Dispatch from the Fringe in Edinburgh

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Here’s a brief note I sent to friends about my time here (with edits):

Edinburgh is beautiful this time of year. The Fringe festival consumes the city center, and the beautiful, medieval architecture can make it feel like you’re wandering through a fairy-tale. Until you see a Starbucks, I guess. There are endless free shows of comedy, poetry, story, dance, debate, performance art, etc., in janky basements and little attics with roofs so low the performers have to hunch to do their acts; in sweaty bar rooms and even in old, former medieval buildings converted for the occasion. The city crawls with young artists, who have little money and big, overflowing hearts. They alternate between extreme visions of their future: one they day imagine living alone in their parents’ basement, and the next they’re convinced they’ll be the next Seinfeld. I love getting lost in their dreams and my own.

The traffic on foot is as bad as the street traffic. And because we’re so far north, it doesn’t get dark until 10 or so. It’s all so stimulating. It can be hard to sleep at night.

 I try to do at least a show a day and watch a few as well. I wander in and out of people’s lives, just as they wander in and out of mine. It’s a strange sort of feeling, being surrounded by people constantly and in an important sense also being quite alone. I feel like I’ve entered the more artsy, slightly less terrifying sequel to In Bruges.

 I’ve been tremendously lucky to have found a group of experienced, friendly comedians here in Edinburgh. They’ve given me a whole new set of tools to understand stand-up in every part of the process, from writing material, to connecting with the audience, to notes on delivery. I’ve met comedians from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, and every part of the United Kingdom. Thanks to their generosity, I’ve had regular stage time and performed in front of a series of different crowds. And, of course, there’s no better way to learn stand-up than to do stand-up.

Performing regularly and thinking more technically about comedy has changed the way I enjoy it. While I laugh less than I used to at the shows I watch, I notice much more of the artistry that goes into the construction of a successful joke. I see the way a comedian weaves his punchlines together, stringing the audience along and playing with their expectations. Stand-up seems richer as an aesthetic art form than it once did to me, and so I’m enjoying it on a different register.

The constant access to humor has inspired me to write many more jokes than I had been in Montreal. I’ve gotten so immersed in stand-up that I find myself looking for comedy in all the corners of my life.  But it’s a beautiful kind of addiction. I look forward every morning to writing new material, performing it, revising it, and then preparing for another set the next day. Stand-up is sometimes brutal, and it’s always difficult, but the challenge makes brief moments of success all the sweeter.

There comes a moment during a good set, after you’ve won the audience over with a string of successful jokes, when you feel you have the unmediated attention of the whole room. When you feel people’s smiling eyes open up. When you feel that the audience has, in some important sense, come to see things as you see things, and will love whatever comes next.  In those moments, I feel such a deeply human connection with the people in the room. They’ve seen and accepted the strange recesses of my mind. And there’s something deeply affirming about that.

At the same time, there’s a thrill that runs through you in those moments, a rush of power and confidence. I made these strangers laugh with nothing more than my mouth and a microphone, you think to yourself. These are my jokes and this performance is all me, from start to finish. And they like it! They like me! And this feeling is intense, because you’ve spent so many hours fine-tuning, un-fine-tuning, re-fine-tuning, scrapping, rewriting, and re-fine-tuning these jokes. You have 3 or 4 iterations of many of these jokes, and you’ve let them mature based on responses from the audience over time. And then when a joke ripens, you get that incredible buzz:  They think I’m worth their time.

I’ve also find that my ear has come to register the different notes in an audience’s laugh. Laughter can accommodate many different kinds of emotions: there are laughters of disgust, surprise, recognition and celebration, laughters of delight, agreement, and confusion. And understanding this point gives the comedian more flexibility. You can write jokes that will make the audience laugh because they agree with you; or jokes that make them laugh because they feel relieved; or write jokes that surprise them. Understanding which kind of laughter a joke achieves can help you to revise it to maximize that effect. In other words, you can sharply pinpoint what’s funny about a joke you’ve told, by figuring out what kind of laugh the audience is giving you (or what kind of laugh you hope they’ll give you).

Despite all of this learning, joke writing often happens at its own pace. I’m a firm believer in hard work, practice, and revision, but I sometimes find that I’ll spend a couple of hours trying to write a joke and get nowhere. Then, I’ll decide to walk over to the grocery store or read a book, and in a matter of a few minutes two or three jokes will hit me. My general thought, I suppose, is that I ought to try to cultivate the right kinds of habits of mind for joke-writing. By putting in the time, I figure I’ll slowly train my comedic muscles, making it more likely that I get those flash moments when a joke seems to come together.

One last thought is a cliché that feels deeper to me for having seen it in action: comedians love what they do. If you find a comedian’s facebook profile, 9 in 10 times their photo is one of them doing stand up. When you find comedians on the street, they are looking for shows to see and gigs to do. When you talk to a comedy about a joke, their eyes light up in a peculiar, obsessive way. They are addicted to the rush of the crowd, the human connection, and the aesthetics of jokes. They eat, sleep, and breathe comedy. And I suppose you have to, because it’s not an industry that’s going to give you much else. Even established comedians sometimes struggle to make ends meet, and very few comedians ever manage to become “established.” To justify giving your life to writing jokes, especially when you’ll get just to get a few minutes of stage time and a couple of bucks here or there, you have to love it.

