In my Media Theory and Methods graduate proseminar, I have an assignment each year that asks graduate students to do interviews with media producers. This assignment has two goals: the first clearly is to give them experience conducting interviews, a key skill for many of the kinds of research projects we conduct through the program; the second is to get them to think about the role which theory plays outside of academic spaces. I am inspired here by the work of Thomas McLaughlin who has published a book on what he calls vernacular theory. For him vernacular theory refers to any kind of theory produced outside of the academic environment — including the theory produced by such groups as expert practioners (such as the media makers included in these projects), fans, activists, visionaries, anyone who needs to make generalizations about media (either implicitly or explicitly) in the course of their work. Through this assignment, I push my students out of the classroom and into the streets. Through the years, students have done profiles on the people who design shop window displays, on game designers and musicians, on ministers as they prepare sermons, or in the case of one of my students this term, on a local standup commedian who shares his thought about his craft.
I thought I would share with my readers the following essay by one of the first year CMS Masters students about the vernacular theory of comedy. I found it very interesting given that some of my own earliest scholarship dealt with the interface between vaudeville and film comedy. So much remains constant over decades of practice in this space, so much here speaks to the core theories of comedy which we teach in literature or film courses on the genre. So I figured this might be useful or interesting to many of you.
The Bastard Son of Comedy
I arrived at the Gamble Mansion at 5 Commonwealth Avenue at 6:00 p.m. I entered using the main door, registered myself in the front desk and got into an opulent Louis XV style room in the first floor. The room was illuminated by many candelabra lamps attached to the walls and one big chandelier that was hanging from the center of a very high ceiling. The room had a marble fire place framed by two white columns and a gigantic mirror over it. The wooden floor was shining and contrasted with seven empty metallic chairs that were arranged in a semicircle. A buffoon and a drummer harlequin were entertaining a young lady; they were the motif of the wallpaper that covered the entire room.
Dana Jay Bein was there, standing up behind an amplifier and a microphone, drinking a medium size Starbucks coffee and typing something in his cellphone. We had an appointment to talk about comedy and I did not expect to have such a luxury setting for our interview. But it happened that the Boston Center for Adult Education, where Dana teaches a stand-up comedy class, is located in this historic building.
“Comedy comes from the darkest moments of human day to day life” Dana stated.
“Comedy is like no other” he continued, “it started as tragedy but now you are putting it out there as humor.” From his point of view, failure and pain were in the origin of comedy. “Everybody has that instinct to laugh of other people failures, or even your own failures. You see somebody gets splashed by a car driven into a big puddle in a rainy day, and one of your instincts is to laugh” he said.
Comedy is an honest and truly defensive mechanism against the tragedy of life. “I think you have to make it funny otherwise it hurts too much. Your honest painful experiences can be brought to the stage and can be shown to people as an honest expression of comedy” Bein claimed. “Comedy did something for me personally, it allowed me to turn things around” he added.
“Self-deprecation” is the key concept for understanding Dana Jay Bein’s approach to comedy. “I was introverted as a child, so self-deprecation became my defense mechanism in middle school and high school” he said. “Self-deprecation is rooted in people making fun of you. The only way to really defeat other people making fun of you is to get on the board and start to make fun of yourself, kind of show them that it doesn’t bother you” he added. “Then, self-deprecation comes to the next level when you find your own voice in that self-deprecation.” Nowadays, Bein takes “self- deprecation” as the most effective way to connect with his audience. “I make fun of myself and not only does it make the audience comfortable of who I am as a performer but it also gives me the green light to make fun of other things as well” he said.
According to Dana, everybody has the ability to be funny and everything can be funny because all is based in perspective. “Everybody has the ability to be funny, some people learn how to hone it, and some people don’t” he said. “Everybody’s life experience is his/her own library of comedy. The problem is that some people try too hard to be funny by taking things from outside of their own experiences, and their whole life is actually a brilliant library of funny experiences, observations and relationships” he added. “If you really look at things and people, you can find a humor in almost everything.”
