An Interview with the Stand-Up Comedian David Heti

DownloadedFile-3 had the opportunity to recently interview the stand-up comedian David Heti.  Samples of his work – which include videos, podcasts, and blog entries – can be found on his website/blog:

I ran into David recently when he did a show with a group of comedians in Toronto. We talked after the show and agreed to have an interview by way of the email.  Here is the interview.  (Do note that I will be posting a blog or two on his comedic work over the next week as a follow up to this interview.)


SIT: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by the Schlemiel-in-Theory Blog!  I am very excited to be interviewing you since you are the first comedian Schlemiel-in-theory – a blog that is only 6 months old – has interviewed.  In the near future, we hope to interview more.  The point of these interviews is to understand how you, the comedian, understand yourself and what you do best.  (You can reply if you wish.)

DH: I could use help in understanding how I understand myself. Thank you. Thank you very much for this opportunity. As a comedian schlemiel-in-fact, perhaps—at least, that’s the subtext here, no? (It’s ok, I’m ok with it)—it’s nice to have found maybe somewhat something of a home. Indeed, I first came to your blog when in need of some comedy theory succor, and now here we are. So it’s a beautiful thing.

SIT: One of the interesting things about comedy that can be learned from the Talmud is that a Rabbi should open with a joke before teaching a lesson.  The reason for this is because it “opens up the senses” and makes it easier for one to learn something that can deeply affect them.  That said, what joke would you like to tell?

DH: But that whole first paragraph was a joke. Come on, what do you mean? No, but really, I think that’s a fascinating, entirely humbling tradition. I’m no Rabbi, but…

If you ask yourself whether life’s worth living…and…if you think about it…and, I mean, really think about it…like…all the time…like…if that’s all you ever do…like if that’s all you ever do…then…it really isn’t.

SIT: Why did you choose that joke?

DH: There are many reasons. First, it’s my joke. It is one, though, that I can recall telling only a handful of times, most presumably on account of it having never really worked. (Accordingly, the wording may not be quite right, as it’s yet to have come into any ostensible final form.)

Second, I feel like it’s a joke that attempts to speak to universal themes with respect to both life and comedy, not to mention—keeping in mind both the interview and blog—the schlemiel and rabbinic traditions. What is life? What is comedy? Why is life a comedy? Is life a comedy? Necessarily? For whom? Etc.

I also like how the joke isn’t—at least in my opinion—so expressly funny. Most especially with respect to a joke about life itself, the fact that a joke may not be funny can in fact contribute to its comedic merit. Sometimes a joke may simply set the stage for other jokes or whatever else is to follow.

Also, one time after telling this joke, a comic whom I’d never met before came up to me and said, somewhat curiously somberly, that he really appreciated it. And it’s making these little in fact not so insignificant connections—with comics in particular—that makes telling jokes—if at least only apparently so—feel so possibly meaningful or important.

SIT: Tell me about yourself.  Where do you come from? What kind of family did you grow up in?  And why did you decide to become a comedian?

DH: I come from an upper-middle class Jewish-Hungarian background, though I was born and raised in Toronto. My parents are professionals, both working in the sciences, whereas my one sibling—an older sister—like, more or less, myself, is in the arts. (Her name is Sheila Heti and she’s a wonderful writer.)

My family was very small, without too many extended relatives or at least very few whom we ever saw. There was pretty much absolutely no religious feeling in the home, though we did go to my grandmother’s for the holidays, though it was very much really about family only, not religion. I’d say my sister and I were quite free to speak our minds and question whatever we liked.

I’m not sure why I decided to become a comedian. I mean, there’s not that very much in the world that holds my interest or seems worthwhile (i.e., for me or perhaps even ultimately), so in one way it’s a sort of default response. (I’d imagine that if most things didn’t appear so ridiculous to comics, then there’d be no comedy. Comedy most certainly addresses what is, but by way of an immediate evading. Comedy, for me, is a ceaseless cutting down and exposing.) Divorce.

SIT: In your pantheon of comedians, who are the most important and why?

DH: My reply to this question has pretty much always been Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield. As a child, through my father’s love of his films, I was exposed to an inordinate amount of Woody Allen. So it’s perhaps somewhat just an accident of history. He was in effect my Walt Disney.

It’s hard to say whether I would’ve taken to these comedians later in life had I not been exposed to them so early on. That is, it’s possible that they were, quite literally, my formative comedic influences. I would say, though, that most likely a sense of humor is secondary, in that it must come after and in response to a more foundational sentiment of life. Woody Allen speaks to my sense of the absurd and ridiculous. Also, it’s always heartening to listen to recordings of his stand-up and recognize that intelligent comedy can succeed, find an audience and be amazing.

Rodney Dangerfield is just such an artist or craftsman. His stand-up comedy is so unbelievably simple and immediately accessible. He gets away with telling the simplest, silliest, dumbest and cleverest jokes, but in a way which makes you think that he’s the greatest genius you’ve ever seen. To be able—through the presentation of yourself as a buffoon—to command the highest respect, is such a hilarious, magical, innocent trick.

