A Case for Comedy

By on Monday, April 21st, 2014 at 10:00 am

An art form that correlates well with poetry is standup comedy. Such connections are not often made in classrooms or seen on TV classrooms. In my courses, I reference movies or shows in order to connect the more “popular” examples to assigned short stories. Such comparisons are obvious and in no way novel since all of these forms use character and plot. When teaching poetry, many instructors typically compare poetic verse to song lyrics, and I do this, too. Who can’t think of at least one example of the English teacher rapping Shakespeare? (I do not do this). Although this comparison works on many levels, music still, well, uses music: a creation of melodies through instruments, whereas poetry only relies on its words to create tone, cadence, and rhythm—no other sounds accompany it. Thus, the art of standup translates more easily to poetry.

A poetry reading and standup comedy are similar kinds of performances. Both the poet and comic are up on that stage or behind that lectern alone. There are no special effects. No gimmicks. Both just feature a person, a mic, and her words. Both are a raw way to disseminate ideas, to start conversations. Comedian and actor, Jerry Seinfeld asserts on his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, “The comedian studies himself. The actor studies other people. The comedian wants to be himself. The actor wants to be anyone but themselves.”1 This same concept applies to poets versus fiction writers. Sure, both poets and comedians create characters or even a narrative from time to time, but overall their voice and vision is expressed through image, anecdote, word play.

A great example of the comedian studying herself is Tig Notaro’s comedy album: LIVE. In August 2012, Notaro went on stage waving to the crowd, saying, “Hello. Good evening. I have cancer.” The audience responded with a mixture of nervous laughter, genuine laughter, and silence. As she continued and people realized that she was not joking, that she really did receive a diagnosis of breast cancer just a few days prior, some audience members began crying. To comfort a particular person, Notaro responded, “It’s okay. It’s okay. I have cancer.” She used the normally terrifying phrase “I have cancer” as if she were just saying another “It’s okay.”

Such jarring juxtapositions occur in poetry, too. Mark Doty, an award winning poet, writes that “poetic description wants to do anything but reinscribe the already known; if we look deeply enough into anything, is what we find the opposite of what appears at the surface?”2 Poets craft lines to surprise readers as well as themselves, finding a new sense of understanding in their words. Mary Szybist’s National Book Award winning poetry collection Incarnadine includes the poem “Happy Ideas”; in it, all of the lines begin with “I had the happy idea” and then offer an image that does not fit with our preconceived notions of “happy.” She writes, “I had the happy idea to create a void in myself.”3 Having a void in oneself certainly does not seem happy, but putting these words in such close proximity challenges us to rethink definitions of seemingly simply words like “happy” and “void” much like the seemingly simple words Notaro juxtaposes and surprises: “okay” and “cancer.”

In an interview with NPR, Notaro reveals, “I was scared of offending people and confusing people. You know, thinking about people that maybe did have cancer in the audience, or had somebody that they loved that had cancer. And then the reality hit me that I have cancer — this is my story.”4 Is this not what poetry does? Does it not grapple with truth and confusion and our place among others? Before going on stage, Notaro told Louis CK, who was about to introduce her set, that she was just diagnosed. He recalls that night saying, “What followed was one of the greatest standup performances I ever saw. I can’t really describe it but I was crying and laughing and listening like never in my life. Here was this small woman standing alone against death and simply reporting where her mind had been and what had happened and employing her gorgeously acute standup voice to her own death.”5 Louis CK’s apt phrasing of “listening like never before” underscores the goal of any good poet or standup, and his wording in regards to Notaro “reporting where her mind had been” defines the job of any standup or poet. Great poets and comics do all of this in such a way to make it look simple.

Comedy does not only look inward, of course; it examines our world and our place in it, too. Sarah Silverman is a great example of this. Silverman’s comedy has been called “demented” by Katie Couric in a 2008 interview since Silverman is known for her shock value and vulgarity6. However, in the HBO special We Are Miracles, released in November 2013, Silverman has finely tuned her craft, providing a balance of the crude with the poignant. Her special certainly has some of her well-known topics—oral sex, defecating, the c-word—but its power comes from her lines that do not use any over-the-top jokes, or do not even make joke at all. Her examination of our society leads to such claims as: “We think self-deprecation is modesty. It’s not. It’s self obsession.” And “To women of a certain age, your heartbreaking and drastic attempts to look younger are the reason your daughter doesn’t dream about her future.” These lines do garner laughs in the special because of the comedy adage: it’s funny because it’s true. Outside of the stage though, I would argue that people would not laugh at all. Seeing them starkly on the page, or perhaps simply not said by the comic herself, showcases how germane these thoughts are to us. These declarations are pertinent because they are often never said, or at least never said so succinctly, despite how true and perhaps obvious they are. What’s more, she delivers the lines in such a way that she does not rely on her own self-deprecation, which is often a crutch many comics use.

Poetry brings out these types of truths as well; we expect that of this art form. In Sonya Renee’s poem “The Body is Not an Apology,” she declares, “The body is not an apology. Do not offer the body as gift. Only receive it as such. The body is not to be prayed for, is to be prayed to.”7 The power of her voice as she delivers these lines to a crowd causes them to clap and call out, showing the truth they find in her message, the connection they find to her. Renee stands in front of her audience without setting, lighting, costume. Poets offer their words as gifts, working for them to be received as such, hoping they shed new light on a topic to help find truth.

DH Monro avers in his book Argument of Laugher, “The most distinctive thing about humor is that it involves a change of standpoints or attitudes…The mind is as it were wound up ready to proceed in a definite direction: it is suddenly wrenched off its path [by laughter] and turned in a different direction.”8 Notaro and Silverman wrench our minds off their paths in the same way that Syzbist and Renee do. Poetry and comedy both utilize precise timing and specific language to change our attitudes, to define the unknown, to question the accepted. They provide those ah-ha moments on topics we face every day without thinking enough about them: our concepts of self worth or happiness, our obsession with youth and beauty and body, even our own mortality.

Standup comedy is poetry. Instructors can look to comedy for fresh ways to approach lessons about poems, especially if music metaphors fall flat. Poets can help bridge gaps by using examples of standup when anyone says she does not like or understand poetry. And when poets say they do not like comedy, they too can rethink perspectives on this other underrepresented art. We find understanding in poetry and punch lines.

1 Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.

2 Doty, Mark. The Art of Description: World into Word. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2010.

3Syzbist, Mary. Incarnadine. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2013.

4“Tig Notaro On Going ‘Live’ About Her Life,” NPR, July 26, 2013.

5 “Louis C.K.’s Moving Tig Notaro Email: Breast Cancer Set ‘One Of The Greatest Standup Performances I Ever Saw,'” Huffington Post, September 8, 2012.

6 “Sarah Silverman’s ‘Demented’ Comedy,” YouTube, October 21, 2008.

7 “The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee,” The Body is Not an Apology, Tumblr, August 26, 2013.

8 Monro, D.H. Argument of Laughter. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963. Print.

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