"Why do black men have nightmares when they sleep?
Because the last one who had a dream got shot in the fucking head."
This afternoon's comedy panel at Wordstock was handily the highlight of what's been a very solid festival overall. To a packed crowd, Steve Almond, Jess Walter, Paul Provenza, and moderator Courtenay Hameister had a thought-provoking, ranging conversation about whether all comedians are "damaged," how comedy relates to music and other art forms, how comedy is being co-opted for marketing purposes, and what makes a joke "off-limits." (The answer to that last one? Nothing.)
I could've listened to these four talk about comedy all day. Hit the jump for some highlights, and you'll see why.
[Standard disclaimer: Not a transcript! Just some quotes that stood out, and a whole lotta paraphrasing.]
Courtenay opened the conversation by referencing a Dave Barry quote (I can't find it—anyone?) about how humor writing is hard because it has an inherent promise: “I’m going to force you to have an involuntary physical reaction.” It's also unusual in that audience decides if it exists or not, unlike other art forms.
Paul: If you see a bad painting, you don’t say it’s not a painting. But the audience determines if comedy is comedy or not. [I don't think this is accurate—no one questions the existence of a painting, but they do question its designation as "art." Seems about the same to me.]
Courtenay: For the two of you who largely write on the page, because comedy is subjective, how often do you try things out for the audience?
Jess: "With a book, having a novel that’s funny isn’t often enough. It has to be in service of something else, hopefully something profound." I was on book tour in England and I described my book as a comic novel and a woman asked, “oh, do you draw the pictures, too?” and I said, yes. I don’t fel like I’m trying out bits so much as it informs the way I look at the world. Comedy acts as a trap door, in a novel.
Paul: There’s another aspect to written comedy; a work can be comic and not necessarily have punch lines and not necessarily have specific things where you need to know what’s working on the audience. It can be a cumulative effect, a world view… it’s a different set of criteria.
Courtenay: Steve, anything to add?
Steve: I really like my involvement in this panel so far. My confidence is just going up.
Courtenay: Here’s a question for you. People who are funny are damaged in some way... [Laughs] I believe that humor comes from pain. Is it possible to be a funny person w/out having gone through trauama?
Steve: "The fundamental false dichotomy that somehow arose starting w/Aristotle is that comedy and tragedy are on different sides of the same coin. I don’t set out to write funny things, I don’t think it’s wise to start out to be funny. I try to reach a place where if I’m really just honest about it I confess to how humiliated I constantly am, and the trangressive thoughts I have…." Comics reveal the truth at a velocity we’re uncomfortable with. Our discomfort is what makes us laugh.
Paul:"I have a problem with your premise. Everybody is damaged. Everybody. Some people express it differently. That notion that comedians or comedy writers or people who work in comedy are more damaged than the general population is a canard and I have no idea where it came from."
Steve: "The reason that we know that you’re damaged is that you're laughing. I don’t want to speak to whether everybody has to be damaged [to do comedy]. That’s some People Magazine question."
Courtenay: "Thank you, Steve, now we’re even."
Paul: "We are all damaged. [Most people] try to reframe it in some way, impose some uplifting narrative. What the best comedians do is they get on it and ride it into the sunset. They don’t make any bones about it, rather than trying to hide it or pretend it’s something other than what it is."
Courtenay: How do you transform your trauma into humor?
Steve: "I think having a motive spoils it. Thinking ‘I have all these invasive, trangressive thoughts. I’m gonna turn it into comedy gold.' But to some extent reveling in negative feeling states: awkwardness, discomfort, rage, alienation. The best thing you can do is talk about these things. The reason we’re equipped with a comic impulse is because we’re frequently disappointed or guilt ridden or outrage at our family or ourselves—-that’s why we have a comic impulse, to survive that bad data."
Jess: It doesn’t have to be self directed, it can be directed toward politics or culture at large.
Paul: There's the analogy of music—I like to use that analogy. Most people see comedians and they think of comedy as one thing, or humor as one thing. You don’t think of music as one thing—you inherently understand genre, and you wouldn’t judge genre one by the same standards you would another, and some speak to you and some don’t. Same goes for comedy. Some people just have a gift for jazz, and they may not have what it takes to be classical musician. The closest thing to a sense of humor is a sexual attraction. It’s so personal, you can’t judge someone for it. There is no right or wrong, it either touches a lot of people or it doesn't, but there’s an audience for everything, because it’s that individual.
Courtenay: What if you're a lover of comedy, but you know you're not funny. Can you teach people to be funny?
Paul: "Doesn’t happen. That’s like a unicorn. Nobody actually acknowledges that they don’t have a sense of humor."
Steve: Everyone can be funny in their own way. Comedy provides “mutual relief for unbearable feelings.”I taught a comedy class at Boston College to a bunch of well-behaved suburban Catholic kids named Megan and Matt. And they were all so earnest and well-behaved that they never wrote anything embarrassing or truly funny. And I finally had to say “You’re fucking killing me, lighten up, or everybody’s gonna get an F. If I hear another earnest word…” The next class a kid—his name was Matt, actually—brought in a piece about the protocals of shitting in public, with all these great terms, like "prairiedogging." "And it was this excruciating 45 minutes, by which I mean this utterly delightful 45 minutes, in which everyone had to admit that people shit in public, and strategizes about it…” The class got better after that. "I mean I’m not saying everyone works for The Tonight Show... although I found out that one girl writes for 30 Rock now. That bitch.
