One of the chief reasons we appreciate comedians – and one of the major reasons that they can exert influence on us, is that they continually make us think about things in ways we have never thought about them before: everyday things, trivial things, important things, life-and-death things, all kinds of things.
Towards this end, the comedian’s mind works in a very particular and fascinating way. Comedians are curious about life and how it works; they’re always searching for a different way of looking at things from the usual, always connecting together things which you wouldn’t normally associate with one another, always taking us by surprise – that’s fundamental to how comedy works. This is a generic characteristic of comedy thinking – sometimes wacky or surreal, generally coming out of left field, always inventive, creative, different – waking us up, shaking us up, getting us to question our established habits of thought and expectation.
The comedian’s mind, or Comic Intelligence
The comedian’s mind, then, is a set of mental habits, a way of looking at life and a way of responding to what’s going on around you, so that you can take advantage of the comic potential which is always lurking there under the surface. As each person’s potential take on things is individual to them, and as this take on things can vary greatly over time – even moment to moment – this means that there is an infinite and unlimited wealth of potential material there, all the time. That’s why we don’t run out of comedy; that’s why we can never say that we have done all the comedy there is in the universe. That’s why comedy can keep being fresh and new and different, even though the big ideas and the underlying themes may be familiar and timeless.
Using the comedy mind is like having a scanner going on in the background; it scans what is happening and what people are saying around you, and watches out for comedy opportunities. Let’s look at how it works – and how to cultivate it yourself, in more detail.
The working of the comedian’s mind is an advanced and specialised example of creative thinking – like so-called thinking outside the box. But comedians carry it rather further; they would be thinking outside the room that holds the box, or the street, the city or country. If you wanted to be a seriously original and surreal comedian, you would probably need to be thinking outside the planet. For instance, you might take literally something that isn’t usually meant to be taken literally – like Groucho Marx’s example when he quipped, “Outside of a dog, a man’s best friend is a book. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read anyway.” This way of thinking is involved somewhere in just about every piece of comedy material you can think of.
Comedy is making links
Another crucial thing that comedians do with their comedian’s mind, while being open to looking at things differently, is to make links. Gene Perret, legendary Hollywood comedy writer to Bob Hope, Carol Burnet, Bill Cosby and others, says: “99% of jokes are two ideas tied together in a funny way.” Benny Hill provided a trademark example in his observation about looking at a very attractive girl: “Those hot pants of hers were so tight, I could hardly breathe”. It’s all about making a link between two items in an unexpected way, and going somewhere with that.
Making links means allowing the mind to wander freely, looking to create or recognise associations it can decipher, relating things to one another in unexpected ways – making different associations between things, or associating things that aren’t usually associated together. The combination you’re looking for makes that ideal blending of recognition and surprise which we know is the fundamental recipe for laughter. Benny Hill’s example works by linking the quality of tightness between the woman’s hot-pants and his chest, when he tries to breathe while sexually aroused. It’s funny because when he mentions the tightness of the hot pants, we think he’s going to talk about the effect on her, but he doesn’t. When you look for this kind of unexpected link, you’re going beyond the obvious interpretation and going for something quite new.
Applying these principles yourself
How can we take this example of what comedians do, and apply it in the context of our own lives?
We might want to develop the imaginative and transformative qualities of the comedian’s mind in order to be able to be funny or entertaining – but equally, we might not just want to be funny; we might wish to develop this capability for a whole host of other reasons such as:
- to be more creative
- to be better able to solve our problems
- to feel more fulfilled
- to open up our minds to new possibilities
- to challenge our set views – or other people’s
- to stop being a control freak all the time
- to stimulate our mental ability
- to stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s
- to bring similar beneficial effects to those around us
- or we might want to be able to do it just for the exhilaration and fun of it all
Developing your Comedian’s Mind
Developing comic intelligence involves a radical shift in the way you use your mind and respond to what’s happening around you. It’s moving away from the normal serious, conventional, ‘grown-up’ way of thinking and talking about things. It involves taking a fresh look and a fresh listen – getting past your normal way of thinking, and getting past society’s normal way of thinking. It’s a way of developing beginner’s mind again, from square one. It can mean going back to a child’s point of view – or maybe even an alien’s point of view. In other words, try to keep imagining what someone would think if they were completely new to what people are doing are saying.
What you need to cultivate here is the capacity for a kind of naïveté, which is why I say that it’s the opposite of conventional intelligence, which depends on following conventions and knowing the accepted rules. This is why many successful comedians have faculties which society considers defects or disabilities – like Eddie Izzard who is famously and unashamedly dyslexic and more than a few comedians have mental health issues.
Quite apart from getting laughs, developing the comedy mind in this way is a powerful form of personal development. It’s a great way of cultivating creativity – getting past your own restricted habits of thinking and mental blocks, and any negative self-belief you may have about your personal creativity. It’s all about being prepared to be different, to be in the moment – being truly yourself in all your unique individuality. You’ll find that developing this as a habit will unleash a broader level of personal creativity, which can be applied to all kind of other projects – writing a major novel, creating amazing art, building the coolest Facebook page in the universe – whatever.
What’s getting in the way?
Doing all this can be a shake-up of your habitual ways of thinking and of looking at things – departing from comfortable patterns, playing safe, going beyond the intellectual working of the mind, legitimatising irrational impulse, accessing the creative unconscious – and this can bring up resistance. If this comes up, ask yourself what is inhibiting the process, blocking your flow of ideas, connexions, associations. Might it be:
– fear of what others will think?
– fear of failing to do it successfully?
– fear of looking stupid?
– fear of change, upsetting the apple cart
– fear of being weird or just ‘different’?
– fear of people finding out ‘what you’re really like’?
– fear of what kind of thoughts might come up?
– newness to the whole process – perhaps just needing time and practice to get used to it?
Living this way is a bit like always having a part of your mind that’s ready to go on a journey at a moment’s notice, or with no notice at all, to an unknown destination – without packing any baggage. You’re stepping into the unknown because you’re making an observation no-one may have made before, and you don’t know where you’re going to end up It’s scary at first, but it’s also liberating and exhilarating. It’s being more alert, more excited about possibilities, more fully alive