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/.

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