Stoic Philosophy Goes Hollywood

Like T-Pain, Brie Larson, and Elizabeth Holmes, Scott Thompson—who will reunite with the other Kids in the Hall for a reboot this summer—is following in the footsteps of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

The comedian Scott Thompson likes to listen to the “Breakfast Club” podcast while driving in Toronto. One day, during the darkest part of the lockdown, the self-help author Ryan Holiday 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?”

Man looking confused under a happy mask.

“That was it for me,” Thompson said, on a recent Zoom call. “It hit me like a shot to the heart.” He ordered the Enchiridion, Epictetus’ Stoic advice manual. 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 trying to control outcomes, that all you can control is your reaction,” Thompson said, seated before a cutout of Louise 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-thousand-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 television 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 Marcus Aurelius, has been having a comeback. Holiday’s best-seller “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph” repackages 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 Seneca’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 something that straight men like?” Thompson 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 ordered all the stuff online: a green screen, fake snow, gallons of blood.”

Patient looks at parking sign for eye test.
“Nope. I can’t make any sense out of that at all.”
Cartoon by Robert Leighton

He continued, “I tend to write late at night, and I talk out everything. I do all the characters.” His building’s management company sent him a letter saying 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 represented in comedy. Thompson considers 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 comedians do. Epictetus probably would have been a standup—he would have been a George Carlin.”

If the “Kids” reboot doesn’t fly, Thompson has a backup plan: “I’ve got a nice white robe and a beautiful pair of sandals. I’ll find a bunch of young acolytes and we’ll set up a Stoic school.” His fellow-Kids, he said, would think, “Oh, he’s off on another one of his things! ”

Having spent almost two years immersed 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. Leaning forward, he smirked conspiratorially and said, “We’ll see how that holds.” ♦