Zen Comedy: Exaggerated Reality

The Zen Comedian often ruminates about how every comedian uses the specifics of his or her own personal life as inspiration for their comedy.  He says that while not all comics reference events in their own lives specifically, all comedy naturally flows from ones own experiences.  “However,” he says, “Never simply describe anything.”  I believe that by this he means that it is a mistake to believe that the events of your life are ever on their own funny enough for a joke, and that the comedy rather comes from each comedian’s interpretation of the world.  Each comedian takes in the detritus of the world as he or she sees it, and regurgitates a skewed interpretation that is artfully hilarious.  One comedian who seems to take this advice and use it to its fullest potential is Patton Oswalt, and he shows the truth of it again and again in his exemplary album “Finest Hour.”

In one particularly hilarious section Patton describes his tendency to “jock rock” out the events of his life; that is, to invent simple sing-song narration to accompany the mundanities of everyday existence, accompanying each tune with a simple unexcited “yeah” at its end.  After a couple of increasingly silly ditties about buying stamps at the post office and eating a sleeve of saltines in his underwear, he ends the bit with a touch of self-recrimination.  “Jackin’ off to internet porn in my office while I should teach my daughter to read, yeah.”  This bit is fantastic in that it finds the humor in the tedious while at the same time including some sharp self criticism, (see “Zen Comedy: Getting Real” for additional examples of this) which imbues the bit with riotous truth.

Personally, I struggle with this principle, especially when attempting to describe things that might be funny on their face, though they can easily slip into simple indecency.  Recently, I suffered from the fact that I had a large, painful boil right next to my anus.  Fearing that it was a hemorrhoid, I did a bit of research, finding that the cause of hemorrhoids is the tendency some people (myself included) have to bear down and force out difficult bowel movements.  Upon discovering this (or so the joke claims) I was instantly dejected, as I have long found difficult and time-consuming bowel movements to be one of the few remaining aspects of my physical existence in which I can claim a consistent victory.

I believe this concept to be very funny and I have found with it some success in my standup, but in order for this bit to become exceptional, The Zen Comedian would tell me that I should try to exaggerate its reality.  Perhaps I should speak of achieving stillness in myself, focusing singularly on the bowel movement as I pass it, perhaps even placing my palms flat against one another as if in prayer.  Maybe I will grit my teeth, growling with faux effort before I describe hearing a single “plop” sound, and leaping into the air raising my fists in victory.  I feel that like Oswalt, I can potentially find in this bit and bits like it the opportunity to make my performance more expressive, hopefully making this into a truly great bit.  Whether or not I continue to perform this joke, the lessons I’ve learned about drawing hilarity from within and bringing it out into the world will be of great help in the future.

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Zen Comedy: Exaggerated Reality

Zen Comedy 5: Always Have a Pen

The Zen Comedian’s wisdom is not relegated to the ethereal and philosophic, for he has practical counsel as well.  The Zen Comedian’s practical advice, as I attempt to simultaneously understand and invent it, comes down to four words only: always write it down.  Whether or not you are the type of comedian who slaves over his bits and concepts before bringing them to the stage or you are the type comedian who prefers to work on his or her feet, the pen is your best friend.

For the first type of comedian, who molds and shapes his or her bits as would a blacksmith at a forge, this is obvious.  This type of comedian, it would seem to me, would have extensive notes.  For an example of this, I point to Joan Rivers, one of the most prolific and consistently hilarious joke writers in history.  As was featured in the entertaining documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Joan has in her office a cabinet stuffed to bursting with notecards on which every joke she has ever told is written out.  For this type of comedian the pen is their constant companion and help-mate, but even for those who work more on their feet the pen is indispensable.

For the comedian who relies on sudden inspiration to create his routines and begins a set unsure of where it will go exactly, the pen is an absolute necessity.  This is because for this comedian, any time of the day or night, inspiration may strike, and he or she should be ready.  If in the supermarket this comic hears a precocious youngster tell a lady she looks like a water balloon, and finds it hilarious, he or she should absolutely retrieve a scrap of paper from his pocket (keep all your receipts, you’ll need scratch paper) and scribble something like “fat lady = water balloon” on it.

The Zen Comedian teaches us that whatever type of notes you create, whether they are Joan Rivers-meticulous or sloppy and simple, always be creating notes.  It is important to not at this point to recognize that no type of note is definitively superior to any other type, but the taking of notes is absolutely vital.  The exercise of taking notes is not only a source of material, but it is also vital training.  The more you take notes, the more you will become accustomed to considering all situations comedically, and jokes will start  to occur to you more often.

The pen, for the comedian, is not necessarily purely physical, but is also a state of mind.  Just yesterday I did a show at a comic book store, and it occurred to me that the crowd would respond positively to mention of the fact that they were surrounded by valuables that were not tied down in any way, and they could in my words “just walk away with some of this shit.”  When I inserted this idea as a makeshift opener, the crowd reacted very positively, and I was off to a strong start.  So, in the end, the Zen Comedians counsel is very simple, whether it is the physical object or a state of mind, always have a pen.

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Zen Comedy 5: Always Have a Pen