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Funny First

“comedy is not a game you win by playing defense” and other lessons from one writer’s foray into the world of stand-up
by Amy Fusselman
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Funny First

Amy Fusselman
4 Snaps

1.

Often when I write something, the funny comes, if it comes, out the sides. I don’t examine it, because I am afraid of scaring it away. Recently, though, I decided I wanted to write something funny rather than something that was something else first and funny second. I decided to look funny in the face.

I enrolled in a stand-up comedy class that met near my apartment in Manhattan, figuring that it would at least help me learn how to write a joke. Initially, I wasn’t differentiating between writing funny words to perform in front of people and writing funny words to be read by people later, because I thought the work was the same: writing funny words.

But I soon came to see that writing for performance rather than publication highlights an issue that has been bothering me for some time, which is how fundamentally upsetting it is that my great love, writing, requires me to separate my words from my body and then leave them there for someone to discover later, like the remains of a killing.

 

2.

One of the primary reasons I became a writer is because I knew from a young age what it felt like to be alone with my words. The words I had at the time were simple: the babysitter’s husband is raping me.

I did not say these words, because of what the babysitter’s husband threatened to do if I said them. So I was alone with my words for years, and then later, when it no longer mattered so much, I could write them down and/or say them, but by then the damage was done; I was ruined for everything but the pursuit of being in community with words.

I was young; I could have done many things with words. But I pursued writing, in part, because my body had already proven to be such a troublesome locale, and writing nicely and neatly dispensed with it.

I came to writing, then, grateful for this dislocation. It never seemed odd to me, and I never asked why, in this weird medium, my body was in one place and my words were in another, as if this were in any way a natural situation, as if my body and words were two crazy kids who couldn’t be left alone in a room together or god knows what might happen.

 

3.

I took two six-week stand-up comedy classes and performed in two class shows over the course of writing this essay. My first teacher, Chris Griggs, jokes in his stand-up act that he comes off like a “grown-up ex-military Charlie Brown,” which is true. The way he instructed us to cut our words, for instance, went way beyond “kill your darlings.” It was more like “Kill ’Em All.”

It was strange to get this message in a place that was otherwise so similar to a creative writing workshop. We shared our work each week; we got feedback from our teacher and peers; we went home and worked on our words for the following week. It was all very familiar, except for the cut-those-fuckers approach.

But the need to sharpen words made sense once I began to understand how comedy uses language to make people uncomfortable—the setup—so that it can use language to relieve that discomfort: the punch line.

Seeing comedy’s bald aggression with words made me view my own history with them differently. In all my years of working with words—first as a student of creative writing and then as a cog in the publishing machine—I could see how often I had been encouraged to use language to make other people comfortable, with the mostly unspoken understanding that the greater my mastery over this aspect of my work, the greater the rewards would be.

Comedy, however, is not about pushing discomfort aside. It’s about welcoming discomfort, and then using it.

 

4.

In 1988, I was sitting with Derek Walcott in his office at Boston University. I was on my way to getting a master’s degree in writing poetry and hitting bottom with my drinking. He was on his way to winning the Nobel and facing sexual harassment allegations. Nothing about this meeting was comical except maybe the fact that it was happening.

Walcott picked out a phrase in my poem, a couple of short adjectives stuck together. He told me that whenever I saw myself using two short words like this, I should consider combining them to make an image. So instead of (something like) big, red I should try (something like) fire truck.

I said OK. I used this technique for maybe two weeks and then abandoned it because it seemed wrong for what I was writing. I felt badly about this as I was doing it, thinking: How much more ridiculous is this writing business going to get than my paying for the advice of my illustrious professor and then rejecting it?

Later, I would come to appreciate how paying for advice and then rejecting it is something adults do all the time, and not only with writing instructors, but also with doctors, lawyers, and therapists.

 

5.

Stand-up comedy taught me something about writing for the page rather than for performance. Writing explicitly for the page is not like leaving your body—it is leaving your body. Because your words—which are what? your thinking? your mind? your spirit? your self? Whatever they are, they are supposed to mean something to you—that is the crux of the work. You spend hours arranging your self-bits, and then you put them in the box of a book. If and when the book is published, you are done. The book exists; you don’t have to.

If literature is like a photograph—if its fundamental concern is existence, particularly its own—stand-up comedy is like a photographic negative; it exists only to develop something else: laughter.

 

6.

I am the mother of three kids and here’s what I want to know:

When did the word motherfucker come to mean “despicable person”?

Mothers fucking is good, friends! 

How do you think we all got here?

 

7.

I live near the theater district and sometimes I see people walking around on the sidewalk or standing on the subway platform talking to themselves. Sometimes these people are mentally ill. But the ones I am referring to here are actors memorizing their lines. I really enjoy seeing these people engaged in this work; it’s like getting a backstage pass.

But when I tried some memorizing on the 2 train a few days before my class show, it wasn’t the experience I had expected. I had thought that in feverishly repeating my words over and over, trying to embed them in my body, I would maybe feel them more deeply, or maybe even understand something new about them.

Instead, when the time came for me to perform, the words had lost their meaning. They were just sounds with certain stressors. They certainly weren’t funny to me. The fact that I was going to recite them onstage, as if I were casually improvising them, only made the whole exercise more absurd.

 

8.

The first time I told jokes to my classmates, I bombed, which made the fantasy very potent: if I could get onstage and make people laugh, I might be able to experience the holy, communal body-word oneness.

Over lunch with my friend Dan Pasternack, who produces comedy shows for TV and teaches at New York University, I told him about my homemade-humor curriculum.

