As someone who isn’t very funny — I have a good sense of humor and laugh often, but lack the social skills to tell a good joke — I’m always amazed at how easy it is to be funny on stage (at least when the situation doesn’t demand it). I was at a poetry reading Monday night, and found myself telling a story about my mother watching a clip of me on YouTube. Of course, I embellished a bit to maximize the entertainment value, as humans are wont to do, mingling in my wife’s common critique in a way she’ll probably call Freudian, but the gist is true. I said something like this:
I did a reading a few weeks ago, that the host filmed and put up on YouTube. My mom still has dial-up, so couldn’t watch it at home, and when she tried to watch it at her office, she realized her computer didn’t have any speakers. So, like any loving mother, she watched the whole poetry reading with no sound. For 30 minutes. Needless to say, I now have a full list of all my nervous ticks and poor postures. So if you see me putting my free hand in a pocket or oddly leaning to one side, smack me with a ruler or something.
Did you just laugh out loud? The 40 or so people in the audience did. It’s definitely an amusing story, worthy of a affectionate smile at least, but I bet very few people reading this let out a soft snort, let alone a chuckle loud enough that an office-mate had to look up over the cubicle wall. And it’s not like the 40-or-so people at Village Books on Monday were freaks with a hair-trigger funnybone. Laughter is infectious — it’s evolutionarily encoded, a still-useful tribal bonding mechanism from the caveman days.
A few years ago Megan and I went to see Mary Oliver in Santa Barbara. Aside from the National Poetry Slam, it’s still the largest literary audience I’ve ever been a part of — almost 1,000 in attendance. Mary read her poems of simple nature and grace, and in between each one, no matter what she said, the audience would laugh. It got to the point where she seemed to be testing how low the comedic bar could go, how little it would take, until finally she gave up and said, “For some reason everything I say is funny.” The audience laughed.
A poetry reading might be the easiest place in the world to become a comedian. Mary wasn’t even trying to be funny, in fact, she seemed slightly horrified. There’s something unique, I think, that happens at a poetry reading, a perfect storm of haha. Poetry is the most empathetic of all mediums — a poet speaks and manipulates your own inner voice; she uses you as the canvas. I think when we encounter a poet on stage, we relate so much that the experience becomes slightly uncomfortable — and for many that translates into a nervous giggle, which then spreads through the crowd like an instantaneous meme.
Moreover, poems themselves are fundamentally funny — in one of my favorite essays on poetry, Kay Ryan points out that “Ha!” and “Ah!” are really manifestations of the same thing. They’re both spontaneous reactions to emotional/psychological surprise — an “impossible pang,” as she puts it. As poets, we’re often hoping for those quiet awe-struck gasps, a trickle of soft “Ahs” at a the end or in the middle of a poem. But I think that reaction is so close to it’s sibling that we just as often get the “Ha!” instead. The audience doesn’t really know what to do, but we know we feel something strange bubbling up from our gut. And so we laugh.
The effect is like a hurricane forming — an empathetic unease in relation to the poet depresses the room; all that moisture swirls and condenses around the kernel of surprise that’s fundamental to poetry, and then rapidly expands over the warm waters of an infectious laugh track. Is that analogy ridiculous enough to be funny?
Anyway, a poet walks on stage to a comic’s dream — the audience is primed to laugh, almost desperate to release that communal, emotional energy.
And I haven’t even gotten to the fact yet that most of comedy is in the timing, and all those non-verbal cues that can’t be expressed on paper. My story above was probably more funny for the look on my face, and the pause before the slightly deadpan semi-punch line, “For 30 minutes.” On paper you don’t get the pause, unless I add some white space, but white space would also take the attention away from the scene and remind you that you’re reading something on paper. And even then you’d miss the goofy look on my face.
My favorite comedian is probably George Carlin. I love his bit on religion, about the invisible man in the sky who has a special place for you full of fire and misery where you’ll scream ceaselessly for all eternity — “but he loves you!” I can fall out of my chair laughing at that on his HBO special. Even reading the transcript makes me chuckle now, and I can hear it in his voice, with his well-timed, pious, one-legged bow.
But here’s the transcript of a bit I’m not familiar with — similar topic, but to me just words on a page (don’t watch the YouTube clip at that link until after you read some of the text:
Here is my problem with the ten commandments — why exactly are there 10?
You simply do not need ten. The list of ten commandments was artificially and deliberately inflated to get it up to ten. Here’s what happened:
About 5,000 years ago a bunch of religious and political hustlers got together to try to figure out how to control people and keep them in line. They knew people were basically stupid and would believe anything they were told, so they announced that God had given them some commandments, up on a mountain, when no one was around.
Well let me ask you this — when they were making this shit up, why did they pick 10? Why not 9 or 11? I’ll tell you why — because 10 sound official. Ten sounds important! Ten is the basis for the decimal system, it’s a decade, it’s a psychologically satisfying number (the top ten, the ten most wanted, the ten best dressed). So having ten commandments was really a marketing decision!
Read that to yourself, without doing an internal George Carlin impersonation, and it’s kind of funny — more funny than my anecdote above — but I’m not laughing out loud. Not even close.
The point here is obvious, and you knew it before you started reading this post: Being funny on paper is a hell of a lot harder than being funny on stage. Let alone being funny on stage at a poetry venue that’s primed for laughter.
In fact, being funny on paper might be the hardest thing a poet can ever try to do.
And to make matters worse, poets are tricked into a false sense of their own comedic ability by an always-encouraging audience.
The summer issue of Rattle is going to feature a tribute to humor, and so far this seems to be the most difficult tribute yet. Three weeks before the deadline we have 14 poems slated to appear, with our target somewhere in the 20s. I think we’ll make it, but only because of an unprecedented volume of humor-related submissions. Recent tributes have all been fairly restrictive — you had to be an African American, or a sonneteer, or a rancher, and so on. This is the first special section we’ve had in years that’s actually open to anybody — any poet in the world can take a shot at being funny. And thank god for that, because we really need the volume, with such a low success rate.
So how do funny poems actually work? Well, the same way serious poems work — there’s just, I think, less room for error:
- An authentic voice, with a nuanced sense of rhythm and diction, lets a reader hear the “George Carlin” in their head.
- Using line breaks to manipulate pacing and provide a sense of timing.
- A strong narrative to make the scene engrossing.
- Startling images, surprising juxtapositions and turns of phrase — that’s what a punch line really is, and on paper you have to get it perfect.
That’s the problem with humor on the page — every element has to be perfect. Because, the opposite of what hapepns on stage, the situation is working entirely against the poet. We read alone, in the comfort of our own chair, with the expectation that the work should be compelling. There’s no nervous laughter and no echo-chamber to amplify it. No voice, no timing, no exaggerated facial expressions or pantomimes.
It’s just words on a page, and the poet’s ability to manipulate the way you experience them. Which makes me really appreciate the poets who manage to consistently pull it off, the Parkers and Collinses of the world.
If you’d like to try your hand at being funny on the page, the deadline for submissions is February 1st. Go here for more info.