The interview is quite interesting, with Allen providing what are often quite academic-sounding replies to Wilde’s questions about comedy and writing. Of course, there’s nothing less funny than someone explaining why something is funny, so if you ever happen to pick up this disc, don’t go expecting a lot of grins.
Early on, at the start of a track titled “Formats & Styles,” Wilde asks a question about whether or not there are “different kinds of jokes.” When asked for clarification, we learn that he’s essentially asking about the technical side of joke-writing -- that is, about the various categorical definitions or types (e.g., the “one-liner,” the “anecdote”).
Before getting too far into the discussion of the difference between form and content, Allen insists he wants to make one point understood -- namely, that when it comes to a knowledge of the various forms of jokes, “they are of no help or value to you when you are writing material.” He then speaks further about this idea of having an understanding of the “technique” of joke-writing:
“There is a technique that you can learn if you are a person that has the ability to be funny or to write funny things. Then you can learn how to put them into different form. Then the technique comes in. You can learn how to construct the monologue, how to construct a sketch, and ultimately, hopefully, finally how to use those jokes to construct a play or something. Do you know what I mean? But you can’t learn beyond that. You can’t learn how to write funny things, how to write individual jokes.”
He explains further what he means, but the gist of it is that people either have the ability to be funny and write jokes, or they don’t, and in Allen’s view that ability cannot be learned the way the technical or formal aspects of joke-writing can be. And learning the latter is of no use, ultimately, if one isn’t already possessed of the former.
You hear this sort of thing about artists quite often -- that one either “has it” or doesn’t when it comes to being able to express oneself in ways that are remarkable, beautiful, entertaining, humorous, whatever. You sometimes hear a similar theory advanced in the context of poker, namely, that there are those who have a kind of innate “feel” for the game, something that exists separately from a strict technical knowledge of odds, etc. (the “math”). Indeed, those are the players who are often described as “artists” since their successes are sometimes difficult to explain in literal, unambiguous terms.
We’re all familiar with that analogy by which the playing of a poker hand is likened to telling a “story.” So it might be tempting to take Allen’s idea and apply it to one’s “storytelling” at the poker table. There are the formal aspects of play -- the machinations at the table (pauses, table talk, handling of cards and chips, etc.) and the “math” (understanding odds, outs, bet sizing, etc.) -- which one employs when telling one’s story, and one also looks for when listening to others’ stories.
Then there’s the “having something to say.” The intangibles. The understanding of how a story “works” (like how a joke “works”). The stuff many believe cannot be taught.
Kind of fun pursuing this comparison, even if it does cause us to get a little bit abstract. I will say that while Allen might be right when he says that a knowledge of the formal or technical aspects of joke-writing is “of no help or value to you” unless you’ve already got the ability to be funny, an understanding of the technical aspects of poker can help one considerably when trying to tell one’s “stories” at the table. I guess that’s because in a lot of ways the “content” of our stories is mostly already provided to us via the cards, chips, and other players acting out their roles.
So, good news and bad news. You can learn to be a poker player, even if you weren’t born with any particular talent in that direction.
But if you think you can learn to be a comedian, well, the joke’s on you.