Why I Take Comedy Very Seriously

Stand-Up

By Kevin Low, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, it’s great to be here tonight. I just flew in from Singapore, and boy are my arms tired!

*crickets*

I like to think of myself as a funny person. There’s nothing I enjoy more than making people laugh (except maybe ice cream). I strongly believe that the meaning of life is to be happy, and laughter is one of the best ways on the path to achieving true happiness (besides maybe ice cream). As a comedian I run the whole gamut of techniques, from one-liners to parody, slapstick to satire, horrible puns to self-deprecation, and everything else in between (except maybe, you know, ice cream). I love them all, but I value wit very highly, because there’s nothing more wonderful in this world than that spark of understanding, that sudden double-take, that snap-of-the-fingers moment where you go “Ohhh!” and break into that loud smile we call laughter.

A lot of people think that I’m naturally funny, but that’s not true. Like everyone else on this planet, the first thing I did upon my birth was cry. For a huge chunk of my teenage life I used to think and over-think, and hate the world because it wasn’t living up to my ideals. I used to be an emo kid like you, then I took a joke book to the knee. (It hit my funny bone.) And now my interaction with people and trying to be funny is a huge part of my life. Here are seven ways I’ve realized that living with comedy is so important.

References

Can you remember the very first joke you heard? It was probably either a knock-knock joke or a riddle with some incredibly lame pun as the punchline, the kind which you’d have to restrain from punching someone in the face for saying now that you’re older. But for all the joke writers targeting the nursery-to-kindergarten demographic, that’s all they could write about, because what else would five-year-olds know? You can’t write jokes about how lawyers are evil or any “That’s what she said!” lines because these kids don’t know anything about the legal industry or sexual innuendo (at least, they shouldn’t), and all these jokes will go right over their tiny little heads. Because at that age, all your audience knows is language, and comedy is restricted to what they know.

(I want to take an aside here and tell you a story about my favourite joke when I was six. It was in this joke book I found at my neighbourhood library, full of all the puns and the childish wordplay of the face-punching variety. But amidst the cesspool of “What do you call a boy with a face like a rock? Cliff.” jokes was this little gem: “What do you get if you cross a river with a paper boat? Wet.” This came at the end of a list of typical “What do you get if you cross” jokes, and I guess it goes to show that at a tender young age I already enjoyed the fantastic wordplay, I was already amused by subversion, and I was already really really desperate for a good face punching.)

Fast forward to you, here and now. What do you find funny now that you’re all grown up? Global warming, blonde jokes, college humour, art, cats with bad grammar, stupid people doing stupid things, marriage, baldness, death, video games, celebrities. Comedy has been written about all of these subjects, as the Internet can testify, and I’m barely even scratching the surface here.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that comedy can help you learn about so many different things in this world. It happens in two ways: either you learn about things so you can tell jokes about them, or you learn things from jokes that you hear and internalize. This is most apparent in the area of current events. For me, politics, the economy, and international relations are all subjects I never used to take much interest in, but these days I’m flipping through the newspapers everyday to (at least) have an awareness of what is going on globally. And that’s a very important thing in this messed-up world we live in, because everything is increasingly interconnected. You don’t have to know everything about everything, but you should at least know something of everything, or else you’ll know nothing about anything.

And you have to admit, it’s a lot more fun learning from joke books than textbooks.

Consideration

I stand by the belief that every single thing or subject or topic in this world is open to hilarity, but there are some people and/or organizations who believe otherwise. These people and/or organizations are usually very invested in their demographic or movement or area of interest, and they’re usually very serious, sometimes very vocal and occasionally very violent. I respect that, and I understand that a great many people have subjects or topics which they would consider too taboo for comedy. Religion is one of these topics, and I tend not to joke about it at all for fear of causing offence.

And so one of the ways comedy has impacted my life is that it has made me more considerate of other people’s beliefs and interests. I think a lot before I say anything, especially to somebody I’ve just met, because he or she might be a wonderful and amazing person who just happens to enjoy political bureaucracy, and as such might find my tongue-in-cheek comment about the inefficiency of the United Nations personally offensive. They’d get angry, and it would escalate from discontent to protest movements to full-blown military conflict, but then of course before the offended party could send in their troops to retaliate they’d have to ask the UN for permission, so I should have just enough time for a trip around the world before I escape to the colony on Mars.

Seriously, though, it’s not just about avoiding certain issues in conversation, it’s also about carefully wording your thoughts so that they aren’t misconstrued. Or if they are misunderstood, it’s about being able to identify the source of the misunderstanding, and then coming up with a suitably-worded reply to address the confusion. And I’ve had to use this skill a lot to defray countless arguments and misunderstandings. I’m like a Brilliant, Discerning, Super-Mediator, which would look really weird if I initialed it onto the chest of my superhero costume.

The Setup

There is a theory of humour (yes, people actually study this; and yes, these people are awesome) which explains that people laugh at the moment when they resolve a incongruity. Basically, what this means is that you laugh when you see a break in a pattern, understand why that break is there, and see how the original pattern and the break actually makes sense if you see them as a whole. This is called the Incongruity-Resolution Theory of Humour, and I believe (in my humbly professional opinion) that it applies to almost every single type of comedy that exists.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about humour theory; what I wanted to say was that in a joke, the setup is usually as important as the punchline. The long, rambling story you tell in the beginning creates that initial pattern, and the punchline throws in the incongruity, the break in the pattern. And while the punchline usually gets all the credit for being the funniest, getting endorsement deals to appear on Facebook statuses and Internet memes, it’s only funny because the setup story did all the work. Without the story, the punchline would just be another meaningless phrase without a context.

