A friend makes his living as a humourist. That makes him a comedian who won’t stand up, or a writer looking for yuks. It seems to work. For him, it’s a living, and a good one too.
We’ve run into someone else, a standup comic with a serious day job. He likes his job, but he loves his profession as a comedian. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many standup comedians making serious money year-round.
Put these two together and you’d think you’d be rolling on the floor the whole time. They start by riffing each other. Your jaw begins to ache from laughing. Your ribs hurt. Then you realize you’re watching goats butting horns, testing and asserting. Once that dance is over, they settle down to more serious talk – still funny but more serious.
They discuss their similar but different crafts. Sitting there, you see how their shticks work. They both know how to tap dance with an audience. They love the give and take, the snappy one-liners. They like to share a laugh, to make people want to laugh – not make people laugh. “You can’t make people laugh,” one of them says.
Both are great storytellers. In between the zingers, you appreciate that you’re with people with degrees in humour too. They’ve studied with some of the great humourists, comedians, and yuksters on the planet. They believe that humour, the act of laughing itself, can do more than make people feel good at the time. It does that. They believe, however, that laughter can heal, change lives in the longer-term, help people survive the bleakest situations. That’s pretty serious stuff.
I watch the comedian engage his audience. It starts with a story about himself. Physically, he’s up there while they’re sitting down in front. With language, he pulls himself down until he is with the audience. He does it by making fun of himself at first. Self-deprecation. His stories explain what a dolt he is while leaning toward a group of gigglers up front. They are his door to the rest of the audience.
He talks about a trip to a remote community where the elders spend most of the time pulling his leg, making fun of him, turning him into the butt of their jokes. He can’t seem to do anything right. The people in front are nodding. They know what he’s talking about. They know all about those elders.
That’s his point. He usually comes out to face a mixed-race audience with all kinds of things hidden back in their skulls. He describes how he can feel the freeze up when he’s introduced or mentions that he’s Indian, or “First Nation,” or Ojibway. He can feel it. He feels their jaws shift into stiff smiles, their shoulder muscles tighten, their sphincters slam shut.
He’s got to get them to loosen up, to make it okay for them to laugh at his jokes. To make that happen, he has to give them licence to laugh at him first; to smile at the man, to giggle at the idea, and then to let loose from the belly.
He says this doesn’t occur with an Indigenous audience. Comedian and audience speak a common language right off the bat. Sure, he has to show cred, but nothing like the lengths needed to reassure a mixed-race or non-native audience that it’s okay to laugh at what they call racial humour. With the Indigenous audience, it isn’t racial humour at all – it’s everyday life.
You sit there, listening to the humourist and the comic compare notes; one a writer, the other a performer, both amazing storytellers. They compare the tools of their trades, pulling out and confirming that many serve similar uses even if they aren’t exactly the same. They agree completely that what they do is essential to the health of their peoples and communities.
They don’t define their roles in the same vein as doctors or counsellors, but they feel that what they do is just as vital. One deals with the body, the other the mind, while they feed the spirit. Instead of dealing with one person at a time, they’re able to reach out to groups of people, an audience or a community all at once, even bridging cultures and peoples across Canada.
When things go well, they help people set aside their individual problems and share a common humanity, to feel less alone, by sharing a laugh. That’s the serious side of humour. It’s their deep understanding of their crafts that makes them good at what they do.
And now for absolutely no reason except that it seems a fitting way to end…
“Duct tape is like the force. It has a light side, a dark side, and it holds the universe together…”
– Carl Zwanzig (someone I’ve never heard of)
“Hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?”
– Charlie McCarthy (him, I know)
Have a nice day.