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Long Island City

Mike makes stuff. Mostly involving words, notes, thoughts, and images. Also a podcast. Enjoy. 


A blog featuring Mike's Images & words. Occasionally sounds. 

Truth in Comedy: In Defense of Abstract Art


I just wrote this post in response to a podcast by The Comedy Nerds. The original Podcast can be found here.

William Faulkner:

Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.

Mark Twain:

A historian who would convey the truth must lie. Often he must enlarge the truth by diameters, otherwise his reader would not be able to see it.

Blaise Pascal:

We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.

Richard Avedon:

There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.

William James:

Truths emerge from facts, but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. The ‘facts’ themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.

Stephen King:

Fiction is the truth inside the lie.


Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.

As you may have gathered from my barrage of quotations, I was somewhat frustrated while listening to your podcast. The notion that truth is the same as fact has been long discredited within just about every other art form, so why it should still linger like a mildewed odor in the halls of stand-up?

Consider forms of non-representational or abstract art, particularly impressionist and expressionist art. Impressionism was a response to the invention of the camera, which could capture an image far more accurately than a portrait, and therefore pushed painters to explore what was strictly their realm, capturing something that the camera cannot. Impressionism attempts to capture the sensation in the eye that views the subject rather than the subject itself, without interpretation by the mind, and expressionism which attempts to capture the effect of the impression on the mind without a slavish devotion to objective reality. I feel like you would reject all non-representational or abstract art as being of less value than strict representation.

Consider Kafka, who in The Metamorphosis captures the essence of feeling turned into a monster by society and then rejected as the monster you have been forced to become, and it seems odd to argue that his work would be “better” or “more truthful” if it just talked about that feeling directly. By taking that metaphor and exploring it as fact he makes it a much more powerful and honest work.

Consider Tim O’Brien, who does something similar in his book “The Things They Carried”, especially in the chapter “How to tell a true war story” Truth, he says in a true war story is irrelevant, because saying something like “war is hell” might be ‘true’ but it captures none of the emoptional potency that the truth of being in war evokes. He tells the story of a man who gets blown up by a mine as a love story and a story about these soldiers beating the shit out of a water buffalo as an exploration of the horror of war, and both have more truth in them than a factual recounting of the events.

I suspect that what we refer to as “Truth” would in some ways be better represented by the word “honesty” or “authenticity”, though both still have hints of factual representation, which gets us back into the same mess. What matters is not whether the events that the comedian is describing actually took place, what matters is that they be authentic to his or her experience of, and perspective on, the world.

Yes, certain stories are only worth being told because they happened, since the value of that story, the comic surprise, is a result of how unexpected it is, which if contrived, would be artificial and inauthentic. If part of the point of your story is “Can you believe this actually happened? The world is a strange and funny place” then of course it will be rendered inauthentic by making it up. But if the point of the story has to do with capturing, distilling, synthesizing something about the world based on your experience of it then it need not be a factual thing, it need only be honest to your experience. Because we don’t experience the world as it is, as the thing in and of itself. We experience it as an interpreted reality, we take something and distill a point out of it; anyone who has studied how memory works can tell you that remembering is both less an act of recording and more an act of creating than we typically presume. So the comedian’s responsibility is to create something authentic, and it might be more powerful if it is fabricated from a sense of a thing than an actual representation.

Now, since most people are not really amazing at fabricating authentic fiction, maybe they are best served by sticking to describing reality, since as I’ve said we are already interpreting that as an impression and they will be better at crafting authenticity from that — in the same way that it’s often easier to draw with a model than straight from the mind’s eye. But that doesn’t make it inherently better. Steven Wright is enjoyable because his bizarre world is a distillation of the kind of bizarre semi-rational thoughts and musings we all have about the world. He’s painting an abstract picture of how he perceives the world, but with stark logical relationships in the midst of it, because even in a world as absurd as the one he describes humans still act like humans and attempt to use our rationality to make sense of it. Aside from just the verbal and conceptual tricks he pulls his character is consistent and authentic. I think part of the deeper humor comes from the recognition of something of our own weird interpretations of the world we experience, the implication being that our world is absurd in its own ways too, his bewilderment with the weirdness of his world resonates with our own.

But then again, maybe I’m reading too much into it, after all, they are just jokes. Fart!