But when you get laughs and you feel that rush—that deeply human connection—it’s so damn easy to see why comedians do what they do.

A Discussion with Comedian David Heti

David Heti
To better understand the comedy scene in Montreal, I sat down for a discussion with stand-up comedian, teacher and philosopher David Heti, whose album It Was OK (available on iTunes) was re-released by Stand Up! Records on May 5. I asked David to speak with me after watching a few of his daring, hysterical sets live, and then finding more of his material online. As I quickly gathered both from his stand-up and from speaking with other comedians, David has developed a reputation for dealing with a wide range of sensitive subjects—such as murder, rape, and slavery— in sharply funny and provocative ways. In this sense, his stand-up sets can be unsettling and pleasurable at the same time: you find yourself stirred or laughing at observations, jokes, or ideas you wouldn’t dare repeat to your mother. On a deeper level, his epigrammatic material can seduce you into reconsidering closely-held convictions, since his jokes and persona engage audiences at an unfamiliar—and therefore more vulnerable—level. And his sets have staying power. They’ve already crept into the way I understand cultural discussions of the taboos that appear in his sets, and I’ve only just begun to follow his work. Given his background and the artistry of his sets, I was excited to ask David about his experience with comedy in Montreal and elsewhere. The transcript of our conversation is below:

Altieri: So how did you get interested in comedy in the first place?

Heti: I don’t know why I enjoyed it. I did a project my final year of high school, and the project had to be something non-traditionally academic. So I did a 5 minute open mic set outside Toronto at a regular comedy club. I spent the year basically writing and preparing. It was kind of a light project, other people did heavier things.

So then I did 4 years of undergrad. And I did no comedy then. And I came to Montreal, and I applied to go to law school at McGill. But I had no French, so I came here to study French. And I happened upon a comedy club. And I thought, I’m not doing anything, I’ll just try it out. So I did comedy for that whole year. And then through my whole time in law school. So I left law for stand-up, basically.

Altieri: Now you teach comedy around here.

Heti: Yea. I’ve done it twice already. It’s sort of sectional, it’s 6 weeks at a time. I try not to be around too much. My class approaches comedy through a theoretical basis. It looks at different theories of what comedy is, and how it’s understood to work. It’s a little bit historical. You know, how are comics viewed? what is their social, critical role? And these sorts of questions. And then it goes into tracing different forms, like joke, stand-up, monologue, dialogue, sketch, and script.

Altieri: Did you have any formal education in comedy yourself before doing stand-up?

Heti: No.

Altieri: What kinds of material are you drawing on when you teach these courses?

Heti: Freud, Bergson, I look at Kierkegaard. Different thinkers on tragedy, or comedy. A little Aristotle. My background is in philosophy.

Altieri: Do you think that there’s a coherent philosophical theory of humor that captures what we’re talking about when we talk about what’s funny?

Heti: I’m not aware of people actually thinking about this or talking about it at this point. I know there’s a little bit of comedy theory. There’s some scholarship on this, but I don’t follow it. I have my own ideas as to what I think is good comedy or essentially comedic. But I do not by any means think that is what passes for most comedy.

Altieri: What are your ideas for what makes for good comedy?

Heti: I guess basically incongruity. Kant talks about this a lot. Bergson does. I think that there has to be a suspension of judgment or understanding. Good comedy is critical in the way it brings people’s attention to their deeply held convictions or truths, and it can change the way people see the world. And there are lighter and more profound ways of doing this. So Seinfeld lets you see a toothbrush in a different way. I guess that’s kind of something. But someone else might push your buttons—that’s kind of a terrible turn of phrase—but they’ll provoke your mind and challenge your thoughts on an emotional level or an intellectual level. That’s something that Lenny Bruce would do, or Stanhope today. So people are not so receptive to this, because it’s challenging them. Whether it’s intellectual, emotional, or religious, whatever it may be.

Altieri: So these days people are more receptive to Seinfeld and more mainstream comedy?

Heti: I don’t think it’s these days. But that’s a big question. I would say that generally, the most interesting comedy, I don’t think can be mainstream. That idea is sort of nonsense. The moment that something is the greatest cultural perception, it can no longer play that role of being this antagonist. So necessarily as cultures and values change, something new has to emerge to be on the forefront.

Altieri: When you’re writing or performing, do you have these ideas in mind? Are you thinking about how you can make your humor subversive?

Heti: No. It’s not that clear and calculated. Look, this is what I think good comedy is. The next comic might disagree. There are plenty of comics who are light and they’re totally fun and I laugh and I enjoy it, so it’s a hard thing to say that this is what comedy is or that there’s a best kind of comedy. But I guess this is what I believe.

