False friends and other stuff

As I wrote about previously, learning at least one other language is something that’s good for your brain, and not necessarily as hard to do as you might think, especially depending on how your native and second languages are related. For an English speaker, Germanic and Romance languages are probably easier to learn than Semitic or Japonic languages. Not necessarily the case — I know plenty of Americans who’ve learned Hebrew as pre-teens or learned Japanese because of a love of Anime and Manga — but sticking to other languages with common roots will help.

And if you learn one language from a family, while you may not be able to fluently speak related languages, you may at least be able to understand them. From learning Spanish, I can often understand spoken Italian, as well as frequently be able to read French and Portuguese. No such luck with Romanian, though. And yes, although it might be a surprise to some people, Romanian is a Romance Language, too. In fact, it’s the one that gave the family its name. Because I’d studied German, Dutch made sense to me when I dabbled in it. And so on.

But… a funny thing can happen as languages diverge from their origins and change. All of the Romance languages came from Latin. They are the remnants of the Roman Empire, after all. But all of them evolved and changed until they went from being street dialects of the imperial tongue to their own very separate things. The same thing happened with English. It started out as a language spoken by a tribe on an island off of the west coast of Europe with influences from a different language from other tribes on an island off of that island’s west coast. This got a heavy early dose of Latin thanks to Roman invaders. Then, a few centuries later, it was infused with Nordic Languages via the Vikings and, for a while, the kings there were Danish.

That all ended when ol’ William the Conqueror came roaring in in 1066, bringing French with him. In fact, for a long time, the nobility spoke French while the peasants spoke English and everybody went to church in Latin. We can still see remnants of the Norman Conquest today. It’s so often cited that it’s not really news, but that’s why we have different words for the animals: cow, pig, chicken, sheep; and for the meat from them, beef, pork, poultry, mutton. The former are all old Anglo-Saxon terms and the latter are French. The peasants grew the stuff. The nobility ate it.

The French roots are still really obvious in the latter: boeuf, porc, poulet, mouton. Meanwhile, the Germanic roots are really clear in the Anglo-Saxon words: Kuh, Schwein, Huhn, Schaf. The one odd one might seem to be chicken, Huhn — until you remember that we call a female chicken a… hen.

(Side note, looking at poulet and mouton: The reason that a lot of English words in British spelling have –ou where the American versions have just –o is that Samuel Johnson had a jones for preserving etymology, so words derived from French kept the French spelling — colour, behaviour, etc. Johnson was kind of a pedant — which is just a fancy Latin-based word for “douche.” But I do digress.)

The real point here is this: One of the big bugbears that language learners do face is what are called “False Friends.” That is, words in two different languages that look like each other, but actually have very different meanings. At their most harmless, they can lead to silly misunderstandings. At their most harmful, well… that’s self-explanatory.

Probably one of the most famous examples that any English speaker who takes Spanish 101 learns almost off the bat is this one: Embarazada. For those of you who haven’t studied Spanish, I’ll give you a moment to take a guess at what this word means. Hint: It’s an adjective.

While we’re waiting: One of the funniest (to me) Spanish errors someone can make is to leave the tilde off of the “n” in the word “años,” which means years. In Spanish, the phrase is not “He is X years old,” it is “He has X years.” So leaving the tilde off changes a statement like, “My grandfather (is) has seventy years (old)” to “My grandfather has seventy anuses.”

As for embarazada, what’s your guess? If you said embarrassed, then be embarrassed, because it actually means pregnant.

Speaking of actually… it’s generally easy to convert adverbs from English and Spanish and mostly be right. Adverbs that end with –ly in English end with –mente in Spanish. Probably, probablamente. So the word actualmente might look like it means actually… but it doesn’t. It means currently, as in “right now.” Actualmente escribo un artículo por mi blog. Right now, I’m writing an article for my blog.

Easey peasey. Or, in Spanish, pan comido, which literally means “eaten bread,” but I think you can see how that relates to another English saying: “piece of cake.”

