VVP: Art 434 & Engl. 410

Website for Vision Voice and Practice: An Interdisciplinary Course in Art and Creative Writing

Friday, March 4, 2011

Hurston / Hedberg

In class yesterday, we watched a Mitch Hedberg routine from the David Letterman show, different from the one above. A great thing about Hedberg is the care he puts into his jokes. Check out the structure of this punchline:
If the pizza was a pie chart for what people would do if they found a million dollars, this dude gave me the 'donate-it-to-charity' slice.
That's a pretty complicated sentence, crafted so that the laugh doesn't come until the very last word. Anyone who writes knows how hard that can be. Even the associations are strange, and strangely apt: He's making the weird (but, as it's said, instantly reasonable) claim that a pizza looks like a pie chart, and he relies on the audience's cultural knowledge of what a pie chart illustrating the attitudes of random people looks like. (They've seen it on T.V. They've seen it on the Internet.) The word "dude" in there keeps the joke tethered to the ground...unlike, perhaps, this analysis.

In an interview in 2004, not long before he died, Hedberg talked about the limitations of his own innate capabilities, and how he used those limitations to arrive at the kind of comedy he made:
The one-liner style, that came because I'm not a good storyteller. I would add on to a concept that I thought was funny but was getting no laughs, and I'd get more uptight. I decided to get to the point quicker, get rid of all the fat. When I tell a story, it's always been very much just the facts, so all my jokes are really stories that are broken down to the most factual sense.
This gift for (poetic) concision might be thought of as one of the things "stuffed into" the brown paper bag that is Mitch Hedberg--to borrow Zora Neale Hurston's metaphor from yesterday's reading. She, too, had certain gifts--of dance, say--that distinguish her from her own people (when performing for the white travelers passing through her childhood town), from her classmates at Barnard, and, later, from the white man who staidly sits at the club, listening to the jazz that takes hold of her and, both physically and emotionally, transports her. She says she's a "born first-nighter," a born performer. It's nothing she asked for. And she tells us she must use her gifts, despite the long odds society tells her she faces. She must work, and she does:
I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep.
Asked about how often he's working on new material, Hedberg replies,
Oh, all the time, man. I just got to start writing it out in full, though. Now I'm down to writing the shortest amount of buzzwords possible, hoping I'll remember it. It's hard to step backward from those words and say, "What did that mean? What do the words 'owl' and 'my dad' mean together?"

[Photograph by Prentis Taylor]

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