But these are just the things I think about. My material occurs to me just naturally. I don’t walk around thinking about politics. I don’t walk around thinking about lighter things, so this is what comes. If a joke comes to mind as something light, I’ll dismiss it, I’ll be like, ‘I don’t want to be associated with that joke.’

Altieri: What does comedy do for you when you have a chance to deal with those ideas in writing and performing? As opposed to the next guy, who just thinks about many of the same things but doesn’t perform?

Heti: I mean, what are you doing when you communicate anything? In comedy, I suppose you’re attempting to confirm for yourself that you are funny, that you’re capable of being funny, but also, in a way, that you’re not insane. If a thought has a particular appeal to you, a thought about the world for instance, you want confirmation from people that they agree with you, in a sense, or maybe you want to reveal to them that is the way things are.

So it’s a terrible thing to tell a joke that gets no reception, because then something’s wrong. Either the idea is wrong or its execution is wrong. You’re trying to get rid of your own feelings, I suppose, as well. I think it’s true that for most people who are artists, they don’t choose it. It’s like a compulsion. If they lost it one day, there would be no need to do it, no desire.

Altieri: In some of my conversations with Anglophone comedians in Montreal, there’s a sense that it’s very hard to move forward in this city and live on comedy. Is it better in other places?

Heti: It’s hard for me to say. I’ve spent time in Toronto, I’ve spent time in Montreal, and not enough time in New York— I spent like 5 months there. I cannot speak as to whether it’s more difficult here than elsewhere. I think it’s a very limited scene here, and I think there’s no real middle ground. There are people starting out and then there are the more established comics who aren’t doing interesting things. They’re comfortable, they have their TV gigs, and their commercials. How can they do great comedy?

The people who are going to do great comedy in this country are in Toronto. They’re like refugees. They go as close to the States as they can go without having a Visa and that’s Toronto. That’s where the most innovative stuff is going on. Montreal is too nice a city. You don’t have to work hard to enjoy your life here.

Altieri: So your thought is that something about Montreal culture changes the work ethic.

Heti: Totally, one hundred percent. Anyone will tell you this in the city. And you even don’t have as many international headliners coming through here. You can’t learn from the best people. Just For Laughs is an anomaly. Even those that come here, I don’t know what their intentions are, I don’t know how they view their performances here, but it’s not the same thing as a working comic coming through a city and trying to make a good impression.

Altieri: You mentioned there are two levels of Montreal comedy and that people at the higher level are comfortable and not doing interesting comedy. Do you see interesting comedy happening at the open mics or smaller shows around here? Or do you think a lot of it still isn’t what you’d see in Toronto?

Heti: No, you still see some interesting comedy, but it’s not as good as it is in Toronto. You don’t have to be as good here to get the spots. No one is pushing you here. You can’t get as many sets in a week, so you can’t develop as quickly. The standards are lower. It’s friendlier, it’s not as competitive. Competition maybe breeds terrible things, but also it breeds good comedy.

And opportunities are limited. You can’t even strive for much. That’s true in Canada, really. There’s no money here. There are no interesting networks going on. But in the States you go and you do a show and someone might want to work with you. I find in Canada things are more competitive because we have limited opportunities. So people hold a little more closely the opportunities they have. Whereas in the States, someone sees what you do and they want to work with you. They want to collaborate, because there’s so much more opportunity there.

Altieri: So for you, as a comedian, what’s the draw of staying in Montreal?

Heti: I get laid alright, the food’s good. Really, you know, it’s these kinds of these things. I mean, I came back to teach a course. That’s why I came back, to make some money and then go out again. So I’m going to Chicago next week, and then New York again. Then I’m touring down to the South. I have a three-year visa to the States, so the idea is to spend time there and just work my way in, putting the time in there, and then coming back to Montreal to maintain this course.

Because the course is interesting, it’s good for whatever I’m putting out into the world. And it’s fun, I like doing it, and I meet good people. But it’s hard because everyone has a different skill set. And there’s no set path for comedy. Everyone has certain expectations about what they can do and what they want to do. So like I have an album that came out not so long ago. I’m trying to work on a US label. I’m trying to work with that and through those connections to get more opportunities.

Altieri: When you’re teaching these classes and you find that students have different skill sets and abilities, how are you able to cater to individual needs and help people get better?

Heti: I mean, there’s things as simple as, they send me their work and I give them my feedback. Like in any classroom, you try to give each person as much close attention as possible. And I think that if everyone is sharing in class—it’s like 12 people, so it’s a workshop class—so if before everyone, you’re critiquing someone’s work, you explain the process, and why you’re making these changes, and why something worked or didn’t work.

Also, I want students to do their own thing. I say to them, you have to take your own risks, do what you think is funny, don’t hold back, because in six weeks, if you’re afraid of offending someone or revealing yourself for the first four weeks, you’re wasting your time. So you just have to try to see what they’re doing for their own ends. You can’t try to shape the comedy to what you think is funny. You have to do what you think would be better for their vision.

