My brother, David Heti, is a stand-up comic. He is five and a half years younger than me, so he’s in his mid-thirties now, and for the past five years or so—ever since he quit being a lawyer (which lasted one unhappy year)—he has been on the road, or at least without a home. He teaches a class in comedy writing and theory at McGill University, once or twice a year. Mostly he lives between Montreal, Toronto and New York.
David studied philosophy in school, and has always been drawn to the comedic—Monty Python, Gary Larson, Woody Allen (our dad is a huge fan). The door to his childhood bedroom was papered in Garbage Pail Kids stickers. I am drawn to the comedic, too, but more in literature than comedy (I write novels).
We talked as we sat on my bed in Toronto while he was in town for Passover. A few follow-up exchanges were added later.
Sheila Heti: If a person looks at the books you own, they’re either books of philosophy or books of self-help. So where does comedy fit in, for you, between the books of self-help, like Feeling Good, which is about trying to make yourself feel happy, and the books of philosophy, which are mainly works of existentialism—Camus and Sartre?
David Heti: I think for me, the comedic impulse comes from the same place as the philosophical one. They’re both in response to something more fundamental, which is a sense of the absurd, or disquietude, or a feeling that something is off or is not as it should be or as you want it to be.
Sheila: Are there any philosophers you think would make good comedians?
David: I want to say yes, but I think of the big thinkers as far too imperious, even just in the scope, the attempts of their projects. Certainly many are hilarious in their writing, but even Diogenes I think would be far too scornful of his audience. If we want to think more of an Andy Kaufman-type act, then lots—especially Wittgenstein—come to mind, though with them it would be just their real mental illness on display. (I’m not sure, then, who would be laughing.) Cioran I’d say is your best bet.
Sheila: Does the comedic expression have to result in a laugh?
David: It doesn’t have to.
Sheila: So what makes it a joke?
David: You mean, if I say something and no one understands it as a joke, is it still a joke?
Sheila: Yeah. What do you think?
David: What do I think? I think it’s a bad joke. There doesn’t have to be laughter, but the funny element has to be there.
Sheila: Right. So let’s start at the beginning. You consider comedy an art form?
David: At its best.
Sheila: Why do you think when a person goes to a comedy club, they don’t often think, I’m seeing art?
David: Well… because I think it’s an incredibly low form of art. Just in terms of the spaces in which it takes place—they’re often dark, and in basements, and it’s cheap to get in, and they’re trying to sell you drinks. You don’t get that when you go to an art gallery.
Sheila: But you do get that when you see a band.
David: But it’s not like there’s a two-drink minimum.
Sheila: They have that in comedy shows?
David: Oh yeah. And everyone tells jokes. The audience is like, This person just does a little bit better what I could do if I tried to do that. Or maybe it’s that every person has a sense of humor or thinks that they have a sense of humor, so it feels more theirs to be an arbiter of. Also, it’s the way the audience interacts: it’s somehow like a beer hall. There’s no reverence. There’s reverence at the ballet. But the comic is not supposed to be a revered person. They’re supposed to be themselves, and be totally fallible or ridiculous. They’re not supposed to project an image of being an artist. That works against the effect that comedy’s trying to achieve. I think that’s why a lot of comics fail.
David: Because they’re trying to project a mastery, a masterfulness. I think it’s okay for a concert pianist to show evidence of having practiced for thousands of hours. But if a comic does it, it loses the effect.
Sheila: Right, the show has to seem like an improvisation. You want the illusion that they haven’t done each joke a hundred times before.
David: A hundred percent. That’s part of the theatricality of it. It’s an art form that responds to the audience. I mean, if a glass breaks at a play, the actors aren’t going to change the script, but if someone’s phone goes off—if there’s disruption and the comic doesn’t acknowledge it—the whole show falls flat.
Sheila: Why does it fall flat if the comic doesn’t acknowledge the phone ringing?
David: Because the comic has to be alive to the room, to the moment, to the situation. You know, 9/11 happens, or there’s a huge terrible snowstorm, or the Blue Jays are playing a World Series game—no one is going to change the course of an art show or a play, but the comic who’s not alive to what’s going on in the culture, in the moment—they’re not as good a comic.
Sheila: Right. That’s why the late-night shows are all about what happened in the day’s news—it’s a response to what’s happening today in the world. It’s contemporary with the moment the audience is sharing with the comic.
