On Stories, Fictions, Literature, and Jokes in the Modern World

The best fiction out there can be found in standup cabarets around the U.S. Comedians know how to wield the stick of verbal art to talk about the meaning of life better than anyone who types or scrawls alone in a room for a living. They also know how to stretch the boundaries of language and what topics we need to discuss openly given whatever input has been flooding the transom of everyone’s nightmares and unconscious fantasies.

I will never understand why LA and NYC are considered the full frontal super-weight fulcrums of the standup comedy sphere, but it doesn’t matter. Go to any standup house anywhere in North America and you’ll find men and women making up the most bizarre and often hilariously distasteful shit you’ve ever heard. I suppose LA and NYC are the best places because so many comics congregate in those regions (you can probably add Chicago in as well), but I’ve seen some great comedy in St. Louis, New Jersey, Tampa, Albuquerque, Dallas, Seattle, Denver, and Atlanta. I’d be remiss if I didn’t clearly point out that Canada, Australia, and the British Isles there are some pretty funny people. I’m aware I’m being fairly chauvinistic here. Part of me wants to believe that the English language is just the best format for making up jokes about life. But I know there are comedians in other countries. One of the funniest comedians I ever saw didn’t even say a word. The great French mime, Marcel Marceau, had me in stitches all three times I saw him — in Paris, London, and Des Moines.

Comedians kind of want laughs like whores want orgasms. But comedians need to do more than blow-jobs, pussy clenching, and hand-jobs. They’re depending on their audiences intelligence, meeting them halfway and being understanding enough to know that a huge part of comedy is about how fucked up life is (some people call that irony) and another big part is about everyone’s search for meaning and purpose, which is inevitably hilarious since most people don’t understand meaning and purpose are creative endeavors and not things outside the brain.

And so, comedy is fiction because you couldn’t make someone laugh otherwise. Even when a comedian is talking about their family, or their love life, or dangerously stereotyping some group of people, they are making up a shadow world and asking you to follow them inside.

David Foster Wallace

It’s a funny thing, I rarely (like never) laugh at the novel or short story I’m reading, but there are certain comics who have made me laugh so hard my snot has turned to tears and my gut has gone from ticklish to asylum painful in a surprisingly satisfying way. When you laugh, cry and grab your belly because it really hurts you have entered the realm of true comedy. I point all of this out because comedy is fiction. Comics make shit up and completely blow you away. Never underestimate the power of fiction to get at the fundamental hilarious truths of being alive in the universe.

The best comedy is also told in story format. There are lots of different formulas to set up an audience for the punchline. The best comedy uses repetition and red herrings and is often a quest of some form, quite similar to a story you might read in a magazine or book.

Standup comedy as fiction and story is often stripped down and basic. Just like a blow- or hand-job, the comic wants to make you laugh quickly. The difference, of course between them and a prostitute is they want you to keep laughing, over and over. They want you to feel the power of their fiction and know that their storytelling (their jokes) is beyond profound.

robin-williams with Friends CastThe best standup comedy, to my mind, is usually improvisational-type acts. The late, great Robin Williams was probably the best improvisationalist we’ve ever seen on this earth. But there are thousands of hilarious improvisational actors in the U.S. (sorry, but I’m only chauvinistic about the U.S. because it’s what I know). Most actors get to do a good dose of improv as they’re coming along. Some stick with it longer than others.

I started thinking about this essay mostly because I was wondering about the health of novels and short stories in America as it nears the year 2020. the idea of fiction and where it sits in the realm of art and entertainment. I used to think of fiction as short stories and novels. That’s an admittedly limited point of view. Standup comedy, movies, television shows, theater, and mime are all forms of fiction. It’s possible, actually, to put many forms of dance into this category too.

Stories are a very organized form of fiction. Most of us, most of the world, learns about story as a form of entertainment and transfer of wisdom, rules, and ways of seeing life beginning at the beginning of our lives, usually before we can even speak, going all the way through childhood and young adulthood (whatever age that is). Stories are ways to structure fiction. Sometimes a story is highly structured — as with murder mysteries, coming-of-age tales, romances, and thrillers — and sometimes a story is much more loosely structured and attempts to emulate aspects of life carefully enough to almost seem like a true and realistic account of someone’s existence. Stories like this, if found in books, are often called literature. Unfortunately, this term has taken on a somewhat elitist, snobbish taint. Comedians sometimes stick their noses in the air and call literature “Litrachure” then flick away at their old schnozzes with delicate or primitive fingers. Ah, the aroma of life unwashed, finger fucked, and damaged by poor judgement and limited perspective.

I want to point out that “stories” per se are everywhere. You have to see that by now if you’ve read this far and considered the big deal I’m making about comedy. Movies, TV shows, and the news are all vessels for storytelling (ask yourself why the Sunday TV news hour 60 Minutes is the most successful, long-running program of all time). Game show hosts tell stories all the time. And sporting events are nothing but stories we’re watching come about in real time, enhanced, hopefully, by commentators and analysts who understand their job is to tell the story of the game.

Literature is not, then, some snooty, overly serious attempt to tell a story (or to not tell a story as some cynics and zealous art types might think). Literature defines all the forms of written storytelling available to us — novels, short-stories, plays, poems, biographies, essays even, history and many other forms of non-fiction. I would say, especially in this day and age, that a mystery novel or an erotic romance is equally as literary as an experimental novel by Kathy Acker or an extended psycho-magical mystery by Haruki Murakami. Some books pay closer attention to language and the subtleties of human interaction than others. Some want to get at new or interesting ideas, delve into philosophy and culture change issues, but they’re all literature. You can add your own prefixtual disclaimer: serious, intelligent, comic, hot, funny, dark, dirty, twisted, hilarious, good, bad, boring, commercial, women’s, political, etc.

I want to close by saying it’s kind of sad that folks aren’t reading more literature. I think part of the reason for that is that forced reading in school is over the top and torturous. Everyone is reading and writing all the time in this new world half to three-quarter world of screens and virtual existence. Stories are everywhere online and in so many different forms — from blogs to YouTube postings to live social media broadcasts.

pile of covered books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Being forced to read books in school is fine, to be honest, except that teachers may not be getting across the most important lesson: in this social media/internet world we’re all writers and we’re all telling stories all the time, but there are some incredibly amazing writers and storytellers out there and they’re worth paying attention to because they’re virtuosoes: Vonnegut, Joy Williams, Baldwin, Morrison, Bolaño, Dillard, Maugham, Lucia Berlin, Clarice Lispector, etc. It’s too bad no one’s teaching that reading and thinking about all those good writers will give you a better, more effective online persona, they might even transmit a new version of super powers to you.

Think about it: If you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, do you just go in a room and play guitar until your fingers bleed? Or do you also listen to a lot of music by the greats like B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Randy California, Joe Walsh, Billy Gibbons, and Carlos Santana?

Certainly, comics, screenwriters, teachers, marketing professionals, and people in politics can all benefit reading literature as I’ve described it here. Go back up a few paragraphs and check out what Bill Hicks says in the video. He read a great deal in his formative years and beyond. He was always thinking and considering new forms of meaning and answers to questions that maybe no one had even asked yet.

That gets me to the last thing I want to say about jokes, fiction, literature, and stories. I will write much more about this later, but when all is said and done, how we use language and tell stories is how new meaning pops up in the world and human beings move from the past and the present into the future. We make this world with bricks and steel and glass and sound and color but we also make it with ideas and questions and interpretations and stories. Fiction isn’t lies. Fiction is the trail that leads us into the new world that we’re always making.

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