Table Of Contents
- Realizing Language
- The Default Mode Network
- Overcoming Filtering
I’ve talked at length about how I describe humor itself, but not how to be a great comedian. There are many tips I could give, but whenever I’m asked for one, I usually talk about the “realization of scene”.
This is something that’s probably a lot more explored amongst the writings on improv comedy, but it applies to every angle of humor. If you can communicate your joke more specifically, you can heighten the humor you deliver.
Some of the modern popular comedians apply this principle exceptionally well. It’s why Shane Gillis and Jamie Fox are also brilliant impressionists. It’s why Bill Burr, Jim Carey, Bob Odenkirk, and Bryan Cranston are also brilliant actors. If you’re good at comedy, it often involves being good at playing a character. It often involves bringing a scene to life. These are transferable skills.
If you are on stage, mid-joke, discussing your experience with a frustrating customer service representative, you can (devoid of any actual punchline) provide such an accurate impersonation that you get belly laughs from your caricature alone.
This is a critical skill in improv, but it applies in stand-up as well and really casual joke telling in general.
Impressions aren’t your strong suit? Don’t worry, that’s not the only way to bring a scene to reality. You’ll find the same underlying technique in many other scenarios.
If you’re trying to tell a story about the time you babysat for your brother and had to take care of your nephew for a weekend, you can strengthen a joke by starting in middle of a scene.
I had to babysit for my brother over the weekend. Love my nephew to bits, but I truly did not realize Key Foods could run out of Yoohoo Chocolate Drink. I have been bargaining with this child and I am losing.
We describe a scene where we have had to bargain with a child by feeding them chocolate drink juice boxes. This assumes that there is a push and pull in a scene we didn’t explore. We let the audience fill in the gaps of our story. What kind of things could have happened to warrant this power dynamic?
By leaving out details, we create a more realistic scene. Our audience’s imagination will create a stronger picture than anything we could have verbalized.
But sometimes adding in more detail than necessary is what strengthens our audience’s imagination.
In describing a scene where a clown pulls out a gun to rob a Party City, it would be funnier to say they pulled out a Beretta 21A Bobcat semi-automatic pocket pistol. The kind of model is completely irrelevant information and its irrelevancy focuses our attention on the scene.
This circus performer didn’t just steal from a store with a gun, they committed armed robbery with a deadly assault weapon.
It’s in the same way that “I punched him” feels less interesting than “I gave him a hit in the solar plexus”. It’s not just that we’ve defined where we hit, but that we felt the need to clarify that information at all. Doing so focuses people’s attention on this detail.
It isn’t particularly important, for our purposes, where the solar plexus is located. I’ll bet many of the current readers don’t know either, but still felt more impact from that sentence. Giving specifics turns our sentence from the abstract “I delivered pain” to the real “I injured a body part”.
We have in some sense provided different vocabulary with a similar literal meaning to communicate different information. I was forced to use unconventional language to convey information seemingly already present in the first sentence.
Let’s talk a bit more about that in terms of “cliche”.
In our daily use of language we tend to make many use of cliches. Some of these are quite easy to spot:
- “Like a deer caught in the headlights”
- “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
- “When it rains, it pours”
But others creep into our lexicon more subtly:
- “burn in hell”
- “incredible display”
- “that was awesome”
We don’t tend to view these as cliches since we assume the meaning literally, but only because we have redefined the meaning of these words through our own over-use of them.
To say that you wish for someone to “burn in hell” means that you wish them to experience great pain. Those 3 words were just the vehicle for which you’ve chosen to deliver that information with. It really is a horrible idea, but its impact has been lessened over time. You can view the original impact this phrase might have had by reforming the words:
I hope their skin falls off in clumps while engulfed in flames on an endless cycle in a tortured and lonely afterlife
We’ve literally communicated very similar information, but the impact has been completely altered by using more novel language.
But what about those last 2 bullet points?
Incredible means literally something that isn’t credible. Unbelievable. Itself being distinct from “not believable” weirdly enough. To call an article “not believable” or “not credible” communicates wildly different information from “incredible” or “unbelievable”. These words obviously do not mean the literal inverse of their free-standing morpheme. They mean “difficult to believe, but ultimately true”.
Something being so difficult to believe to the point of its labeling “not credible” feels very impactful. Someone’s eye-witness and evidence-backed account of a poltergeist could probably be described as “incredible”. A single instance of kindness caught on video tape backed by an emotional piano melody? Also incredible.
And then “awesome”. We have collectively and completely stripped this word of the power it once communicated.
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe.
- Deuteronomy 10:17
What a powerful description. The king of kings, the ultimate destroyer, the creator of worlds, the… awesome… one?
