Zen Comedy: Darkness

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.




Zen Comedy: Darkness

Poem: The Killing of a Horse (sort of)

The texture flits in and out

like a spark hog, I guess, I mean a spark that’s all

like “I’m totally a spark n’ shit,” sparking shit blue moon

tongue depressors, but you knew this would happen, or preternaturally

supposed the future as it occurs, but sometimes it’s like yesterday

by the Beatles isn’t my favorite, ‘cause it’s kind

of doughty, it’s probably cause you hit her, whichever one that was

I forget shit all the time, and my girlfriend is increasingly reluctant

to believe thee readily evident, repeatedly reticent

panoramic period ending the sentence, and than it starts

“Again, crackers!” crackers this time, cheerio that is

as in “that is,” a good pip, when you pop.


explicative pretense denied, bitches, this is my coaster

rain-soaked chinchilla prostitute in the future, a pig in every poke

on the literal use of terms, pejorative leaning Mamet monologue

you son of a bitch, the truth handles your ass or some shit

I’m so Sorkin, showing itself a gag on fire

speech of truth, which has never been written

before now, madness fudge-battered cocaine spectacle

sounds tasty in the sun, but it would totally melt so

it would probably kill you, unless you were a hardcore

user specific, or lucky like me I guess.

Poem: The Killing of a Horse (sort of)

Poem: She’s like

“It’s getting dark” and I’m like “duh”

but silently to myself, because the shit is obvious

to those in my headworld, that the sky is falling

used to be our favorite

kid’s story, now is turning satirical, but where the fuck

does the red river flow?


Narcissism skin is thin and gauzy,  silverfish slithery

nasty and scary, or so I’ve been told, by picture book legend’s

purported depictions of fact held by some with a sickness

inherited along lines you stood in when you were

younger than you are now, sometimes fatal but I had a serum

synthesized in my basement, where I grew from Rock Lords

to Masturbation Fantasies, games of poker

petty crime and blood on the stairwell, meditating stationary

through a copper fog, unaffected stillness.

Poem: She’s like

Poem: All the World

First of all

there is nothing, and nothing ever matters,

because your brain is nothing but sparks and dials and levers

going haywire on a loop

over and over, but what about beauty?


Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang is a story about friendship

where the two styles merge, choreography superior

fetishistic circus of movement, kung fu inferno

never translated with a meaning, iron eyepatch

villainy inherent, there is always more.


Nothing and more there is always there, behind

all time and space, depending on how you look

through one eye alone, see vapors evaporate

into joyful progress, every day a new door

made of candy, stars bursting chewable

red and blue and purple, but probably not.


That would be madness, panoramic obsessive

without paranoia, you’d be locked up

believing that, there never was tomorrow

in the first place, because all of us can feel

that we are the same, marrow and saliva

leaking out the folds, memories of pain becoming.


Shadows receding slowly, clearing your head

of detritus, nothing is ever at all

without a passion, stories die as reborn

becoming all places, characters and statements

at the same time popping a brain out your eyes.


Love is in everything, forever onward

omnipresent dreadfully looming

horrors of the dawn dusk in between and end,

search for a kernel of joy, that’s all there is

when it comes down to it.

Poem: All the World

Poem: Inscrutable Wisdom

Dream of having nothing at all, and think

what you’d be, fossilized snot bubble, skipping light

curmudgeon complaining, casting darts on the lawn in formation

spelling “THAT’S IT” or “THIS IS IT” just to fuck with people

in the morning

on their day off, they can’t read it

at first as they haven’t the angle, it takes time

to understand the meaning

of a disappointing slime leaking, it’s nothing.


at all dummy, this is nothing just like everything.

But people loved it, they went crazy

chanting intricately in column formations

and shit, assuming it’s a warning, filling a hole

with wishes written down and set

aflame, until a pit of ashes in its place

raked by an elderly Chinese man

wondering what the words had meant

becomes the sole symbol, showing that shadow

obscures nothing of note, and mystery is wanting

not finding a solution, the search itself is.


Poem: Inscrutable Wisdom

Poem: Box the Turtle

I am invincible,

at a starter pistol I tuck my head and hunker,

I’m scared of nothing,

I can’t even hear the footsteps of my enemies,

but they’re out there,

from here I can sense foolish and lame vitreous,

they can’t cut me,

I sense the fear behind their bulky sunglasses,

they’re just jealous,

from outside my walls they smell smoking meats,

they must be cold,

likely their fingers bleed clawing at bare brick,

I would let them in,

then they’d see blank journals and empty bottles,

and know the truth,

that behind the curtain there is nothing at all.

Poem: Box the Turtle

Review: In a Valley of Violence

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Director: Ti West

Writer: Ti West

Actors: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga


In its own harsh, uncompromising manner, In a Valley of Violence scoffs in the face of well-wrought western tropes, and comes away with a delightfully intense bloodbath.  I can say unreservedly that I am a fan of westerns, from the meticulous Italian chaos of Sergio Corbucci’s Companñeros to the somber philosophy of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, I love the western genre.  As is obvious from the opening titles which closely imitate the opening credits of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, director Ti West (The House of the Devil) loves it too.  His love of  westerns is most obviously displayed by his eagerness to subvert the genre’s tropes, which he does here by injecting characters with weakness, stupidity, and more than a little comedy.  This comedy most often comes from the committed and somewhat silly performance of a masterful John Travolta (Swordfish, Battlefield Earth, Scientology), who portrays tobacco chewing bravado while his character becomes a strange alternate protagonist.

The story’s central hero is Paul, Ethan Hawkes’ mysterious drifter traveling alone with a dog.  Paul and his strangely intelligent companion, Addie, are linked via an almost supernatural connection.  These travel companions make an ill-fated pit stop in Denton, a town terrorized by the son of the local sheriff (James Ransome), who practices wanton cruelty with impunity.  This character, Deputy Gilly Martin is perturbed when newcomer Paul (Ethan Hawke), fails to respond quickly to his inquiries.  This simple perceived slight leads to a chain reaction of escalations, culminating in a climactic death that is both ludicrous and metaphorically perfect.  The unstoppable expansion and eruption of violence is so reasonless, yet so inevitable, that In a Valley of Violence could be said to make a permanently timely statement about the ease and cost of killing.

These are pretty heavy issues, however, and they might weigh down a movie as violent as this one, but it is saved by the aforementioned Mr. Travolta, playing the sweetest Marshal ever.  Travolta’s character is kind, reasonable, merciful, and hilarious.  Marshal Clyde Martin (Travolta) has one fatal flaw, however, his love for his son.  As terrible as Gilly had become, he was still the Marshal’s son, and family trumps everything.  I think that this, in many ways, is the central conceit of In the Valley of Violence.  That even the most positive emotional reflexes, like a father’s love for his son or a drifter’s love of his dog, can lead to copious bloodshed.

Westerns can be intense, savage, and unapologetically brutal, but they can also be funny, touching, and philosophical.  In the Valley of Violence can do all of these things, but it is one thing above all, a kick-ass western.  The music is dramatic and propulsive; shrieking with energetic violins that sound like stabbing.  The performances are all exemplary, particularly Taissa Farmiga, who brings a mad spirit to the role of Mary-Anne, charming with every nervous giggle.  This is a western of surprising depth and fantastic production, but what really leaves an impression is the sheer fun of it.


Review: In a Valley of Violence