Dana Jay Bein began performing stand-up comedy in 1997. “I grew up in West Springfield and I was nurtured directly from the white trash. I worked in a kitchen as a prep-cook underneath of a chef who was already doing stand up comedy. He noticed that I was very funny, that I have a tough shell and that I was quick-witted. Nothing offends me. So he took me under his wing and we started to do grassroots performances together. He gave me the name ‘The Bastard Son of Comedy’ because I was very offensive, I was swearing a lot and my parents were never married” he said.
Although Dana considers himself an amateur in the stand-up comedy world because he is not on Comedy Central, his 10 years of experience on stage allowed him to speak confidently about stand-up. “A stand-up show is a mix of coffee shop poetry slam and a concert” he declared. “Stand up is very personal, it is all you, it is all your energy, it is either you succeed or you fail” he added. Basically, the stand-up show consists of 7 to 15 minutes on stage where the performer speaks directly to the audience with the help of a microphone. “You kind of feel crucified on stage” he said. “Stand-up comedy, specifically, is a lot of work, it is not easy. Let alone the difficulties that people know like the public speaking fear that people have. Public speaking is the most feared thing in the world. And that is just the top of the iceberg. The next thing is Am I funny? Next thing is, What am I gonna say?”
For crafting his stand-up comedy, Dana Jay Bein writes a lot. He has a notebook with him almost all the time, and if he does not have it for some reason, he writes in binders, receipts, newspapers, and whatever he finds on hand. “I write down thoughts, observations that I make, or funny things people says to me based on situations, and I try to build of those things” he said. “There are times where I set blocks of time for comedic writing. Because it is a lot of work to put all of this to paper, to craft… and to organize all the memories that come back to you” he added. “I don’t throw anything that I write away. A lot of stand-up comedians get frustrated with their material and they may throw a joke, or a story or a premise away. I have a stash of comedy under my bed. It is kind of like if you have children, when you put the old toys in the attic and, once the new toys get boring to them, you bring the old toys back down and it’s like fresh to them again….like a crossword puzzle….it’s the same with comedy if you are writing a joke and you have a block, or you cant figure out what fits in your set, you put it away for a while and maybe you go back in a week, a month, six months, a year, and maybe now it fits in your act somewhere based on what is changed in pop culture, based on what is changed in the news, based on what is changed in you personally” he said.
Dana rehearses constantly and prepares his sets before he does a gig. “I do as much rehearsals as possible. I practice in front of the mirror and I do my material for my girlfriend. It is always good to have at least one person that you can do that with” he said. “It is essential to have a microphone at home. I usually hold a microphone and talk. Sometimes I record. For new jokes it’s a good way to hear your own timing, to hear how the jokes sound” he pointed out. However, he emphatically stated that he is not as deliberative as some comedians. He doesn’t memorize each word in each sentence. “I just wanna make sure that I get the punch lines and the message across about the joke. I am not deliberate down to the word but I rehearse it deliberately” he added.
Stand-up is not just talking, it is essentially performance. Being comfortable on stage is crucial. Whether in a club, a house, a theater or a home, the stand-up comedian has to jump onto the stage and confront his/her audience alone. According to Bein, “nothing on stage is a mistake until you called a mistake, until you pointed it out as such.” No matter the size of the stage, the comedian must be comfortable standing behind the microphone because it keeps him/herself grounded. “There is nothing wrong with just standing behind the mike” Dana said. Physicality is also very important because it gives comedians stage comfort. “I am not afraid to use physicality to demonstrate something on stage. If there are a lot of people in the crowd, maybe I go to the edge of the stage and see what is out there” he said. “I try to play a lot with physicality. Punch lines come out with some sort of facial expression” he added.
