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Comedians as Taoist Missionaries

• March 3, 2013 • Comments (1)


I’ve worked as a paid stand-up comedian on the West Coast for 12 years. It’s fascinating, rewarding, and usually compelling – but it’s still work. Comedians joke around a lot and are usually fun people, but the job itself is not especially amusing. I’ve heard that dancing in strip clubs isn’t that sexy, either.

My observations are contradictory, I think because the subject itself is. Standup comedy runs on anti-logic, the subversion of received wisdom and rules, including (especially) its own. Once a style of humor is expected, comedians must play against that expectation or become dull. Unfunny.

That makes it difficult or impossible to sum up the nature of comedy in a few concise words. Most good comedians will disavow any comic formula.

For me, there’s a strong connection between stand-up (as practiced in the U.S.A, anyway) and the ancient Chinese philosophy of Daoism (or Taoism), of which I’m very fond. This article is not a “Tao of Comedy” – that’s been done, very well, by Jay Sankey in a book called Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy.

My perspective is the opposite of Sankey’s. To me, stand-up is a form of applied Daoism. Or perhaps both are applied forms of some great unnameable way that I’m pursuing: my own mix of Daoism, a little Jung, some existentialism, residual Catholicism, and my own biases. These things are very hard to spell out and pin down; that’s part of the fascination.

“Daoism” can mean a lot of different things. There are two mysterious books of pithy, paradoxical wisdom underpinning them all: the “Daodejing” (or “Tao Te Ching” in the old Wade-Giles spelling system), attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu, or Master Lao), and the “Zhuangzi,” attributed to Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, or Master Zhuang). Both books are probably collections or anthologies composed primarily in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE and modified many times over the centuries. Laozi himself is almost certainly a mythical figure, and we’re not too sure about Zhuangzi either.

Daoism can also mean the philosophy encapsulated in the Daodejing and Zhuangzi (and developed in hundreds of later books), and this is the sense in which I — and many Westerners — use it. A more precise term for this kind of Daoism, used by some scholars of Chinese philosophy, is “Lao-Zhuang thought.”

I read those books often, but don’t ascribe to any traditional practices. I prefer to look for examples of this wisdom in my own, modern American life.

There is an attitude underlying comedy that shares a lot with Lao-Zhuang thought: mischievous, suspicious of authority and pomposity, fond of humble citizens and workers, very aware of the limits of knowledge and problems of communication, self-challenging, and drawn to non-logical truth – the kinds of thought not taught in school.

Daoism also celebrates a manner of action perfect for comedy; spontaneous, intuitive, humble, perfected through repetition and awareness. Every person and thing has its own intrinsic nature (tzu-jan). It is not a fixed thing, but a process that develops and unfolds in concert with all the other unfolding natures.

Not coincidentally, Daoism (and its descendant, Zen) are the only philosophies or religions that are frequently humorous.

My act includes this joke:

I’ve actually become a Daoist missionary. Which means I stay home and mind my own goddamned business.

Of course I don’t stay home. I usually travel hundreds of miles to deliver pronouncements like this to the audience. Humor has its own built-in, unspoken philosophy, which I think, overlaps Daoism in many important ways. By practicing comedy, all comics are in effect working as unwitting Daoist missionaries.

I was drinking beer with my friend Tristian Spillman, a comedian and graphic novelist in Portland, Oregon. And he said, “Everyone thinks the Universe started as all nothing, and then the big bang exploded, filling the Universe with stuff. But I think it started as an infinite block of solid STUFF, and nothingness exploded into it.”

(It was really good beer.)

And I said, “I think the Universe was all one Unity, which consciousness ripped apart into somethings and nothings. Heads AND tails — it’s all one coin. That’s the deepest kind of simplicity.”

And he said, “Man, you really need a girlfriend.”

“When perception and understanding cease,
the spirit moves freely.”

– Zhuangzi, Ch. 3 (Hinton translation)

Each audience is an organism with its own unique, collective nature, like a school of fish or a flock of birds reacting as one. The show is another organism with its own nature, an interaction between the crowd, the performer, the zeitgeist, the physical setting and whatever happens during the show.

The best comedians intuitively grasp the natures of the crowd and show and respond, deftly. You can’t do this logically or intellectually, any more than a professional athlete can analyze their moves during a game. “The zone” that athletes get in is the Daoist ideal, Daoism in action.

It’s hard to describe this feeling, being “in the pocket,” but you know it when you have it and even more so when you no longer do. It’s like being in love, those early magical times that prove so elusive in a lifetime. Often, we know it best by the sensation of having lost it.

 “Way gives you shape and heaven gives you form,
so why mangle yourself with good and bad?
Make an exile of your mind and wear your spirit away.”

– Zhuangzi, chapter 5, Hinton translation

You can plan your set in advance, structuring it, working on your writing or accents or movements, and strategizing about the likely crowd. The performance itself, though, moves far too quickly to analyze in real time. You have to be in the moment.

The adjustments a comic makes might include changing the subject, talking to audience members instead of telling prepared jokes, or riffing on something that just happened. Usually though, they are more subtle, instinctual, and hopefully invisible to the audience – speaking a bit more loudly or quietly, slowing down, expanding your persona to fill the room or pulling in more intimately, forcing the crowd to come to you. Often, you don’t notice you’re adjusting.