Courtenay: Are there things that are off limits to comedy?
Paul: "Absolutely not. Are there experiences or conditions of humanity that are inappropriate for drama, or painting, or music? For some reason comedy is limited. Like emotions A-M are acceptable in comedy, but N-Z aren’t allowed. There’s no other art form that doesn't go through the range of experiences."
Courtenay: Why is that?
Paul: "There’s a lot of things involved there, but most is convention, social niceties. Some of it just politeness. Some is a politicized hall monitor thing that goes on. And they’re all shit."
Steve: "You're asking a question that has as many answers as comics. For me, there are things that I won’t write about, because… I have to go home for Thanksgiving." Everybody has those spaces that’re off limits, In an ideal world we would all admit the kind of mess we’re carrying around. All the anxiety and stress that comes with having brains that’re way too big. If you can’t be radically honest, then don’t try. Don’t try to tell a half truth.
Jess: My father was starting to suffer from early dementia, and the character in my novel has dementia, much worse than my father. [And he asked his father for permission to write about it.] My previous novel, I was writing about terrorism in 2002-2003, and I asked my wife to read it and she got to the point where a firefighter was on a box of First Response cereal, and she said, "I think you can go t jail for that." That was invigorating.
Paul: Those lines are gold. There's a comedy night in London where people have to bring all new material, and when 9/11 happened that night a comedian made the joke: "That’s the way it is with twins, one twin gets a plane, the other twin’s gotta get a plane.” [Audience laughter] The reason that’s funny, the lines are there, and the tension that builds by rubbing up against those lines.
Courtneay: Kind of like how the people who seem to enjoy sex the most are the ones who were raised Catholic, because it makes it kind of filthy.
Jess: As an agnostic I would disagree with that
Paul: Those lines, those criteria, they really are where the most interesting work in comedy can be done. Like... indulge me for a second, I want to tell this joke. It's not my joke, I didn't write it, but I think it's a good joke. Why do so many black men have nightmares when they sleep? Because the last one who had a dream got shot in the fucking head. [Audience "awws"] Now that’s a fantastic joke because its values are alright, it's a progressive joke. It misleads like crazy. It feels like it’s going to be a really racist joke, but its values are on the side of justice. Reactions to that joke are fascinating.
Courtenay: And audience audiences have personalities. There’s an audience gestalt, or… some other word that’s not as annoying. People check with each other to gauge whether it’s ok to laugh.
[At this point, my computer dies and I start scrambling for a note pad. If memory serves, Steve Almond starts talking about how reactions to comedy are often a response to manage feelings of helplessness by acknowledging that helplessness; and Paul says, too, that they're a response to our collective culture, like the post-9/11 attempt to frame the attack as a decisive emotional event for everyone in the country, even people who had no direct connection—compares it to the hype over Princess Di's death. "Sometimes you have to step back and go... really?" And then I find scratch paper and start taking notes, so things get a little less coherent from here on out, and the paraphrasing gets even more liberal.]
Paul: "And the fourth estate is totally out to lunch."
Steve: The fourth estate are rats fucking pushing their food button trying to get some money out so they can stay in work.
Jess: I wonder if our whole culture has a heightened sense of humor—Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert couldn't have happened 20 years ago. Even your average floor-wax commercial is funny these days.
Steve: That speaks to how savvy marketing has become, they know that to distinguish themselves they have to get an authentic laugh.
Paul: They're co-opting humor the same way they co-opted music.
Then it opens up to audience Q&A; someone what prairiedogging means and Steve Almond dodges the question. Someone else asks about "process" and half of the room flinches, but Steve and Paul give great answers that boil down to, I procrastinate until I can't procrastinate any more, and then I write. Steve says, "my notions of plot are quite primitive. I'm trying to push my characters into emotional danger and see what happens." Jess says he's constantly writing, jotting down ideas on coffeeshop napkins and coasters, and that "the best writing doesn't happen with your fingers on the home keys. It happens at a bar... at a bar... at a bar...." Almond manages to use the phrase "radical honesty" about 6 more times (he likes that one); Paul notes that "I go into [joke telling] assuming that if I think a joke is funny, if one person on the planet thinks it's funny, then it's funny. The rest is just communicating it." And there's a somewhat high-minded digression about how the function of comedy is to "speak truth to power," which encompasses Charlie Chaplin, the notion of "the fool," and Hopi indian tradition.
That's about it. It was a really good panel, and I wish they'd had more time to talk—they started getting into what distinguishes "good comedy" from "bad comedy," for example, in response to a question about Sasha Baron Cohen, and I would've liked a chance to ask how comedy that defines itself as anti-PC (like , Tucker Max-esque fratire, for example) fits into their notions of boundary pushing and transgression—although I guess the response would probably have been along the lines of, if you're the one with power, you're probably not speaking truth to it. But I would've liked time to ask. Anyway! Hope people got a chance to see that one, it was great.