By Steve Rathje
At the beginning of his performance at Cemex Auditorium this past Friday, “Soul Pancake with Rainn Wilson,” Wilson told us to “throw out all expectations” of what we thought his show was going to be about. Wilson was right. I was expecting a comedic performance — he is famous for portraying comedic figures on television like Dwight in “The Office” — but he was interested in nothing of the sort. Rather, he spent most of the evening discussing his spiritual and creative journey, arguing that spirituality and creativity are essentially the same thing, with the aim of encouraging us to embark on our own journeys.
While Wilson’s effort to discuss big questions and difficult issues was commendable, it also seemed manipulative. He drew in an audience with his comedic fame, but gave no description of what the performance would be about. He then used this platform to talk almost exclusively about religion and spirituality, which was more akin to a sermon interspersed with a few jokes than to stand-up comedy.
The highlight of the evening was the first 10 minutes of the performance. Wilson arrived on stage with a Starbucks cup and an iPad, and as soon as he saw audience members taking pictures of him, he humorously struck a few dramatic poses. He warmed up the crowd, making irreverent observations about how the event was not sold out. He also repeatedly noted that he was performing at the same school that rejected him, a recurring joke that he delivered off-the-cuff and with ease.
He next turned to the subject of “spirituality,” which he said was an “icky, ugly word” that makes people recoil and think about things like Oprah and Yoga Pants. He insisted that spirituality needs a new definition, and later described spirituality as “everything we don’t have in common with monkeys,” like creating art and thinking about the big questions of life, death and where we come from.
Wilson grew up as a member of the Baha’i faith, which is based on the belief that all religions worship the same God. Although he left his faith and became an atheist in his 20s while trying to pursue an acting career in New York, he says that this was because he “didn’t want morality” in his life. He later came back to the Baha’i faith when he realized that his desire to make art as a young actor was not so different from his desire for faith and worship.
The show gets its title from Wilson’s YouTube channel, Soul Pancake, which aims to provide a platform to talk about the big questions in life. He showed us two videos from it: one featuring “Kid President,” the viral phenomenon of a kid in a suit who imparts inspirational wisdom, and another featuring three people suffering from terminal illness who give advice on living in the face of death. While these videos may reduce the “big questions” to sound bites, they were undeniably positive, uplifting and inspirational. Yet his insistence on calling out people for checking their phones during the performance or walking out midway through seemed to contradict his advice to avoid cynicism and practice positivity and gratefulness, even if it did elicit some laughter.
But his talk did not have any clear takeaways — his final line, “I encourage you to take your own artistic and spiritual journey,” was vague. When asked to elaborate on what he meant, he said, “I don’t know, what do you think?” to the next person in line to ask a question, who humorously replied, “I’m just focusing on not messing up my question.” Soul Pancake seems to be an apt name to describe Wilson’s performance and Youtube Channel: while pancakes are light, sugary and tasty, they don’t have many nutrients and aren’t fully satisfying.
Contact Steve Rathje at srathje ‘at’ stanford.edu.