Misery Loves Comedy?

Hannah Zahn
10 min readMar 27, 2019

“This guy I used to date thinks I have multiple personality disorder…But he’s nice about it. The other day he said to me ‘I’m so happy you can be yourselves with me,’ and I was like ‘me’s too.’”

This is the opening line I used in one of my most recent stand up sets. At any given time my brain is like the boat scene from Charlie and the Chocolate factory, or that episode of Spongebob where we see the inside of Spongebob’s brain and it’s run by a bunch of tiny Spongebobs and everything’s on fire. You can also think of it as a computer with too many tabs open. I used to feel alone in this sense, but I have finally found a comfortable level of mutual understanding in the Santa Clara University Stand Up Comedy Club (SUCC for short. This is not our actual acronym, but I think that it should be).

It has long been contested that creative-minded people suffer for their art. I sat down with some of Santa Clara University’s most talented comedians to probe their minds on this very subject.

Mason

I think my fellow comedian Mason Hall summed it up best when he said, “Sometimes I think that whenever I have to make a decision there’s a town council of little versions of myself inside of my brain and they’re all trying to speak at once and then the judge goes ‘Order!’ Order!’ and slams the gavel down. And then I get a headache.”

Mason is a chronically tired 6’0” man-boy with limbs that stretch for miles and have rendered him hopelessly clumsy. He’s very skinny and probably malnourished seeing as he only ever consumes “vegetables” in the form of ketchup or marinara sauce. And he spends an inordinate amount of time fashioning his nineties Boy Meets World haircut.

On stage, Mason is about as animated as the wooden stool that is perched behind him. You would think that this expressionless-ness would make him very boring on stage and very good at poker but in fact, the exact opposite is true in both cases. He speaks only out of the corner of his mouth in monotone — like a much younger and whiter Morgan Freeman. And yet, he is a veritable connoisseur of sounds. He can impersonate anything from celebrities to the screechiness of the bathroom doors in our cafeteria and the “praying mantis thing from Star Wars: Episode II.” (Which, according to Google is a creature named Acklay.)

Making Mason laugh, for me, is a true accomplishment. After all, anyone can make an audience laugh. Well, actually, no… this is not true. But the point I’m trying to make is, however hard it is to make an audience laugh it is ten million times harder (and more rewarding) to make a comedian laugh.

“I sometimes wonder if I’m unable to be a good comedian because I am not ‘messed up’ enough, or perhaps that because I am funny on stage, I might be more messed up than I think. I’m also not sure if the anxiety that I sometimes experience is heightened by my involvement in comedy, or if the opposite is true and my sense of humor is a way to deal with it,” says Mason.

Writing jokes is like a science. Or an art. Maybe both. The way I see it (and not only me it should be noted) there are three things that make people laugh. People laugh in response to familiarity and incongruity, but most crucially, laughter is a form of release after suspended tension. Comedians and tight-rope walkers; the Earth’s resident tension experts. And I suppose physicists. But what have they done for the world?

Trevor

Trevor Huffard is known for his rambling comedy. We generally limit ourselves to ten-minute sets for our shows, but he has been recorded doubling that constraint. He is a natural performer. Always “on.” Always the “funny guy.”

He has a natural charisma and charm that I have seen many girls fall for, even — to my dismay — some of my own friends. He commands the stage with an elusive comfort that I envy. Stage performer Trevor and regular everyday Trevor have become so intertwined as to make determining the “real” Trevor a nearly impossible task.

“Okay, I thought about it,” Trevor — pacing as he does on stage, cupping his chin in his hand — “You don’t need to be miserable to be funny, but it’s a lot easier to be funny if you feel like you have nothing to lose.”

“Miserable people aren’t self-conscious because they’re too busy being generally bummed.”

The most important part of the joke is the first half. Most beginners don’t realize this. The setup must be serious. If you start out funny, you have nowhere to build to and the punchline falls flat. This is where you try to be as serious and un-funny as possible. Sounds contradictory, right? But you must let the audience in, you must make them like you, or at the very least relate to you. Then once you achieve this you can chew it all up and spit it back in their faces. And they laugh! Usually.

Clara

“I know personally that a lot of my favorite comedians have mental illnesses. In some ways it’s kind of like a point of pride for me or at least a connection that is comforting to see, knowing that there are other people going through the same things, but also that they are dealing with it in a similar way,” says Clara Becker, a freshman member of SUCC. She’s a timid girl with slouching posture and excellent taste in shoes who has mastered the art of jokes that make you laugh and feel sad at the same time.

“Over the past couple of years as my personal struggle with mental illness has become worse, it’s become my automatic reaction to laugh about it. I don’t know any other way of dealing with it, and I honestly can’t imagine getting through the day not being able to laugh at it.”

For Clara and many comedians, humor is a way of coping with the burden of life. She tells me, “obviously in the moment when I’m having an anxiety attack and I feel like I’m dying or when I’m really depressed and can’t get out of bed like I don’t think it’s funny then. But comedy is just tragedy plus time… I didn’t come up with that I can’t remember where I heard it.” She adds, “The only reason I agreed to join a social anxiety group therapy group was because of all of the material I thought I’d be able to get out of it.”

