Comedy: the crackpipe of writing

A writer’s life is one of pleasure deferred.

You may enjoy some of your writing time: those days when the ideas are flowing, when you’re finding just the right word or phrase to capture a thought or an image, when a writing project is emerging before your eyes, like the figure Michelangelo was said to liberate from within a block of marble.

But often in order to write you have to be able to put off more immediately enjoyable activities, skip that movie or pass on a trip to the beach in order to spend hours sitting at a desk.

And after you’ve completed a piece of writing the deferred pleasure continues. Now it’s time to submit it for publication. You send out your work to journals or publishers and wait for months for a response. Usually the response is “no thanks.” You may have no sense from the response that your work was even read, and if so, no idea what the reader may have enjoyed about it. Even if your work is accepted for publication, you have a lengthy wait to see it in print and when you do, you have no idea of how readers responded to it. (You may suspect, in fact, that if it appeared in one of the smaller literary reviews, the ones whose circulation is largely limited to the contributors, the majority of readers likely skipped past your work to get at the ones with their own names on them.)

All of this may explain why most of the writing I’m doing these days is in little two-page bursts of set-ups and jokes.

I began performing stand-up in early 2020 just before covid hit and just after I was diagnosed with cancer. It was, I suppose, an outlet in a dark time. After my surgery and recovery, I continued doing stand-up online during the time when bars were closed and open mics were on indefinite hold.

When things opened up again in 2022, I started going back on stage, getting into action just as Winnipeg started to have a comedy boom. Open mics and invited shows have abounded in this city and since the end of lockdown I’ve performed semi-regularly at four Winnipeg clubs that host open mics, plus at an invited show in a popular restaurant and at Winnipeg’s oldest full-time comedy club. This month (July 2023), I’m doing two invited shows at another club. And last summer I did an open mic at one of New York’s major clubs, The Stand. (Invited shows typically feature a half dozen comics who may go for seven to 10 minutes and get paid a few bucks, whereas open mics will feature up to 25 comics doing four to five minutes each and at most the comics will get a drink ticket out of it.)

Now I’m parlaying my cancer experience and my comedy into a gig as a keynote speaker at a health conference in Winnipeg this September.

Why comedy?

As a writer, I find it a great alternative to the deferred pleasure of novels and short stories. Thoughts that pop into my head while walking or biking can be turned into jokes as soon as I get home. Within hours I can have a few minutes’ worth of material that seems as if it’ll work. Then I just have to get a slot at one of the many open mics and try it in front of an audience.

It’s instant feedback.

I’ll learn which lines work well, which might work and which don’t work at all. Then I can rephrase the set-ups or change the order or hit the punchline just slightly differently and try the material again a day or a week later. I’m playing with the meaning, sound and rhythm of words, just like any other writer, and I’m deriving much the same satisfaction as when I’m making progress on a novel or story. It’s great when you have that feeling that you’ve found a line that seems to jump off the page. But with comedy, you can find out if it really does and if so, how far.

Maybe a five- or 10-minute set of jokes will never provide the kind of personal satisfaction as a 3,000-word story or a 100,000-word novel. In stand-up you’re not creating people or worlds from scratch. But it does provide an instant dopamine hit.

Going for instant dopamine hits is not typically viewed as a healthy and productive activity. More slowly achieved satisfactions are typically regarded as longer lasting and more sustainable. So, while I’m batting around several ideas for new novels and about to begin work on a new draft of the sequel to my novel Prodigies, I do have some concern that it will be hard to put down the crackpipe of stand-up long enough to work on a year-long project of pleasure deferral.