So preparation is important, not just in comedy, but in everything you do in life. You want the big, flashy, gut-busting roll-on-the-floor shoot-milk-out-your-nose finale; you have to work for it first.

Wordplay

I love the English language. It lends itself to all sorts of fantastic comedy. From face-punching puns to double entendres; from spoonerisms to wellerisms to malapropisms; from paraprosdokians and garden path sentences; to acronyms and backronyms and any type of homonyms; the list of wordplay and figures of speech in the English language is hilariously long and way too fascinating to pass up.

I really have to credit comedy for my eloquence and verbosity (or in other words, my longwindness and prattle). If I hadn’t practiced my linguistic acrobatics on jokes, riddles, and rhymes, this post would have been a lot shorter and a lot more boring. Also, when you’re familiar enough with words and their meanings, you become a better communicator. When you constantly think in double meanings, you’re naturally attuned to the process of communication. You’re well aware of the different presumptions that people might take from the exact same sentence. You know about layers of meaning, about subtext and euphimism, about impact and implications. Every word chosen with care, every sentence crafted with consideration, every idea phrased with style. There might have been other ways to reach this place, but none of them quite as amusing.

As they say in the business, a good pun is its own reword.

Performance

While language is the cornerstone of many forms of comedy, one cannot ignore the non-verbal aspects of the job. There is always a place in comedy for those with a flair for the theatrical. Acting, movement, mime and drama: all these are like the quicksilver and mercury in the comedian’s alchemy kit. Sure, they might not be suitable for every occasion, and dabbling with them too often might drive you insane, but use them properly in the right situation and comedy gold might result.

Slapstick, of course, is the pinnacle of physical comedy, but what it brings in accessibility, it lacks in complexity and depth. Tom and Jerry might have been the most popular cartoon in its time, but after hundreds of episodes of unrealistic dynamite explosions, feet caught in mousetraps, and frying pans to the face, the effect kinda wears off. What I love best in physical comedy is that you can pull off a punchline without saying anything at all.

One of my favourite shows of all time has to be the US version of Whose Line is it Anyway, the show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. It’s basically a bunch of improvisational theatre stitched together in a game show format, and it has produced some of the best comedy in the history of the universe. There’s a very popular game called Scenes from a Hat, where the host Drew Carey gets audience members to write down scenes they’d like to see, and they put them all into a hat, and they’re pulled out randomly to see how many of them the four performers can act out.

There was this one which was pulled out called “Dangerous things to do while naked“. So while there were a number of comedic gems (“Five minutes, mister president”), the best one was Canadian comic genius Colin Mochrie coming up to center stage, pulling an imaginary rip cord and making a revving sound, and then throwing it up in the air as though he was juggling. It’s the show-don’t-tell approach to comedy that I really admire, and I really respect the fact that you can make people laugh without even a word.

And the good thing about learning performance is that, similar to wordplay, you become a better communicator. You become naturally attuned to the nature of movement in communication. You understand the power, meaning, and impact behind a single, simple hand gesture; but you’ll also appreciate that there are situations where wild, frantic gesticulations are necessary to convey your message. You’re more sensitive to body language, and you’ll be more aware of how to act and behave in specific situations.

Timing

As they say in comedy, timing is everything. It’s not a class of comedy per se, but like performance, can accentuate a good joke, build up tension or expectation, or set up an audience for the punchline. Many jokes depend on the need to rattleoffalistofthingsreallyquicklysothattheaudiencehastocatchup, and many others hinge on having that pregnant –

*ahem*

– pause for the full comedic effect.

And again, an understanding of impact of timing helps you in other aspects of your life. Here’s just a little example. You have no idea how many conversations I’ve been in where I’ve had a joke on the tip of my tongue, but before I can say it, somebody else changes the topic to something completely different, and the witty one-liner goes unsaid. And I’ve come to learn so many things from this awkward social situation: the importance of seizing opportunity, the value of holding your tongue, and the understanding that there will always be a similar opportunity in the future.

Seriously?!

Earlier in this article I mentioned that I believe everything in this universe should be subject to comedy. I honestly do. I look forward to the day when we can joke about religion, homosexuality and race just as easily as we would science, retirement, insurance salemen, or dogs. Humour can help us to confront and deal with these difficult issues, because comedy provides that important break in the pattern. It forces us to change perspective, and in so doing, we might better understand the issue at hand.

I also believe that there are so many things that we take way too seriously and which cause us undue stress and worry. I’m not saying that you should go through life without caring. I’m saying that once in a while, you should take some time to relax, look at the situation that is making you freak out or depressed, and see it from a humourous perspective. Put a funny hat on it. Have it sit on a whoopee cushion. Imagine it dancing. Imagine it with a stereotyped foreign accent. Imagine it without any clothes on. Imagine it dancing, in an stereotyped foreign accent, without any clothes on. When your problems are funny, they are so much easier to face.

Because in the end, life’s just a joke. A long, funny, terrifying, illogical, absurd, surrealistic, hilarious joke.

And death is waiting with the punchline.

Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been a wonderful audience! Good night! Remember to tip your waitresses! Try the veal!

2 comments

  1. gkhuyen

    Great post. I’d love to see another part about Fading Sensitivity To Jokes And How To Deal With It 😀

  2. Vidhi Vakharia

    Check this out:

    It may not be “funny”, but it made me smile.

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