Altieri: How much do you know about the Francophone comedy scene around here?

Heti: I really can’t speak that much to the French scene. It seems like they have much more money. It seems like there is more of a standard path. Like I think there’s a school and a standard program and a lot of people get jobs afterwards, and they get writing gigs. But I think that’s a very Quebec specific cultural phenomenon. The Quebec specific phenomenon being that there’s a ladder to this.

Altieri: But you wouldn’t necessarily find this in other Francophone countries?

Heti: Yea, this is a question of Canadian culture, and multiculturalism and Anglo-French relations. Quebec works to maintain its language and culture.

Altieri: Do you feel that Canadian comedic sensibilities differ substantially from American comedic sensibilities?

Heti: Well, which is the Canadian comedic sensibility?

Altieri: Maybe the first question to ask is whether is there is a distinctly Canadian comedic voice.

Heti: I suppose that you’d have to say whatever is accepted by the general public. Like the CBC. So you’d have to defer to that, I suppose. And Canadians are very inoffensive. We’re not risk takers. We’re trying to set the bar as low as we possibly can. No one is offended. This is why comics leave Canada. That’s why artists leave Canada. It’s partially demographic, it’s partially financial, but you can’t do interesting things here. If you’re appealing to 3 percent of the population, there’s no one here.

Altieri: Your comedy deals with the kinds of themes that can be pushing the envelope.

Heti: I have a friend who— before she stepped on stage to do a set on the CBC— someone said to her, ‘think about the little old lady in Saskatchewan with the paisley wallpaper in her kitchen. That’s who you’re talking to on the radio.’ And it’s like go fuck yourself. That’s not what you’re here to do. But they’re a national broadcaster. Their mandate isn’t to create great art. So you can’t blame them for this. But I don’t even think it’s an American-Canadian division. I mean, America is so regional.

Altieri: Have you found that in your comedy, because of Canadian culture and sensibilities, that people have been upset with you or offended?

Heti: People are more offended in the States. The worst place I’ve ever performed—most conservative place I’ve ever performed— is the Pacific Northwest. They’re very PC. They don’t like to have their own beliefs questioned. They’re the most self-righteous, I believe. I think it’s a pretty homogenous area. I haven’t been to the South yet, but I’m going to Alabama. London is very cool, very open-minded, and very dry, and has a more sophisticated sense of humor.

New York is very open. Everyone is putting up with so much shit there. There’s so many different kinds of people. They get it. Cause they’re sophisticated. I find that in LA, people are a little more polished. Performers are there to get on television. I find that in New York it’s more neurosis, it’s more in-your-head, it’s more emotional. LA is more performative. A lot of comics, even the ones that do well in LA, they start off in New York and then once they get notoriety, then they go to LA.

But even in Newfoundland, I went there for a while for a tour, the people are great. They’ve got a super good sense of humor. Newfies are made fun of, kind of in the same way that people tell Polish jokes. But they’re super giving, they’re receptive, and they have sharp minds.

It’s funny, it’s a very west coast thing. Like in Canada. Jokes have to be very carefully written there. They can’t be so of-the-gut. But I’ve never performed in the Prairies, like Alberta and that area.

Altieri: Have long have you been doing stand-up comedy and what other kinds of comedy have you branched out into?

Heti: 9 or 10 years. I pitched a sitcom to different networks in Canada. I wrote monologue style jokes for a late night show that was a live show in Toronto. These were both small things. So it’s primarily stand-up.

Altieri: During that time, have you ever had trouble making ends meet doing comedy?

Heti: Oh yeah. The whole time.

Altieri: Other comedians have told me that they’ll take jobs that are flexible and then quit when the timing makes it possible. Do you find that lifestyle sustainable? Do you still love what you’re doing enough to go through it?

Heti: Sure, I’m still doing it. I mean the money’s getting better each year. In one sense, it’s a young person’s game, for that reason. You know, it’s not so romantic, living in your thirties the same way you did in your twenties. I was a lawyer, so I could’ve had a pretty secure income if that was what I’d wanted. But the money is not really the goal. I mean, even through the comedy, I could tell more lucrative jokes than I choose to.

Altieri: Have you found that there’s a high attrition rate in comedy?

Heti: Definitely there’s people that slowly drift away. Most of the people are in it still. The thing is, you can tell who’s serious and who’s not serious. The people who are serious have a pretty high pain threshold. I mean, a lot of people don’t have anything else. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of falling back on a job that pays well. So whether it’s a motivating force or not—it probably is—it keeps people in comedy.

Altieri: Over the course of 9 or 10 years doing stand-up, how has your comedy changed?

Heti: I think that you become less jokey. I think that at first you’re trying to make audiences laugh because you want to see if you’re capable of doing this. And then you kind of tire of the form, because the form becomes simplistic. You want to see how to kind of conceal the joke form yet communicate the idea and still get the laughter or the recognition of the humor. I think that the comedy becomes a little more honest, maybe? But I’m not sure what that means, really, because not all comedy has to honest.

