Comedians as Daoist Missionaries
by Mark Saltveit
I’ve worked as a paid standup comedian on the West Coast for 12 years. It’s fascinating, rewarding, and usually compelling – but it’s still work. Comedians joke around a lot and are usually fun people, but the job itself is not especially amusing. I’ve heard that dancing in strip clubs isn’t that sexy, either.
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My observations are contradictory, I think because the subject itself is. Standup comedy runs on anti-logic, the subversion of received wisdom and rules, including (especially) its own. Once a style of humor is expected, comedians must play against that expectation or become dull. Unfunny.
That makes it difficult or impossible to sum up the nature of comedy in a few concise words. Most good comedians will disavow any comic formula. Deep down, we sense that there is a true north of comedy, but you have to develop an intuitive sense of where it is. It’s easier to say what it isn’t.
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For me, there’s a strong connection between standup (as practiced in the U.S.A, anyway) and the ancient Chinese philosophy of Daoism (or Taoism), of which I’m very fond. This article is not a “Tao of Comedy” – that’s been done, very well, by Jay Sankey in a book called Zen and the Art of Standup Comedy.
My perspective is the opposite of Sankey’s. To me, standup is a form of applied Daoism. Or perhaps both are applied forms of some great unnamable way that I’m pursuing: my own mix of Daoism, a little Jung, some existentialism, residual Catholicism, and my own biases. These things are very hard to spell out and pin down; that’s part of the fascination.
* * *
“Daoism” can mean a lot of different things. There are two mysterious books of pithy, paradoxical wisdom underpinning them all: the “Daodejing” (or “Tao Te Ching” in the old Wade-Giles spelling system), attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu, or Master Lao), and the “Zhuangzi,” attributed to Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, or Master Zhuang). Both books are probably collections or anthologies composed primarily in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE and modified many times over the centuries. Laozi himself is almost certainly a mythical figure, and we’re not too sure about Zhuangzi either.
There are religious sects in China and Taiwan today carrying on a centuries-old lineage tradition of Daoism that resembles traditional Buddhism with monasteries, celibate monks in robes, rituals, ceremonies and applied techniques for extending life, cultivating health, etc.
Another manifestation is a loose collection of personal practices considered by some to be applied forms of Daoism, including Qi Gong, Taijichuan (Tai Chi), traditional Chinese medicine, and the I Ching. (Others would say these are simply elements of traditional Chinese culture.) These practices are popular both in China and among New Agey Americans, especially on the West Coast.
Daoism can also mean the philosophy encapsulated in the Daodejing and Zhuangzi (and developed in hundreds of later books), and this is the sense in which I — and many Westerners — use it. A more precise term for this kind of Daoism, used by some scholars of Chinese philosophy, is “Lao-Zhuang thought.”
I read those books often, but don’t ascribe to any traditional practices. I prefer to look for examples of this wisdom in my own, modern American life.
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There is an attitude underlying comedy that shares a lot with Lao-Zhuang thought: mischievous, suspicious of authority and pomposity, fond of humble citizens and workers, very aware of the limits of knowledge and problems of communication, self-challenging, and drawn to non-logical truth – the kinds of thought not taught in school.
Daoism also celebrates a manner of action perfect for comedy; spontaneous, intuitive, humble, perfected through repetition and awareness. Every person and thing has its own intrinsic nature (tzu-jan). It is not a fixed thing, but a process that develops and unfolds in concert with all the other unfolding natures.
Not coincidentally, Daoism (and its descendant, Zen) are the only philosophies or religions that are frequently humorous.
* * *
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
– Daodejing, opening lines (Gia-Feng/English translation)
Comedy mocks government, institutions and social rituals when they grow absurd, when they diverge from… what? There’s no positive norm you can name, and if you try to construct one, it’s easy to find flaws that prove it’s not the real norm. At best, an intelligently targeted mockery can imply that good thing, point you in the right direction, or at least guide you to better choices along the way.
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My act includes this joke:
I’ve actually become a Daoist missionary. Which means I stay home and mind my own goddamned business.
