A Q&A with comedian David Heti, and it was more than OK

Why aren’t philosophers listed in the Yellow Pages?  I need a philosopher to articulate the reasons for my existential dread.  I could use a philosopher combined with a lawyer.  Lawyers construct arguments as beautiful as geometric theorems to force us to address the wrongs that created the dread in the first place.

What if I found a philosopher lawyer who is also a comedian?  The problems of existence are survivable if we can laugh at it all.  Imagine if such a person existed and he would come to your house to ease your existential dread by pointing out its absurdity and making it funny?

This person exists.   David Heti (pronounced “Hetty”) is a Toronto born, Montreal-based comedian whose album It Was OK was re-released by Stand Up! Records on May 5.  He won’t actually, most of the time, come to your house (read below about his tour in Newfoundland), but you can summon his presence with his album and DVD.David Heti album cover 2

David has been compared to Woody Allen in looks and style, but his comedy is its own league of brilliant and fearless, luminous and dark.   Tall with Talmudic gestures, he gives the appearance of folding and unfolding.  His jokes parallel his moves, unfolding with precise evocative language on topics most people don’t want to touch at an angle that is always completely original.

How original is he?

Did I mention that in addition to holding degrees in philosophy and law, he works in bioethics reviewing publications for a children’s hospital and is a lecturer in comedy writing at McGill University?

Or that he was fired by Canada’s Department of Justice because of his stand-up?

If choosing comedy over law was fearless, his material is way more fearless even than that.   David’s opening, “Please hold your laughter until the end” is a request you will be unable to obey and tells you immediately that you are about to hear something unique.

His comic perspective covers the most jagged, disquieting edges of human existence: everything from going home again to relationships to abortion to pedophilia to racism to God’s sexual preferences to the Holocaust.   As befits a lawyer and philosopher, his writing is sublime.  It is delivered softly but with a wallop.  It will wake you up like drinking coffee laced with steroids in a rocket ship blasted into territory previously uncharted.  It is funny, powerful and effective.

David’s comfort with discomfort borders on the epic.  While his delivery on stage is in part a persona, it is also emblematic of a philosophical outlook that promotes radical truth telling as a way to shed light on all that is broken.

Off stage, too, life’s tough issues are no match for this comedian.  Consider his podcast, “I Have a Problem, With David Heti.”   For this series, he invited guests to “air and discuss a grievance against him.  Accusation, argumentation, recrimination and more, it’s an intimate, honest, and—at least for David—generally quite entirely uncomfortable exchange.”

He also created a web series, “What Went Wrong with Last Night’s Show?”  Both series are as honest and unflinching as they sound.  You’ll find the former on iTunes, the latter on his web site, davidheti.com where in the same fire-eating spirit, he displays the terrible letter from the Department of Justice summoning him to human resources.

David kindly took time out to speak with me by phone about comedy and courage.  Following is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you decide to become a lawyer and what was it like?

A: I started out in undergrad in philosophy. I loved philosophy; the argumentation and the thinking and the questions.  I wasn’t going to forward philosophy, so I needed something to do and law seemed like the same sort of concerns.  It was also practical.  It seemed like the safe thing to do. It gave me an opportunity to live in Montreal where I went to school.  It was also a little bit of killing time.

The experience was kind of discombobulating.  It was very confusing to be in a professional world where people take things very seriously and where this whole picture of a successful human is constantly pushed upon you in order to make you want to go into the big businesses and the big firms.

I remember sitting in an office with no windows concerned with footnoting and commas and I was like, this is not how you’re supposed to spend your blink-of-an-eye existence.

Q: When the Department of Justice sent the letter about your comedy, what specifically were they objecting to and how did they even learn about it?

A: When I applied, my cover letter and my resume mentioned that I do stand-up.  In my interview they asked me about it and I told them a joke.  Everything was on the table.  They hired me and I think they were charmed.

Then about two months into my contract, I got an email from H.R. saying please come and talk to us.  My suspicion is that some lawyer I was working for was curious about “who’s this new kid?,” googled me and found my stand-up.

The person in H.R. opened up this dossier of my stand-up and said, “Look, what happens if you’re thought of as being a misogynist?”  It was weird because you could accuse me of being an anti-Semite and a pedophile, but it was just a misogyny thing, and I said “This is an act.  I’m saying these things in front of a microphone.  No one is going to hear me saying them in court. What would happen if Marlon Brando worked here?  People wouldn’t think the Godfather was working for the DOJ.”

