Jon Stewart, Comedy, and Craft

A short thought.

So I was on a few planes this week and I had a lot of down time to read and think. I finished Andy Weir’s The Martian. It was okay. Should make for a good movie. Anyway, I got to engage in one of my favorite down-time past-times: listening to a gajillion billion podcasts. Besides NPR, The Read, Another Round, Call Your Girlfriend, Slate, etc. (all the favorites), I decided on a whim to search for “Jon Stewart” in podcasts and dug up some old interview’s he did on Fresh Air and Bill Moyer’s show. I have watched Jon Stewart for as long as I’ve been interested in politics… so for the whole tenure of his time on the Daily Show. I have always felt a strong connection to his righteous anger on issues of corruption in the media and in politics. Sad about his leaving the show, I decided to listen to him speak about comedy and his time early on in the show. In this search, I came across an interview he did with Dave Davies in 2004 that struck a chord for me. Here is an excerpt from their conversation:

DAVIES: And you decided to go to New York and do standup […] And at first just got brutalized, as people do. And I’m wondering – you know, there are lots of people who are funny, that make their friends laugh, make their families laugh […] I mean, you were so funny, you had that brain working that way. What was it you didn’t know?

STEWART: What was I didn’t know about which?

DAVIES: About why didn’t it work? Why is being funny with your friends not the same thing as…

STEWART: Well, because it’s a craft, you know? It isn’t – there’s a big difference between having an analytical mind and being a good scientist. There is a craft to learn. And that was the biggest lesson is that it takes – again, it’s that idea of turning obnoxiousness into wit or comedy. You know, creating something from nothing is different from just being reactive at a bar. And you have to create the atmospheric conditions for comedy. Comedy is oddly enough very fragile and can be thrown off by, you know, a glass breaking or somebody talking or – you, know, there’s a lot of different elements to it that – and construction of a joke – you know, you have to create – one of the things about being funny life is the premise is already there.

This completely encapsulates my motivations and thinking as I delve further into projects in programming (and as I try to defend this divergent path to friends and family as well). There are lots of people who are sharp, who are analytically minded, who are the most creatively critical in a classroom. I was one of those kids. I’m an analytical person. However, being smart or analytical is exactly like being funny around friends in Jon Stewart’s case. There is a big difference between the potential and the profession. I think that in this year after my graduation, I want to build craft. What a word. Craft. 10,000 hours. I want to work hard at something that is intellectually exhausting and come out the other side two, five, ten years down the line, with a craft. As Stewart says, the biggest thing to learn is taking that energy and potential and turning it into something, producing something, and building something, and then channeling that something positively. I see so many similarities between comedy (purely, the most intricate and nuanced facet of language itself) and code similar to how I saw similarities between linguistics and code. And that comes down to craft. Craft is not a manual. It is not something that can be taught straightforwardly. It is an expert intuition, always moving and evolving, it is nuanced in its execution. When this craft is tuned and focused and then let grow through improvisation, it can be amazingly beautiful.

Wow, I got to go code some more.

tumblr me8m1h0m161qcmnsuo1 400 All the Jon Stewart GIFs you'll need as he leaves 'The Daily Show

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