Of course I don’t stay home. I usually travel hundreds of miles to deliver pronouncements like this to the audience. Humor has its own built-in, unspoken philosophy which, I think, overlaps Daoism in many important ways. By practicing comedy, all comics are in effect working as unwitting Daoist missionaries.
* * *
For the vast majority of performers, comedy pays little or nothing and involves many hours of driving and waiting around – not to mention the risk of failure. When people ask why I do it, I usually respond “Because I get paid to drink beer and tell people what I think.” A better (though trite) answer might be, “Because I can.” On a good night, comedy is a blast. It’s like being the life of the party, an accomplished writer, the smartest student, and the coolest naughty kid in school, all rolled together.
But the rejection is very personal, hence very painful. Whether your act is about you or not, it’s always by you. I’ve often wondered whether I would have become a comic had I not gotten laughs at my first open mic. Probably not.
The flip side of that coin is the thrill seeker’s rush of disaster narrowly averted, of living by your wits, and the camaraderie with others who have been through it. There are a lot of clean and sober comedians – perhaps replacing one wild thrill with another.
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I was drinking beer with my friend Tristian Spillman, a comedian and graphic novelist in Portland, Oregon. And he said, “Everyone thinks the Universe started as all nothing, and then the big bang exploded, filling the Universe with stuff. But I think it started as an infinite block of solid STUFF, and nothingness exploded into it.”
(It was really good beer.)
And I said, “I think the Universe was all one Unity, which consciousness ripped apart into somethings and nothings. Heads AND tails — it’s all one coin. That’s the deepest kind of simplicity.”
And he said, “Man, you really need a girlfriend.”
* * *
“Know the masculine,
but keep to the feminine.”
— Daodejing, Ch. 28 (Wu translation)
You can often hear by the pitch of the laughter that a given joke is more popular with women or with men. (The best, of course, make everyone laugh). In my experience, jokes that women especially like improve the general success of my show, while jokes that mostly men like bring the mood down. I have no theories why this seems to be true. But I try to tape and listen to every set, and pay attention to the timbre of responses.
* * *
“When perception and understanding cease,
the spirit moves freely.”
– Zhuangzi, Ch. 3 (Hinton translation)
Each audience is an organism with its own unique, collective nature, like a school of fish or a flock of birds reacting as one. The show is another organism with its own nature, an interaction between the crowd, the performer, the zeitgeist, the physical setting and whatever happens during the show.
The best comedians intuitively grasp the natures of the crowd and show and respond, deftly. You can’t do this logically or intellectually, any more than a professional athlete can analyze their moves during a game. “The zone” that athletes get in is the Daoist ideal, Daoism in action.
It’s hard to describe this feeling, being “in the pocket,” but you know it when you have it and even more so when you no longer do. It’s like being in love, those early magical times that prove so elusive in a lifetime. Often, we know it best by the sensation of having lost it.
* * *
“Way gives you shape and heaven gives you form,
so why mangle yourself with good and bad?
Make an exile of your mind and wear your spirit away.”
– Zhuangzi, chapter 5, Hinton translation
You can plan your set in advance, structuring it, working on your writing or accents or movements, and strategizing about the likely crowd. The performance itself, though, moves far too quickly to analyze in real time. You have to be in the moment.
The adjustments a comic makes might include changing the subject, talking to audience members instead of telling prepared jokes, or riffing on something that just happened. Usually though, they are more subtle, instinctual, and hopefully invisible to the audience – speaking a bit more loudly or quietly, slowing down, expanding your persona to fill the room or pulling in more intimately, forcing the crowd to come to you. Often, you don’t notice you’re adjusting.
Even afterwards, there are limits to understanding it through analysis. Lao-Zhuang thought encourages what I call “mystical empiricism” – in other words, direct apprehension of phenomena, not mediated through words, logic and theory. Forget “why.” You learn by doing, by experiencing things directly with the right awareness.
Those mediating thoughts are great tools, but they can only take you to a certain point. Real artistry, the deep skill of a master craftsman, involves subtleties that require carefully honed intuition developed through long experience.
