Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
Enjoyment while performing was rare—enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone onstage is the ego’s last stand.
Darkness is essential: If light is thrown on the audience, they don’t laugh; I might as well have told them to sit still and be quiet. The audience necessarily remained a thing unseen except for a few front rows, where one sourpuss could send me into panic and desperation.
I came up with several schemes for developing material. “I laugh in life,” I thought, “so why not observe what it is that makes me laugh?” And if I did spot something that was funny, I decided not to just describe it as happening to someone else, but to translate it into the first person, so it was happening to me. A guy didn’t walk into a bar, I did. I didn’t want it to appear that others were nuts; I wanted it to appear that I was nuts.Another method was to idly and abstractedly dream up bits. Sitting in a science class, I stared at the periodic table of the elements that hung behind the professor. That weekend I went onstage at the Ice House and announced, “And now I would like to do a dramatic reading of the periodic table of the elements. Fe…Au…He…” I said. That bit didn’t last long. In logic class, I opened my textbook—the last place I was expecting to find comic inspiration—and was startled to find that Lewis Carroll, the supremely witty author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was also a logician. He wrote logic textbooks and included argument forms based on the syllogism, normally presented in logic books this way:All men are mortal.Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.But Carroll’s were more convoluted, and they struck me as funny in a new way:1) Babies are illogical.2) Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.3) Illogical persons are despised. Therefore, babies cannot manage crocodiles.And:1) No interesting poems are unpopular among people of real taste.2) No modern poetry is free from affectation.3) All your poems are on the subject of soap bubbles.4) No affected poetry is popular among people of taste.5) Only a modern poem would be on the subject of soap bubbles. Therefore, all your poems are uninteresting.These word games bothered and intrigued me. Appearing to be silly nonsense, on examination they were absolutely logical—yet they were still funny.
Now that I had assigned myself to an act without jokes, I gave myself a rule. Never let them know I was bombing: This is funny, you just haven’t gotten it yet. If I wasn’t offering punch lines, I’d never be standing there with egg on my face. It was essential that I never show doubt about what I was doing. I would move through my act without pausing for the laugh, as though everything were an aside. Eventually, I thought, the laughs would be playing catch-up to what I was doing. Everything would be either delivered in passing, or the opposite, an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness. Another rule was to make the audience believe that I thought I was fantastic, that my confidence could not be shattered. They had to believe that I didn’t care if they laughed at all, and that this act was going on with or without them.I was having trouble ending my show. I thought, “Why not make a virtue of it?” I started closing with extended bowing, as though I heard heavy applause. I kept insisting that I needed to “beg off.” No, nothing, not even this ovation I am imagining, can make me stay. My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh. In other words, like the helpless state of giddiness experienced by close friends tuned in to each other’s sense of humor, you had to be there.