Daoism and standup

HS

Hanshan.

Daoist and Zen literature became popular in the West quite early, with works such as R.H. Blyth’s Zen in English literature and Oriental classics (1942); Eastern mysticism is a major theme in the novels of J.D. Salinger, and in the life of Gary Snyder.

Daoism has since been co-opted to various ends by post-beatnik New Age generations, as thoughtfully studied by David Palmer and Elijah Siegler in Dream trippers: global Daoism and the predicament of global spirituality (2017).

While Herrigel’s Zen in the art of archery (1948) was an ethnographic account, this new movement wasn’t confined by academic rigours, tending towards the co-option of Daoism and Zen as memes for our jaded palette—a gradual broadening of themes, shall we say, such as The Tao of Pooh (1983), via the substantial novel Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance (1974). No topic is now safe, as you can see from my forthcoming bestsellers The Tao of the call centre and Zen in the art of chartered accountancy. But Daoism and Zen are not to be reduced to clickbait—after all,

The dao that can be dao-ed is not the eternal dao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Performance is rarely central to the New Agers, but several disciplines stress spontaneous responses to the moment—or rather, the interplay of technique (based on meticulous practice) with inspiration. Again, Daoism and Zen hardly have a monopoly here. The common instance of this is jazz, closely followed by Indian raga (see Unpacking “improvisation”). 

One may seek Daoism/Zen in the art of conducting. Rozhdestvensky had an exhilarating spontaneity, complemented by an aversion to rehearsal. Conversely, Carlos Kleiber, whose stage presence appears so untrammelled, relied on a vast amount of fastidious rehearsal; as he observed,

With a good technique, you can forget technique.

Celibidache was just as hung-up on rehearsal—despite his study of Zen.

And the theme has been applied to sports such as tennis—a genre initiated by Timothy Gallwey, The inner game of tennis (1974). Again, the balance of experience, repetition, with improvisation.

Now, following Jay Sankey’s book Zen and the art of standup comedy (1998), we have

  • Mark Saltveit, “Comedians as Taoist missionaries”, Journal of Daoist studies 13 (2020; early version here).

As with Zen, the wisdom of the Daoist classics is frequently based on humour.

There is an attitude underlying comedy that shares a lot with Lao-Zhuang thought: mischievous, suspicious of authority and pomposity, fond of humble citizens and workers, very aware of the limits of knowledge and problems of communication, self-challenging, and drawn to non-logical truth, the kinds of thought not taught in school.

Daoism also celebrates a manner of action perfect for comedy; spontaneous, intuitive, humble, perfected through repetition and awareness.

From Saltveit’s standup:

I’ve actually become a Daoist missionary.  Which means I stay home and mind my own goddamned business.

Among Daoist jokes here, I also like

What did one Daoist say to the other? Nothing.

I think of Stewart Lee (whose labyrinthine routines, inspired by jazz, are also based on meticulous preparation), or (by contrast) the deadpan one-liners of Steven Wright (here and here).

Other relevant posts include Daoist non-action (“Don’t just do something, stand there!”) and Outside the box, again including a koanesque aperçu by Walt Disney. See also The True Classic of Simplicity and Vacuity, n.1 here.

For a suitable soundtrack, how about Gershwin’s I got plenty o’ nuttin’ (from the 1935 folk-opera Porgy and Bess):

As ethnographer, Saltveit does a nice line in observing the US comedy scene:

City comics live in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Boston, maybe Seattle or Austin.  They have day jobs and perform short sets at showcase clubs that don’t pay but offer exposure, as they’re angling for TV appearances.  Their acts have distinctive styles (which road dogs might call gimmicks); think of Steven Wright with his sad sack demeanor and verbal paradoxes, or Mitch Hedburg’s rock star look and cerebral stoner one-liners.  Lesser city comics resort to in-jokes that only friends laugh at, and often despise the audience.

Road dogs often work in comedy full time, piecing together a very low salary from 3 to 5 day “weeks” at smaller clubs and strings of “one-nighters” at bars in small towns, often hundreds of miles apart.  They are not given lodging on their off nights and usually drive around the country, sleeping in their cars between gigs.  Some wrangle “corporates” (higher paid private gigs) or move on to squeaky clean and highly paid cruise ship work.  Lesser road comics steal jokes and premises, pander to popular prejudice, or get lazy and rehash their older material for decades at a time.  One wag said that road comics aren’t really entertainers so much as truckers who deliver jokes to small towns.

City comics look down on road dogs as mindless hacks, repeating ancient stereotypes about men being dogs and women being cats.  Road dogs look down on city comics as unfunny, self-important wimps who couldn’t last half an hour at a “real” gig. Comics of either camp who’ve actually worked together often share a deep, battle-worn camaraderie that transcends this pettiness.

Meanwhile, Tibetan monks have long excelled at punch-lines (see e.g. Michael Lempert, Discipline and debate: the language of violence in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, 2012):

For remarkable 1958–59 footage of the young Dalai Lama taking part in such a session for his Buddhist “graduation”, see the film here, from 5.03.

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