Other fun false friends: Carpeta is not a carpet, which is alfombra, a word that Spanish borrowed from Arabic. Rather, carpeta is a folder, particularly a file folder. You’ll see this word all the time if you switch your devices to Spanish.

And there’s another one. Dispositivo might look like it has to do with disposing stuff, but it doesn’t. This is the word for devices, particularly phones and tablets.

If you work for a business or company, then you might feel like they’re getting all imperial on you. Easy mistake to make if you misinterpret the Spanish word therefore: Empresa.

Looking for a way out? Then you don’t want the éxito, which is actually a big hit — un gran éxito is a song or movie or TV show that earns a lot of money. If you really want to go, look for la salida.

If you want to introduce someone in Spanish, then don’t use introducir, because that means to insert something, and I don’t think you want to get that intimate with your… um… introductions. Instead, use presentar.

On the other hand, molestar in Spanish is a lot more innocuous than it is in English. If you molestas alguien en español, at most they’ll look at you funny and walk away. If you molest someone in English, you’ll probably wind up in jail and on a list. Molestar in Spanish simply means “to bother.” As Winnie the Pooh might say, “Ay, que molesta.”

Then, there’s this one: Fingir. I know what it looks like, but what it really means is “to pretend.” But if you go around fingering people in English… well, without their consent, don’t.

Finally, if you want to wash up, don’t reach for the sopa unless you want to bathe in soup. Otherwise, what you want is jabón… not to be confused with the Spanish word for ham, which is jamón. And this word may or may not have appeared in Michael Jackon’s “Bad.”

I haven’t done this in reverse, but let me know if you can. If you’re a non-native speaker learning English, what words in our language look like but aren’t words in your own? And if you’re an English speaker learning something other than Spanish, what false friends pop up in your target language?

Comment below!

Why you should learn another language (or two or three)

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been a major language nerd. I think it started when I was about seven years old and discovered that the stationary aisle of the local grocery store sold pocket dictionaries meant for travelers and I wound up buying the entire set because they were within the means of my first-grade allowance. I remember for sure that I had Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Russian. I think that Latin was another one, although I’m not as sure.

This began a life-long adventure, and I collected dictionaries and books on foreign languages left and right. I remember one dictionary that translated twenty-six languages side-by-side, and at its biggest, my library covered everything from Arabic to Vietnamese and nearly everything in between.

Sadly, I lost most of that about a decade ago in an abrupt move. However, all of those same resources are now online, so I didn’t really lose as much as I thought. And, since languages evolve, books may not be the best resource anymore. For example, when I first started learning Spanish, Ch, ll, and rr were considered separate letters, something that the Academia Real Española changed a few years back.

Speaking of school, when I found out on the first day of 7th grade that we had to take a language class and I was assigned to Spanish, I was ecstatic. I studied it for the next four years and when, after my junior year of high school, I had satisfied my language requirement, I said “What the hell?” and took a year of German, followed by another year of German as a Freshman in college. Fun fact: I swear that we learned more in the first two weeks of college German than I had in an entire year of high school German.

Other languages I’ve toyed with over the years, in no particular order: Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Gaelic, Japanese, and ASL. However, I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in any of them, although (for reasons that will become obvious below) I’ve actually become pretty good at being able to understand a lot of French, Italian, and Portuguese when I read it, and a lot of Italian when I hear it.

After school ended, I really didn’t keep up with studying or using Spanish or German, and so over time they faded — German more so, because I’d studied it less, obviously, but a lot of the Spanish as well and, while I could still understand more of it than the average gabacho, the finer points had escaped me.

Flash forward to about six years ago, when a play I’d written much closer to my high school years got produced, and a big part of it was set in Mexico City, meaning that there were two police characters who spoke a lot of Spanish. When I first wrote the play, that language was a lot fresher in my head, but because we were doing a lot of development and I was doing a lot of rewriting in rehearsal, it became necessary to write new dialogue for them. Fortunately, I had two native speakers in the cast who helped, but I realized that it was probably time for a refresher course, so I dove back in.

