Plots and Punchlines

Zachary Martin

Apr 05, 2011

Before I became a struggling writer, I was a struggling comedian. This is perhaps not surprising given the three things my childhood never suffered for: books from yard sales, comedy on vinyl, and sarcasm. My father would often leave a Bill Cosby or George Carlin LP playing while he made dinner, and from those two comedic deities, it wasn't long before my brother and I had deduced the entire cosmology of stand-up. Carlin, Cosby, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein, Lenny Bruce, Cheech and Chong, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison, Billy Connolly, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy--they were all such an integral part of my formative years that it was only natural I try the field out for myself. I was awful. Worse, I didn't even enjoy it. I was living in Boston at the time and, after I would finish a set in some dingy underground club, I didn't feel the rush that so many performers talk about. I just felt relief, followed quickly by dread about the next time I would have to go up. Switching my focus from being a comedian to being a writer was relatively easy: they both pay about the same (nothing) and they both offer the same benefits (none). But the switch was easy for other reasons, too; it is difficult to imagine two vocations more woefully misunderstood or more widely derided. The derision is subtle, however. A writer friend of mine visited his doctor a few years ago for a check-up. The doctor asked my friend what he did for a living. "I'm a writer," my friend said. "Oh, really," the doctor said, "I played around with being a writer for a year before I went to medical school." If that story sounds like a setup without a punchline, it isn't. The joke was that writing is something you dabbled in, not something you dedicated your life to, and the joke was on my friend. Another story: I often show my students Comedian, a documentary about the stand-up of Jerry Seinfeld. His hit television show over, Seinfeld has returned to stand-up for a fresh start. He's not allowing himself to use any of his old material and wants to build a new act from scratch. Needless to say, this doesn't always go smoothly. He forgets jokes on stage or, worse, remembers the setup but forgets the punchline; the jokes are not yet funny, or they're not yet written and delivered in a way that brings the audience to the laugh. My students are invariably mystified. They assume comedians just make up the jokes as they go along every night. What these two stories share in common is a lack of respect for the difficulties of creation. My students had believed that Seinfeld's genius lay in magically producing laugh after laugh, off the cuff, night after night. It was inconceivable that his genius might lie in his determination, in the goal of learning from failures and getting gradually better. They figured he was making comedy the same way they were writing stories and essays for workshop, which is to say, on the fly and with little regard for craft. And no doubt that doctor is still out there, assuming he'd be able to write the Great American Novel, if only he weren't so busy rubbing jelly on his fingers and checking his patients' prostates. Perhaps we writers and comedians are partly to blame for this misunderstanding. A sense of spontaneity is required in the nightclub to keep the jokes from feeling old and worn, and every writer I know loves to project an air of leisure. It isn't as much fun to reveal to the public just how many versions of a particular joke or a single sentence we've had to pore over to find just the right way to convey meaning. If it doesn't look effortless, it doesn't look good. It reminds me of a joke by Mitch Hedberg: "I wrote a script, and I gave it to a guy who reads scripts. And he read it and he says he really likes it, but he thinks I need to rewrite it. I said, 'Fuck that, I'll just make a copy.'" I often wonder about how many times Hedberg had to rewrite that before he got it just right. There are other parallels between writing and comedy, of course. Both the writer and the comedian suffer from a particular kind of delusion about their world and their place in it. As the essayist Donald Morrill puts it, "The satirist is the most pious of writers because he proceeds on the premise that correction is necessary and possible." I don't take this to mean that all writers aren't guilty of this piety, only that satirists are perhaps the most culpable. Both writers and comedians believe that what we do matters, despite all evidence to the contrary, though I imagine that by sticking together and insisting that something is worthy of ridicule or praise, eros or pathos, we make it so. At the core, what we can learn from both writing and comedy are ways of seeing the world. John Gardner tells this story: "Once when I was driving through Colorado with a friend, traveling down a narrow mountain pass, we came upon an accident. A pickup truck and a car had collided, and from fifty feet away we could see the blood. We pulled over and ran to help. All the time I was running, all the time I was trying, with my friend's help, to pry open the door of the car in which a nine-months-pregnant woman had been impaled through the abdomen, I was thinking: I must remember this! I must remember my feelings! How would I describe this?...For better or worse, the practice of fiction changes a person." No joke.