22 June 2020

Back in the "old normal," driving through the hellish Metro Manila traffic required a certain level of calmness, which on most days (and nights) for me meant listening to podcasts. It started out as a nostalgia thing - I wanted to relive my college years by listening to late-2000s The Morning Rush episodes (with just Chico and Delamar). But after the novelty of that wore off, I eventually stumbled upon content that  resonated more with my current interests: podcasts with my favorite comedians and screenwriters.

A side note: I have always considered myself lucky that I don't really have a "What If?" course, because I had the fortunate circumstance of actually having graduated from it: Creative Writing. Being a literature major meant I had so many doors opened for me in a field that most people could only dream of dipping their toes in. I was exposed to great Anglo-American, Asian, and Latin literature, and was so happy to have been introduced to fantastic works of Philippine literature in English. In our course, we were required to choose three tracks to major in. I took up fiction and non-fiction, because these were the ones I enjoyed reading (and workshopping) the most. But I also chose playwriting, because I've always had a profound curiosity to what goes into the writing of a script. Even then, I loved quick and fast-paced comedy. I knew I wanted to learn how to make something ordinarily funny work on stage or on screen. While my best professors were the ones in my fiction, non-fiction, and poetry classes, I felt a quiet sense of affinity to my drama, playwriting and screenwriting electives. Alas, if I ever were to have a "What If?", it wouldn't have been as to my course as much as it would have been to a career. I wish I could have been a screenwriter. (For a late night show, or a sketch show, or a comedy series, at least.)

Ah, one could dream.

But, at least, one could listen to podcasts.

And that's what's great for me about stumbling into Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend, WTF with Marc Maron, NBC's The Good Place Podcast, Vulture's Good One, Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, and other shows that feature actors, writers, comedians, and basically people whose craft involve conceptualizing, writing, and acting out lines. Making things work on the page, and making them jump out on stage. There is so much value in comedy for me because it has the power of saying so much and giving the most impact in just a few lines. It grabs your attention quickly. I think this is what most people underestimate about this genre. They think landing jokes is easy. But it isn't. Something about it has to be organic. Natural. And it has to come from a place of profundity - or at the very least, an acute perceptiveness.

On my most recent drive to and from my mom's office (I'm her designated driver on days she has to be physically present at work) today, I tuned into the newest episode of Marc Maron's WTF podcast featuring Jerry Seinfeld. This interview turned out to be a good glimpse of his "philosophy" as a comedian, what made him successful - and, ultimately, why I think he is no longer as "resonant" as he was before or as compared with other comedians.

Jerry Seinfeld is a craftsman. He crafts jokes. And he's really good at it. He can look at the simplest of things - waiting in line at a Chinese restaurant, for example (from Seinfeld Season 2) - and find the hilarity in that. Funny, to him, is both organic and made. "If you're funny, you're funny," he said in the podcast. But he also diligently writes his jokes. He refines them, works them out until they're really airtight. It's a kind of craftsmanship that's really admirable, and not surprisingly, the primary reason for his success. He doesn't rely on a sad back story (he doesn't have one), a difficult upbringing (his parents were very supportive), or a traumatic experience (he moved out and somehow succeeded through sheer luck and hard work) to click with the audience. He's just very astute with his observations, and understands what it means to work on something funny - and make it funnier.

Jerry: "Why haven't we met before?"
Marc: "I think I represent something chaotic that you tend to avoid."
Jerry: "That's probably true."

Marc Maron is the complete opposite of that. He connects with the audience, both through his stand-ups and his podcast, by revealing his soul, his innermost thoughts. Unlike Jerry, much of his comedy is shaped by his most seminal experiences. His life goes hand-in-hand with the art he produces. Much of his work is shaped by pain and grief. The way he performs is always in relation to his current state of mind. And that's what makes his comedy so resonant, because he doesn't shy away from what is messy and scary and f*cked up about his life, and life in general. 

Jerry: "Funny has nothing to do with anything."
Marc: "But it does serve a purpose. The reason you're funny is because it's part of your ability to deflect, to change."

Marc notes that Jerry's kind of comedy isn't much of a risk, as it doesn't involve putting himself in his comedy. But for Jerry, the very act of delivering jokes is putting himself out there. He doesn't have to go into the whys and hows of what makes his comedy work and why he enjoys doing it. Unlike Marc, he doesn't derive pleasure from figuring out certain aspects of himself through his work. He just wants to write jokes, period.

Marc: "You never questioned the psychology of funny?"
Jerry: "No. I reject that premise.
Marc: So there's no why?"
Jerry: "No. And if there is, who cares."