“Funny is not teachable,” he said. “But whatever you do have can be cultivated.”

When Dan said this later, I wrote it down on a paper napkin in all-caps:

COMEDY IS NOT A GAME YOU WIN BY PLAYING DEFENSE.

 

9.

The phrase Girl Power! is on a million girls’ T-shirts

But it seems to me like something an adult came up with.

It would feel more true if it were:

GIRL POWER: Still deciding whether or not to take care of you in your old age.

GIRL POWER: When we can vote, we’re going to undo all your dumb reproductive health laws.

GIRL POWER: After you die, we’ll still be here.

 

10.

My partner, Frank, and I went to see a stand-up comedy show. After the show, Frank was saying how it must be so difficult for comics to break through what he called “medium-level funny.”

“Medium-level funny is when a comedian is funny, but not life-changing,” he said. In other words, it’s just OK; it doesn’t stay with you.

I agreed with this, but I had also begun to appreciate how difficult it is to write a joke. One thing I did notice, though, was that almost all the comics who performed in the show were shout-y. Everything they said was shouted. It was like shouting was a house style they had all agreed upon beforehand. It reminded me of how I have gone to readings and thought how weird it is that all the writers have the same somber intonation.

I tried to recall if I had ever been to a shout-y author reading. I didn’t think so, but then I remembered going to see Allen Ginsberg at the Cleveland Museum of Art when I was a teen. During the reading, Ginsberg chanted things like “Smoke dope, suck cock, suck tit.”

I went to the reading with my mother, who drove me to downtown Cleveland that night. We were sitting next to each other in the auditorium.

Ginsberg’s chanting, particularly in relation to my proximity to my mother, made me supremely uncomfortable. When people started to walk out, I joined them.

As an audience member, you can use your body as a word that communicates to the performer: No. As a reader, you don’t get to express that veto; all you can do is stop reading. Even if you throw the book across the room, you have to accept that the author will never know.

 

11.

When I finally got onstage for my first class show, people laughed at my jokes, and it was fun. It wasn’t like having a screaming multiple orgasm with Frank, but it was something I did with my entire body, and it was pleasurable.

People laughed at my jokes in large part, I believe, because of where their bodies were placed, in a well-oiled machine of laughter-elicitation: at a comedy club drinking alcohol with their friends, who also wanted to laugh. Whereas you are probably reading this somewhere alone—so alone that even if you are with other people, you are by yourself. Because that’s what reading words on a page does to you.

 

12.

One thing that surprised me about comedy was that, probably more than in any other performer-audience relationship, comedians must show dominance. Even if the comedian plays it meek, they still have to get the audience members to roll over and show their bellies to be rubbed, to get that barking sound to come out of their maws.

Comedians don’t do this by becoming one with the audience. They do it by being articulate doms over a group of hooting, nonverbal subs in a spirited session of consensual, verbal—I won’t say oral—group sex.

 

13.

I was having an email conversation with Stine An, a stand-up comedian from Boston. She wrote, “Too often, I feel that comics focus on how many laughs/jokes they can squeeze into one minute.”

I was interested to read this, because in my brief exposure to the workings of comedy, the goal of attaining as many laughs as possible had seemed like the art’s unquestionable rubric. There were moments when I saw my fellow aspiring stand-ups as avatars in a video game. I could envision them delivering their jokes with a number hovering over their heads, displaying their “kills.”

It’s exciting to think about what would happen, though, if comedy’s aim became broader than just clocking laughs; if it became a medium that could function—well, more like literature. Which, lest we forget, is sometimes very funny.

If comedy and literature were viewed more broadly as equals rather than as one high art and one low one, we might enlarge our cultural conversation to include whether a word-made work functions better disembodied or embodied—maybe in the same way we currently debate the merits of books versus movies. In that scenario, I would think that stand-up comedy would be seen as the best medium for a writer to use to address the issue of rape, because of how stand-up presents the violated and surviving body as an irrefutable fact.

 

14.

I am a lot older now than I was when I decided to be a writer. It’s taken me a long time to accept that the thing I wanted writing to do—to keep me from being alone with my words—isn’t really possible. My words can be heard by others and people can respond to them, laugh at them, and get into arguments with me about them, but the fundamental aloneness, I have come to believe, isn’t really a situation that can be changed, ha-ha.

 

15.

I told a friend of mine, a mother of sons, that I was pregnant with my daughter.

She said: “Huh. How are you going to tell her she’s fucked?”

Oh, how we laughed!

 But how do you tell your girl child about the patriarchal structure?

A little chat in the menstrual hut? 

That’s a little late. 

“Honey, there’s something I need to tell you about your body: because of the kind you have, life is going to be harder for you.”

And then what do you say after that?

Sorry?! 

 

16.

So here we are. Here I am, writing, alone in my bed in my apartment, and there you are, out in the world, not knowing that I am writing right now, not knowing that these words will one day be sitting on the page in front of you, not knowing that you will, in the future, be doing what I am doing right now, which is going over these words, one by one, line by line, taking them in like I am doing right now, and that that is how I will come to the place where the words rest inside you, in your thinking, your mind, your spirit, your self—I don’t know where, exactly—but that sacred, un-locatable place in your body is where I will arrive, and that is where, for a moment, I will completely love and miss you.

 

17.

I may always be frustrated about the fact that I can’t get my actual, physical body into my writing. I have never been one of those authors who has embraced the idea that my book is my baby. I mean, have you ever held a baby?

A book is not a baby, people. Or if it is a baby, it’s a stillborn. And there is a word for what that is: a tragedy. A goddamn tragedy. O

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