Six years later… I am surprised at how fluent I have become. I’m actually able to have conversations with people without getting lost and, it probably goes without saying, that in America’s current climate, being a white guy who speaks Spanish is probably as much a political statement as it is a cultural one. Apoyo ciento por ciento nuestros hermanos y amigos de Latinoamérica. Somos una gente y una familia todas conjuntas. And if you can understand that without running it through Google translate, good for you. (Oh, by the way… do not trust Google translate.)

So… about six years after I started to relearn Spanish as an adult, I’m at the point where I’m tackling an entire book in the language, and I’ve been reading the Spanish version of “Ready Player One.” Oh… one other thing. A few years ago, I tried to read «Rebelión en la granja», the Spanish translation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and I couldn’t even get through the introduction. Now, I’ve been breezing through the Spanish version of “Ready Player One,” and I’m really enjoying it. It’s funny and entertaining and all the jokes are coming through. I’ve also gotten to the point where I’m not stopping to look up words and I’m not translating into English in my head, and I am picking up new vocabulary by the bucket-load.

This isn’t a humble brag or anything. Rather, it’s encouragement. Americans whose first language is English are notoriously terrible when it comes to other languages, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are tons of resources online for learning another language, as well as groups of learners and speakers helping each other all over the place. And it is never too late to learn or to relearn. I had forgotten enough Spanish that I’d really dropped to near Peggy Hill levels of literacy. Now, I read the news in Spanish every day, I’m plowing through a YA novel in Spanish, I watch TV shows and movies and YouTube videos in Spanish, and I’m doing just great with it.

Can I pass myself off as a native and get away with it? Oh, hell no. I know that I make stupid mistakes all the time, like forgetting to plop the pronouns in the right place or messing up the gender of nouns or using present tense when it should have been preterit or imperfect, and being clueless on subjunctive and por vs. para. But… in making the effort, I find that native speakers are just as forgiving to me as I am to someone who is clearly not a native English speaker but gets the idea across. “Ooh, I can’t understand this person because they said ‘I has’ instead of ‘I have’ said no one with any empathy ever.”

And that’s really what it’s all about. The story of the Tower of Babel is a metaphor, but it is a very powerful one. It probably wasn’t a god that created all of those languages, but rather human nature, because we love to word play and make stuff up and create tribes based on common knowledge and in-jokes. But the end result is the same: We have turned different languages into a divisive thing when they should not be.

It never ceases to boggle my mind that so few Americans whose first language is English ever learn any other language. The figure is around 20%. And I know from experience — because I like to use other languages in my writing — that a lot of American Anglophone’s heads explode on sight of anything that isn’t English. And that’s just ridiculous.

Fun fact: Some of the founding fathers wanted to make America’s official language Hebrew instead of English. And when it comes to how languages work, Hebrew, like all the other Semitic languages, is about as different from English as you can get. They’re the Wheel of Fortune of Languages — “I’d like to buy a vowel.” (If you get that joke, I love you.)

If you speak more than just English, chime in in the comments and let us know which languages you speak and whether you’re American or not. If you are American but only speak English, then here’s my challenge to you. Think of a language you would like to learn, then go and learn it, and also tell me in the comments which language it is and why. And remember, like I said above: It is never too late to learn, and learning a new language is nowhere near as hard as you think it is.

After all — you learned your first language when you were a baby, right? And you probably spent at least the first four or five years with no official training other than people speaking it at you. See? That’s how easy it is to learn.

 

In praise of young people

I don’t think I’ve really mentioned it here, but around the end of 2016, I started taking improv classes because I found out that they were a thing and that a friend of mine taught them. Having been an actor in several past lives, one of the things that really scared me was going onstage without a script so, of course, in order to become stronger, I was determined to do something that really scared me.

And a funny thing happened between starting those classes and winding up actually doing improv onstage in front of people: I learned that I really, really like it. And I’d stumbled onto a great group: ComedySportz. If you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” then you kind of know the games we play. Two differences, though. We are a lot older than the TV show, founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1984 (yeah, Whose Line probably stole from us), and our shows are done as a competitive team sport — Red Team vs. Blue Team, with a referee.