David: Definitely. That’s part of the art. You go to a comic, in a sense, because you’re like, I want to see what their ideas are today. Comics have a touring schedule and some of them, they come every year to the same club, and if they’re doing the same jokes as last year, you’re like, Ugh, this person
is not a creative, dynamic, thinking artist.
Sheila: So when you go to a comedy club, and you’re waiting for your turn, and you’re watching the other performers—
David: You presume that I’m watching the other performers.
Sheila: You’re not?
David: I mean, sometimes I am, but… I’ve seen enough comedy. I’ve gone out enough nights. Unless it’s someone really special, or someone people have been saying good things about, odds are I’m not going to learn much.
Sheila: So how do you feel after you do a good set?
David: I mean, it’s complicated. It can feel wonderful, but it also depends on where I am. If I’m sitting in Montreal and it’s a great set, it’s kind of like, okay—I feel relief that I can still do well, but I’m also like, I don’t want to do well here. I want to do well on a bigger stage, competing against different comics.
Sheila: Let’s say you’re in a festival or whatever, or part of a lineup on a show. What happens behind the scenes?
David: Comics are very hierarchical. Someone posted a picture of a set on Facebook—a lineup from fifteen years ago when he started out, and you can see how many minutes each comic has been given, and in what order they’re going on.
Sheila: They posted the lineup they were given backstage?
David: Yeah, it’s a printout on a sheet of paper, and it’s like, so-and-so first comic, five minutes; second comic, five minutes. Then it’s seven minutes, ten minutes, fifteen, thirty. That’s fucking hierarchical. It gets no more concrete than that. My girlfriend doesn’t like me thinking about it that way, she says I shouldn’t, but that’s what it is. And the atmosphere backstage? I think it very much depends on who the comics are. Generally the younger comic tries to give the more successful comics space. Super young comics will sometimes try to talk to the bigger comics; they’re like, I want this person to know who I am, I want to introduce myself. But then once they get years in, and they’ve toured a little, they recognize that the touring comic meets hundreds of younger comics, and is not there to take names and break out someone. Mostly it depends on their personality. Some comics like to stick to themselves and be in their world. Others are super comfortable and they like to interact, and they’re open and happy to share.
Sheila: You suggested once that comics don’t respect Louis C.K. as much as they used to?
David: I think people are tired of hearing him, cause he’s kind of too big. It’s kind of embarrassing. He puts out a special every year, he makes a brilliant TV show—
Sheila: Why is it embarrassing?
David: Because of his genius and his work ethic.
Sheila: I don’t understand what’s embarrassing.
David: That he’s able to do so much, whereas no one else is. Like, a comic has never been that prolific before. Carlin, I guess.
Sheila: Right, people are embarrassed for themselves. They feel sheepish.
David: Yeah, he kind of raised the bar in a crazy way.
Sheila: By being so prolific?
David: Yeah, but he’s probably also not as funny as he used to be—his earlier specials were better.
Sheila: How come?
David: I don’t know. I think, in a sense, you get used to someone’s way of thinking. Like, it’s delightful at first—it’s surprising. Then, you know, no one does Seinfeld’s type of comedy anymore, because he already did it.
Sheila: So does a comic have a shelf life?
David: I think so. I mean, any art form has to respond to its culture, and if something is transformative of its culture, it cannot continue to be the same thing and still be transformative.
Sheila: You’ve said to me that it’s often boring to hang out with regular people—friends of friends—cause you don’t find them as funny as your comic friends.
David: I think a big part of why they’re not as interesting is because comics generally have this terrible manic energy—this anxiety—because they’re constantly feeling that they’re behind, that they should be doing more, and usually they’re not where they want to be professionally, so there’s this agitation. Other people are more relaxed: they’re in a career. It’s safe. They have an income, a family, all that. But also, people often talk about things that don’t interest comics.
Sheila: Like what? Real estate?
David: Yeah. Comics often get into comedy because things don’t make sense for them. They’re overweight, or they have no money, or they don’t have sex—things like that. They don’t have much in the world. If they were “serious people” they would work towards acquiring things—even love, or peace of mind. But comics don’t do that. They spend all their time hanging out at bars at night. They’re not even trying to get laid ’cause they’re spending their nights telling jokes. So other people’s concerns seem a bit frivolous.
