Friday Exercise: The Well-Rounded Comedian

Posted on 31 July 2009

When I first started studying literature I noticed my compatriots tended to either be high-minded: reading and writing only high literary or avant garde works, or genre focused: reading and writing only within a single field such as speculative fiction, mystery, horror, or romance.

The problem with an English degree is that you go into the subject because of a love of reading. However once it’s your degree, it becomes a chore since you are always reading with a pen in your hand ready to write that graded essay. So what do you do to relax? I was in the position where I was reading and enjoying the high-minded stuff for my degree, and reading pulp fiction to relax.

A famous piece of advice for writers is to read broadly and read deeply. I have learned to become a lover of culture: high, fringe, and mainstream. This has served me well. The artistic works taught me refined language skills, how to evoke emotional depth, and how to broach difficult subjects. The pulp works taught me how to plot, how to generate drama, and how to be accessible to a broad audience.

For comedians I would say we should follow similar advice: take time to watch other comedians and watch a broad diversity of other comedians, not just those doing things similar to your own humour. I am a great fan of Garrison Keillor style humour. He tells stories about farmers and members of small town communities. Yet, we don’t hear many bogan jokes from him. Most of my audience are city folk. I need to be able to reach them, even if I bring in the odd (very odd) cow joke. Also, I can’t be another Garrison Keillor, I can only ever be a Katherine Phelps. So, in order to reach my audience and find my particular voice, I enjoy the boganish humour of Big Al and Claire Hooper. I also watch the charming city humour of Adam Hills. Catherine Deveny’s sharp political humour is worth a look in, though I would drown in sorrow trying to do that stuff myself.

Further I would say that comedians do best when we broadly experience life. You can’t really live the life of a hermit and expect to have enough material to make others laugh. At least dip your toe in some of the current successes/manias even if you will ultimately take them apart with your jokes. I love Harry Potter. It’s very easy for me to tell jokes based on the world of Harry Potter. The DaVinci Code seemed silly to me from the outset. I waited to buy the book when I knew it would start turning up in the two dollar bin at the used bookstore. Fortunately, I was saved from paying any money by a friendly neighbour. The writing was absolutely turgid and the concept ridiculous. But so many people have read it or seen the movie that I now have a point of contact with them through my jokes about that work.

I’m not asking you to force yourself onto experiences you find unpleasant, just be open and free of judgement enough to give a broad variety of things a try. And they don’t all have to be mainstream things. Do something outrageous like take yourself out to an Andean restaurant or an Italian opera. Your impressions of that experience may form the basis of a very funny routine. I remember watching Irish Comedian Ed Byrne doing that by describing the plot to Cosi Fan Tutti while going on about the trials and tribulations of dating. This was laugh until you cry humour.

Your exercise for today is to:

  1. Rent a DVD of some comedian or comic film that you wouldn’t normally go to and watch it.
  2. Take yourself out to a restaurant or event totally out of the norm for you. For example—go to a knitting fair, eat at an Eastern European cafe, go see a film at the Chinese cinema based on the look of a poster.

Peace and kindness,


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