After I’d graduated to performing for the company’s Monday night Rec League, I wound up working box office on show nights as well — long story. And this was where I really wound up confronting my self-imposed idea that I’m an introvert. Nope. Although I’m not always an extrovert, either. As it turns out, I’m somewhere in the middle, among a group of people called ambiverts.

Which is what made me realize, most surprisingly, is that I really like dealing with the public. Who knew? But, on top of that, ComedySportz has a College League, and once they came back into action this month, I’ve gotten to meet and deal with a lot of “kids” younger than 22-ish and young enough to be my kids and, since the High School Teams feed into College League, I’m often dealing with folk in the 15 to 22-year-old range.

And you know what? These “kids” give me a lot of hope for humanity. For one thing, they are not the same self-centered assholes that were my peer group at those ages. For another, they don’t seem to have the same stupid fearful boundaries that older generations had. Some of them are quite clearly and openly LGBTQ+, and none of their friends seem to care one way or the other —guys who are obviously straight don’t give a shit about being seen giving a hello hug to an obviously way out of the closet gay guy, and so on. And yeah, in general, they’re very huggy and supportive and it is a truly beautiful thing to see. All of the old and arbitrary borders are falling and acceptance is exploding.

I only hope that this world survives long enough for these kids to start taking power which, sadly, won’t be until at least the 2040s. But I have full faith that once they grab the reins they are going to steer this horse into the future over the corpses of the Baby Boomers who failed the planet and the Gen-Xers (yay me!) who weren’t given a chance because, q.v. fucking Baby Boomers.

And, in the distant future, the Millennials will become known as the new Greatest Generation if Gen Z doesn’t steal that title. You go, kids. Can I at least be your real-life Halliday or something? I mean, I was kind of born in the right era and all… 🙂

If you love it, you’ll learn it

When you’re learning a new language, there’s one excellent method to increase your vocabulary and improve your fluency, and here it is.

Different people have different learning styles. Some people learn visually. That is, if they see it, they won’t forget it. Others are auditory learners, who pick things up via hearing. And there are also people whose learning method is tactile, through touch or physical motion.

Now, some of those skills seem to apply obviously to certain disciplines. Painters are probably visual learners, musicians are auditory, and dancers are tactile. In the case of language, you might think that it’s an auditory skill, but that’s not necessarily the case. Fortunately, you can use different tricks to learn a new language via your own method.

For visual people, it’s all about words, so the obvious best natural ways for visual learners to pick up a new language are reading and watching.

For auditory people, it’s all about sound, so they’re going to want to listen, although videos won’t hurt if they do have sound as well.

For tactile people, it’s all about sensations, so they’re going to be doing a lot of writing things down by hand.

That part of the lesson may seem like a “Well, duh” moment, but the key is in what you’re reading, listening to, or writing. If you want to learn a new language, treat it like your first language.

That is, whether you’re reading, listening, watching, or writing, you’re going to want to do it with things on subjects that interest you. I can’t emphasize this enough. What you should be doing is seeking out online resources in your target languages — generally newspaper and magazine sites — and then focus on the sections that pertain to your interests.

Whether you’re a fan of movies, TV, sports, fashion, politics, or whatever, if the content in the target language you’re scooping into your brain via your preferred method happens to be about topics you already love, then your contextual understanding is going to go through the roof.

Why? Well, because specialized topics happen to use specialized words, and the quickest way to start to understand the heart of a language — which is how words are derived, how idioms are formed, and so on — is to pick up those words that were created to describe your favorite topic.

I’m a fan of film and theater, for example, so a word I see a lot is taquilla, which means box office. As in English, it’s both a literal and metaphorical meaning. It can refer to the physical place where tickets are sold or to the amount of money a film or play took in.

But where did taquilla come from? Well, like a lot of words in Spanish, it came from Arabic (La Conquista lasted for centuries), and taquilla is a diminutive for “taca.” That word, in turn, came from the Arabic taqah, which referred to a window with bars — a good physical description of a lot of actual box offices, actually.