Sheila: You’ve talked to me about how when you come back to Toronto, you see the friends you went to high school with, and they have spouses and homes and children perhaps, and you feel so alienated from their lives because you haven’t had a permanent address in five years, and you’re always on the road, and you’re touring, and you don’t own much stuff. Is that way of life a requirement for a comic?
David: I mean, I’m more itinerant than most comics, by far, by far.
Sheila: You are?
David: That’s my reputation.
Sheila: It is?
Sheila: What’s your reputation?
David: Sexy vagrant.
David: I think it harkens back to the idea of the world being somehow deficient—not providing you with satisfactory answers. Because if something were clearly good and worth holding on to, that’s what I would build towards. I think of Camus’s absurd confrontation: What is the value of keeping this alive? Of being truthful to this absurdity? As a comic, you’re continually confronting that—cutting things down, saying, This is not important, this is not a value, this is impermanent. What you think is important, isn’t. That’s the whole exercise, basically.
Sheila: Cutting down conventional values?
David: Or any values. The listener’s values.
Sheila: Why is it important in society to have people who do that?
David: Because otherwise you have cultures that are mired in their own ways of thinking—there’s no development, there’s no provocation to think differently. You have to provoke. You have to create a bit of uncertainty. Unless you believe that everything’s perfect and that people shouldn’t question the way things are, or improve. Comedy is a way of opening the mind.
Sheila: Can you think of a moment comedy that did that for you?
David: Sure. One time, this woman in my comedy-writing class submitted a joke about having to poo so carefully at her boyfriend’s place so as to leave no trace of her having pooed. I loved it—the emotional anxiety, the care, what was at stake, the lengths to which she went… I thought, Where else but in this comedy space would one be able to so openly present such a thing? I was so happy to have learnt about this world. I think about her joke often.
Sheila: Why do we find the body so funny?
David: It’s something over which we have no control; it’s Bergson’s “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” No matter how much we may like to believe that we’re free-willing, autonomous agents, the truth is that we’re just a bunch of flesh. To be reminded of the undeniability and inevitability of all that this entails can, in the right hands, be terribly funny. It’s also in that sense a great leveler, as it cuts down and affects everyone.
Sheila: Is this why comics are better when they’re admitting to something?
David: If the comic can be somehow a guilty party, then you have what I like best in comedy. You know the idea of a judge-penitent? He’s someone who’s both the person being condemned and the person condemning. So in Camus’s The Fall, it’s this guy who used to be a lawyer who was always taking on work pro bono for the blind and the homeless, and he would always make a kind gesture and give money, but then he realized that he was the most corrupt of them all because of his vanity and things like this.
Sheila: So you think a comic should be a judge-penitent.
David: Yeah. Freud talks about how humor is the most sophisticated coping mechanism, so that in the worst situations, you have sometimes the greatest comedic achievements. For me, Old Soviet jokes are the best. They’re the most cutting, the bleakest.
Sheila: What’s a good one?
David: A new prisoner arrives at a Gulag camp, and another prisoner asks how long he’s in for. “Ten years,” he replies.
“And what did you do?”
“Nothing,” the guy says.
“Nonsense,” the prisoner says, “for ‘nothing’ they give you five.”
Sheila: (Laughs.) Right.
David: Those jokes highlight what’s so horrific about that life, but they also allow you to overcome it, psychologically. A joke that good can connect the most horrific injustice to the idea that we’re greater than this and we can overcome this horror. But I think it’s a miserable time for comedy now.
Sheila: You do?
David: Yeah, because everything’s so polarized now. The politics are such that as soon as you get on stage, you’re already being read. You’re already being broken down for what you are.
Sheila: Like, that’s a white man, or that’s a lesbian, or whatever?
David: Yeah, and that’s a closed-mindedness right there. You see comics talking about how the audience was liberals, or they were conservatives, or they were women, or they were bros. The audiences just want to hear their own ideas given back to them, and there really isn’t that much openness. I think there’s a closing of thought, actually. For instance, the recent criticisms of Dave Chappelle’s comedy special were not about the quality of the comedy, but about how Chappelle’s trans jokes are regressive. That’s not the measure of a joke.
Sheila: They’re not judging his comedy as comedy. They’re judging his politics.
David: They want his comedy to further their own political or ideological ends. They are the grossest people who make those critiques, and also present themselves as comics. They’re wolves in comics’ clothing.
