Comedians and poets explore the differences and similarities between comedy and poetry in this follow-up piece.
As a follow-up to our recent roundtable talk between comedians and poets, we asked some of our participants to give us their thoughts on a piece from the opposite medium. Poets Bänoo Zan and Owain Nicholson took in sets from Toronto comics K Trevor Wilson and Danish Anwar, while comedians Joel Buxton and Juliana Rodrigues read poetry by Karen Solie and Lynn Crosbie.
Joel Buxton on Lynn Crosbie’s “Superfly”
Superb wordsmithery. The words sparkle like cheap jewellery in the best possible way. You made it shine, my sister.
If I can indulge my pretentious side, it feels like poems skip past the rules of narrative and instead pluck at chords of emotion, waking up feelings you’re not sure you had, and are not sure what to call.
After several readings I found myself savouring the disorientation. Fully aware that I likely missed the author’s true meaning, like a jock leafing through Don Quixote.
In stand-up we labour over every noun, verb, adjective, syllable. But always, relentlessly, (sometimes pathetically) in pursuit of the chuckle. Poetry is not so different, but the emotional palette is disarmingly vast. Thanks for your labours.
Bänoo Zan on K Trevor Wilson’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live
It is hard to be a comedian. The first thing I noticed is that Wilson expected the audience to laugh at certain points and actually paused to get the laugh he expected. Maybe the similarity between spoken word poetry and comedy is this: that the performer expects a reaction and through non-verbal cues gets what they want. Many literary poets may also expect a reaction from audiences at readings; however, I have seen very few who insist on audience reaction. But everyone who shares work on a stage does register the audience reaction or lack thereof.
After all, isn’t this what art should be doing? Pointing out our limitations?
His performance also reminded me of our discussion when the comedians among us emphasized the rehearsed nature of the performances. His piece had the feel of well-crafted, edited, and rehearsed (spoken word) pieces, the ones that are thoroughly thought through!
As all art, his piece is also heavily culture-bound. I don’t understand his references to shows, music, sports, etc. The only thing I know is that he is referring to experiences I know nothing about. This doesn’t bother me; in fact, I am happy that he is pointing at a world I usually ignore! After all, isn’t this what art should be doing? Pointing out our limitations?
Juliana Rodrigues on Karen Solie’s “Life is a Carnival”
I really appreciate how the poet immediately paints an image within the first few words: “dinner finished, wine in hand.” This gives the reader an immediate sense of location, mood, and setting which draws them in, since this feeling is relatable to most people. That kind of full-and-happy feeling, maybe a holiday gathering. In comedy, this tool is very important, because context is everything. It justifies your jokes and gives better insight to the premise.
I love the vocabulary, not only because it makes me feel smarter, but because there are powerful choices throughout. They paint the images much more clearly and specifically, which of course helps us understand the overall point of view of the poet. Using strong vocabulary can have a different meaning for comedians, and is often used to establish a character, whereas in this poem I feel like it’s to paint a clear picture or give an immediate feeling. Comedians like John Cleese use strong vocabulary to also predispose the audience to respect him—in a way, I think that method helps give validation to his ideas and the theories he expresses.
It was very pleasant and insightful. I enjoy these types of poems the best because I’m always generally looking for advice about life and will not pay for therapy.
Owain Nicholson on Danish Anwar’s “Truth Bomb”
I think the largest difference between comedy and poetry, from listening to Danish, is that he speaks as if to a friend at a café talking about a hilarious night or general reminiscing, which is something that poetry often struggles with. Poetry tends toward a rhythm closer to high or formal language. This creates tension as the speaker gathers the poem to a single point. For comedy, formal language would be tight-assed, I think, and would allow the comic much less flexibility and also less context. My guess is that it would have to be a joke in and of itself, and be whole and consistent through the set for that to work.
One difference I do see with the language is a reliance on ease and spontaneity, like how an athlete might jump gently to loosen up before whatever it is begins.
Talking, at the end, about being the one on the bus who smells like weed wouldn’t work in a poetic context, but it’s easy and well-known by everyone in the audience. Were that poetry, the line would be about creating world or structure in the poem, but it couldn’t be the focus itself. What I mean is that the language tools he uses are to keep the audience guessing: sets them up with something accessible (like on the news: a shooting in the poor neighbourhood) but then takes an unexpected direction, and this makes the joke. He starts with white privilege the same way a first line or stanza in a poem would create a concept to follow, or a moment to investigate, or a feeling worth considering; this is his thesis statement.
And where a poem might use this as a fulcrum, so does he with the “end of white privilege.” This is like a poetic stanza. The rest of his set continues with various concepts of ethnicity, becoming more and more specific from that general opening, right up until he is able to use himself as the centre of his last joke. This would be similar to a poem ending with a concept and finishing with a last metaphor.
One difference I do see with the language is a reliance on ease and spontaneity, like how an athlete might jump gently to loosen up before whatever it is begins. I have certainly changed words on the fly reading from the page, but I think this is the reverse of the comic. I would guess that Danish probably practiced and had his set solid but with room to maneuver and always with room for something that might arrive on the fly.
In my experience as a poet, this might happen during the writing: a word I didn’t expect changing the meaning of a line, or maybe redirecting how I had been conceiving the poem. But it is entirely private. And often, that spontaneous change from this word on the page to that while reading is also private, because I’m the only one who knows I’ve changed the line, whereas the comic is always under scrutiny in the moment.
I would be interested to hear a comic’s take on being scrutinized. Whether a comic scrutinizes themselves when they craft jokes, or how often they try it by themselves before testing it on stage. I read all my poems aloud when I edit and edit and edit, but that’s usually alone. Is a comic’s editing more public?