I don’t know, I guess everyone has different ambitions. Like Seinfeld, I don’t understand at all. I don’t see why it’s funny, I would never want to be that polished. I don’t get it. I find it so transparent.

Altieri: Are there any very well-known comedians who you see as doing work you might aspire to do? Or do you think that mainstream comedy doesn’t have enough subversion?

Heti: I think Maria Bamford is brilliant. Doug Stanhope, Kurt Metzger, Stewart Lee. But I’m not a big student of stand-up. I don’t watch very much of it. These comedians I admire aren’t really traditional joke-tellers. Like Maria Bamford is doing something really weird. If you break the form, that’s doing interesting art. I think a lot of the famous comics are entertainers.

Altieri: So you can be a comedian without being an entertainer.

Heti: Yea, sure.

Altieri: Is it a conscious decision not to watch much stand-up? Or do you just not find it especially interesting?

Heti: I mean, I think about stand-up. I just don’t derive pleasure from watching it really. I like reading philosophy, during my free time. Also, it doesn’t make me feel great when I see comedy that I could be doing. And a lot of comedy isn’t so interesting. And if I’m watching it, I’m studying it. I’m not really there to have a pleasurable experience. When I’m stoned, or something, then I can enjoy stand-up. Otherwise, I don’t want to listen to it.

Altieri: When you go to an open mic, you enjoy the performing aspect. But you don’t enjoy watching the other comics?

Heti: I don’t watch the other comics that much when I go out. I’m tired of it. I love these guys, and I think there’s some lovely comics, but I’m tired of hearing comedy. And I’ve seen these guys do comedy a million times. If I go to a new city, I’ll be more attentive. But even then I just want to go, do my work, and then go home.

Altieri: How often, as you perform, are you changing sets? How often are you adding new jokes?

Heti: Well it’s changed over time. Now it’s every performance is something different. It’s not like one hundred percent, but it’s not so methodical. That’s a function of a lot of things, like having the same jokes for a long time. And having no time to do work on stand-up right now because I’m always emailing people to do more business. I used to be very focused on the writing, and I’m doing more material spontaneously now, seeing if I can sort of extemporaneously come up with something from a rougher idea. So it’s a matter of exercising these different comedy skills.

Altieri: You think different sorts of ideas will emerge if you perform more extemporaneously.

Heti: Yes. Also, writing is work. It takes sitting down and it takes discipline.

Altieri: In addition to your stand-up, you’ve got a podcast, called I Have a Problem, with David Heti. Take me through how that got started. What does it do for you, and who is your audience?

Heti: The podcast was basically something to have a wider reach for the stand-up. I really think that, if I could only do stand-up, I wouldn’t do anything else. I wouldn’t do social media, certainly. Everything is for the sake of the stand-up, and the podcast was something that I thought would tie into my type of comedy.

It’s very limited, because not many people know me. Like you have to have friends or family come on in order to have a good conversation. I can’t very easily get other comics to come on my podcast, which is kind of what the reason for doing the podcast is, in terms of exposure. Like you want to take advantage of their audiences.

Altieri: Why can’t you get other comics to come on?

Heti: Because if I go to Chicago or something, I don’t have a relationship with many comedians, so they have no problem with me. I think the podcast requires an intimate knowledge of one another. So I think as an art thing it was a nice little piece, but I think it may come to an end. It doesn’t have to go on indefinitely. I mean, the idea is to make another podcast, I suppose. But I don’t want to do another one just for the sake of doing another one. I want it to be of quality. Just having conversations with other comics seems like more noise.

Altieri: In one of your podcasts, someone calls you a class-traitor for doing stand-up instead of law. Did you feel a certain pressure from friends and family not to go from law to stand-up?

Heti: No, no. Friends don’t care. They saw that I was fairly miserable as a lawyer. Family were concerned, like traditional parents, for my self-sufficiency. It’s a risky thing. No parent wants to see their child doing one of the riskiest things possible after leaving a really good place. Like it doesn’t matter, really. Their fears don’t matter, really, if they’re unfounded. And other people can’t decide what’s best for you.

Altieri: Do you see the Montreal comedy scene on the rise, or do you think it’s stagnant?

Heti: I mean, it’s never going to be New York or LA, in part just because of population size. Is Montreal going to be Toronto, ever? No, but it doesn’t have to be. It has its own place in the comedy world. It’s a great place to start off, I think. You get good stage time when you’re starting off, it’s not going to beat you down. New York open mics seem brutal. I don’t know how people get through that.

Altieri: What’s brutal about New York open mics?

Heti: You have to wait forever. You get 3 minutes. You have to pay to go on in many places. So I think it takes a special person to put the time in for that. Montreal is close to Toronto, it’s close to New York. And those are invaluable assets. And the comedy scene will probably grow, but not faster than any other place at this time.

Altieri: Looking forward, comedy-wise, do you have long term goals or plans?