Any comedian will tell you that the best way to improve, perhaps the only way, is stage time. More time spent on stage performing. Yet you don’t want to be in your head onstage. I try to record each of my sets and listen to it afterwards. I treat it like a dream – I don’t analyze it so much as try to experience it again, and pay attention to anything that pops into my head.
* * *
There’s only one way to know if a joke or bit is funny – perform it on stage. Then, how can you not know? The audience is right in front of you. The silence of even 60 people is very loud; that of 200 is deafening.
To me, any performance is communication, and stand up gives you more immediate and vocal feedback than any other kind of entertainment – even sex work. If the audience doesn’t laugh at a joke, you were not funny at that moment, no matter how brilliant you might think that bit is (or how well it did last night).
The process is somewhat mystical to me. Sure, there are rules that generally work. For example, use sets of 3 examples in a joke: the first two set a pattern, the third – your punch line – breaks the pattern. But I think of new jokes the way a scientist looks at promising new cancer drugs. Some look good on paper but just aren’t effective; others are created by accident and work miracles.
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“The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits.
When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.
The purpose of words is to convey ideas.
When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words?
He is the one I would like to talk to.”
– Zhuangzi, chapter 26 (Thomas Merton’s version)
Brevity is essential to good comedy writing. It’s as if every bit has a certain amount of humor, and the resulting laughter is that amount divided by the number of words used to convey it. Punch lines are relatively easy; it’s the setup that’s tricky. We all know people who are funny in social situations. The difference between them and a comedian is that your friends already share a common experience, a story you all know, or a situation you are currently in. A comic must create a shared experience like that for complete strangers in one or two sentences.
Reacting to something that happens in the club, whether a heckle or a dropped dish, eliminates the need for words altogether, since the audience has shared that experience. That’s why “improv” is so potent.
* * *
Before he was famous, I took a film class from the director Gus Van Sant. He said that most improvisation in film goes badly, because the director just hasn’t finished the script and hopes to pull it out at the last minute. But the pressure of the moment blocks the spontaneity and inspiration you need to improvise.
He said that to improvise well, you need to have a complete, polished script and storyboards for every shot in the film; only then can you relax enough to trust the moment, throw away that script and do something different.
That’s how standup is for me. Only when I have a solid plan, and tight jokes and bits prepared, can I trust the moment enough to wander successfully.
* * *
How to fight against a much stronger opponent:
A drunk walks out of a bar, and a fly lands on his nose. He tries to smash it and bloodies his own face.
One trick is flying away just before you get crushed.
The other is knowing when your opponent is drunk.
* * *
In smaller towns, audience members frequently send a drink (almost always a shot of tequila) to the comic, about a fourth of the way through the show. This is partly a favor, a reward, a toast, but there’s a darker element as well. It feels like a test, an offer of communion that can’t (or shouldn’t) be refused. Comics in recovery learn to arrange with the bartender in advance to substitute apple juice. Refusing the drink is always a mistake.
Olga Sanchez, a director of live theater (and my wife), describes the stage as an altar on which the actors are sacrificed for the redemption of the audience. Comedy is a bit different because the comic is writer, director, performer and master of ceremonies. He is the priest and the sacrifice, the self-deprecating fool who commands the room.
* * *
“Although the tiger is entirely different from the human,
it treats you gently if you obey its nature.
But if you ignore its nature, it can kill you.”
– Zhuangzi, chapter 4 (Hinton translation)
Early on, a wise older comic told me to ignore hecklers unless most of the crowd can hear them. Let’s say you savage someone who is drunkenly responding to everything you say. If they are near the stage and the crowd didn’t hear them, it looks like you suddenly attacked a random person in the crowd, making you an asshole and the rest of the crowd defensive.
Also, the attention encourages sparring and more heckling, even if you “win.” You are playing their game, as Ken Kesey might have said. Even if you “win” you are yielding power and control of the agenda. I would rather tell my stories than duel with drunks.
Still, sometimes you need to handle it. The thing to understand is that the heckler has stepped forward, as you have, out of the audience. The one who rejoins the audience first wins; you need to embody the crowd’s response to this outlier. A couple of polite requests to shut up so we can all enjoy the show, followed by a fast vicious crushing as needed, work well. A clever slam can actually be too good, because the spontaneity and drama of the moment is hard to top.
