Last week I went to a humor workshop at the Toronto Storytelling Festival, given by Alan Shain who is a standup comedian and storyteller with cerebral palsy. Shain has a serious gift for flipping heavy subjects on their backsides. As somebody who labors to speak and has spent his life in a wheelchair, he finds material for comedy every day of his life. He gave us a few examples, like the time he went to a restaurant with his brother. The waiter came along and spoke only to his brother. “How many menus would you like?” he asked. Alan piped up, “Well there are two of us here so give us four!”
After he told the story, Alan confessed that he didn’t think of the line in the moment. It came to him later on, when he was thinking about what he would have liked to have said. That’s how you work with your material, he explained. Go back over the ugly stuff and think of what you would have liked to have said in that moment. Stretch it out. Exaggerate.
To give us a firsthand experience, he asked us to consider something that really bugs us. Stuff we tend to rant about. “Now,” he said, “Rant to one another on the subject for two minutes.” When we were done, he instructed us to do the rant again, only this time, to say it “as if the thing you hate is something you absolutely love.” Like, it’s the best thing in the world to be treated as if you don’t even exist. I mean, consider the possibilities of being invisible!
I expressed the joy of sitting for two hours in the doctor’s office pressed into a crowd of people coughing into the tiny airspace while the woman next to me is on her cell phone firing an employee. I mean, who wouldn’t want a front row seat to THAT?
Somewhere in the middle of the workshop it dawned on me that the heaviest stuff of life has the best comedic potential. And that, in a nutshell, is why I draw cartoons!