Heti: Just to focus more on the stand-up. All this administrative booking work is a waste of time. I don’t think I’m good at it. I think it takes away time from what’s important. And I want to make some money doing stand-up. And have a following. That’s what I think is important. I don’t think going from club to club is a great life, really. I think having people appreciate what you do and having more control as to when you travel, where you travel, and how you do it is best. So it’s just to become a better stand-up comic. Probably to balance time between here and the States.

To learn more about David’s album, podcast, and upcoming shows, visit http://davidheti.com/.

A Letter From Montreal

stand up show

Dear Watson Foundation,

I want to begin this note with a heartfelt thank-you. Even my first month has brimmed with adventure, laughter, learning and reflection. I am so tremendously grateful for this extraordinary project.

Much has changed for me since my trip began. In this letter, I’ll start by looking back to before I left the United States, so I can give you a snapshot of my state of mind going into this adventure. Then I’ll get to the meat: the juicy day-to-day of revising jokes, wandering through comedy clubs, interviewing comedians, performing, and roaming the city. Finally, I’ll include some thoughts on living alone and developing a deeper relationship with myself.

Before the Trip

Here’s the text of a short email I sent to a professor, when he asked how I felt 10 days after graduation:

All’s well here. Like a lot of other Amherst students, I’d been so immersed in the college that leaving and knowing I won’t return feels surreal. It’s strange to open my wallet, see my student ID card, and then remember that it no longer works. It’s even stranger to think that I’m an “alum:” When did I get old enough to be called an “alum?” When did I get old enough that it’s weird to be living in my parents’ house?

I do not yet miss my friends and professors, but I know I will. So I have some adjusting to do, but maybe that’s to be expected, or at least it’s to be expected given that I was so happy, in the broad, deep sense, my senior year.

I’ve spent the past few days preparing for my Watson fellowship–booking flights, finding places to stay, etc. Watching this whole thing (which has for months been nothing more than a word document I wrote in November 2014) come to life gives me anxiety and a little adrenaline. Two thoughts keep running through my head. First, instead of having constant structure, I’ll have none. And second, instead of having friends at my side all the time, I’ll go in and out of cities where I know not a single person. (Or, as you put it, “You’ll be travelling alone in a foreign country. And you’ll be travelling alone in a foreign country. And you’ll be travelling alone in a foreign country.”)  

 “Don’t try to revel in the freedom,” an Amherst grad and former Watson fellow told me. “You’ll drive yourself crazy. The beauty of the Watson is that instead of finding the prison already built for you, you can create your own,” she said.

I’ve never created a prison before, but hey, there’s a first time for everything.

As for the solitude:  I don’t know what to think, except that it’ll be hard, and that that’s probably the point.

Hope all is well with you.

-Ricky

In retrospect, I’d say this: I felt uprooted by graduation and the loss of community.  And I worried I would compound that feeling by leaving the country and losing track of family and friends. I would occasionally wake up in cold sweats, thinking about not being allowed to come back home.

At the same time, each ticket I booked or email I sent helped me adjust to the fact that I would travel during the coming year. And as I continued to make preparations, my nostalgia and fears gave way to excitement. I had cinematic daydreams of travelling through bars and comedy clubs, doing sets that met with jeers or applause, and writing poetry and essays about my experiences. I would imagine telling jokes in Chinese, and watching surprise wash over an audience’s face. And sometimes, I would fantasize about travelling through towns on a motorcycle, even though I can hardly ride a bicycle.

My anticipation began to distract me from attending fully to the moment. Each day, I found myself steering my thoughts and conversations toward my upcoming trip. Even when I was with my friends, I felt too preoccupied to fully enjoy myself. And at home, I spent my days in waiting, which is no way to live. So I brought the future forward: I decided to leave a few weeks earlier than I originally intended.

On the day I said my goodbyes and left for Montreal, I wrote the following in my journal (with light edits for clarity):

I feel free as this train heads north through the trees and lakes of rural New York and Vermont. We won’t arrive in Montreal for another 7 or 8 hours, which means I’ll have plenty of time to keep reading and thinking. Internet overuse, overeating, and floating through the days…are behind me. In front of me, I hope, lies a complicated mess of freedom (lack of structure), discipline and adventure.

I’m not sure what exactly I expected as that train pulled into Montreal. But as I stepped outside, backpack over my shoulder, luggage rolling easily behind me, wondering where the hell the metro was, it felt like the start of the something.

Early Days in Montreal

The first adjustment was living in a new place, with new people. A few days in, I wrote to a friend about my hosts and the city more generally (once again, slightly revised to omit some names and correct a couple of things):

I speak English with my hosts. My French is like a transistor radio compared to their high-speed internet/HD television English. 

Though I’m not sure they’d approve of that simile, which measures goodness in capitalist terms. They have leftist views, and they have kept on the wall political scribblings in black marker that were written by the previous owners of the house. The messages are all in one room, which apparently had been “the party room” under previous ownership. But now it looks like a storage room, more than anything. It’s not just political messages on the walls–there’s also life advice, feel-goodisms, drawings, and lines of poetry, obscured by bicycles, tools, and other things you might find in an attic. But the politics are bigger, in font and in gravity. See the photo below.

