The Zen comedian says: “The joke teller must always be smiling in his heart.” Personally, I find this to be extremely practical and valuable advice. Taken most simply, this counsel could mean that every joke one writes must first make him or herself laugh, but that is only one possible meaning. The Zen Comedian’s advice is not so simple, and is open to a myriad of interpretations.
First of all, I find it important that The Zen Comedian’s advice, in this case, is directed to the “Joke teller,” and not the comedian. Not every comedian tells jokes per se, as there are many comedians that tell stories, rather than crafting jokes. For the comedian that tells a story, especially a story that would normally be considered sad, an inner smile is not necessary, and may not even be helpful. When the Zen Comedian speaks of the “Joke teller,” I believe he is referencing a certain type of comedian, most clearly typified by the likes Mitch Hedburg, Emo Phillips, and the man who showed us what standup comedy could be in the hands of a performance artist, Steve Martin.
Steve Martin had a joke that he did at least near the beginning of countless performances. In this bit, Mr. Martin would simply step to the microphone and say “here’s something you don’t often see,” after which he’d pull his lips apart with his fingers and yell while jumping up and down at least three times. It is such a simple joke that it may elicit more eye rolling than laughter, but when he was fully energized, his spirit was infectious.
The standup comedy of Steve Martin gets right to the center of what the above lesson teaches us. What is most evident in Steve Martin’s standup, and what made his unconventional style loved by the largest crowds that any standup act had ever seen at the time, was the joy he took in each piece of it. The joy you feel telling jokes that make you laugh will spread to your audience, and they will join you.
Addendum: The Zen comedian does not encourage laughing out loud on stage at your own material. He gave me no specific lesson on this, as he felt it obvious.