When structuring his stand-up show, Dana tries to start big and finish big. “Those are the two jokes that are the most crucial on stage: your opening lines, and the lines you end it. The ending line is usually the line they are gonna remember, and the opening line is the line you are gonna get their attention with. You can lose them immediately if your first line or first two lines don’t work” he said. “I usually begin with stuff about me, whether it will be self-deprecating or factual, or observational. Sometimes I start talking about something local because that is something the people can relate to immediately, they got that immediate connection” he added.
Localizing is very important in a stand-up show. “I try to be as localized as possible” Dana points out. “It depends of where I am. I usually perform in club at Inman Square so I talk about the Brazilian population in that neighborhood, the restaurants in Inman Square, the fact that in the 80s comedians burst out of Inman Square” he said. The location of the show also determines the style of the comedy. “In the Boston area I try to squeeze as many jokes into the time that I have. It is more of the joke format in Boston because you wanna get as many laughs per minute as possible. Here comedians are a dime a dozen so you do not get as much time for your show. In contrast, when I perform in Western Mass I can do a lot of storytelling because I have more time” he added.
Making people laugh is finally the ultimate goal of every comedian. “I like to make people laugh; it is the cheapest and easiest form of altruism. It is easy to feel good making people laugh” Dana claimed. As in many other performing arts, the audience is finally the liveliest critic for the stand-up performer and the source of energy for his/her show. Stand-up comics have to connect with their audience as soon as possible, and the clearest sign of that connection is the audience’s laugh. “When you get in front of an audience of a couple of hundred people and they’re laughing at the things you are saying, it’s a high that no alcohol or drug or enhancement can match, it’s incredible”
Dana said. “It is always who is laughing” he continued, “If you tell a joke and everybody is laughing, that’s what you need.” However, that does not always happen. “Sometimes you put your heart and soul into a joke and you think the audience is gonna love it, and then nothing. It is tough. If you are not on that night, if you are having a tough show and you hear crickets, and there is nobody laughing, that is stressful and you have to be able to react to that as a comedian, you have to hopefully not take yourself too seriously and just roll with it” Dana said.
One of the most interesting concepts that Bein has developed in his vernacular theory about comedy, is the one of the “comedic mind”. “I speak of the comedic mind as a kind of separate mind within your own mind” he claimed. “That mind allows you to think of things comedically” he continued. “It is like taking things out of the present, out of the reality, and putting them into this other kind of think tank. You gotta try to get people’s comedic mind working. It is like a hamster on a wheel, with all these different materials and experiences, and points of view, and characters…as long as that hamster is running you can generate something funny to say on stage, an interesting situation to relate to another person, all sort of things” he said.
Other interesting concept in Bein’s vernacular theory, is the one of “deconstructing the set”, a sort of deep analysis of his show after performing it. “I deconstruct the set after the show. This was improvised. This was scripted. This worked this didn’t work. What did they laugh at? What didn’t they laugh at? And then, I take the things they laugh at and ask Why? Why was that funny to them? Was it my delivery? Was it because it was topical? Was it because they all got it? And more important, why didn’t they laugh at? Was it because I didn’t delivery it properly? Was it because I rushed it? Did I mumble the punch line? Wasn’t their type of humor?” he explained. This method of evaluation allows Dana to improve his sets and to achieve the type of humor he is looking for. “It takes multiple shows. It is a process. The set must work 3 times in a row at least” he said.
While Dana was explaining to me this postmodern “terminology”, I started to think that I could not leave the Gamble Mansion without listening to some of his jokes. So I tried to delve into his arsenal, taking care of dodging his punches. “You can break down a joke: it must have a set up and a punch line” he said. “You set up a joke with a premise or a story line and then, the punch line is the finale, is the end of a joke. The punch line is the part that is funny of a joke” he explained. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” he asked me. “The set up of this joke is kind of a play. Why does the chicken cross the road? You are assuming that this chicken has a chicken reason to cross the road. He is not gonna have human behavior, he is not gonna be personified. This chicken is gonna have a chicken logic. Why is he crossing the road? And the punch line kind of destroys that assumption: he is crossing the road to get to the other side, like normal, like people do. And that is what makes it funny.”
