Viewpoint: That's What I Call Funny

One of America's hottest comics on how he translates sore points into comic relief

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Laughter is mysterious. Laughter is such an involuntary response, it's unpredictable. You just don't know what will make you laugh until it makes you laugh. Talking about laughter is tough, and I should warn everyone who reads this that I don't really know what I'm talking about. I'm 31 years old, and I've been doing stand-up since I was 14, and I'm still trying to figure it all out.

Stand-up has unequivocally been the most consistently fun thing I've done in my life. It's what makes me happy. I like doing my show, but stand-up has the most freedom in it artistically. It's direct--there are no intermediaries between you and the audience. I don't have to go to Standards and Practices [the broadcast industry's self-censoring panel] to clear my material. I don't have to worry about advertisers and what they'll say. I just tell people jokes off the top of my head.

The evolution of my jokes happens very organically. If there's something I see on the news or something I'm thinking about, I might go down to the club and just talk it out, almost conversationally, and funny things will arise. I don't sit at a desk and think, "I want to tackle the issue of AIDS" or "I want to tackle the issue of racism." I don't look at things that way. Sometimes I'll think up things just because I know they're inappropriate, which is kind of the fun of comedy. It's liberating.

Some things are so painful that they seem as if they're not funny, but it's not like people will never laugh at them. A lot of times the humor doesn't come from pain exactly; it comes from things that make you anxious or afraid. It just helps you put them in perspective if you laugh at them. When the war first started, I was doing war material, but as the news changed, the response to the material changed. Something is funny one day, but the next day someone would get decapitated, and it might not be as funny. Whether people will laugh just depends on what's going on at the time. One of the reasons people go to see comedy is that there's always an element of escapism to any kind of entertainment. But I've had other experiences where you'd think people wouldn't want to talk about a subject, and it turned out that they loved talking about it. I remember there were some Marines who had just been in Iraq who came to a show I was giving in a club, and when the subject of the war first came up, they might have been a little tense about it. But as the show went on, they were laughing about it. They would scream stuff out, and I could see that for them it was kind of a relief--or a release--to just get it off their chests.

There are some comics who are really well-adjusted, and there are some of these guys who walk around kind of wounded. I think I fall somewhere in between. There's something powerful about being able to translate unhappiness into something positive. It's a kind of alchemy that artists perform. I think that's sort of the God-like part in man--the part of people that can transcend their personal problems and make something beautiful out of them. Maybe that's why people respond to pain-riddled artists, whether it's Tupac or Kurt Cobain or Billie Holiday.

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