Aside from stand-up comics, Monty Python played a huge role too. I seem to recall singing their dirtier songs around the house (e.g. sit on my face and tell me that you love me) before even knowing what they lyrics meant. Maybe I just knew.

SIT: What makes your stand-up comedy unique and different from other comedians?

DH: I believe that I’m much happier than most other comics to leave the audience feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps most especially on account of our greater and general, traditionally post-modern disillusionment with ideas of truth, sincerity, objectivity, simplicity, etc., there’s something now intrinsically, sometimes painfully unfunny about somebody’s standing before you with the intention I’m going to go make you laugh, and then going and making you laugh. What could possibly be unfunnier than that? What could possibly more satisfy an audience’s expectations as to what the world ought or is supposed to be, which is precisely a non-comedic experience?

I’m not trying to make audience members feel terrible about themselves or that they’ve wasted their time, but in a very real way, if you’re not fucking with the audience or you’re not fucking with the form of stand-up comedy itself, then I’m not really sure what you’re doing. It’s ever-evolving and inward-turning—as what comedy is changes as what comedy is changes (or vice-versa)—but if comedy is to be in any way meaningful and more than just simple joke-making or entertainment, then it must be critical, which means self-critical. I believe that comedy—properly and at its best—is entirely, infinitely destabilizing.

And in a way I feel like an idiot because I really don’t want to suggest that I don’t respect or take pleasure from comics I see who don’t attempt anything like this. It’s just for me, at least at this time, I’ve little to no interest in putting out into the world any other kind of comedic performance.

SIT: Do you like telling jokes that may offend people?  And what’s the worst response you have received from a joke?  What happened?

DH: I’m not sure that I ever really want to offend. First, I just don’t think that’s a very nice thing to do. Second, I’m not sure what’s gained by an audience’s feeling only, mainly or even just very much offence; I’m not sure what that engenders. To confuse or create self-questioning or self-doubt in an audience member (e.g., as to whether they ought to feel offended) is wonderful, but that’s different than to cause offence, which to me suggests something far simpler.

I’ve had, I would imagine, my fair share of angry outbursts from the audience, but I’d say that the worst response I ever received from a joke was when a man with whom I was sort of friends just sort of silently walked out of the room, in what I can only imagine was incredible anger and hurt. At the time, I’d been telling jokes for about only a couple of months.

What happened was that I had one really nice joke about the telling a joke about the rape and murder of this woman…which the man in the audience loved. It turned out that his wife or mother (I can’t remember which) had in fact been raped and murdered, and he really, genuinely appreciated the joke. I remember him speaking to me after a set and we had a really lovely conversation about art, comedy and performance.

Bolstered, I suppose, by this incredible response to what was obviously a dangerous subject-matter, I then wrote a joke about my telling that joke. It just ended up being incredibly contrived, unartful and uninspired, and I suppose somewhat incredibly exploitative of my then newfound friend’s goodwill, pain and openness. It was just a dishonest process and intention.

I don’t believe that I’ve ever hurt someone more with a joke. I don’t think anyone’s ever had as much reason to be upset with a joke of mine.

SIT: When I heard you do a little stand-up, I noticed a few Jewish jokes.  You also mentioned that some people may consider you a “self-hating Jew.”  Do you consider yourself a Jewish comic?  And what do you think of those people who may think you are self-hating?  Do you have a message for them?

DH: Hmm…I’m not sure, but I think that the joke you’re referring to has me asking myself whether I think I’m a self-hating Jew. It’s not about others’ perceptions.

I most certainly consider myself a Jewish comic, but then what does that mean? I don’t think that there’s such thing as a universal comic or joke or comedic sensibility. Every joke assumes particular epistemic, linguistic, cultural, moral, etc. understandings and assumptions. I am Jewish, and Jewish feeling, history and values inform everything that I do and all the jokes that I tell, even if the jokes themselves may not be expressly about Jews or Jewishness. I suppose, though, ultimately, I would say that I have a fairly traditional Jewish comedic sensibility, yes.

As for the last part of your question, to those who may think I’m self-hating, I might say that hate is a very strong word. Certainly, I have self-doubt, but then I suppose that’s my value, but then I suppose that’s because that’s who I am. Am I supposed to disconfirm these people’s suspicions? Really, others can think what they like, about both me and self-hating.

SIT: What, to your mind, is the relationship of comedy to depression and suffering?

DH: I don’t think that one needs to suffer or be depressed to create or appreciate comedy. Perhaps in a perfect world there would be no possibility or place for comedy, but depression and suffering to me suggest terrible extremes. An appreciation of the comedic requires not only the intellect to understand, but the emotions to feel. For instance, can one identify something as funny without experiencing it as such? Can I think something objectively funny if I don’t find it subjectively so?

