-

ers Buddy a Stoic, he said: “Nothing
touches him.”
For a time in 2020, Thompson stepped
away from social media, to escape “the
din.” “Epictetus would say you don’t own
anything, not your home, not your clothes,
not even the people you love,” he said.
“It’s all temporary. The only road to true
happiness is owning what you say.”
He went on, “Two thousand years
ago, they didn’t have comedians, but
they had people who looked at things
in different ways. That’s what comedi-
ans do. Epictetus probably would have
been a standup—he would have been
a George Carlin.”
If the “Kids” reboot doesn’t fly, Thomp-
son has a backup plan: “I’ve got a nice
white robe and a beautiful pair of san-
dals. I’ll find a bunch of young acolytes
and we’ll set up a Stoic school.” His fel-
low-Kids, he said, would think, “Oh, he’s
off on another one of his things!”
Having spent almost two years im-
mersed in Greek philosophy, he said, “I’ve
got to be really strong, so when I’m thrown
back into the real world I don’t freak out.”
He touched his throat, pooched his lips,
and transformed into Buddy Cole. Lean-
ing forward, he smirked conspiratorially
and said, “We’ll see how that holds.”
—Ivy Knight

“Nope. I can’t make any sense out of that at all.”

• •

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