One time, early in my set, a drunken stripper started yelling “We love dick!” after any remotely suggestive statement (she had done this to the previous comic, too). No one in the crowd could have missed her hollering, so finally I said, “Yeah, but ironically you’re only woman in this club who no man wants to fuck.” The place exploded and she shut up, but the rest of my bits paled next to that moment, and the set suffered.
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There’s a cliché that comedians say out loud the things that people think but are afraid to say. I think it goes a bit deeper, an ability to express (not necessarily in words) untapped emotions and energy that audience members may not even be aware of, as well as conscious frustrations, yearnings and bafflement. These are the raw fuel of laughter, which the comic shapes with their (hopefully) unique perspective.
In a great comedy set, the comic does this while being fully present in the unique gestalt of the show, intuitively unleashing and embodying that energy, reflecting it back to everyone sharing it with you. You’re a conduit, effortlessly and spontaneously uttering the most hilarious things off the top of your head, thinking quickly but speaking clearly. It’s like the audience is telling you, telepathically, the perfect thing to say and you’re just following instructions. If it was a Hollywood movie, there would be golden beams of light from every audient pouring into you and lifting you in the air, transcendent, glorious. Nirvana.
* * *
Most comedians think of themselves as either “city comics” (aka “alternative comics”) or “road comics” (aka “road dogs”).
City comics live in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Boston, maybe Seattle or Austin. They have day jobs and perform short sets at showcase clubs that don’t pay but offer exposure, as they’re angling for TV appearances. Their acts have distinctive styles (which road dogs might call gimmicks); think of Steven Wright with his sad sack demeanor and verbal paradoxes, or Mitch Hedburg’s rock star look and cerebral stoner one-liners. Lesser city comics resort to in-jokes that only friends laugh at, and often despise the audience.
Road dogs often work in comedy full time, most piecing together a very low salary from 3 to 5 day “weeks” at smaller clubs and strings of “one-nighters” at bars in small towns, which can be hundreds of miles apart. They are not given lodging on their off nights and usually drive around the country, not rarely sleeping in their cars between gigs. The most successful headline major clubs, wrangle higher paid private gigs for colleges and corporations, or move on to squeaky clean and lucrative cruise ship work; this can push their salaries into the six figures. Lesser road comics steal jokes and premises, pander to popular prejudice, or get lazy and rehash their older material for decades at a time. One wag said that road comics aren’t really entertainers so much as truckers who deliver jokes to small towns.
City comics look down on road dogs as mindless hacks, repeating ancient stereotypes about men being dogs and women being cats. Road dogs look down on city comics as unfunny, self-important wimps who couldn’t last five minutes at a “real” gig. Comics of either camp who’ve actually worked together often share a deep, battle-worn camaraderie that transcends this pettiness.
* * *
“When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he is out of his mind! …
His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him.”
– Zhuangzi, Ch. 19 (Merton’s version)
My home town (Portland, Oregon) is in the midst of a comedy boom that is making “city comedy” almost possible, but until very recently, all professional comics here have been road dogs. I love the new shows in town where dumb dirty humor is discouraged, and a comedian can try any crazy idea and at least get an attentive listen.
I also love driving for hours by myself and soaking up the vast beauty of the inland west, connecting with people I would never otherwise meet, in places like Winnemucca, Nevada. Long drives and distance running are my forms of meditation; with my body occupied, my mind can rest, then wander. Most everything I’ve written popped into my head while running or driving.
Unlike most comics who hit their first open mic in their early 20s, I didn’t start until I was 38 and married, with children and a mortgage. I’m probably the only comic in America who wishes he could be driving around the country for weeks at a time and sleeping in the back of his station wagon, because I know how much that stage time would improve my act.
Television (or movie) fame is the one surefire route to success as a comic. But I have no intention of moving to Los Angeles or New York, given my family. I fully realize that this means I am unlikely to become a success, financially. I don’t love that fact, but it frees me to enjoy my shows for what they are now, not as a stepping stone.
(An earlier version of this piece appeared on Warp, Weft and Way, an excellent scholarly blog of Eastern philosophy.)