Why a poached egg is funny

I performed in a show in Maine earlier this week called Sound Bites. In addition to telling a story, I also served as the emcee for the evening, introducing storytellers and bantering a bit between stories.

Doing my best Elysha Dicks impression. 

During one of the stories, a storyteller talked about how she can't cook a poached egg. When her story was done, I took the stage and told the storyteller that not only could I not cook a poached egg, but I don't actually know what a poached egg is, which is sadly true. 

The audience roared with laughter.

Later on, I asked myself why.

Why was that funny? I knew it would be funny, and I knew if I delivered it well, it would be really funny, but why? 

I've become a little obsessed with humor recently. Doing standup and constantly being asked in workshops to assist storytellers with being funny, I've become interested in looking closely at what makes things funny.

Here's what I think about my poached egg joke:

I think it's funny because it's a moment of surprising vulnerability. I think it was a combination of unbridled honesty, uncommon authenticity, and a willingness to speak about something that most would not.  

Yes, it's also a self-deprecating comment, which is often funny, but I think it's more than that. 

In that moment, most people don't admit to not knowing what a poached egg is. It's not some rare Tibetan cuisine or a fruit that only grows in the South Seas. It's a poached egg. I've heard about poached eggs all my life, as have most people, and yet I have no idea what that is. Most people would worry about sounding foolish or naive or even dumb to admit this, especially when standing before more than 100 people. When I acknowledge this surprising truth, they laugh. But they don't laugh at me. They laugh at my unexpected vulnerability.

I see this at comedy open mics all the time. A comedian is bombing, but with a minute to go in his set, he says something like, "I didn't realize how silent not laughing can be" or "Thank God I don't have any friends to invite to these disasters" and the audience (mostly comics themselves) roar with laughter. Sometimes they don't even say these comments to the audience. They are speaking almost under their breaths to themselves.

Yet it's the funniest moment in their set. 

Unplanned moments of vulnerability. Unexpected peeks into a comedian's soul.  

Yes, the content is also amusing, and their facility with language is strong, but it's when the comedian drops his guard, ceases his schtick, and stops cracking jokes when we laugh. 

This is why people laughed at my poached egg comment. I was shockingly vulnerable. I said something that most don't say. I spoke to a place in the hearts of the audience where they hide their own shame. Their own poached egg ignorances. I opened that door and let in a little light. Made them feel a little less foolish. Perhaps even a little happier with their own state of being. 

Most important, I made them laugh.

It's not funny that I can't identify a poached egg. It's funny when I tell you that I can't identify a poached egg. 

There's a lot more I could say about comedy, and there is a mountain for me to still learn, but this I know is true:

The best comedians speak the truth. When they say something like, "I was talking to my girlfriend the other night..." they were really talking to their girlfriend the other night. Not the girlfriend of a friend whose story they heard five years ago but have taken on as their own because it's funny.  

They are speaking the truth. Because of this, they have the opportunity to be vulnerable with the audience. Surprisingly, so. With that vulnerability comes the opportunity for a laugh. A big one. A memorable one. One that might even touch the hearts of their audiences, too. 

I love storytelling because I am afforded an opportunity to speak my truth, and when that truth is unfortunate, embarrassing, shameful, or disastrous, even better. People want this. They crave the failures and disappointments. They want to hear about our epic disasters and moments of awkwardness and shame.

Finding someone to brag about themselves in this world is not hard. Finding someone who is willing to tell on themselves is much harder to find. This is why people are drawn to the art and craft of storytelling.

It's honest, authentic, and vulnerable.    

The more unfortunate the moment, the more vulnerability required to tell it. 

Admitting that you have no idea what a poached egg is in front of an audience of 100 people is an act of vulnerability.

It's also funny. For that very reason, I think. 

I performed stand up comedy for the first time for one very important reason.

Last year, a friend asked me to try stand up comedy with him. 

I said no and moved on with my life.

But knowing I had to follow my "Say yes to everything" philosophy, I called him back the next day and said, "Fine, I'll do it, but I won't like it."

We agreed that in addition to performing comedy, I wasn't allowed to simply tell a funny story. I have plenty of stories that could fill the five minute requirement and make people laugh throughout, but this had to be different. I had to tell jokes. Not stories.

I thought this was fair, but I was also terrified. 

Almost a year to the day after declaring my intent, I took the stage on Monday night at Sea Tea Improv in downtown Hartford to perform stand up comedy for the first time. 

open mic night.jpg

It went well. I was not fantastic. I performed for the requisite five minutes, telling jokes about parenting, marriage, Jewish food, and sex. People laughed. A few people complimented my performance afterwards, and a couple more found me online the next day to offer positive feedback. 

Most important, Elysha thought I was funny, and a couple friends in the audience were supportive as well.

A friend (but not the friend who challenged me to comedy in the first place) also took the stage on Monday and performed. He did well, too. As he pointed out later, some of the comics were asked by the host if it was their first time doing comedy.

Neither he nor I were asked that question. We were at least good enough not appear new. 

But it was a strange experience, too. I took the stage without any real plan. I had a couple opening sentences which I knew I could use to launch me into a riff on the realities of being a father, but after that, I was winging it. I said funny things that came to mind, but immediately after saying them, I knew that there was an even funnier way to say them. 

And I wasn't telling stories. I was telling jokes. Trying to make people laugh with words instead of story. 

And for the first time in a very long time, I felt nervous as I took the stage. Those nerves evaporated after I began speaking, but for a few moments, I felt the nerves that so many of my storytelling students feel just before taking the stage. 

I'll try stand up comedy again. I'll keep a running list of possible funny ideas as they occur to me, and when I think I have five minutes worth of material, I will prepare another set and give it a shot. Perhaps I'll take the five minutes that I did on Monday to another club as well. A producer at a comedy club in Manhattan has asked me to do 20 minutes at her club, and I could definitely stretch the 5 minutes that I did on Monday to a much longer set if I wanted. 

But here is the important part about Monday night:

I tried something that was new, frightening, and hard. That is why I did it. Complacency is tragic. Monotony is death. The absence of new horizons is an unfulfilled, wasted life.

I cannot stress this enough: You must find and try things that are new, frightening, and hard. This is the elixir of youth. Days filled with excitement and anticipation. A life absent of regret.

As a child, my life was filled with things that fit all three of these categories. I took new classes in new subjects every semester. Played new sports. Changed schools. Learned to drive. Asked girls to dance. Hiked up new mountains. Swam in new ponds. Made new friends. Played new musical instruments. Learned to speak a new language. Had sex for the first time. Earned my first paycheck. 

A young person's life is inextricably filled with things that are new, frightening, and hard. As we get older and experiences begin to pile up, those opportunities become fewer and farther between. People settle into routines. They establish patterns. Their zeal for risk taking wanes. 

Before long, they cannot imagine trying something new, frightening, and hard. They become set in their ways. They plod through life. They can't imagine staying up all night or driving to some faraway place on a whim or otherwise disturbing their routines.

They are getting older while getting old. 

I say yes to everything because I don't want to get old as I get old. I want the promise of days that are new and frightening and hard. I want to know that what I know now will not be all that I ever know.    

I cannot recommend the new, frightening, and hard enough. Stay young before you get old.