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

Poem: Irony

A Peddler rolling through

jingle jangles, peppering bawdy

riddles by the pound, of fortune

cookies saying “TRY AGAIN”

next to a smiley face, upshot eyebrow,

emoticon grin, but they aren’t buying

translated laughter, so buy billboard

pasty faces, that will work

is the thought, strike again

to an 0-2 count, so he goes big

on a bungee over skyscraper

color platform, unicycle juggling

accordions, everyone laughing

to a gasp when he fell,

oh well, at least he was funny

once, an awful droll joke.

Poem: Irony

Zen Comedy 7: Timing

The Zen Comedian, upon hearing reference to the cliché; “timing is everything,” responded with the use of another cliché from the immortal Vince Lombardi: “timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  With this lesson, the Zen Comedian meant that timing is not only the most important aspect of each and every joke, but is in fact the true substance of all comedy.  I learned this lesson very powerfully when I was around ten years old, from comedy’s greatest master of timing, Jack Benny.

When I was a child, I collected cassettes of classic radio comedy, and though I had many favorites (The Bickerson’s, Fred Allen, Abbot & Costello) Jack Benny, who will be referred to as Zen Master Jack from here on, was my favorite.  Zen Master Jack’s most dominant character trait was his stinginess, and likely eighty percent of the jokes on his radio show revolved around this aspect of his character.  He even had an underground safe in which he kept his massive fortune, like Scrooge McDuck.  On one of his trips to this safe, he was accosted by an assailant who held a gun to his face and demanded: “Your money or your life!”

At this Zen Master Jack said nothing for a very long time.  I remember listening to the audience bristle, ready to erupt as the pause went on and on.  I could envision the burglar’s frustrated expression as I listened to the sounds of laughter from the live audience grow louder and louder.  Eventually the burglar had enough waiting and yelled “Well!  Your money or your life!” to which Zen Master Jack responded almost immediately “I’m thinking it over!”  The crowd roared with laughter, not at the joke itself, because it was even then a simple and predictable gag, but simply because of the way it was timed.

Though the live audience at the recording of this classic bit had the advantage of watching Zen Master Jack’s vaguely effeminate annoyed expression, most of the crowd and all listeners at home laughed simply at their own imaginations.  Many listeners at the time I’m sure didn’t even know what the face attached to this voice on the radio even looked like, but they laughed at the anticipation of a response.  The Zen Comedian tells us that if the audience is offered an effective set-up, even if it is extremely simple, they can fuel their laughter with their own anticipation.  Searching my own comedy for the places I most make use of this lesson, I recall the punchline to my “Burger King Confessional” joke.

The concept of this joke is that to expedite the penance process, Burger King has merged with St. Ignatius (a Chicago Catholic church) and created the worlds first Drive-Thru/Confessional.  The punchline to this joke comes after the fast food patron confesses to molesting his nephew.  The Priest/drive-thru operator begins by repeating the order, “Large Fry, Medium Dr. Pepper, Whopper Jr. and,” and then pauses for a good length of time.  After I’ve allowed the audience to anticipate what they well know will be a joke, perhaps even to the point of laughing in expectation, I drop it on them.  “Hey who hasn’t?”  I’ve learnt (or believe I have) from Zen Master Jack that the greatest laughter comes from anticipation, even if it is anticipation of the laughter to come.

Zen Comedy 7: Timing