Although Dana Jay Bein did his first steps in stand-up when he was working as a prepcook, he does not have any recipes in his pockets now. “There is not really a recipe for jokes. They start in an observation or a statement, or a funny thought” he said. “All of my jokes are based on a truthful premise” he added. “I might stretch the truth a little bit. I try to still be silly sometimes. I hyperbolize sometimes. Or I make the metaphor larger for the sake of humor. But I always try to base things in some sort of truth” he said. That truth matters a lot for Dana and is the only ingredient that he always adds to his jokes. “Honesty and emotion are part of what makes comedy funny. You can tell the difference between a good comic and a bad comic for the most part by how honest he is being” he pointed out.
Originality is very important in stand-up comedy, and comics may even copyright their jokes. “It is so taboo to steal a joke” Dana stated. “There are actually a lot of publicly known about fights right now. Joe Rogan had a public fight on stage with Carlos Mencia, because Mencia is a notorious joke thief. And Joe is kind of a comic policeman who is making sure people don’t steal jokes” Dana said. “The problem with comedy is that if something happens, many comics can simultaneously write the same joke. There are many examples of comedians that have done that” he added. “It does not matter who tells the joke first, it matters who is most famous, more popular, how many people heard the joke first” he continued. “So now when I write a joke I google it up to be sure nobody has written something like that. I have become very paranoid about it” he claimed. It is also possible to sample jokes, to quote. “If I do sampling a joke” Dana said, “I make sure that it is known. I’ll say ‘this is not my joke’. I am gonna tell it because it is related to what I am talking about.” What it is really forbidden in stand-up is the use of the so called “stock jokes”, the ones that everybody hears in a party. “To use those jokes on stage is kind of cheating. It is cheap” Dana stated.
Every comedian has his personal dream. Dana Jay Bein’s dream is to take Boston to the next level: to make the city the capital of the stand-up comedy as it was in the 80s. For doing that, he is working hard in his shows and in his teaching, and he is also developing a strong network of comedians in New England and on the internet (he has a myspace page). Even if he considers himself an amateur because he is not touring the country and he can not subsist from comedy alone (as the people from Comedy Central), he seemed to me very professional and very committed with his cause. His vernacular comedy theory was articulate and appealing. I especially liked something that he said right before I left the Louis XV room in Gamble Mansion: “comedy is a start to make the world ok.”
Andres Alberto Lombana graduated in 2003 with a double BA in political science and literature from Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes. His interests are emphatically cross-media, and he has some significant experience with educational media applications. From 2001 to 2005, Andres worked for the Fundacion Universitaria Iberoamericana (FUNIBER), a Spanish electronic learning company active in Latin America. There, he administered and edited e-learning objects that were both adaptive and migratory, and worked to develop learning communities. He was awarded a fellowship to spend 8 months at FUNIBER’s Barcelona headquarters where he worked on digital layout and publishing processes. Outside of the work environment, Andres has been active in small-scale cross-media creative activities including movies, music, still images, and text. In 2001, he co-founded Elektrodomestika, a cross-media laboratory which explores and experiments with the use of new technologies in art creation. His latest project, Cotidianity, is a computer operetta that explores digital storytelling. His digital video The Duel (stop motion animation) was selected as part of the first Latin American and Caribbean Video Art Competition, and shown in the International Development Bank’s art gallery in Washington and the Ethnologischen Museum of Berlin. Interactive media production, creative educational strategies, and the discourse of globalization combine to form the core of what Lombana would like to pursue at CMS. Lombana has been an active contributor to the documentary projects being developed by Project nml, being the lead producer for a segment on dj culture and now at work on a segment focused on animation.