Even afterwards, there are limits to understanding it through analysis. Lao-Zhuang thought encourages what I call “mystical empiricism” – in other words, direct apprehension of phenomena, not mediated through words, logic and theory. Forget “why.” You learn by doing, by experiencing things directly with the right awareness.

Those mediating thoughts are great tools, but they can only take you to a certain point. Real artistry, the deep skill of a master craftsman, involves subtleties that require carefully honed intuition developed through long experience.

To me, any performance is communication, and stand up gives you more immediate and vocal feedback than any other kind of entertainment – even sex work. If the audience doesn’t laugh at a joke, you were not funny at that moment, no matter how brilliant you might think that bit is (or how well it did last night).

“The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits.
When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.
The purpose of words is to convey ideas.
When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words?
He is the one I would like to talk to.”

– Zhuangzi, chapter 26 (Thomas Merton’s version)

Before he was famous, I took a film class from the director Gus Van Sant. He said that most improvisation in film goes badly, because the director just hasn’t finished the script and hopes to pull it out at the last minute. But the pressure of the moment blocks the spontaneity and inspiration you need to improvise.

He said that to improvise well, you need to have a complete, polished script and storyboards for every shot in the film; only then can you relax enough to trust the moment, throw away that script and do something different.

That’s how stand-up is for me. Only when I have a solid plan, and tight jokes and bits prepared, can I trust the moment enough to wander successfully.

* * *

How to fight against a much stronger opponent:

A drunk walks out of a bar, and a fly lands on his nose. He tries to smash it and bloodies his own face.

One trick is flying away just before you get crushed.

The other is knowing when your opponent is drunk.

* * *

“Although the tiger is entirely different from the human,
it treats you gently if you obey its nature.
But if you ignore its nature, it can kill you.”

– Zhuangzi, chapter 4 (Hinton translation)

Early on, a wise older comic told me to ignore hecklers unless most of the crowd can hear them. Let’s say you savage someone who is drunkenly responding to everything you say. If they are near the stage and the crowd didn’t hear them, it looks like you suddenly attacked a random person in the crowd, making you an asshole and the rest of the crowd defensive.

Also, the attention encourages sparring and more heckling, even if you “win.” You are playing their game, as Ken Kesey might have said. Even if you “win” you are yielding power and control of the agenda. I would rather tell my stories than duel with drunks.

Still, sometimes you need to handle it. The thing to understand is that the heckler has stepped forward, as you have, out of the audience. The one who rejoins the audience first wins; you need to embody the crowd’s response to this outlier. A couple of polite requests to shut up so we can all enjoy the show, followed by a fast vicious crushing as needed, work well. A clever slam can actually be too good, because the spontaneity and drama of the moment is hard to top.

One time, early in my set, a drunken stripper started yelling “We love dick!” after any remotely suggestive statement (she had done this to the previous comic, too). No one in the crowd could have missed her hollering, so finally I said, “Yeah, but ironically you’re only woman in this club who no man wants to fuck.” The place exploded and she shut up, but the rest of my bits paled next to that moment, and the set suffered.

There’s a cliché that comedians say out loud the things that people think but are afraid to say. I think it goes a bit deeper, an ability to express (not necessarily in words) untapped emotions and energy that audience members may not even be aware of, as well as conscious frustrations, yearnings and bafflement. These are the raw fuel of laughter, which the comic shapes with their (hopefully) unique perspective.

In a great comedy set, the comic does this while being fully present in the unique gestalt of the show, intuitively unleashing and embodying that energy, reflecting it back to everyone sharing it with you. You’re a conduit, effortlessly and spontaneously uttering the most hilarious things off the top of your head, thinking quickly but speaking clearly. It’s like the audience is telling you, telepathically, the perfect thing to say and you’re just following instructions. If it was a Hollywood movie, there would be golden beams of light from every audient pouring into you and lifting you in the air, transcendent, glorious. Nirvana.

“When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.

If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.

If he shoots for a prize of gold, he is out of his mind! …

His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him.”

– Zhuangzi, Ch. 19 (Merton’s version)

Most comedians think of themselves as either “city comics” (aka “alternative comics”) or “road comics” (aka “road dogs”).
Unlike most comics who hit their first open mic in their early 20s, I didn’t start until I was 38 and married, with children and a mortgage. I’m probably the only comic in America who wishes he could be driving around the country for weeks at a time and sleeping in the back of his station wagon, because I know how much that stage time would improve my act.

Television (or movie) fame is the one sure-fire route to success as a comic. But I have no intention of moving to Los Angeles or New York, given my family. I fully realize that this means I am unlikely to become a success, financially. I don’t love that fact, but it frees me to enjoy my shows for what they are now, not as a stepping stone.


_0016_Mark Saltveitby Mark Saltveit
Mark Saltveit is a writer, standup comedian, skimboarder and dad based in Portland, Oregon. He is also the reigning World Palindrome Champion.
For more info visit: TAOish – spiritual but not pretentious






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  1. Lisa says:

    Brilliant! Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work. Loved the references to Zhuangzi. The world needs intelligent comedy.

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