“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
-George Bernard Shaw
I had my fill of clichés as an art student living in Chicago where I hoped against hope of chancing upon a place that turned despondency into creative genius. Instead, I met my quota of trust-fund sociopaths, blue-blooded addicts and closeted gays who infuriatingly self-identified as the single source of shame for their otherwise “aristocratic” families. Art school was a heart-breaking cliché – an abundance of narcissism, classism and privilege that completely levelled my self-esteem as a visual artist.
I hate clichés. Most writers do. We roll our eyes when they casually invade our music, cinema and conversations…but then we go ahead and abdicate any sense of originality for a classic truism as soon as it’s convenient. This, I’m afraid, won’t be any different.
I’ve thought about art school a lot since taking on comedy this year. The oft-quoted relationships between madness and genius or humour and mental illness come to mind frequently these days. I’m not a psychologist and I actually think that these are over-simplified platitudes that fail to look at the deeper reasons behind why someone chooses to do stand up comedy [or any art] to begin with. Those reasons, I’m learning, are just as complex and multi-faceted as the performers on stage.
But I won’t speak for anyone but myself.
To quote Hannibal Buress: “Why?”
I wrapped up the end of 2015 with what felt like a broken heart, over no one and nothing in particular. I wrote a fevered Facebook post about it, and the year in general, which makes me cringe now as I read it over [ugh, SO.MANY.FRAGMENTS!]. More often than not, anger and sadness have motived me to write some of my best work. This was not one of those times. It was discombobulated and clumsy, poorly crafted and bitter…but it was funny.
To summarize, what I realized at the dawn of 2016 was that I had lessened myself to diminish the disappointment of shit that doesn’t make sense. That particular strategy had the opposite desired effect. Instead of becoming strong again, I desperately stripped layers off of myself to remain invisible…so it was no wonder that, by the end of 2015, I felt like an exposed nerve. I was exactly that.
It must sound counter-intuitive to say that putting myself at the mercy of a crowd of complete strangers and asking them to like me has been a source of strength…but that’s exactly what stand-up comedy has been.
Getting on stage quite plainly is a meditation in reconciling things that make no sense. That’s what humour does for me. That’s it. For 5 to 10 minutes at a time, I’m able to live with the dissonance between what life is and what life should be by laughing at it. My days are mostly comprised of a series of exercises in which I analyse how wrong things are, and try my best to correct them to varied effect. It’s not just my job as an editor; it’s my natural temperament. Why didn’t that journalist supply sub-headers like I requested? Why does that motherfucker keep double-parking in my car space? Why is Donald Trump the frontrunner for the presidency and not an exotic curiosity throwing his poo at onlookers from behind glass at the fucking zoo?
These questions have answers, of course, but they’re not ones I find acceptable. They’re not good enough. Laziness isn’t good enough. Inconsideration isn’t good enough. Thinly veiled bigotry that reads as sub-text throughout America’s history, which is only now becoming visible to the ignorant masses by means of a loud-mouthed comb over…isn’t good enough.
Such absence of logic in life does my head in, and I don’t know what to do about it. But hiding only left me alone with those thoughts…which wasn’t good. Now, instead of dimming my switch to an inoffensive shade of beige mood lighting, I turn the dial all the way up to human torch and laugh at the absurdity of life in what I can only describe as 5-10 minutes of complete bliss.
Personal observation has shown me that humour and sadness are two versions of the same emotion, and comedians tip the balance one way in public and another way in private. The fact that comedians like Richard Pryor or Robin Williams managed to bring so much joy into the lives of complete strangers while being so deeply unhappy with themselves, I think, underlies the complexities of comedy. But this is where laughter lives – within the discrepancies of life.
For me, humour is the perfect vehicle by which life’s inconsistencies are best communicated and temporarily understood. On stage…before strangers…completely uninhibited by the narrow confines of what defines acceptable thought, process and behaviour.
As French philosopher Blaise Pascal put it, “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees.”
The ever-expanding universe and absurdism
Once upon a time, my world was a much smaller place than it is now. I was raised with a heavy hand, under the watchful eye of Jesus & Co. Life was defined by a narrative of psalms and what I would come to later identify as the ever-judging male gaze. Then I discovered books, and my world exploded like a supernova. Before I could travel, before I could play piano, before I could paint a picture…I could live a life very different from my own between the pages of someone’s heart.
In literature, there is a device known as ex-machina [Latin for “God from the machine”]. In stories, this device is used to introduce something or someone that turns the plot on its head unexpectedly, leading to what is more often than not an artificial ending to an otherwise mediocre story. Sometimes it works. Many times it falls flat on its ass. Most of the time, it’s a “get out of jail free” card for an author who simply failed to properly develop a plot or consider the story’s internal logic.
In real life, ex-machina moments are rare. A plane will never crash through your living room to interrupt that awkward dinner with your in-laws. Funerals are unlikely to be regulated by a bolt of lightening. Frogs are unlikely to rain on your parade. It’s unfortunate, actually, because that would be hilarious…but that’s why we have humour. Jokes are our ex-machina moments. They subvert logic where there is none, and they provide opportunities for us to emotionally disengage from awkward, dangerous and/or potentially catastrophic events.