Being friends with comedians has made me more comfortable with the finicky stability of my own mental health. Like Clara, I too have been awarded a generous amount of mental illnesses. I suppose my self-diagnosed personality disorder is a way to pretend that the parts of me that I don’t like are only attributed to one of my many selves.

Matthew and John

It’s a Thursday afternoon and we’re streaming down El Camino Real towards Target. We can’t find what we need at Target. We head to the Dollar Store and split up in an effort to achieve our mission — securing a bag of marbles. It turns out marbles are harder to find then you might think. Although, if you’re like me you probably haven’t thought much about the accessibility of marbles. Unless you’ve lost yours recently.

Matthew Coe, John Goldsberry and I are scourging the Dollar Store in pursuit of said quest. You see, John needs marbles for his set, which will be performed later today. He’s going to put them in his sleeve and release them at random. In rehearsal, John has us — the fellow performers — wheezing in laughter. His “jokes”, if one is to have the audacity to call them that, make little to no sense. The rest of us are worried that the audience will fail to see his genius… after all, we (comedians) aren’t exactly known to be accurate curators of the attitudes of the general public.

Matthew and I have gone the whole day without eating. My stomach is in knots and some very annoying part of my brain has commanded my sweat glands to go into overdrive.

But John does not seem to be worried at all. He hasn’t even written most or any of his stuff down. It’s remarkable.

“He’s like a puppy in human form,” says Matthew. Which is true in the sense that he bears a resemblance to a golden retriever, what with his happy-go-lucky attitude, haphazard sense of direction, and shaggy golden hair. Every encounter I’ve had with him is inexplicably awkward — as if I’ve just walked in on him doing something weird. Even if I’m just saying hi to him on the way to class. He once told me that as a kid he would put flies in the freezer. I think it should also be noted that he’s a mechanical engineer.

I wonder out loud if John thinks one has to be miserable to be funny. He shrugs in response, distracted by the marbles.

“Miserable?” Matthew repeats the question back at me, “No I don’t think people have to be miserable to be funny. But I think that people who haven’t gone through anything aren’t that funny. You know the movie 8 Mile? In that last scene, it’s a rap battle and Eminem, he basically shit talks himself then nobody has anything on him. And I feel like that’s what comedians do. Like they shit talk themselves so that nobody has anything on them.”

A lot of people ask me about the process of writing jokes. I have been told that my best material is self-deprecating humor, but this is not something I actively seek out in writing. I just write everything down. On my phone, in my little white notebook, in the margins of books, in various unlabeled Google Docs… from there I compile all of these things together and weed out the things that work and the things that don’t. Most of my material actually comes from conversations with fellow SUCC members. We are constantly making each other laugh and saying, “Write that down!”

The setup is the most important and it can be dissected into three parts. First, you must land on a topic, then an attitude about this topic. You may think that there are infinite attitudes to choose from, but you are wrong. There are four. Weird, Scary, Hard, and Stupid. Of course, rules are meant to be broken, but you have to know them first in order to break them successfully. I believe the Dalai Lama said that.

“I think admitting your misery is one of the best things you can do as a human,” Matthew says to me. He has a perpetually raspy voice — collateral damage from a surgery he got as a child — or, as he puts it, “the surgeons got bored during one of my surgeries and decided to play the harp on my vocal cords.” You see, Matthew has a unique heart condition. He likes to tell people that he has “half a heart physically but a full heart emotionally.” I have my doubts about the latter half of that statement.

After attitude and topic, you have to have the premise of a joke. The premise is an opinion or point of view. An original observation. It should be insightful instead of funny. Something relatable. An answer to the question: what exactly is hard, weird, stupid, or scary.

We’re walking back to the car now. I don’t know much about cars but it’s blackish and small and there are cough drops everywhere and it smells sort of like sushi but not in a terrible way, just in a way that makes you think about sushi. “That’s why on my first stand up I wanted to joke about my heart and my voice. I didn’t want people to come up after the show and ask me if I’m sick. I just wanted to get it out there. It’s easier that way. When you admit your flaws nobody has any comebacks.” Matthew and I sit down, waiting as John makes the purchase. We’re operating as if in a sense of great urgency, even though there’s still T-minus three hours until showtime. “If I had a dollar for every time someone offered me a cough drop…”

Matthew is like a contained explosion on stage. He traverses the stage with unparalleled ferocity — a master of physical humor. He grips the mic hard, holding on to it for dear life. He spits when he gets excited. And usually warns the crowd — sometimes after the fact.

“Okay, I have an answer to your question,” says John, hopping into the back seat. “I think you don’t have to be miserable to be funny, but misery and misfortune is usually the base of comedy and jokes.”

“Is that a decent answer?” he asks.

He turns to Matthew “How did you answer it?”

In truth, most of us have answered this question the same. No, you don’t have to be miserable. But yes, we all are miserable or have been at some point. And yes, we think it makes us funnier.

It’s an interesting dichotomy. Misery and comedy. The funny and the unfunny. A parallel of life found in the construction of jokes — an unfunny setup combined with a funny punchline. Tension and release.

“When you think about it, life is kind of just like an unending series of tension and relief…” Mason tells me. We mull this topic around while sitting in my kitchen, our books spread out on the sticky tabletop to give off the illusion of productivity. “Actually, that sounds stupid. Don’t put that in there.”

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