The most striking line (which proved difficult to photograph, due to lighting) read as follows: “Contre le capitalisme, Je me le​​ve. Je resiste” (accents omitted out of laziness on my part). 

One of my hosts studies sociological economics and wants to work in architecture. The other wants to “democratize philosophy” as a means of problem-solving, both at the personal and societal level. She’ll do that through teaching. We’ve spoken here and there about Quebecois politics, and, in not so many words, they’ve indicated that, despite what the rest of Canada may think, Quebec ain’t nothin to f*** with.

The summer in Montreal is delightful. The sun goes down later than I’ve ever experienced. In other words, these days have been the longest of my life, in a good way.

My hosts have been very accommodating. They’ve taken me to shows, made recommendations about the city, and answered innumerable questions about Quebecois culture and Canadian culture more generally. Still, the two of them both work, which means I’m on my own most days.

During that first week, the words of a friend and former Watson fellow kept ringing in my head: “The beauty of the Watson is that you can build you own prison.” I took quite seriously the idea that I had to develop structure, routine, and discipline. With those tools, I could most fully explore the comedy scene with my limited time in Montreal. I spent a few hours the first day looking through open mic options at bars around the city, and then I quickly drew up a schedule that would allow me to attend as many as possible.  During the day, I would read, write jokes, run and try to connect with comedians whose profile or work I found online. I tried to send at least 2 emails per day to comedy professionals working in the city, and I tried to write at least one good joke per day.

I had a few false starts in those early days. Some open mics are less reliable than others, and the listings posted online are not always up-to-date, so a couple of times I took the subway out to the western part of town and only then found the show had been postponed, or had been relocated, or had not happened in a few weeks. Other times, I would send out a bunch of emails to comedians but not get responses (I suspect in at least some cases my emails end up in spam). Still, by the time my second week here had finished, I had seen 12 comedy shows, performed at one myself, and gotten to know quite a few local comics.

Brief Notes on the Montreal Comedy Scene

I’ve gotten familiar with the Montreal comedy venues and the crowds they attract. Mbar, in the basement of a hostel, draws an international crowd, so the host tells his performers to avoid jokes that rely on a knowledge of local culture. Instead, the jokes range from personal stories to international news comedy to crowdwork based on accents and cultural stereotypes. Burritoville, which has an upstairs bar with a stage, a mic, and enough chairs for about 40, sits in the heart of the western part of the city, and collects the local Anglophones. Here, local jokes can carry a bit more weight, since the audience relates to them. Comedyworks, also in the downtown bar area, sometimes holds thematic shows, like “Ladies Night” or “Summer Sampler.” A thematic show can sometimes help you see the way a medley of comedians work within particular formats and deal with particular kinds of material. But regardless of the venue, comedians observe one rule above all: make people laugh. If a bit kills at Burritoville, it’s likely to kill at Mbar and elsewhere. If it doesn’t fit within the theme, tell it anyway.

The Anglophone comedy scene in Montreal is large enough that I see new acts each time I go out, but also small enough that I’ve seen some comedians perform the same set 3 or 4 times. In some ways, watching the subtle changes in the work of these comedians has been most rewarding. One night, you’ll hear a joke go entirely flat. The next night, the comedian has dropped it from his routine. The third time, he’ll have introduced it again, with a different premise and an alteration in the cadence of the punch line. And if it doesn’t work, he’ll go back to the drawing board and make adjustments as necessary.

After the shows, I hang around until the crowd has left and try to talk with the comedians. You know that random guy at the bar who lingers by you and your friends, and then waits for a moment to chime in? This year, I’m that guy. I don’t have time to play it cool: I need to strike up conversations whenever possible.

I’ve found that a bold first step is often best. I walk straight into the comedians’ conversational circle, and then, as soon as there’s a pause, I congratulate them and thank them for a great set. And then I’ve more or less memorized my quick rundown of my Watson project, and I always end it with, “I know it sounds like the plot of a bad movie—wealthy foundation gives kid money to travel, drink, and tell jokes.” Sometimes, if that line gets in a chuckle, I’ll throw in something like, “Starring James Franco as the kid and Morgan Freeman as the wealthy donor.” The joke is forced, but my enthusiasm and the awkwardness of the scenario usually compel people to laugh. And once they’ve laughed, we’re pals. Or at least, we’re pals enough for me to ask questions about what they do, how long they’ve been doing it, and what kinds of jokes play with different audiences in different cities.

Some of the more receptive comedians have then met with me afterwards, and I’ve had the chance to discuss my project with them and ask for advice over a meal or a drink. In a few cases, a conversation turned into an interview. I’ve set my iphone recorder on and simply asked comedians to address the very issues that drive my project: what makes people laugh in different cities? What makes people laugh in different languages? How can comedy bridge or comment on cultural divisions? And many more. And as it turns out, working comedians are already thinking about these questions, even if not in the same terms I am. Many of them, especially in a bilingual city like Montreal, have experience performing in more than one language. And nearly all of them with experience in the business have gone on the road. My hope is that, as the year goes on, I’ll compile a kind of oral documentary that offers perspectives from a variety of cities worldwide.

