The Zen Comedian, when approached by a pupil who complained of depression, even going as far as to say that he could not find the world funny anymore. “Sadness, when rightly harnessed, is very powerful,” he paused, “but it is not the fire, only the fuel.” The Zen Comedian offered this lesson, I believe, to describe the way that heart-dulling sadness, though not necessarily the subject matter and substance of hilarious comedy, can in many ways be useful. There are two Zen Comedians who’s perspectives and performance styles are seemingly opposite, but each of them demonstrate this Zen comedy principle perfectly.
First, Zen Master Norm Macdonald spends seemingly endless stretches of stage time opining on the darkest pieces of reality conceivable. Death, horror, pain and wrath are the subject matters of almost every joke delivered, but when they come through the voice of what seems to be a listless Canadian hick, they become riotous. One of Zen Master Norm’s greatest bits evokes the death of his father, which was such a sad event in his life that he was able to use it as grist for a hilarious routine. The central sentiment of this bit is exemplified in the part of the joke where he describes standing at his father’s deathbed: “My niece came up to me and she was like “He’s in a better place. I said “He’s on the floor.” This joke is absolutely hilarious, and it shows the way the extreme sadness, while not necessarily being the subject of the joke, as Norm’s aspect throughout the piece does not change, but tragedy on its periphery
On the other side of the spectrum from Zen Master Norm is a completely different style of performance, one that might even be considered the opposite of Mr. Macdonald’s dusky fatalism, the mad antics of Zen Master Conan O’Brien. Zen Master Conan, having never been a standup comedian in the strict sense, has found a conduit for his own comedy in hosting a late-night show, which he has done nearly constantly for almost thirty years. Throughout his career hosting these talk shows, most of the comedy presented is fairly madcap, relying on sheer insanity to produce laughter, but every insane moment Zen Master O’Brien creates on his various late night talk shows there is a center of existentially suicidal dread. The very first episode of Late Night With Conan O’Brien starts with a taped piece in which O’Brien is in his dressing room, overwhelmed by the intense pressure not to blow it, steps up onto a stool and puts his head in a noose. This image, I think, is an evocative tableau, perfectly expressing the terror and dread of this (then) new television personality.
One of the things that comedians can do very well (as in the work of Zen Master Pryor) is to grapple with the darkest recesses of their own mind, but I don’t think that is what this lesson is meant to show us. When the Zen Comedian said that sadness is “not the fire, only the fuel,” I believe he meant that comedians can dwell on the saddest aspects of their own histories and personalities, but in the face of depressing reality, it is the job of the comedian to laugh. One of my earliest and most consistently successful bits draws from my own experience as a lonely young man. I used to stand in front of a crowd and wonder aloud to myself, “How do I get a girlfriend?” Then it would occur to me, “I could dig a hole!” I would then describe myself digging a series of large holes in the park and waiting for girls to fall in, and when I came to rescue them, they would prefer to stay in the hole. This was a simple and effective joke, one that took a concept like loneliness, and brought it to its logical maximum impact. The comedy here lies not only in the ludicrous nature of my proposal, but also in the relatable nature of its emotional anchor, showing that the darkest sides of our own perceptions sometimes yield the funniest jokes.