The Zen Comedian offers no specific advice to aid in joke writing, because he says that every comedian’s jokes must find their genesis in his or her own soul, without outside input. However, he does offer sage counsel to any victims of writers block: “The comic mind is an infinite palette, combine colors to create infinite potential.” A palette, for those who don’t know, is that thing with a thumbhole and all the different colors of paint on it that artists used to mix colors, and I think that this is an excellent metaphor for the writing and the performance of jokes. Two Zen Comedy masters that make excellent use of all colors on their personal palettes are both very different and almost seemingly interchangeable, Emo Phillips and Steven Wright.
Both of these comics use unexpected and weird punchline-oriented comedy, which could become tiresome in fairly short order, but their performance styles are each unaccountably compelling when combined with the substance of the jokes they tell. Steven Wright delivers his jokes in a flat monotone, moving very little and leaving a worn expression on his face as if he is very tired. This aspect works extremely well in combination with short bits like “I bought some powdered water but I don’t know what to add,” because his palpable lack of enthusiasm blends well with a skewered take on reality and the English language. Emo Phillips is almost the opposite, with his ludicrously high-pitched voice and habit of constantly moving his body, he seems like a ball of nervous energy. In one of my personal favorite bits, he describes slapping someone whom he mistook for an old classmate on the back before he realized that “if that’s really Jimmy Peterson, he would have grown up too.” These are each brilliantly weird bits, and when combined with unconventional performance style’s as they are, they make the routines they are part of engrossing and hysterical.
I am not proposing that these offbeat performance styles are necessarily beneficial, only that they demonstrate the value of the Zen Comedian’s wisdom. Zen master’s Phillips and Wright simply perform in the ways most beneficial to the jokes they’ve written. Wright’s jokes are deadpan absurdist observations, and Phillips’ jokes are the inner monologue of a madman, so each of their styles complement these qualities perfectly. So translating the Zen Comedian’s wisdom into practical advice, I’ll say that when working on a new bit, a comedian should experiment with different ways to tell their jokes, as well as constantly altering the substance of all material.
In my own stand-up, I’ve for years been using a bit wherein I share what I feel is great wisdom I’ve learnt from my car accident and subsequent time in the hospital, boiling it down to three simple truths. These truths are: 1. love will not save you, 2. happiness is temporary, and 3. you will die before you are ready. I realize that this does not read as comedic, but this type of blunt cynicism can be very funny, as long as I perform it correctly. I believe I’ve learnt that the most effective way of delivering this joke is to be flippant, as though I think that these facts should be plainly obvious to everyone, but I don’t fully understand why this is the best way to tell the joke. I will therefore continue to experiment with this joke, uncovering more of what the Zen Comedian calls “infinite possibilities,” and just maybe, someday I’ll find one I can be satisfied with.