I found it really disheartening.  They claimed it was a conflict of interest. The letter was drafted by external lawyers.  Consultants had to help government lawyers draft the thing and it is worded very carefully.   Out of sixteen first-year lawyers, I was the only one not asked back.  I think I was the only one not asked back in ten years.

It was terrible because part of the reason I went to the Department of Justice was that I had this notion that they were a force for good and that they actually understood the tension of comedy and institutional/governmental/normative behavior. I loved that. I thought it was a beautiful antagonism. But they didn’t.

Q: I’ve found some lawyers don’t have a sense of humor.

A:  Yes. People in power, people who are very invested in the world of the serious.

Q: A comedian’s ability to see subtle things in the world would seem a good thing for law.

A: I think it is. It’s all critical thinking.  It’s all language.  It’s all making these subtle interpretations and categorical distinctions in what you’re seeing before you.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a comedian and how did you get started?

A: I’m not sure when I knew.  In high school every graduating student had to do a year-long project.  Someone built a canoe.  Someone made a musical album.  I put together a five-minute set that I performed at amateur night at a comedy club outside of Toronto.

After that, I didn’t do it for about four years.  Then I had a year off between my final year of undergrad and law school and I went to see a movie in Montreal and there was a comedy club in the same building as the movie theater.   I saw there was an amateur night and I thought, “Okay, I’ll do this.”

I had tons of free time. I was just taking French lessons to get into McGill.  So I did my first set.  It went well.  One of the local comedians said, “Hey, there’s a room that we put on. You should come.” So I connected with the community.

My comedy inspirations are more things like the Garbage Pail Kids, Mad Magazine and the Three Stooges.  It wasn’t really stand-up so much, although whenever we visited family in Los Angeles or New York, we would go to a comedy show.  I don’t remember going in Toronto and there is a lot of stand-up in Toronto, so that is a weird thing.

Q: So what inspired you to do stand-up?

A: I always thought I was one of the funnier people in school.  Not as a class clown, but in a social critic way.  I thought it was something I could do.  There’s a little bit of ego in it. Everyone’s eyes are on you.   There’s something attractive and sexy about that.  But it also seemed like a fascinating way to communicate to the world all these perverse ideas.    Also, it’s simple.  I don’t like [having] lots of things.  I do shows with burlesque dancers sometimes and they’re towing behind them a huge suitcase of their make-up and outfits.  I played hockey for years lugging a bag around.   It’s simple being a comic.  Pen and paper.  That’s it.

Q: Which comedians make you laugh?

A: Woody Allen was my first favorite stand-up.  And Rodney Dangerfield is brilliant and beautiful and simple, sophisticated and accessible, and he affects such pathos.  Today, Kurt Metzger, Maria Bamford and Big Jay [Oakerson] make me laugh a lot.

Q: Your comedy is very fearless and your sister [author Sheila Heti] also has the reputation of being fearless.  What is the source of your fearlessness?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is that we’re blithely unaware of the impact of what’s being said or of the force of it.  Sheila and I were raised not to be embarrassed.  Our father would purposely embarrass us in public to make us learn that it’s okay to do what you want and be what you want, despite what others may think.

When I was in high school with my buddies somewhere and one of us had to impose on the wait staff or something I would always be the one they would turn to to make the fuss because I wouldn’t care.  I would just think this is right and needs to be done.

I also think it’s rooted in a greater ethical framework where it’s okay to poke, to disrupt in order to open up thinking or awareness or discomfort.  If you’re always self-assured, you’re not really thinking. You’re not really being conscious of your surroundings.  What else is there, really, but to alter what people took for granted before?

Q: What kind of things did your dad do to embarrass you in public?

A: He would make fusses. He wouldn’t follow rules.  I think it’s a very Jewish-Hungarian sort of mentality.  Hungarians constantly think they know what’s best.  We often went to a local Chinese restaurant.  My sister didn’t like the food, so she would always have a slice of pizza with her.

Some people would say, “No, you have to conform.  You have to make a sacrifice. Tonight the family is doing this.  Next week we’ll do that.”

My father said, “What’s the harm?  Who cares if we bring a slice of pizza?”   It’s the same thing with jokes.  People are entering into a contract when they enter into a comedy space. So you need to explore those limits.

Q: Does your background in philosophy and law influence your comedy?

