Friday, October 03, 2008

Comic Marxists and Comic Platonists

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week was Groucho's birthday and it has led me to a place of Comedist meditation.

I played an open mic at the Ragged Edge, a coffee house near campus, on Groucho's birthday Thursday night and the set went quite well. I felt looser than I've yet been on stage, tried out some new material that hit bigger than I expected, pretty much nailed the timing; all in all, a good night.

As I was leaving, I bumped into one of the guys who was in the room and he thanked me for the routine saying that it was just what he needed. He explained that he had just lost his grandparents in a tragic car accident a few days ago and that he has been in a bad place lately inside his head. He cut his night class at the local community college because he wasn't in a state to be able to sit through class and so went to the coffee house to get out, and just happened upon the open mic expecting to hear some music. He expressed the most authentic gratitude for having been provided an island of joy in a sea of grief, a respite in which he could remember what life was usually like before his loss.

I was taken aback by it. I felt embarrassed and awkward in receiving this thankfulness because I performed that routine out of purely selfish motives -- wanted to get more mic time, wanted to try a different audience, wanted to be able to put a new place on my list, wanted to test out some new jokes, was all about me. But it ended up being bigger than me. The power of humor made it humane even if the intent was not.

The word selfish, though, is not entirely correct. In reflecting on my stand-up experiences, I've come to realize that I am a comedic Platonist. Plato argued that what is real is not the material world, but the forms, that is, the perfect immaterial, unchanging essences. I've watched a lot of comics who are all presentation and no substance, there is no evidence of craftsmanship in their writing. They are funny, but their material isn't. Their comedy is in the world. I, on the other hand, have appreciated comedy in a way that looks at the form of the joke. Is it well worded, well paced, well delivered? Does it tie in coherently, but cleverly with the larger routine? Whether it hits or misses is irrelevant, who it is told to doesn't matter, what I've always looked for is something in the structure of the joke itself that makes it good.

And I've found myself approaching the stage in the same way. I am relating more to the material than to the audience. The joke is not in the context, but in the form and the telling.

But this young man made me more of a comedic Marxist, that is, someone who believes that comedy can be used to overcome the alienation we have towards each other in modern life. The Marx Brothers' films came out during the Great Depression and World War II. Their comedy was not only social satire, but consciously played to those who were in the worst of ways, and used their nickle to try to escape for a couple hours to a happier place. They knew their comedy was not just jokes for jokes' sake, but an attempt to reach out an connect with people on every level in the head, in the gut, and even the genitals (or Gentiles depending upon what part of town you are in) in a way that could make lives better.

On his birthday, I was visited by the spirit of Groucho reminding me that comedy is holy, is a path to enlightenment, is a way to move beyond oneself and become one with others.

Any stories of funny moments that ended up being meaningful from the Congregation?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve