Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jokes and Poker

JokerI have this CD called Woody Allen on Comedy which consists of a lengthy interview of the comedian conducted by Larry Wilde for a book he was compiling, titled Great Comedians Talk About Comedy, published in 1968. The interview must have been done at least a couple of years before the book appeared, perhaps even earlier -- that is, prior to Allen’s having embarked in earnest on his film career, and during the time of his doing stand-up and writing for various television shows. (The disc first appeared in 2001, I think.)

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:

'Woody Allen on Comedy'“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.

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Blogger bellatrix78 said...

I used to live in Germany for quite a while. Comedy there is a little bit cruder and more related to wordplay than ironic ridicules like in the US. Let's just say that comedy level in the US is a tad higher than in Germany.

I was never very good at telling jokes, but I am fascinated by the art of joke-telling. As a 10-year old, I used to stay up late on Fridays to watch stand-up comedy on TV. So naturally when I moved to the US, I attended a lot of live stand-up comedy.

On my first trip back to Germany it was amazing. I was sitting at the cafeteria and suddenly I had the group of people surrounding me and even cheering me on. I was throwing one-liners, zingers, the works. Sure, some of it was copied, but a lot of it was from "experience", of hearing jokes being told over and over again, understanding what works and adding your own little personal element to it.

So perhaps comedy can be taught, but if you really, really love it, it can be experienced and learned. I hope I make sense (?)

7/29/2009 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Erik said...

I always enjoy your posts. You have a very clear writing style that is entertaining.

In this post, I had to laugh a little at the end. You say you're getting "abstract." I think it could be stated more plainly that you wrote your way into concluding your analogy doesn't hold. The process of writing doesn't really shed much light on the process of playing a hand of poker. It was an interesting attempt though :)

7/30/2009 10:58 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Very interesting story, bellatrix. Yes, to be honest I don't know if I completely buy Allen's idea there, although he might say you were funny already prior to having honed the joke-telling technique (?).

And great analysis, Erik. Yr probably right about that "abstract" comment -- it was another way of saying I ain't too sure where this all has taken me haha.

I do think there is something to this business of comparing poker & writing -- I am remembering a post from about a year ago in which I tried to work out a couple of ideas along those lines, titled "Playing Poker & Writing About Poker". Dunno if I'm any more successful there -- or even really talking about the same subject as I am here (i.e., the creative process) -- but yr comment made me think of it.

7/31/2009 7:52 AM  

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