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 25: Jokes with Heart

The Zen comedian says: “The joke teller must always be smiling in his heart.”  Personally, I find this to be extremely practical and valuable advice.  Taken most simply, this counsel could mean that every joke one writes must first make him or herself laugh, but that is only one possible meaning.  The Zen Comedian’s advice is not so simple, and is open to a myriad of interpretations.

First of all, I find it important that The Zen Comedian’s advice, in this case, is directed to the “Joke teller,” and not the comedian.  Not every comedian tells jokes per se, as there are many comedians that tell stories, rather than crafting jokes.  For the comedian that tells a story, especially a story that would normally be considered sad, an inner smile is not necessary, and may not even be helpful.  When the Zen Comedian speaks of the “Joke teller,” I believe he is referencing a certain type of comedian, most clearly typified by the likes Mitch Hedburg, Emo Phillips, and the man who showed us what standup comedy could be in the hands of a performance artist, Steve Martin.

Steve Martin had a joke that he did at least near the beginning of countless performances.  In this bit, Mr. Martin would simply step to the microphone and say “here’s something you don’t often see,” after which he’d pull his lips apart with his fingers and yell while jumping up and down at least three times.  It is such a simple joke that it may elicit more eye rolling than laughter, but when he was fully energized, his spirit was infectious.

The standup comedy of Steve Martin gets right to the center of what the above lesson teaches us.  What is most evident in Steve Martin’s standup, and what made his unconventional style loved by the largest crowds that any standup act had ever seen at the time, was the joy he took in each piece of it.  The joy you feel telling jokes that make you laugh will spread to your audience, and they will join you.

Addendum: The Zen comedian does not encourage laughing out loud on stage at your own material.  He gave me no specific lesson on this, as he felt it obvious.

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Zen Comedy 25: Jokes with Heart