Incidentally, pretty much any word in Spanish that begins with “al” came from Arabic, where the al- prefix just means “the,” similar to how Spanish combines the articles “a” (to) and “el” (the) into “al.” For example, algodón, which means cotton, and which is also the source of the English word; or alfombra, which means carpet, and this gets back to the focusing on what you love idea. Alfombra was permanently cemented in my brain after seeing it in a few articles about movie premieres always in this context: “en la alfombra roja.” On the red carpet.

The best part is that this is not just limited to Spanish, thanks to the internet (either la internet or la red), because you can probably pretty much find resources in any target language somewhere. If you want to read, you can find national newspapers in the native language and probably plenty of websites — and it will also be a big help to adjust Google’s language settings to include your target. If you want to watch or listen, then there are also tons of videos in other languages. And if you learn by writing, you’ll need source material, so transcribing audio or copying the written word will help as well.

But, again, the key to it is this one simple bit: engage with what you’re interested in in the first place, and it will make your target language come alive in a way that rote lessons or drills or routines never will.

Love it, live it, learn it!

Image © Syed Ikhwan. Used via Creative Commons license 2.0.

Tiny changes, big results

Sometimes, the smallest changes in your working space can make big differences in your work. Here’s a how and why on the zen of writing by not writing.

It’s amazing what a small change or two in your physical space can do for both your mood and productivity. This is especially important for writers who work from home. You need to be comfortable in your work space.

I hadn’t been comfortable for a while because my desk chair had gotten old. The padding on one armrest had come off and I’d replaced it with duct tape and a sponge. Thanks to the time I spent overweight, the hydraulics had slowly given up until the chair sat way too low for me — I’m 6’2” and all legs, so that wasn’t good either. It also creaked like the Tinman’s knees before Dorothy got to him any time I turned it, which was annoying.

The other problem was that the keyboard drawer under my desk came off. Somehow, the rails had gotten bent and jammed, and in trying to fix that, the wood hold the rail on the right side shifted. End result: the rails were just a hair too far apart to hold the drawer up.

Enter a free chair. And not just any chair. I was given an Aeron that someone didn’t want anymore. In case you don’t know, these are the chairs that were infamously bought by tech companies during the dotcom bubble and have a reputation for being ridiculously expensive. How ridiculous? Used models go for a few hundred bucks, and new ones can be well over $1,200. My old office chair cost me about $99 at Staples.

The nice thing about this particular model is that it goes up really high. I can actually lean back and bring my feet off the ground, and for once my knees aren’t elevated when I sit. It’s also adjustable nine hundred ways from Thursday — tilt, height, armrests, backrest, and so on. It is a million times better than my old chair.

But…

(And there’s always a “But…”)

Suddenly, having my keyboard on my desk became terribly inconvenient and awkward, so it was time to figure out what to do about that drawer. I found a perfect replacement online. The only catch was that all of the brick and mortar stores I found it on didn’t actually sell it in the stores. But I had my new chair! I was full Veruca Salt: “I want it now!”

It was not to be.

The next day, I tried finding the thing locally, starting to think outside the box. I tried CVS and Walgren’s websites and found nothing. And then I tried hardware stores and suddenly it clicked. I didn’t need to replace the whole thing, since I still had the drawer itself. I only needed to replace the rails.

And there they were, for one-fifth the price of a new drawer — the perfect 12” drawer sliders. And the websites for both hardware chains told me they were in stock, so I was off to shop… and to find out that one of those stores lied. Out of stock, so I made the drive to the other store. At this one, they were in stock, but they were not in the aisle or bin their website or app said they were. In fact, they were one aisle over and six bins down, but I finally found them. I grabbed those and some extra 1.5” wood screws because I thought I’d need to re-attach a wooden edge to the drawer, and then it was home to play handyman. That’s right, I can cook, bake and use power tools! I can also improvise, on stage and off, and I had to. Remember, the problem wasn’t just bent rails on the drawer. I’d forgotten that the right rail support on the desk had shifted.

