Published on May 3rd, 2010 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Breathing pure comedy: suffocation risk?

I took a 2-day sketch writing workshop recently, led by an Emmy-winning writer for my favourite tv show. He probably could have said anything and it would have resonated with me, but idol-worship notwithstanding, there’s one lesson he bookended the weekend with that’s stayed with me.

To start, he went around the room and had us each answer five questions, the last of which being “what are your interests outside of comedy?” Answers ran the typical gamut of hobbies straight out of an eHarmony profile. Cooking, reading, yoga, etc.

I was the last to answer, but despite having the most time to think about it, I struggled to come up with a response. I finally pulled “photography” out of my ass. But c’mon, let’s take an honest look at my Flickr: it’s comedian, comedian, comedian, figureskater, comedian, comedian, John Mayer, comedian….

I dismissed his question as a trivial exercise in getting to know each other, until he wrapped up his lecturing the following day.

He went back to that subject of outside interests, and blew our little minds by telling us how very, very important it is to not focus just on comedy. Being a comedy nerd is something that won’t necessarily help you creatively, and that you can get really mentally bogged down if you’re focused on the work of others.

It makes perfect sense: If you’re too isolated from the world, you won’t be equipped to comment on it.

I hit a point a few years back when I realized that if I spent as much time actually writing comedy as I did thinking about comedy, I would be a damn good comedy writer. While some adjustments have been made on that front, the fact remains that my entire life is centred around comedy (work, blog, classes, friends). I’d never want to change that — at least I don’t think I would.

Watching Eddie Izzard perform in Toronto last week, I sat there wishing I had the knowledge base that he does. He’s smart and passionate about the universe, something I just don’t have available space in my brain for. I left the show wondering if I would be better creatively if I had an anthropology degree, or was more into music, or read anything other than comedian autobiographies.

Here’s the flip side: I encounter, on a semi-regular basis, people entering the comedy business with frighteningly shallow pool of comedy knowledge. My jaw hit the floor when a friend – who was in a different comedy writing class with me – revealed she’d never seen a single episode of the Simpsons. Over the weekend, a local standup & producer stared blankly at me when I mentioned Mike Birbiglia’s name.

In their defence, they have actual lives, but to me it seems like an equally unhealthy extreme. How can you develop your voice and be different if you don’t know who you’re being different from? Being able to recite the credits of SNL’s 3rd season doesn’t help you creatively, but isn’t there a benefit to just plain knowing your stuff aside from keeping up with the discussions around the comics’ table?

Tell me: do you have a healthy nerd/life balance, or do you think you might know too much about comedy for your own good?

About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

11 Responses to Breathing pure comedy: suffocation risk?

  1. David Kendall says:

    No matter what field you’re in, it’s *always* good to have outside interests. “All work and no play make Jack go postal” or something like that.

    I do agree about being able to comment on the world to do good in comedy – if you’re only, say, getting your news from The Daily Show and not CNN as well, then you have a skewed perspective (and I bet that TDS writers all watch CNN and MSNBC and even Fox (best comedy fodder in the world!) (I bet also you know the answer as to what TDS writers watch))

  2. Sharilyn says:

    Thanks for the comment, David. The idea behind the post is less about whether you’re educated about the news, and more about at what point focusing on comedic theory & history becomes detrimental to the creative process.

    I don’t think the word “work” in the phrase “work/life balance” applies to the arts as much as in other industries. Comedy kind of exists as the ANTI-work for the general public, and it’s remarkably easy to surround yourself with it on a day to day basis without ever hitting a burnout point (although I’m sure some do). It’s not like being a brain surgeon and only living/talking/reading/sleeping about brain surgery.

  3. Catherine says:

    We’ve discussed this before – I think that comedy nerds often make poorer comedians than randoms. Firstly, because their comedy is informed by comedy – it’s like putting a microphone too close to a speaker – nothing but feedback. That’s why 18 year old Humber kids (excepting some real characters) are so dreadful – because they’re young and privileged and haven’t had many life experiences to inform their comedy.

    Secondly, I think that comedy nerds shut themselves down too much because they’ve studied the greats. They got onstage and want their improv sets to be as good as Assscat every time. If a joke is too close to any of the thousands of jokes they heard, they don’t use it. Someone writes a hilarious sketch, but it’s kind of similar to a sketch from Season 7 of SNL. Etc.

    And in some ways, that’s why I try to do as much comedy as I consume – because if the balance shifts too far, you end up like one of those tailgating guys at a football game who has never picked up the pigskin in his life (and no, I haven’t watched Big Fan yet).

    I also find it kind of funny that you write:
    “…if I spent as much time actually writing comedy as I did thinking about comedy, I would be a damn good comedy writer.”

    The point – it’s way over there. What if you didn’t write about comedy at all? Or if comedy wasn’t the end goal of every action? I’m not saying I’m not 100% in the same boat as you. But sometimes I make paper flowers in bars. That counts as a non-comedy hobby, right?

  4. Sharilyn says:

    Catherine – “we’ve discussed this before” — MAN, I knew I shouldn’t have let you meet my mom! If I had a nickel…

    As much as I enjoy shitting on Humber kids [for the non-Torontonians, it’s the only post-secondary institution that offers a college education in comedy writing/performance, and churns out a dwindling number of comedic geniuses] I think 18 year olds in general are pretty dreadful for the same reason. Life experience can’t be beaten, but unless you’re a troll living in a cave, it’s something we all gain regardless of our hobbies.

