Zen Comedy: Honest Vulgarity

The Zen Comedian, when asked whether it is simply a crutch to rely on dirty material, had this to say: “Jokes come from within, and they should never be censored.”  As always, the Zen Comedian’s advice may at first seem inscrutable and unsatisfactory, but I believe that when considered fully, it holds great wisdom.  I take this counsel to mean that no joke was ever enhanced either by the addition or subtraction of objectionable material, and that it is a mistake to consider the cleanliness of material as apart from your bit’s core subject matter.  When writing material, if your mind naturally goes not the realm of what is considered “dirty” material, it is important to let your mouth go there too (that’s what she said).

For a modern example of this principle taken to its greatest fruition, I look no further than Dave Attell, and his consistently impish demeanor.  In his most recent special “Road Work,” he has a bit where he considers that his sex toys were probably made in China, and this excites him.  “I know it’s sick but it does make it a little more erotic knowing that little hands have been all over them, doesn’t it?”  I don’t know if Dave Attell actually thinks this about his sex toys, but when thinking of jokes about sex toys, this consideration made him laugh.  This is what the Zen Comedian means in saying that “jokes come from within,” and it is this type of honesty that the Zen Comedian warns against censoring.

I’ve been working on a bit that might be considered “dirty” by some, but it contains a greater honesty about myself than I have heretofore achieved.  I tend to open a set with this joke, stating first that “you may not think it to look at me, but I am a dues-paying member of the pipe-layers union.”  I then pause as around half the audience laughs and the other half wonders what I mean, then I clarify with a simple statement: “Because I lay pipe.”  This joke is honest in that do share an active sex life with my girlfriend, and in that I genuinely giggle to myself when I consider well-worn colloquialisms like “laying pipe” used in this way.  I love this bit in the exquisite pause I allow myself between the first and second punch line, and in its brusque honesty.

Not long ago, I would never have developed a bit like this, because I might have deemed its use boastful, but that would have been censoring myself.  When the Zen Comedian says that jokes should never be “censored,” I don’t believe he speaks of vulgarity per se, but only that the jokes should come out of you unencumbered by too much thought.  So the Zen Comedian’s core lesson, it seems to me, is that the comedian should never compromise what in his or her jokes is most funny, regardless of its level of vulgarity.

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Zen Comedy: Honest Vulgarity

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

Zen Comedy 14: Endless Possibilities

The Zen Comedian offers no specific advice to aid in joke writing, because he says that every comedian’s jokes must find their genesis in his or her own soul, without outside input.  However, he does offer sage counsel to any victims of writers block: “The comic mind is an infinite palette, combine colors to create infinite potential.”  A palette, for those who don’t know, is that thing with a thumbhole and all the different colors of paint on it that artists used to mix colors, and I think that this is an excellent metaphor for the writing and the performance of jokes.  Two Zen Comedy masters that make excellent use of all colors on their personal palettes are both very different and almost seemingly interchangeable, Emo Phillips and Steven Wright.

Both of these comics use unexpected and weird punchline-oriented comedy, which could become tiresome in fairly short order, but their performance styles are each unaccountably compelling when combined with the substance of the jokes they tell.  Steven Wright delivers his jokes in a flat monotone, moving very little and leaving a worn expression on his face as if he is very tired.  This aspect works extremely well in combination with short bits like “I bought some powdered water but I don’t know what to add,” because his palpable lack of enthusiasm blends well with a skewered take on reality and the English language.  Emo Phillips is almost the opposite, with his ludicrously high-pitched voice and habit of constantly moving his body, he seems like a ball of nervous energy.  In one of my personal favorite bits, he describes slapping someone whom he mistook for an old classmate on the back before he realized that “if that’s really Jimmy Peterson, he would have grown up too.”  These are each brilliantly weird bits, and when combined with unconventional performance style’s as they are, they make the routines they are part of engrossing and hysterical.

I am not proposing that these offbeat performance styles are necessarily beneficial, only that they demonstrate the value of the Zen Comedian’s wisdom.  Zen master’s Phillips and Wright simply perform in the ways most beneficial to the jokes they’ve written.  Wright’s jokes are deadpan absurdist observations, and Phillips’ jokes are the inner monologue of a madman, so each of their styles complement these qualities perfectly.  So translating the Zen Comedian’s wisdom into practical advice, I’ll say that when working on a new bit, a comedian should experiment with different ways to tell their jokes, as well as constantly altering the substance of all material.

In my own stand-up, I’ve for years been using a bit wherein I share what I feel is great wisdom I’ve learnt from my car accident and subsequent time in the hospital, boiling it down to three simple truths.  These truths are: 1. love will not save you, 2. happiness is temporary, and 3. you will die before you are ready.  I realize that this does not read as comedic, but this type of blunt cynicism can be very funny, as long as I perform it correctly.  I believe I’ve learnt that the most effective way of delivering this joke is to be flippant, as though I think that these facts should be plainly obvious to everyone, but I don’t fully understand why this is the best way to tell the joke.  I will therefore continue to experiment with this joke, uncovering more of what the Zen Comedian calls “infinite possibilities,” and just maybe, someday I’ll find one I can be satisfied with.

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Zen Comedy 14: Endless Possibilities

Zen Comedy 7: The Only Thing (repost)

I am here reposting an earlier Zen Comedy article of mine.  If you seek to read this blog in its original form, I’ve included the link here.  From this link, you can read any of my previously logged Zen Comedy posts.

https://thezencomedian.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/zen-comedy-7-the-only-thing/

 

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 personality.  He even had an underground safe in which he kept his massive fortune.  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, 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.

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Zen Comedy 7: The Only Thing (repost)