Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Tao of Comedy: Embrace the Pause, by Bobbie Oliver

DISCLAIMER: This is a review of a book that my wife wrote, so it can't really be "objective" in any meaningful way.  It's just that a few people have written about the book so far, and I don't think any of them have really explained what makes this book unique.

There is a school of thought that says that there's no real reason for comedy classes or books on comedy, that stand up comedy is not really a teachable skill: you're either funny, or you're not.  This is especially odd in a town where everyone is taking acting, improv and voiceover classes, but it's worth addressing.  Let's accept the idea that someone is either talented or not.  That doesn't preclude the idea of learnable skills.  You can't teach someone to be Michael Jordan, but that doesn't mean you can't teach someone to play basketball.

Having said that, the books on stand up comedy that are out there (and many of the classes being taught) don't do much to dispel these criticisms.  For one thing, many of them devote most of their space to the one aspect of comedy that CAN'T be taught: generating material. In several of the big books, there are pages and pages of Madlib-style "exercises" where you are instructed to write about what makes you angry, what confuses you, how you feel about your parents, etc.  There are formulas for then taking this material and shaping it into jokes.  As you can imagine, if you were to complete these exercises, you would generate a large volume of obvious, formulaic jokes.  You could, I suppose, then go perform these on stage, and there is probably a small market of people who would like to just try doing stand up comedy a few times but have no idea how to go about it, that would find this useful.

But for most people, and especially most people that aspire to do stand up comedy, figuring out what you want to say is not really an issue.  Have you ever had nothing you wanted to express?  It's not a problem that I see much in regular life.  Most people are overflowing with shit that they can't wait to say.  It's why people are so fucking annoying to talk to.

Now, I'm not saying nobody struggles to generate material, and Bobbie's book does address that, just not with such obvious and flawed methods.  Generating material is a matter of simply expressing what you want to say.  The Madlibs can get you there, I guess, but only in the most shallow and obvious way.  That is, it can help you produce the same jokes, or the same kinds of jokes, that everyone else produces.  A better way is to simply listen to yourself.  Thus, The Tao of Comedy focuses on a combination of meditation, journaling and being present to uncover material.  And that leaves plenty of space to concentrate on the skills that are learnable: stagecraft, joke structure, and most importantly, THE PAUSE.

The book is subtitled Embrace the Pause for a reason.  This is the key skill for delivering comedy.  It's what, more than any other element, turns raw material into killer jokes.  This is the center of the teaching.  But the subtitle also has an alternate meaning.  Pausing in life--meditation, mindfulness, creating space--is what allows creativity to happen.  And this is where this book is really different from all the other comedy books out there.  It's not just an instructional manual for how to perform stand up, it's also a guide to pursuing comedy as a spiritual path.  In fact, the lessons of the book can be applied to any form of creativity (I've heard people who have no intention of doing comedy say that the book has helped them), and can make your life more fulfilling and less anxious even if you're not pursuing any kind of "creative art" (again, this is something I have heard people directly say).

So many of the people who write about or teach classes in stand up comedy are obsessed with the idea of making your act "marketable," which means having a simple, one-sentence explanation for what your comedy is like, and NEVER telling any joke that doesn't fit that style.  This is something that NONE of the great comedians do.  There are many successful, horrible comics who do do it, but the people who are actually performing decent stand up comedy are as multifaceted onstage as they are offstage.  And there's really no  reason why there should be an entire body of work on a subject that gives everyone the wrong advice on so many things!  Thus, The Tao of Comedy, an effort to correct everything that's wrong with comedy classes, comedy books and ultimately, comedy performance.

The Tao of Comedy: Embrace the Pause is available on Amazon and Kindle, or better yet, you can order a signed copy directly from Bobbie's website.  While you're at it, order a download of Bobbie's excellent new album Women Are Crazy.  It's an hour of hilarious and honest comedy


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