Stories and Over-Simplification

Posted on 31 October 2010

Life is very big and very messy. What storytellers, historians, scientists, and religious leaders are all trying to do is make sense of life. With their understanding we often hope to gain the means by which we can control our individual destiny. All of these people will focus on only a piece of the puzzle. They are but individuals with only so much time and energy. All of these people will have a stake in being right. Rightness gives control, possibly even power.

When we as comic storytellers relate a story, we have to exercise the most extreme economy with our telling. Too much detail or excess verbiage and the jokes become lost. For the most part people understand the unreality of what we are creating for the purposes of humour. However, as soon as story is trotted out in a broader discussion, suddenly things become fraught with religious/mystical importance.

By sanctifying the elements of storytelling, by claiming they are psychically hardwired in our brains, those elements become untouchable. It’s a form of conservatism. “These are the only stories we understand, these are the only stories we want, we don’t want to know about your different ideas.” A closely circumscribed world is an easily understood and controlled world.

Have you ever noticed how these “archetypical” stories all involve rule by divine right and a “chosen” one? It’s easy to feel that if we just had the right parental figure leading us, that person could cut through all the clutter, confusion, and badness to create a better world for us. Communal responsibility doesn’t enter into it. So only one person ever needs to learn lessons, the rest of us should “listen to our hearts, not our heads” and do what we are told by our mystically selected leaders.

Now I actually believe in heartfelt values. But “heart” in my definition is not the same thing as solely emotions. To thoughtlessly follow your emotions is to behave like a three year old: taking what you want because you want it, hitting someone back for hitting you, hitting someone because you’re feeling cranky, not sharing, screaming for help rather than figuring a situation out for yourself, etc. You accept these things in a three year old, because they are still learning physical, mental, and emotional skills. Sharing requires empathy and understanding: by an act of generosity you are creating a closer bond of friendship which could benefit you later on. That takes mature mental capabilities.

When I speak of heart I’m thinking of such things as respect for self and others; personal fulfillment; supporting family, friends, community; universal kindness, compassion, and love. I feel it is inappropriate to be sanctifying stories that do not uphold these values. We can do better than that. Of course the “chosen one” motif is hard to shake, since we all like imagining ourselves as the one person on Earth who can change things for the better. It’s never going to be that way, because we get straight back to life is big, messy, and we all have to take responsibility for our actions.

Comedy is about engaging in the messiness of life. Comedy is about bringing the chaos down to laughable proportions and makes a virtue of surprise. We as comedians are meant to find the holes in ridiculously tired stories and point out how hollow they are. This can take a certain acuity and insightfulness that requires a willingness to think about things. You don’t have to be the most intelligent person in the world, you don’t have to know everything. Just be willing to investigate and consider things from fresh, alternative, and original perspectives.

I have to say I get bored with comedians who trot out cultural reductions for jokes: women are nags, men are slobs, cats and dogs shouldn’t sleep together. No one’s opinions are challenged, changed, or expanded. The world as we have it is reaffirmed, whether for better or worse. If you wish to tell stories about a particular subject, take the time to know that subject, rather than just spouting a no-brain viewpoint with an easy punchline.

Grappling with the unruliness of real life is frightening to most people. We as comedians can help people to feel resilient enough to face reality using head, heart, and laughter. Rarely will the important situations in life have simple solutions. Hurray! Let’s celebrate that! It challenges us over and over again to find the fairest most compasionate outcomes. Would a cookie-cutter archetypical story truly consider the humanity of all involved? I don’t think so, but to the best of my ability, I choose to do so.

Peace and kindess,


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