I loved that despite their very opposing views, they were actually hilarious together. It was like listening to two philosophers having different beliefs on what it means to be good. While their comedic ideologies are at odds with each other, no one is entirely right or wrong. The conversation brought out such unique insights on comedy and what it can mean to us. Marc tries to understand Jerry's way of thinking, because he wants to find out who the real "Jerry" behind the jokes is. But this is the real Jerry: the one that writes jokes. His comedy is as simple and straightforward as he is. On the other hand, Marc's comedic persona is complex and raw and transparent. He doesn't rely on what he wrote on paper - he tries out what he feels on the spot, he engages with his audience, he wears his heart on his sleeve. They're both honest about their craft, in their own ways. But they have a different way of expressing that. 

Jerry: "Laughs are the only genuine currency in the end."
Marc: "Really, just the laugh?"
Jerry: "Yeah. Now if there's something in there deeper than the laugh - which there is in any great joke - then fine. […] But I don't worry about that part."
Marc: "I always look for the meaning in the jokes. That's the reason why I got into comedy. Comedians, we're able to sort of make things manageable, make things understandable, disarm big ideas that are threatening. Things are terrifying, life is complicated, but these comedians are able to put it into little packages and makes it okay."
Jerry: "Yeah. But I never put anything above the laugh. Self-revelation, opinion, insight - all these things - I would never give these things the same weight as the laugh."  

This is crucial for me, because it got me thinking about what comedy means to me. What attracts me to it and what makes it speak to me. Growing up, it was probably really just for the laughs. But eventually, many experiences - both traumatic and triumphant - changed the lens through which I saw life. I found comedy to be comforting, because it wasn't afraid to hit all kinds of buttons at the same time, to get a reaction out of you. Marc said it best: comedy had a way of putting the darkest parts of life into little packages that made you laugh, sure, ans it also put things into an interesting perspective.

It can be a way to deflect. But the thing about really great jokes? It deflects, and then almost immediately, it boomerangs right back at you. Shoot, recoil. And then finally, a moment of realization. And all in just a few seconds.

I agree that comedy doesn't have to come from a broken place, nor does it have to bring you there. But I think I'm partial to Marc's point of view. Personally, I prefer comedy when it comes from a place of pain and healing; when it finds wisdom in the difficult aspects of life. Because that's the kind of comedy that got me out of some of my darkest days. (Looking at you, Fleabag and BoJack Horseman.) And it's the kind of comedy that has the potential to actually change things, to shake up the status quo. I have full respect for Jerry and Seinfeld - that whole school of "comedy about nothing" - because, yes it succeeds brilliantly at what it attempts to do, and it doesn't require you to wrestle with difficult questions to enjoy it. We need that kind of funny.

But especially in these times, comedy has to mean something. It has to make sense of it all, and attempt to move people into action. Otherwise, how can we elevate the discourse? Why waste that opportunity to do so, right? Comedy is relatable. So why not make it matter at every chance?

Jerry: "As long as there's a laugh. That's all I care about."
Marc: "Yeah, but there's a kind of laugh that's like crying."

That's the kind of writing that feels more transcendental to me. When the writing results in laughter and tears and reflection.

But there's no right way of looking at comedy. It will speak to us at a volume our instincts are comfortable with. That's subjective and relative. This episode is an illustration of that. It's a surprisingly beautiful, poignant episode, and something that almost matches another great podcast from one of my favorites. (Hint: Conan. I'll be writing about that one too soon.) I really enjoy listening to comedians going deep. It makes their brand of hilarity more three-dimensional, more grounded

"An essential element in comedy: rage. Aggression, confrontation, resentment, irritation - there are varieties of it. You can't not have it. If you don't have it, you're not gonna get laughs. But I think the greatest use of it, of that rage, is to process it through a laugh machine."

There will always be things to laugh about. And we will always find the need for things to make us laugh, even and especially as we process grief, joy, fear, all kinds of emotions. I guess it's up to us - the audience - to decide whether we need the why behind what makes us laugh. Personally, I like coming face-to-face with the different spectrums of anger and sadness that compels me to find hilarity in the ridiculousness of life. It's challenging and rewarding. And it's oddly comforting.

There is something about comedy that sees you. At least, that's how it feels like to me. Sometimes, there are laughs that make us ask ourselves truly difficult questions. At the end of the day, if it gives us a clearer picture of who we are, and it allows us to keep going, then the joke has outlived its punch line and has done something truly meaningful. That's where the power of comedy lies. Not just in the immediate laugh, but in the lingering chuckle - and sentiment - that it leaves us with. 

And that's why I'm Team Marc on this one. But I'm still giving points to Jerry for Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, at least. 


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