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.

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  • The Colbert Report A-Z

    Third Beat editor Sharilyn Johnson presents the ultimate fan guide to The Colbert Report, available from all major booksellers including amazon.com