The comedians I’ve met see their job in a host of different ways. The younger comedians have tremendous vigor and ambition, and many of them seem more competitive—they’re gunning for stage time, and, eventually, the limelight. One of them talked to me about his dream of getting on the Daily Show, and another about doing podcasts with famous comedians like Pete Holmes or Mike Birbiglia. They will sometimes point out to me that SNL has hired people at 25 years old, and, in some cases, even younger than that. Many in the younger crew feel frustrated by the expectations of their peers or parents. Because at their age, committing to comedy often means explaining over and over again why they don’t want to try a more secure career. It means explaining over and over why comedy matters. And it means explaining over and over again that they appreciate what they’re up against and can handle it.

The comedians who have hung around longer seem to have less of an edge. They hope for a big break and better money, but they give different reasons for sticking with the job. They love the lifestyle, or they need the lifestyle, or they love channeling their thoughts through humor, or they need to channel their thoughts through humor. Many of these more established comedians are quick to explain that they’ve turned down more lucrative career options in favor of this, because they view comedy—and especially stand up—as a kind of vocation, a craft to which they are called.

The JFL Festival

The last big part of my time here—and the reason I came in the first place—was the Just For Laughs comedy festival, which brings together a slew of famous English- and French-speaking comedians from around the world. In the course of a week or so, I saw more than 10 festival shows, ranging from overproduced corporate events featuring celebrities like Norm McDonald to smaller, more intimate shows with niche comedians like Sam Simmons or Neal Brennan.  I could write another letter of this length about the festival alone, or even about each show. I felt I was observing and participating in a series of strange rituals. People of different backgrounds and ages would huddle in small, dark rooms with ghoulish grins to listen to a performer with a microphone reveal dark thoughts in twistedly comedic ways. Or huge crowds would assemble and shout and jeer when an announcer told them they ought to do so, or when comedians made jokes that identified with local culture. There are many different kinds of laughter from a crowd, each with its own rich implications, and I am beginning to develop an ear for them.

Meanwhile, outside, street performers with microphones would clear space on sidewalks to juggle knives in between telling jokes, or do backflips while wearing clown make-up, or sing parody songs that centered on failures in love, finance, or self-esteem. Effectively, I was wandering through an enormous carnival for adults—a mélange of laughter, personal stories, taboos, profanity, and beautifully crafted jokes.

Between shows, writing jokes, exploring the city, meeting comedians, and reading books I’ve always wanted to read, my time here has flown by. Part of me wants to stay for longer, but I feel I must be going. I have plenty more to see and plenty more to learn here in Edinburgh, where I’ll meet European comedians with different comedic sensibilities.

Some Reflections

As I anticipated, the biggest adjustment has been being without friends and family. But in meeting the challenges of living alone, I’ve found I do not need the constant company of others. I have always considered myself an extrovert. I love spending time with friends, meeting new people, and exchanging reflections and stories with the people around me. So before this trip, I worried I might struggle to adjust to a more independent mode of living.

But I’ve found a different side of myself this past month.  The independence, loneliness, and self-guided project have given me a chance—or forced me, perhaps—to dig deeper into the warehouse of my mind, where I’ve found strengths, weaknesses, opinions, and inclinations that I did not know I had. One day—a day when one of the open mics had been cancelled—I did not have a real conversation with a single person. I uttered perhaps 20 words the whole day. For a motor-mouth like me, this seemed strangely powerful. For 24 hours, I had managed to disappear in the city, taking in the sights and sounds without having to actively respond to them. And I felt this freedom of observation had allowed me to pay a different kind of attention to what I was seeing. I had uncovered, I think, a different mode of engaging with my surroundings, and this way of understanding myself in a new environment can help me to deepen my capacity for introspection. I look forward to more such days, even if they happen by accident.

I’ve also found that joke writing and performing have been a chance to better understand parts of myself I do not regularly encounter. That is, I feel new interests emerging in my comedy. I notice streaks of absurdist thought, or tinges of political leanings, or bits of philosophy views coming out in my humor. I notice that my jokes tend to follow one of a few structural patterns, and these patterns have something in common with some of the poetry I’ve come to love over the years—either in rhythm, or in the subversion of expectation, or their built-up to a strong finish. In some sense, I suppose this is the kind of learning that can accompany any personal writing or artistic performance. The words I put on the page and the words I deliver on stage serve as a kind of mirror by which I understand some of the inner workings of my mind. I discover in them something about my way of seeing of the world. And I can’t wait for more.

Once again, I want to express my deepest thanks to everyone at the Watson foundation who has helped to make this possible. I am full of this paradoxical sense that I will learn more on this adventure than I will ever really know—and that’s a beautiful feeling.

Best regards,

Richard Altieri

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