It’s no coincidence that Aristotle believed that deus ex-machina was the ideal device by which to resolve tragedy.
So when I decided to try comedy, I introduced a device in my life to make sense of a story that felt like it wasn’t heading in any clear direction.
Everything ridiculous and infuriating and heartbreaking became the canvas for 5 minutes of gut-jabbing laughter. Alcoholic cousins? Jokes. Assaulted by a group of drunk, racist bogans while I’m on the phone outside of a club? Jokes. My ex-bestfriend who dumped me to fly to Brazil so that an obscure cult leader could “cure” her of her herpes? Jokes…no seriously, that’s an actual thing that happened.
The philosopher Albert Camus would have called this a noble struggle – embracing the absurd condition of human existence. We try to find value and meaning in a place where there is none. It’s absurd. It’s also fucking hilarious. And when you meet other people who have reached a similar understanding, it can be cathartic.
So once again, my universe contracted and expanded in the most unexpected of ways. But unlike reading, which depends on solitude, comedy introduced an entire community of like-minded individuals and their respective experiences that only enriched my own. Through whatever means, these are people who have reached the same conclusion that I have. Here is the truth: Life is absurd. You have two choices – laugh or cry.
And here we are, orbiting around each other in this bizarre universe of planets, stars and lunatics.
Misanthropes. Polemicists. Antagonists. Rebel-rousers. Kings. Queens. Jesters. Pawns.
…God as a machine for a few minutes at a time.
The truth as armour
Don’tcha love it when people give you advice on something they would never have the guts to do themselves? I do. I fucking love it. What I love even more is when people become so uncomfortable with the idea doing something so outside of their comfort zone that they indirectly attempt to discourage you from doing it yourself. It’s an effective way to justify one’s own mediocrity.
So…Is comedy hard?
Um…does taking off my bra signify the end of my day and the beginning of couch position?
Yes. Yes it is. It is the most difficult thing I have ever willingly done…and it’s not for everyone. Nick Cody, a big name in comedy and a very funny dude, compared it to the SAS in a workshop that I attended on my birthday: many try, few prevail.
Maybe it’s because I’m a painter or a writer or because I have many conflicting emotions about the military in general, but I compare comedy to love. Many give it a shot, but people put way too much emphasis on their first attempt which, spoiler alert – is supposed to be humiliating and painful. That goes on to colour any future endeavours with an unfair prejudice. One bad experience is all it takes to prevent someone from putting their full heart into it again, which promotes half-assed attempts or complete failure. People tend to get better at love with time, experience and self-awareness if they open themselves up to it.
The same goes for comedy.
The bravery required to get up on stage after being booed off cannot be overstated. Audiences smell fear like sharks smell blood in the water. Speaking for myself, I can only say that self-awareness keeps me level. I get up on stage without any pretence, without any disguise, in full knowledge of who I am and what I’m about. That way, if my jokes fall on deaf ears or worse yet…drunk bogans, I am strengthened by the knowledge that they can’t tell me something I don’t already know. I know when my jokes are bad. I know when they’re good. I know when my delivery is terrible, and I know when it’s on point. Being booed when you know you deserve it is a lot easier to manage than when it comes as completely unexpected.
A thin red line…
Going back to clichés on madness and genius for a moment, a lot of non-comedians believe that suffering from a personality disorder or a mental illness is a prerequisite for succeeding in comedy. The same is said for artists and musicians and geniuses alike. And as an American, I like to have strong opinions about things I know dick about, so…I would argue that there’s some truth to this. I hate stereotypes, but let’s be honest – they’re based on a true story, they’re just not based on the entire story.
I’ve only met one artist who struggled with mental illness who I would also identify as a genius [the rest are just your regular run-of-the-mill geniuses]. He’s an ex-Marine, turned MFA, now working as a librarian at Harvard University and I call him my big brother. He finds solace amongst his piles and piles of rare artist books, because books aren’t people…and people frighten and confuse the shit out of him.
And my God, is he funny. It’s a rare thing to meet someone who successfully incorporates Jungian theory with Machiavelli and obscure South Park references, but let.me.tell.you…when it happens, it’s fucking beautiful.
My favourite absurdist, he has a profound understanding of how insignificant he is in the grand scheme of time and space, but it’s never lessened his desire to affect some kind of positive change while he could.
I feel like deeply intellectual people hide behind nihilism as an excuse to disconnect from the threat of happiness…and it’s just so fucking cliche. I admire that Ramon wasn’t like that. Too often I have seen people seek out pain that they could make the centre of their existence, as if it’s the only thing that gives them or their creative process any purpose [for the record, I’m not talking about people who suffer from mental illness – there is a clear difference]. And while I fully acknowledge that suffering fuels creativity, the success of that creativity only takes place when other emotional, environmental and sometimes political outliers align to provide an opportunity for someone to blossom…instead of self-destruct.
I doubt Ramon, the genius, would ever willingly put himself in a position where he stands before a crowd of judgmental strangers, asking them for validation, but when I told him that that’s exactly what I would be doing, his response was “this makes me smile.”
That’s all I have for now.