Comedy is frequently regarded as being inferior to drama; you will never see a comedy win Best Picture at the Oscars. The fool forever plays second fiddle to the tortured soul.
That seems a shame.
In my opinion, comedy is as equally as difficult to master as drama; stand-up comedy is perhaps the hardest craft of all. I really admire stand-up comedians; it takes a lot of courage and a dose of instability to do what they do. Not everyone can become one. Even in the telling of a joke, many of us rush or meander, mess up the sequence of events, skip crucial information, dwell too much on non-essentials, botch the delivery, and mangle the climax. To a comedian, committing any of these mistakes amounts to losing the audience: the story must be told rightly or not at all.
In that sense, standup comedians are the storytellers of the modern age. Being able to tell a story well is an art and a gift; there is skill, craftsmanship, and artistry involved in creating and delivering a memorable routine. Great comics are able to transform their observations of the trivial and the mundane into tales that elicit concentrated bursts of laughter and happiness. With the right story, they can even make us think about things in a different life, to see the world slightly differently. As noted in entries in recent weeks, humour has the uncanny ability to bypass the mind’s resistance to change; it can reach deeper and resonate better.
This week, I would like to focus on a short segment that aired on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. It is an interview with Louis CK, one of the most prolific and well-known comedians working today. In the span of just a few minutes, he reminds me of the wonder that exists in my everyday life:
I won’t delve too deeply in explaining the segment; explaining why something is funny is never, ever a good idea. Instead, I’ll just grab several quotes and explain how they served to connect ideas in my mind.
The art of appreciation
“Wow, you’re flying! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, oh my God! Wow! You’re flying, you’re, you’re sitting in a chair in the sky!” (Louis CK)
We frequently forget how privileged we truly are to be living in a world with conveniences and luxuries. Louis C.K. reminds me to stop once in a while and understand just how lucky I am to live in a stable, peaceful, friendly society where all of my basic needs are taken care of. He reminds me to look back in my childhood and see what technologies are actually luxuries and what are necessities. He reminds me not to take anything for granted, to look at the world not through a lens of entitlement, but rather with a sense of wonder which can be extended to the accomplishments of both culture and nature. It is this wonder that cultivates respect and appreciation of the world.
The world we live in is amazing. It’s nice to be reminded of it, to marvel at it.
No money? No problem!
“You had to stand in line, write yourself a check like an idiot, and then when you ran outta money you just go, well I can’t do any more things now. I can’t do any more things. That was it.” (Louis CK)
To me, this statement speaks to a respect for limits and moderation. I believe it is this respect that brings about genuine freedom. Not the freedom of the consumer or the pleasure seeker, but rather the human individual. By acknowledging limitations and exercising moderation, we are never in the position of becoming too attached to material possessions; we are not trapped in ever-perpetuating cycles of desires. We do not become obsessed with the latest toy, fashion, or gadget; we are free to move on and invest our energies in other venues. In Louis C.K.’s example, when one ran out of money in past generations, one simply stops consuming. Inconvenience, while inconvenient, was in reality a useful limitation. Instead of consuming more, people turned their attention to other free and deeply fulfilling activities: socializing, spending time with family, reading old books, exploring the outdoors.
Everything is amazing and no one is happy
“Ya, because everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy…Well, yeah, ’cause now we live in, in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the, on the crappiest generation of just spoiled idiots that don’t care because, this is what people are like now.” (Louis CK)
Why are we so well-off materialistically but yet feel so unsatisfied? Research has shown that happiness or life satisfaction doesn’t correlate with growth (as measured in GNP) beyond $15,000 per capita (Jackson, p.40). Louis CK’s routine reminds me that we need to walk a different path to achieve a prosperous future, one that isn’t reliant on system that offloads waste and inefficiencies to others while liquidating social and natural capital, but rather one that refines prosperity in terms of resilience, community, environmental sustainability, and self-actualization.
From the Worldwatch Institute’s 2008 State of the World report.
As modern storytellers, stand-up comics can play a crucial role conveying the workings of the world as observers with unique perspectives. While most of the time their routines are just for entertainment purposes, occasionally a great routine, delivered with an authentic voice, is able to make us view the world just a little differently, to ponder if there is a different way forward. For me, Louis CK’s observations on modern life made for a brief but insightful and hilarious Ekostory.
Next Up: What aliens think of Earth.
Jackson, Tim. Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Earthscan, London: 2011.