It feels so silly at this point, but the word at its more literal definition means the being which instills awe. Really, the word “awe” alone communicates a feeling more powerful than “awesome” ever can in context.
I’ve seen some observations of this theme with the tacked on subjective labeling of “a bad thing”. Is this shift in our colloquial use of language inherently negative? Does it convey something about the modern-day human experience that is downright regressive?
Probably not. Language change is something that has happened for as long as language has been available. Words tomorrow will never mean the exact same thing as words today. Language as we experience it cannot exist in a vacuum. It cannot be devoid of context as our experience itself is contextual.
We might see use of cliche as a sign that society has regressed. In reality, anything used often enough will eventually lose its meaning. This is an inherent human quality of cognition standing squarely in the Default Mode Network region of the brain.
To become a good writer, orator, or communicator, we need to be aware of the kinds of communication deemed such a cliche as to be definitionally distinct from their literal semantic meaning.
I used to think certain writers used to used extensive verbiage to confuse and show off - nothing more. In reality, a good communicator knows that delivering words like a computer, viewing them as raw data, completely misunderstands how language tends to be interpreted.
For the sake of biological convenience, we must be biased. We must assume. We are probabilistic machines and we cannot do much but skim the tremendous amount data available to us. This is a matter not just of sociology, but science. It is the DMN.
The Default Mode Network
This is the part of the article where I turn into the LSD-infused tech hippie preaching the greatness of psychedelics. I am well aware that I often fall into these sorts of stereotypes, but I think there’s usually a good reason why many of them exist.
My understanding of The LSD and Psilocybin class of psychedelics is almost entirely influenced by the writings of Michael Pollan in How To Change Your Mind and empirical evidence (read anecdotal experience).
Neuroses come in all shapes and sizes. I’d describe the diagnosis as strongly linked neuron connections that have a large impact on your behaviors and understanding of the world. These can exist for a number of reasons, but identifying them can be difficult and resolving them near insurmountable.
Most strongly linked connections exist to make navigating the world less compute-intensive. If it has been your experience that aggressively cleaning the counter or saving every penny was crucial to your continued existence then these are behaviors your brain can jump to more often when presented the opportunity. Why think about something that has time and time again shown itself as useful?
But there are also behaviors that don’t seem so outwardly obsessive. Knowing how to filter out irrelevant information will make your job as an accountant, coder, architect, plumber, or chef (not exhaustive) easier. It’s useful to ignore grain patterns of mahogany wood when this type of information has yet to produce any actionable paths.
As we age, we develop this part of our brain used to filter out extraneous information. The brain is an awesome organ and this is necessary behavior. There is simply too much information for us to absorb at any given moment. It’s why we’re not constantly overwhelmed and how Chess Grandmasters can make such efficient moves.
A lot of the thought around the medical applications of psychedelics focus on the observations of it lowering blood flow to the PCC and mPFC, which are considered main nodes of the Default Mode Network brain region. This region is said to be active in the use of filtering out information. Blood flow to this same region can also be lowered during states of deep meditation, producing a similarly psychedelic effect.
It’s why people are said to be able to break cycles of addiction, OCD, PTSD, and destructive thought patterns through the use of psychedelics. These can all be thought of as deep “neuroses” related disorders for which filtering is working in overdrive. As a neurotic person myself (under none of the previously mentioned umbrellas), lowering these filters has been immensely useful.
I’m a huge advocate for psychedelic therapy, but an even bigger proponent of lowering these filters by any means necessary from time to time. I think most people are generally on board with this idea, but the not the mechanisms for how to achieve this.
“Think for yourself” they say, not the instructions for how to think.
You don’t need drugs to overcome this filter, but you do need to make a conscious choice to exist without it.
I’ve taken up Photography recently and it has done wonders for how I see the world. As an NYC-native, I never thought very much of the city lights, but being forced to intentionally frame a picture around aesthetically pleasing structures, it has made me more intentional with my gaze.
This is also why I talk a lot about comedy as a skill. Most things are skills. A good comedian can produce novel insight about common scenarios if for no other reason than they have worked to remove a filter.
The power to describe something relatable to many in language not available to most is something present in all great writers. This encompasses music, books, articles, guides, humor, public speech, and daily communication.
It cannot be stressed enough that this is something that can be gained. You can achieve this level of skill. It might seem that this is a gift to some fortunate enough to be born with it, but I urge you to change this mindset. It is difficult, but doable.
The longer you stay comfortable and complacent, the harder it feels to break out of your daily habits and social tendencies. You have found something that works. It will not be easy, but it will be rewarding.