I think that contentment doesn’t necessarily lead to comedy, but then neither does the inability to feel happiness. Really, though, it’s been my experience that most comics aren’t the happiest people, or so it seems. Of course, the world of comedy itself is tough, but I think it attracts those who feel a kind of ultimate discomfort.

SIT: What “culture” do you most identify with and how does this culture come into your work?

DH: If I’ve understood the question correctly, I probably most identify with what I understand to be Mediterranean culture. Maybe I’ve a completely incorrect, romanticized idea of what that is, but their values, truths and aspirations appear to be very honest and undeniable. There’s sun, sand, simple food and half-naked bodies. This may come into my work by way of affecting a bluntness or directness or simplicity. There’s also an acknowledgment of the finitude of life, in addition to the utter poverty of any metaphysical basis for whatever notions of good or right.

SIT: In one of our conversations, you mentioned that you saw a blog post I had on Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner.  And what struck us both as most interesting was the fact that Gene Wilder said he didn’t always find his jokes so funny?  What kind of jokes make you laugh?  And do you laugh at your own jokes?  And do you think it is a comedians job to make people laugh? Or feel better through humor?

DH: I like jokes that reveal to me an absurdity which I’d never before thought of or recognized. Also, I like just sublimely ridiculous jokes. Sometimes I laugh at my own jokes. If it’s a new joke, I may laugh on stage, but then I can also laugh when listening to recordings of older sets.

Whether it’s a comedian’s job to make people laugh…this is a tough one. This is a tough one no less because of what I like to try to achieve with my own stand-up. I think that what belongs to a comedian’s art is humour. But humor isn’t synonymous with laughter. Laughter is only one kind of response to humour. (Though if we’re talking about the comedian’s job, then, yes, it is about laughter, but then beer and ticket sales too.)

This is also a very hard question, but, no, I don’t believe that belongs to a comedian to make people feel better through humor. I think that, more often than not, audiences feeling better is a byproduct of what a good comedian normally does, but that’s not the essence of comedy. For instance, if you look at the old Soviet era jokes, they were unimaginably bleak. What they ended up doing was revealing even deeper injustices and absurdities than the listener may have been aware of. In communicating to the listener I understand what you’re going through and we see the world similarly, you will almost invariably make them feel better, but then you can do this while at the same time revealing that the world is shit. This is a very complicated question.

SIT: From our discussions, I have learned that you were a philosophy major in University and then you went on to law school and actually practiced law.  Does philosophy or even legal practice or legal issues ever enter into your comedy routines or jokes?

DH: I wouldn’t say that I have jokes about philosophy or law per se, but certainly my comedy is informed by a philosophical disposition and way of understanding the world through the philosophical and legal. I enjoy playing with ambiguity, especially with respect to questions of morals and propriety. What’s potentially most comedic is that which speaks to what’s gravest or most sacred. What’s gravest or most sacred are notions of truth and morality, etc.

SIT: Sarah Silverman has said that it is, so to speak, healthy for a comedian to be offensive and travel the edge of racism, sexism, etc.  She says that by doing this, she is working through things that we all have in us whether we admit to it or not.  Do you agree with her?  And do you have anything to add to this?

DH: I agree with her more or less. Again, perhaps to offend is just one element. Certainly, though, it’s healthy to provoke self-questioning.

SIT: In the Sarah Silverman show, Sarah had a controversial episode where she sleeps with “God” and the next day tells him to leave. Here’s the clip:  What do you think of this joke?  What does it accomplish?

DH: I think it’s a funny premise and a cute sketch. I’m not sure if I’m missing some subtext or something, but this was controversial somehow? To whom? It doesn’t deal in or with reality. What it accomplishes is a nice little break in my day. (And I really like Sarah Silverman! But this sketch to me isn’t so representative of what makes her great.)

SIT: Last question: The classical American schlemiel joke has three players in it: the schlemiel, the shlimazel, and the nudnik.  Here’s a slightly modified version of it: All three of them go into a restaurant to eat a meal.  The waitress is nowhere to be found so the shlimazel asks the schlemiel to get him a bowl of soup.  The schlemiel gets the soup and brings it to the table, hoping not to screw up.  But when s/he gets to the table s/he drops the soup in the shlimazel’s lap.  The shlimazel gets up, screams at the schlemiel, and laments his ever asking the schlemiel to do anything.  In the midst of this, the nudnik gets up and says, “Ah that’s too bad…What kind of soup was it?” Of the three comic characters, who do you most identify with and why?  (If you wish, you can pick more than one.)

DH: Can I be the soup?

(I’m not sure why the schlimazel has to yell at the schlemiel after the soup is dropped, but I do like how he says that we don’t have to be without food just because the waitress isn’t around. Perhaps I identify most with the schlimazel’s irreverence.)

SIT: Thanks for this interview; its been a great pleasure and a learning experience (?)  Do you have anything you’d like to say before you “close shop?”

DH: Just thank you very much for the opportunity and very thoughtful questioning. These were some difficult questions I had to ask myself. I hope you continue with these interviews.






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