    Good point about being hard on one’s self. I definitely find that at work, I am aiming to reach a self-imposed standard that I can’t possibly meet every day. But I think that pushes me to be better. At the same time, I credit my nerdism for knowing what a good joke sounds like, looks like, smells like (or at least what a writers’ room smells like).

    I’m a special case in a lot of ways, specifically that I never *wanted* to be on the creative end of things. I dragged my feet and still ended up there. My intent was always to be in a position – whether as a journalist or otherwise – where the encyclopedic knowledge itself was my best asset. I still view it as an asset, though it helps significantly more in *this* writing than it does *that* writing.

  5. Ian MacIntyre says:

    Last Fall I made spur of the moment decision to build a Ghostbusters costume for Halloween (jumpsuit, proton pack, etc). What started as a minor side project soon came to consume about 20+ hours per week of my time, and any meager finances I had. About two thirds of the way through the project I realized I’d been so desperate for anything to get my mind off comedy that I had inadvertently clung to this project for dear life. I needed a hobby, bad.

    I can wholeheartedly attest to the burnout that comes from living too much comedy. I’m especially guilty of over-examining the comedy I watch. For all the time I will devote to praising a great show I’ve watched, I will actually take more time and devote more mental energy to dissecting a bad one. It doesn’t matter if it’s a shitty group at the Rivoli, or yet another God-awful Harold, I can’t stop myself from paying attention to it, and mentally ripping it apart.

    Plus, when you reach a critical mass of doing comedy shows all the time, you definitely lose sight of any real-life experience that you can bring to bear on your work. Early on my sketch troupe found ourselves writing a lot of scenes about comedy, or about ourselves. Any time that comes up now, we take it as a warning sign.

    Oh, and fun story about Humber: I actually had a drink with one of the former teachers who admitted that the program was a cash-grab, and that the most successful Humber comedians tend to be the ones who realize this and drop out. So there’s that.

  6. Sharilyn says:

    Wow, that must have been one kick-ass Halloween costume! So the million dollar question, Ian: have you found another hobby?

  7. Ian MacIntyre says:

    Nope, no proper hobby for me yet. If anything in 2010 I’ve poured myself back into comedy even more, and I’m starting to go a bit squirrely at the realization. I know this wasn’t the original point of your post, but I’ve started to talk more bitterly about the comedy in this city than I ever used to. That is definitely a result of not having anything else outside of it though.

    But the costume was pretty sweet: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/album.php?aid=119850&id=503053703

  8. Sharilyn says:

    Nicely done!

    And hell, any and all discussion is welcome here. I think when we start out so enthusiastic about something, and the enjoyment dwindles, we almost try to convince ourselves that we’re NOT becoming unhappy because we’ve invested so much into whatever it is.

  9. Daniela Saioni says:

    HAHAHA… it’s hilarious but true.. I don’t know who Mike Barbiglia is (which is double-bad since I’m also Italian) but am truly glad there are people like you out there to bring him to my attention. I also have a film degree and have not seen 1/10th the number of films the film geeks see, but I’ve worked on some films that make said film geeks drool with envy.

    20 years working in film and TV, and I didn’t have cable TV until two years ago, and it’s tough to find anything I really want to watch on there.

    The more I learn and see, the more I realize that all I should do as an actor and comic is be truthful to/about/as myself, anyway. Worrying about anything else just gets in the way.

    Much respect for what you do. xo d

  10. Daniela Saioni says:

    PS: Earlier this year I asked Marcia Gay Harden if she loved the Christina Hendricks character Joan on Mad Men as much as I did, and she stared at me blankly and said, “What’s Mad Men?”.

    Does it make her less of an actress? No. Did I pity her? Yes. Is she going to thank me when she finally does see it? Probably.

  11. Peter Cianfarani says:

    The problem with most comedians teaching comedy is that they only teach the style they know and fail to recognize the full potential of any other. The fact is, you really only need to know the mechanics of comedy to write it affectively. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to have a greater knowledge about those things at which you poke fun but it is not necessary. Watching a mother explaining to a child (in hushed tones) why the woman at the next table has a moustache or a group of construction workers standing around a sink hole with just the top of the port-a-pottie sticking up can provide plenty of comedic fodder and neither of these require superior enlightenment. However, without a fundamental understanding of how to speak to an audience comedically, you got nothing.

    Obviously the more one knows about any particular topic, the more one has to draw on but this isn’t always necessary. In fact, too much information about any topic can be just as alienating to an audience as not having any whatsoever. It depends on the comic’s style of comedy. If you’re doing The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, an understanding of politics, government, etc. is crucial. Then again, you need an entirely different knowledge base if you are doing pop/topical or impression-based humour. But that same understanding for those styles becomes less important if you are doing observational humour and even less if you venture into the self deprecation, slap stick/physical or absurd styles.

    I would go as far as to argue that in the latter styles, experiences are far more important then knowledge or hobbies. Having similar experiences will resonate with most audiences; if they can’t relate, then they ain’t laughing. They need to get it. Period. End of story. And what you lack in knowledge based humour, you can make up in these common experiences.

    Of coursed, as the comic, you need to be able to sell it. It need not be true to your own life (and I would argue it shouldn’t but this harkens back to another of your columns) but you definitely need to know what you write. I will go out on a limb and say they are the key two foundations of any good stand up: Talk to your audience ‘honestly’ about something they can understand, and by ‘honestly’ I mean true to the point of view of your on stage persona/character.

    I guess what I am saying is, a comic’s knowledge base must reflect his or her character’s point of view, be that a down home hick, a leather clad hoodlum, an omniscient father figure or a political pundant. But no comic will have any success if they don’t first understand how comedy works.

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