So… a little extra cardboard under the right rail on the drawer, and then a convenient foam tube that came as padding with something I’d once bought to brace the desk rail support against the tubular leg, and in a few minutes, voilà! Good as new. (That padding and cardboard were a reminded that my sometimes packrat tendencies to keep interesting things around sometimes come in handy. Don’t worry, I’m far from a hoarder. The cardboard came from a replacement scale I bought recently, as in “might still need a warranty return,” and the foam tube — think of a four-inch pool noodle — was just interesting.

But now to the point of this ramble. With just these two changes, my workspace has become really comfortable again, and it feels good to be sitting here. And successfully finding an off-label use for hardware and doing grown-up stuff like fix a thing all by myself was a great ego boost as well. I didn’t need an adult’s help, I didn’t look anything up online. I barely read the instructions that came with the sliders.

So there’s a dual lesson. First, do one thing to make your personal work space more comfortable for you. Define “comfortable” however you want. Maybe it will involve totally rearranging the furniture or getting completely new furniture. Maybe it will be as simple as finding a cute tchotchke in a thrift shop or a comfy throw to put on your chair. If you’re low tech, it might even come down to finding the perfect pen.

But make it a project, and then find other little projects to do around the house. Find things that are not writing because you will find, in those times when you’re focusing on that project, your brain is silently working on some plot point or structure issue that’s been blocking you. Or, if nothing is blocking you, your brain will spit out a completely new idea or two.

Did I mention that the entire idea for a TV series fell out of my brain while I was sitting under my desk with the cordless drill and three-way flashlight? Because it total did, although part of it was inspired by the misadventures involved in finding those drawer sliders in the first place.

Make your work space comfortable and you’ll make it inspirational. Occasionally focus on creative projects that are not writing, and your subconscious will inspire you. And thus endeth today’s lesson — quite often, our biggest writing helps have nothing directly to do with writing at all.

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Laissez le bon temps rouler

While I’m an atheist, I find religious symbolism to be useful in the right context. As Fat Tuesday brings us into Lent, here are some lessons even the most secular of people can use. Plus… free beads!

Although I’m only nominally Catholic by accident of birth and an atheist by nature, I have learned to appreciate the symbolic value of some religious rituals, and since today is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), which leads into Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, which means we’re supposed to give up something from now until Easter… I’d like to honor my mother’s side of the family by giving something up, but it ain’t gonna be something simple, like coffee or candy or meat.

No, it’s going to be something harder. For Lent, I am going to give up judgement of others… which means giving up impatience, lack of understanding, lack of empathy, lack of seeing other people as fellow humans, even if I find their politics to be utterly disgusting to me. Lent, whether you’re religious or not, is all about sacrifice for the greater good — giving up a key part of your person in order to rediscover your connection to humanity.

And, as what is basically a pagan celebration of the imminent return of spring is warped into serving a patriarchal mind-control system, I’m doing my part to take it back. For Lent, I am giving up hate. I am giving up fear. I am giving up the idea that people who are different than me are scary. In fact, people who are different than me just remind me of the fact of how similar all people are to me — white, black, Asian, indigenous, mixed; gay, straight, bisexual, asexual (but especially bisexual, yay, us!); cis and trans; tall, short, cute, ugly, old, young… whatever.

Remember this: By definition, all life on this planet is related because all of us are descended from the same primordial ooze. But, beyond that, every single one of us is made up of atoms that were first created in a star that lived and died and blew up long before our own sun was born. Every single living thing here is literally a bit of star stuff twisted around a simple organic molecule born in a turgid puddle of water that emerged billions of years ago after this lump of rock solidified in a rather boring corner of space.

And our time here is but a mere eye-blink in terms of what the cosmos has experienced. We might as well do whatever the hell we can to make our fellow creatures feel more happy and welcome every second we’re here, and if it means giving up shit that makes us feel comfortable for forty days in order to make at least one other person feel more welcome, then have at it.

So, for Lent this year, atheist me is going to give up all attitudes that make anyone else ever feel less than… and embrace everything I can do to make my fellow humans and other beings feel like they are a valid part of this little wet lump of mud spinning through the void we have found ourselves on.

How hard is that to do, eh?