“I don’t tell jokes. That’s a popular misconception. Do you know what I do? I send out little vehicles of truth.”—Hari Kondabolu as Manoj in Manoji.
During yesterday’s Grub Street workshop Funny is the New Deep, Steve Almond shared some thought-provoking insights on comedy. Many of them reminded me of Hari Kondabolu‘s comedy, especially these points about the comedic mode/impulse:
- Comedy allows us to dwell in the awkward, shameful places we would rather not be in at all.
- Comedy can arise directly from the attempt to contend with tragedy.
- Comedy allows us to recognize our sins and make progress.
All that and more is manifested in Waiting for 2042, the album Hari just released. I think it’s fantastic, making many important points of its own, but the language can be really strong.
Steve Almond’s perspectives on the relationship between humor and conflict also resonated with a recent Weekend Edition interview with Dr. Scott Weems, author of Ha! The science of when we laugh and why.
In case it’s of interest, here are my notes from Funny is the New Deep taken in Popplet.
And here’s Hari’s recent appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
“[Y]ou will learn a lot from playing against someone slightly better than you. If you start by playing against a top professional, you will learn only that the professional is very good at the sport—you might as well be watching from the sidelines.”—Bill Aulet, Disciplined Entrepreneurship
“What you must do is read the work of other unpublished writers, the ones who make the same mistakes you do… And actually, just reading these pieces won’t do. You have to critique them.”—Steve Almond, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey.
I recently encountered the two perspectives above, these pieces of advice from different fields resonating with each other in my thoughts to incite a gradual, mini-mental-paradigm shift.
We know how important it is to be in the company of masters, in person and through their work. In fact, we’re perhaps hyperaware of this because of constant reminders that continue to bake the learn from the best mindset into our culture of creativity. According to Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist, “You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with.” In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro Ono tells us, “In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but you need to develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food.”
But there’s also value in eating the food that’s trying to be good, engaging work that’s clearly aspiring to be excellent but somehow falling short. That’s another way of exercising and thereby cultivating discernment. The key here is to, as Steve Almond tells us, be able to articulate how the work is falling short. I realize now that honing this ability has served my colleagues and I well, consistently. Don’t forget what lies between immersion in your own writing and mentorship from masters: pushing and being pushed by your peers.
The power of productive workshopping lies in the effective intermingling of different portions of this spectrum.
Ever since Harvard Bookstore started printing it, I’d been meaning to read Steve Almond’s chapbook/mini-book This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and a few years later (after acquiring a copy from Steve Almond himself for a not unreasonable price paid in cash), I finally did. It’s a very readable, compact collection of flash fiction and views on writing, with the latter severely grabbing my attention with pithy, punchy perspectives. Though often stated with an air of certainty, authority or almost sarcastic sagacity, there’s almost a challenge implicit (then finally explicit) in these perspectives/pieces of advice—a dare to one up what Steve Almond stated, and the consideration or even debate that this work may provoke can be valuable to a variety of writers and readers.
Here’s one idea I wound up with after the chapbook ran its course.
Steve Almond’s “Hippocratic Oath of Writing” (shown below) led me to consider a potential Hippocratic Oath of Teaching: Never confuse the student, in the end. I think learning involves a degree of confusion, of exposing and messing with knowledge gaps, to borrow from Made to Stick. But confusion in the service of understanding. By the end of a topic discussion, semester, college, whatever, a student should not leave confused about an essential truth their teachers/mentors/facilitators have been entrusted with guiding them to. For those of us in education, Never confuse the student, in the end, that is a stupendous charge, and while we can’t ever fully ensure that, it’s an imperative that is essential, always posing the critical question to us as we’re trying to explain something: could this be clearer?
… Candy never says, ‘it’s fiber, it’s vitamins, it’s all natural, it’s good for you. Candy is honest and says, `this is a treat, look at it as a treat, enjoy it as a treat.’ “
I just listened to a Weekend Edition interview with Samira Kawash, discussing what many of us have copiously purchased (or eagerly hope to obtain for free) for tomorrow evening. Some of the delightful and surprising comments mentioned are to me evocative of Steve Almond’s Candy Freak, which was a wondrous tour through (and ode to) part of the candy-making world.
The audio of the interview is fantastic; if you have a few minutes, hit the link above and give it a listen!