Comedy is a funny thing (pun intended). What makes us laugh will leave the next person flat, or worse, offended. Have you ever tried to explain why you find something funny? It can’t be done, at least not on the gut level that humour works on.
Comedian David Heti definitely inhabits the fringes of humour, a place that feels like a logical conclusion to his academic path.
“I went through Philosophy in undergrad,” he explains, “And then law. What underlies the comedy is a general sense of life, uncertainty and playing around with values and ideas of truth, and what’s good. So philosophy explores that, but you get to a point where you see the limitations of that kind of inquiry. And then law is a compromise of what we figure out what’s best: how we order our rights and obligations, and all that, and then you figure out that has its limitations as well. Comedy may be the most honest way to accept these limitations. It’s psychological, it’s philosophical, it’s social, metaphysical…”
A former prosecutor for the Canadian government, he was forced by his employer to choose between law and stand-up. “I worked for the Department of Justice; the Federal government’s law firm, basically. I prosecuted trials like possession of crack or someone who wasn’t paying their child support. They felt my comedy would reflect poorly on the Government, and I don’t believe this. If someone were to see me on stage telling jokes, they would understand that it’s an act; I’m a comic, no different than an actor on stage. It was just an excuse; I think they just didn’t want to be embarrassed and read something about it in the Globe and Mail or The Gazette, or whatever. At that point, I was emotionally unable to do any work for them; it was disgusting what they did. It was morally reprehensible.”
If his stint as a prosecutor, where he saw all kinds of tragic events, didn’t really influence his dark humour, his training as a lawyer certainly prepared him for his current career. “In order to be a good lawyer, you have to be able to really understand what’s going even if you represent one side. It allows you to better find a line in any joke, as you’re constantly parsing values.’
When you’re telling jokes that are miles away from the safe “two guys walk into a bar” type, one skill that’s essential is knowing your audience. “You totally have to be conscious of who’s in front of you”, he admits. “And now that I’m travelling a lot to different parts of the States, it’s even more essential. San Francisco is different than Newfoundland, which is different from Montreal or Toronto. One comic said to me that before he goes on stage he always watches the room, always looks at who’s walking in, and how people are laughing at the MC’s jokes. And then it’s not like you’ll do a totally different act, but you’ll figure out a way to bring them into your world. It’s like if you want to hit on someone, you’ll first find something to open them up.”
“The trick is not to alienate anyone. Everyone has sadness in their lives, and some jokes might hit closer to home, but you need to overlook that and accept that everything that’s going on, are jokes for one thing, and that we’re all in this together.”
“In the end, if you can look at your own sadness differently, then… what else is comedy for?”
But despite his best efforts, sometimes people just don’t find the humour in it, or aren’t willing to find it. “Oh yeah, I get people who walk out, tell me to go suck a dick, or write angry letters to the theater… It’s not everyday by any means, but some people have very heightened emotional responses for sure.”
There’s an old show business saying that goes “Dying is easy; comedy is hard,” and while it pertains to acting, it certainly applies to writing comedy too. But Heti says that it’s mostly a matter of recognizing humour when it materializes itself. “My inspiration is simply going through life, listening to people, talking with my friends” he explains. “You get a sense of how people see the world differently than you do. Thoughts occur to me when they want, and if I recognize one as something that would be good for the stage then I just record it. “
“I don’t think the joke exists outside of the idea. I think in terms of language; I understand the world in the form of a series of words. Sometimes the joke comes fully formed, but other times you get an intuition that a situation is wrong or incongruous, and it becomes, ‘How do I articulate that?’ You need a sharp, clear mind to figure out for yourself what the joke is, and how not to reveal too soon the hidden punchline you want to reveal. “
Heti’s humour doesn’t flirt with taboos: it breaks down the door and openly trots them out. Whether he’s finding humour around sexual perverts or concentration camps, no subject seems off limit. Are there any topics he wouldn’t touch? “Not as a rule, no,” he admits. “There are things in my own life that are too sad for me, let’s say. In my personal experiences, I try not to violate the confidences of friends and family. It’s not worth it for me; I don’t want to identify anyone with any joke. I try not to expose individuals and have them identified. But I think you can make art about anything in the world, and it would be insane if not, because then someone who has had this horrific experience, they would have no other of looking at it than horrifically.”
Of course Heti is not really making light of these issues; he’s also using them to challenge people to think. “At its highest, purest form, humour makes people question themselves afterwards. You want them to rethink things. Some jokes are purely laughs, but I think the best comedy makes people question what they understand, and whether they should be laughing or not. That’s more the art half of it than the entertainment.”
Despite this, he sees his show as quite accessible. “I think I’m one of the most accessible comics. I mean, I make a few references to Nietzsche or whatever, but I go to a comedy club and I don’t know this band they’re talking about, or that TV show or this restaurant chain… I don’t get any of those pop culture references. I think I’m just talking about personal experiences and thoughts, emotions and ideas. You’re dealing with sadnesses, or the idea of having a sexual perversion, but it’s not telling a joke about a Montreal restaurant or a sports team or anything like that.”
When your art is on the edge like this, finding an audience can be a challenge. But things are starting to pick up for the comedian. “I recently got a visa to work in the States so I’ll tour a lot more there. I’ll use the album to hopefully get more face time. I don’t get that much work to be honest because I wasn’t travelling that much. I’d play Toronto and Montreal, but it takes a while to find the line in my comedy. I’d push an audience a little too far, and the club owner would go ‘I don’t know if I want you back here.’ But now things are going well. I’ve toured the West Coast, and now they want to have me back. I also want to develop a second album; I have the material for that.”
Heti regularly does shows around Montreal, and I asked if he’ll be part of Just For Laughs. “The short answer is no. (laughs) I like to say ‘these jokes aren’t always just for laughs.’ This is a political question, I don’t program the Festival, so, no, I will not be at Just For Laughs.”
David Heti’s It was OK was re-released on May 5th by Stand Up! Records as a CD/DVD package with new artwork, liner notes and track listing. Tour dates are can be found on his site at http://davidheti.com/shows/. David Heti is appearing in Sirrius XM’s Top Comic at the Comedy Nest on June 8.