A: I like to think completely.   There are jokes, there are certain funny moments, but then there are also deeper ideas you can communicate through a joke.  There are existential, psychological issues which I’m concerned with which are expressed through the comedy.  When people say about one of my jokes, “It’s a Holocaust joke,” I think, no, it’s not a Holocaust joke. It’s a coming to terms with the evil of the world joke.

In an interview in The Paris Review, Imre Kertész, a Hungarian writer and Holocaust survivor said something like, “When we left the camps, all we took home with us were our jokes.”   And then he qualified it saying, “I’m not sure how to think about this.”  I said in a set once, “Who is to say who has the right to speak to anything? Some say the only people who can truly speak to something as horrific and unimaginable as the Holocaust are those who never came back.”

But I think what’s nice about comedy, that’s nicer than philosophy and law, is you don’t have to profess categorically.  The comic’s space is a space of uncertainty and ambiguity and double-sidedness.  What made me uncomfortable in law was that I wasn’t always certain what the answer was or whether we were arguing for argument’s sake.

I understand the idea of the adversarial approach and at the end of the day, the truth emerges from the confrontation, but the fact is it’s not how it works.   I was the government arguing against some immigrant who didn’t speak English.  What kind of fight is that?

As a comedian, I like being able not to take such categorical stands. I think it’s a nice way of going. And it’s also an honest way.

Q: What does your comedy say about you?

A: Maybe a little detached, I suppose?  I’ve heard, “I don’t know who you are after you get on stage.  You’re nothing of yourself.”  And I can sort of see this.  It’s not about my experience, really. It’s more of the intellect, it’s more of the reason and of playing with ideas and values.

What it says about me?  A little cold, possibly.  You could also say very playful.  It’s a bizarre thing to be the most social when it’s a one-sided conversation.  Comics, I think, are totally self-involved.  You’re talking at people and then you go back to your room and you write things down on a paper all day.  No one is going out and joining stand-up troupes.  I don’t talk to the audience.  I don’t do crowd work.  I don’t look at them.   It’s all part of the act.

Q: How close is your onstage persona to you?

A: I’m a critical person. I like to call people’s values and assumptions into question. Maybe there’s a nihilistic streak and a belief that we’re all self-interested animals.  But it’s also a little bit of a performance.

I remember at first really having to concentrate on pushing the audience away and pulling them back again. Like being this really repulsive character, but then saying no, no, no, I mean this as a joke. I want to diffuse any defensiveness an audience member might have.  To remind them, these are jokes.

Q: Are you ever apprehensive about how a joke might be received?

A: Yes, sure.  But I think that more and more it’s about the placement of a joke in the context of the set.  I don’t think of any joke in isolation.   How could I set this up so as to allow people to accept what I’m saying?   There’s a greater balance of the whole set which is at least as interesting as every single idea.

Certain jokes I don’t tell anymore because they’re too one-sided.  They’re too simplistic.  Like the joke that I ended on for years I don’t tell anymore.  I can tell it if you’d like.

Q: I’d love to hear it.

A: It’s “I’ve been feeling like a little bit of a prick recently.  I lied to this girl so she would sleep with me.  I told her I was dying of cancer.  But it’s AIDS.”

A comic I really respect, Jason Rouse, came up to me and he said, “You can’t end on that joke anymore because it’s far more simplistic than the rest of your material.”  And I said, “Yeah, that’s true.”

You have to look at every joke in relation to every other. Not just the subject matter, but the sophistication or the subtlety.  Each joke’s identity is received as a reflection of the others’ and how the others’ reflect on that one.  So it’s a real curatorial process. It’s a lot of time structuring all these jokes and putting them in a certain sequence.

Q: How do you develop and write your material?  I noticed that your jokes are beautifully written.

A: Whenever an idea comes to mind I write it down.   Then it’s a lot of very close editing, so they are epigrammatic.  It’s also a lot going up on stage and going on feeling  more and intuition.

Q: Is a feel for a joke’s rhythm and balance something you’re born with or is it something that can be learned?

A: You learn it.  As you get older, you learn better how to seduce someone.  You learn how to charm someone and you find how to charm a room full of people.  It is a lot of trial and error. You get a sense of how much delay you need between certain ideas.

There are some times on stage my mind wanders and it’s just muscle memory.  And then I’m like, oh, this is the rhythm of this joke.  Then your mouth comes on and just forms the words.  Also, you have a different emotional state every day or you may feel physically ill when you have a set.  So to be able to rely on the mechanics is pretty important.

