Talk to me: a four act shot at comedy
Ongoing stories don’t have neat endings. In time of stress and conflict, it’s a natural instinct to ignore difficult conversations and wait for issues to fix themselves. But if we ever want this story to end, we can’t do that. Ancient Celts thought satire was so powerful it could cause boils to erupt on the skin of the royalty those poets critiqued. Language and comedy have a powerful history as tools that help seek truth.
This project is a small (4"x7"), 91-page book designed, printed, and hand-bound over the course of six weeks. The project was to take a transcript of this episode of NPR's "This American Life" and turn it into a conversation piece on gun control, in whatever way we wanted.
My project focused on people's reluctance to even start conversations about gun control, and used the perspective of comedy to try and ease the discomfort that comes with difficult topics. The book, split into four chapters (or “acts”, plus intermission) uses a humorous tone and a variety of comedic and design tactics to try and answer the question "how do you start a conversation no one wants to have?" Each chapter addresses one act from This American Life, and what comedy tactics I’ve layered on top of it to start the conversation. On top of using tactics like hyperbole, callbacks, timing, calling out the game, etc. I also used the visual tactics of experimental typography, photography, pacing, color, and other strong visuals. For this project, I pulled from my backgrounds in writing, design, improv comedy, public speaking, and debate.
We were down the highway from Newtown, Connecticut. For the rest of the day, we checked the news on our phones while our teachers and administrators ignored it. Just like they ignored the police officers and squad cars that had descended on the high school. At the end of the day, we expected an announcement over the PA system. An acknowledgment of the event, at least. But none came. It was easier to just ignore it and wait.
The framing device of this book is my own experience in high school when the Sandy Hook shooting took place twenty minutes up the highway. My voice is present throughout this book. Literally, it’s seen in all the chapter introductions and the intermission, and even when the words are from This American Life, my voice is evident through those visual tactics. I made no secret of the fact that I have an opinion and a voice. Instead of suppressing that voice, I argued, it’s important to understand it and add it to the conversation. Silence gets us nowhere.
The rest of the structure pairs up acts of the This American Life episode with different ideas about comedy writing (e.g. stop being so general, you can’t teach timing, etc.) In this way, each idea becomes the lens through with the reader can see the stories in this episode. Additionally, they also become different tactics in the conversation about gun control.
Why are generalizations so bad in constructive conversations? Sure, they can be offensive and gloss over nuance, but at their core, they also don’t mean much. Talking too generally makes almost anything seem plausible. They leave room for people to fill in the blanks with their own logic and rationale. This makes them unhelpful when it comes to complex issues, but it also makes them terrible for comedy. Specificity, on the other hand, is good at getting a laugh. It has an impact. Even the difference between waiting for “a long time” and “eighty-two minutes” feels different.
After pairing up the four acts of the NPR piece with comedic and visual tactics, there was still something missing. My comedy experience taught me the importance of balance and contrast. So, I gave the book an intermission. My roommate Jordan and I took four stage boxes and did an improvised photoshoot, one of the most enjoyable parts of this project. The end result was a fun breather in the middle of the book, with an important conversational lesson to boot.
It was very important to me that the comedy never trivialized this very serious subject. Comedy and satire are powerful tools for societal critique. Through my comedic interpretation of the This American Life episode, I wanted to lay bare a stressful, important topic that had an impact on my life, as it has impacted countless other Americans.
The lesson is that we cannot stop talking about subjects just because we find them uncomfortable. In fact, that’s when we have to talk about them the most.
I have a habit of laughing at things when I’m nervous. I use comedy to cope with things I don’t want to face head on. When you’re laughing, that thing seems a lot less daunting. Gun control is a daunting, scary topic. But we have to talk about it. If we can’t acknowledge a shooting like Sandy Hook on the day it happens, then we have a problem. There’s no right way to talk about this, but we have to start somewhere. Comedy was my gateway to finding my voice. Maybe it can give other their voices too. Maybe it can make people less scared about even addressing this subject.