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  • Comedians as Daoist Missionaries
  • Mark Saltveit (bio)

I have worked as a paid standup comedian on the West Coast for twenty years. It's fascinating, rewarding, and usually compelling—but it is still work. Comedians joke around a lot and are usually fun people, but the job itself is not especially amusing. I've heard that dancing in strip clubs isn't that sexy, either.

My observations are contradictory, I think, because the subject itself is. Standup comedy runs on anti-logic, the subversion of received wisdom and rules, including (especially) its own. Once a style of humor is expected, comedians must play against that expectation or become dull. Unfunny.

That makes it difficult or impossible to sum up the nature of comedy in a few concise words. Most good comedians will disavow any comic formula. Deep down, we sense that there is a true north of comedy, but you have to develop an intuitive sense of where it is. It's easier to say what it isn't.

For me, there's a strong connection between standup (as practiced in the USA anyway) and ancient Chinese Daoism, of which I am very fond. This article is not a "Tao of Comedy"—that's been done, very well, by Jay Sankey in a book called Zen and the Art of Standup Comedy.

My perspective is the opposite of Sankey's. To me, standup is a form of applied Daoism. Or perhaps both are applied forms of some great unnamable way that I'm pursuing: my own mix of Daoism, a little Jung, some existentialism, residual Catholicism, and my own biases. These things are very hard to spell out and pin down; that's part of the fascination.

"Daoism" can mean a lot of different things. There are two mysterious books of pithy, paradoxical wisdom underpinning them all: the [End Page 213] Daode jing (or Laozi) and the Zhuangzi, composed the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, respectively, and modified many times over the centuries. Various lineage traditions of Daoism carry on practices for initiates that resemble Buddhism with its monasteries, celibate monks in robes, rituals, ceremonies, and applied techniques for internal alchemy as well as extending life, cultivating health, and more. These techniques often overlap with more popular Chinese health practices—such as qigong, taijiquan, traditional Chinese medicine, fengshui, and fortune-telling with the Yijing—that have also gained popularity among New Agey Americans, especially on the West Coast, who sometimes call them "Daoist."

I read the Daoist classics often, but don't ascribe to any traditional practices. I find there is an attitude underlying comedy that shares a lot with Lao-Zhuang thought: mischievous, suspicious of authority and pomposity, fond of humble citizens and workers, very aware of the limits of knowledge and problems of communication, self-challenging, and drawn to non-logical truth – the kinds of thought not taught in school.

Daoism also celebrates a manner of action perfect for comedy; spontaneous, intuitive, humble, perfected through repetition and awareness. Every person and thing has its own intrinsic nature (ziran). It is not a fixed thing, but a process that develops and unfolds in concert with all the other unfolding natures.

Not coincidentally, Daoism (and its descendant, Zen) are the only philosophies or religions that are frequently humorous. The Daode jing starts,

The Dao that can be told is not the eternal DaoThe name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Along the same lines, comedy mocks government, institutions and social rituals when they grow absurd, when they diverge from… what? There's no positive norm you can name, and if you try to construct one, it's easy to find flaws that prove it's not the real norm. At best, an intelligently targeted mockery can imply that good thing, point you in the right direction, or at least guide you to better choices along the way.

My act includes this joke: "I've actually become a Daoist missionary. Which means I stay home and mind my own goddamned business." [End Page 214]

Of course I don't stay home. I usually travel hundreds of miles to deliver pronouncements like this to the audience...


Additional Information

pp. 213-221
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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