Q: In one of your podcasts you said that you like unsettling people.  Why is that a valuable thing to do?

A: There’s a quote by Kierkegaard which I very much like about constant self-questioning.  It’s something like, the person who says “I am Abraham” is not the ethical person.  It is the person who asks, “Am I Abraham?”  This lack of self-certainty is the core of the ethical attitude.  The opposite is fanaticism or absolutism.  If people are walking around thinking “I am a fallible creature,” that’s what allows for a more empathetic, caring world.  You don’t have the horrors of excess.

This is the heart of philosophical inquiry and what my jokes try to hit.  That’s why I can be fairly divisive and people have strong reactions.   That’s the point.  I’m not saying it with malicious intent.

I think comedy is a social corrective.  You’re constantly drawing light on what is wrong and you’re also diffusing it.  You’re saying we could laugh as another way of responding.  I’ve never been the happiest person, really.   But if that’s your disposition, what’s your alternative?  What are your coping mechanisms?  You can dull your mind with drugs and alcohol or lose yourself in addictions whether it’s sex or gambling or eating to kill your thoughts.  But you can also engage head-on and that’s a nice thing for other people going through similar things and you’re overcoming the confrontation of yourself with the world through humor.

Q: As a teacher of comedy writing, what are the best and worst things a student can do?

A: The best thing is not waiting to make the jokes you want to make.  Don’t shy away.  If you don’t have the fortitude to try things and cross the line, you won’t learn.  My students have to work. They have to have patience.  They have to have humility and understand that they may not be good at first.  I would also say, try to be very honest and to have some quiet to understand yourself and what you feel about life.  Try to find what moves you, what affects you, what makes you sad.  The worst things are not working and not being open to questioning assumptions.

Q: Do you have a favorite or craziest thing that has happened since you’ve been a comedian?

A: One summer I did a tour with another comedian, Morgan O’Shea.  We took the ferry to Newfoundland and did sixteen shows in eighteen days on the East Coast.  As far as I know, no other comics had done this and our shows were the first in a lot of these places.  These were small towns in one of the least populated provinces.

We had no place to sleep, so in the middle of our sets we’d say, “By the way, if anyone would like to give us a place to sleep, we would love that.”

At one show, there were about ten nineteen-year-old kids heckling and giving us a hard time. Afterward they said, “Why don’t you come out with us and hang out?”  We were beholden to these people to take us in, but also felt their total generosity of spirit.  We needed a place to stay, but were also really happy to meet them, so it was this weird dynamic.

So we go with these kids. We go to a bonfire on a beach.  We’re out there until four in the morning and this guy takes us home and we’re staying in his mom’s basement.  We wake up in the morning and we’re sitting in the backyard in July.  It’s beautiful weather and they’re having cigarettes and we’re kind of drinking and my friend and I are just like, “We’re two thirty-year-old men who this kid has brought home. What are we doing? We’re like hobos.”

But there was so much love and good spirit and happiness and hospitality and we had given them a nice show.  They were happy to have us.  The whole thing made no sense.  But it was a lovely moment.

Q: What is a typical day for you?

A: These days, I’m sleeping at different peoples’ places.  I was crashing at three different places in New York for a couple of weeks.  I was at my dad’s place for four days and then I went to Montreal and I’m staying somewhere else, at a friend’s place for the next couple of months who’s given me his apartment.  It’s a lot of walking around.   It’s a lot of booking my own shows.  Everything feels very interstitial.  There’s no routine. I have no desk.  I have no regular bed.  There’s no home.  There’s no center.  I live out of a bag.  It’s lonely sometimes and exciting.  It has its hardships.  But it also has tons of freedoms.  If I wanted to have the lawyer’s life I could.

Q: Comedy has such an important place in the world.

A: Someone asked me, “What do you think of your friend’s partner?”  You know how when someone has an illness, you lower your voice and say “cancer.”  I said, “They’re a bit humorless” and I lowered my voice without thinking at all.   And I realized the degree of what that human being is lacking. It was a weird thing to understand that’s what it meant, the severity of it.

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It Was OK is available on iTunes and also on Amazon as a CD/DVD package.  David Heti’s comedy is also included on The Best of Montreal Comedy Album.  Visit his website at www.davidheti.com.

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