David: More than anything else, they want comedy to be inclusive, or whatever. And of course, comedy demands some consideration of where the culture is at, and what its politics and values are. You’re not going to have a Nazi come in with a great joke from the Nazi perspective and have it be embraced. But people have to allow that to some degree they’re imperfect, and their knowledge is fallible, and that a joke can ridicule them. And it’s okay to be offended. That’s totally fine. You have no right to not be offended. It’s very difficult for comics to perform in certain rooms in the Pacific Northwest, where they have PC, progressive values, when the producers of those rooms expressly want a safe comedy night. You can’t have safe comedy. Even family-friendly comedy is taking the piss out of ketchup or something.
David: Or take the late-night shows—they are so conservative in their comedy. It’s the worst thing! It does the opposite of what comedy’s supposed to do. If comedy is supposed to open people’s minds, then you go to Colbert, for instance, and all he does is thirty Trump-is-shit jokes? Everyone knows this! Those jokes do nothing. All they do is reify, and what you have is the ideological. I think people today are looking for their spokesperson. They’re looking for their spiritual leader, their political leader. That’s not what a comedy show is for. Go to your political rally then.
Sheila: I see that in literature too; people want their guru.
Sheila: Yeah. I was going to write an article about this but then I just didn’t feel like it, but so many of the women who become successful writers end up taking on the role of guru. Their audience wants that of them, and they’re happy to take it on—they become like mentors or older sisters or mothers to their entire readership. They are suddenly so sincere and good.
David: People want Louis C.K. to tell a joke about wanting to have sex with a guy, but at the end, he better come down on the right end.
Sheila: What’s the right end?
David: I don’t know, whatever your end is. For the people who following Louis C.K., it’s probably, I’m totally cool with it. People come to shows with an attitude that you cannot talk about certain things. Certain words cannot be spoken, certain ideas cannot be joked about. And that is antithetical to the comedic spirit.
Sheila: Do most comics think you can joke about anything?
David: Yeah. For instance, very few comics have the viewpoint that you can’t make a joke about rape.
Sheila: A friend of mine who was raped wants to know what you consider a good joke about rape. It doesn’t have to be a joke you tell—if you do tell rape jokes, I don’t think you do. But a rape joke you’ve liked.
David: Well, I most certainly do tell “rape jokes,” but others that I’ve liked especially include the Annie Hall one about Alvy Singer’s grandmother and the Cossacks; in the first season of The Office when Ricky Gervais does what he can to undermine the role-playing scenario of the guy who’s come in to train the staff; Kurt Metzger’s got something about big black dicks playing an integral role in the U.S. correctional services system; and Doug Stanhope has something about there never being any credits at the end of a kiddy porno (which might still be only statutory rape, but still). Whether any or all of these would qualify as what one might consider a “rape joke” or simply a joke that entails rape but is actually a “neurotic-schlemiel joke” or an “idiot-narcissist joke” or “rape-joke joke” I don’t know, but there are many such good jokes. I suppose maybe the one of mine about “collective family sexual assault”—I like that one a lot. Obviously it’s always only fair to hear the comic’s actual telling or the director’s presentation of the joke itself. They’re not really meant to be read off a page, abstracted from the rest of the set or film, etc.
Look, sometimes a joke will fail—it can fall too far across the line, or it can fall too far before the line. At its best, it’s on the line. But every night is different, every audience member is different, the rooms are different. But comics are not given the benefit of the doubt. No comic is going in there to be cruel to people. But there’s no goodwill there, from the audience.
Sheila: What about someone who says, Why should we ever risk offending someone, just to make a joke?
David: To think that a joke, by its very form or logic, is somehow less able than an essay or poem or lyric or painting to speak to any part of life—with sufficient complexity or nuance or understanding—is a failure to appreciate what humor can be. I would say sometimes too that the offending or risk of offending someone can be integral to a joke’s sense. What does it even mean “just” to tell a joke?
Sheila: I just remembered your joke—the cultural appropriation one. Can you tell it to me?
David: Sure. It’s like, “All these people are crying ‘cultural appropriation’… and the whole idea of cultural appropriation, if you don’t know, stems from critical theory, which is an idea that stems from this one school of social-political thought in the Thirties and Forties called the Frankfurt School. But everyone there—like, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno—all of them are Jews, right? So it’s like, that’s our theory. Give us back our theory!”
Art credit: Darren Rigo, “A Funny Thing”