Why do comedians seem to be so much quicker in their thinking than us normal people? How is it that they think so quickly? How is it that they respond quickly? Do they really think faster than we do? Is it a requirement?
The most extreme example of seemingly superhuman speed is found in improvisation, as anyone who saw Whose Line Is It, Anyway? can attest to. The first and foremost requirement of improv is this: No matter what happens, you must accept a premise you’re given, rather than knock it down. So if you’re on the improv stage, and your fellow actor says, “Look at that camel!” you don’t say as a response, “That’s a giraffe,” simply because you were had a good giraffe joke. That would knock down the premise you were offered and destroy the bit. You could say, “But why is it blue?” And by doing this, you accept the premise, go with it, and offer something to your fellow actor.
The people in the audience are not used to accepting new ideas without taking time to process and, perhaps, to refuse them. So when they see a new idea accepted so quickly and built upon, it automatically seems as if a lot of thought has gone into the response.
But that isn’t the case.
Accepting a new idea takes a lot of time for us. Accepting a new idea, to comedians, takes no time at all. If they don’t, they die.
The Live Interview
Let’s move on from improvisation to interview shows, from Late Night to The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, where comedians interview live people, forcing them to improvise jokes on their spot. Here’s one example:
In The Daily Show’s March 12th, 2007 interview, comedian Jon Stewart interviews Senator Chris Dodd. He asks him why he is running for president.
Sen. Dodd: “First of all, I’m a first-time father. I’ve got a couple of young children, daughters, and I don’t want to sound naïve at all, and I look at them... I mean, you’ve got a couple of young kids. What kind of a future are they going to have? What kind of a world are they going to grow up in? What kind of a nation are they going to live in the 21st century? And, frankly, right now, I think there is more at stake than probably ever before in my lifetime. Both with what’s going on at home and abroad. And I decided to get in this race and talk about what we could do to make it better for them. I know it’s naïve, but—”
Jon Stewart interrupts him, “Here’s what I’ve done. I also have young kids and I look at them, and I started building a bunker.”
Stewart automatically accepts Senator Dodd’s premise (thinking about the future while looking at your kids) and goes on from there. In fact, he continues, “Your idea could work, too. But I have a feeling, when the day comes, I’m not going to be knocking on your door, you’re going to be knocking on mine.”
As Stewart proves by taking Sen. Dodd’s premise and reaching the opposite conclusion, accepting a premise doesn’t actually make the other guy right. It just means you’re agile enough of thought to understand someone else’s premise. Then you go with that logic, and see where it leads you.
Smart People vs. Comedians
Adapting to changing circumstances, being able to accept new ideas, not sticking rigidly to your old position – these are all the necessary tools of a good comedian. They are also the marks of intelligence. So what happens when a quick and intelligent comedian meets a quicker and more intelligent man? The man may not be as funny, but he’s able to adapt to new situations just as fast as the comedian. Here is the best example I found in which the shoe was on the other foot.
This is from an interview in The Colbert Report (Feb. 8th, 2006) in which Stephen Colbert, who, on a daily basis, stumps his guests by offering ideas (meaning ‘premises’) they’ve never thought of or didn’t expect to face, now interviews Prof. Alan Dershowitz. We’re going to look at the dialogue like a chess match.
Colbert introduces Dershowitz, then runs to the crowd, as he always does, and gets cheers. Colbert sits down.
Colbert: “Mr. Dershowitz, thank you for joining us.”
Dershowitz: “Thank you.”
Colbert: “Do you have an audience at work?”
Colbert’s opening salvo is framing a question Dershowitz clearly doesn’t expect. Dershowitz answers immediately: “I do, always. I teach to a class.”
Colbert: “You do? Really?” Colbert didn’t expect a ‘yes’ from his guest, but adapts quickly, “Do they applaud like this when you come in? Up in Harvard?” Colbert takes his question to a place Dershowitz would not have expected.
Dershowitz begins his answer even before Colbert finishes asking the question: “No, they react.” Dershowitz isn’t blocking by saying ‘no’, he’s splitting hairs, thus proving he’s accepted Colbert’s premise and is building on it.
“With fear, I’m assuming.” Colbert accepts Dershowitz’s premise and takes it one step further to a place Dershowitz clearly did not mean.
“I hope,” Dershowitz thus accepts Colbert’s premise again.
“Do you ever shroud a student like in that movie, The Paper Chase?” Again, Colbert offers a premise his guest was not expecting.
“No, they’re too smart.” Dershowitz does not deny the premise. He accepts it and within the rules of the premise finds a reason why it isn’t so. He continues, “They sit there with their, you know, Googles, and they know more than I do.”
Colbert: “Yeah, with their internets.” Colbert accepts Dershowitz’s ‘Googles’ and builds on it. Mockingly, of course. “And their world wide webbing? It’s amazing.”
“It is,” Dershowitz accepts Colbert’s volley.
They move on to talk about Dershowitz’s book. Colbert puts it up on the table: “Okay, this is it. Preemption, a Knife That Cuts Both Ways. Tell me about the knife and why it’s cutting us.” Colbert presumes a false premise regarding the book.
Dershowitz opens his mouth to answer, and Colbert continues, “Is it cutting us?”
“It is cutting us.” Premise accepted.
“Whose knife is it?”
Not blinking, Dershowitz continues, accepting Colbert’s premise, and using it to make his point, “It is the knife of power that is being wielded. Preemption means, just simply, we get the bad guys before they get us. And that, sometimes, can be a good thing.”
“You look at us wrong, you get a God-smack.” Colbert immediately picks up on Dershowitz’s premise and goes with it one step further.
“No,” Dershowitz splits hairs again rather than blocking completely: “you try to kill us, you try to invade us, you try and terrorize us, and we’re going to get you first, but there are tremendous risks involved in doing that. Because we can get the wrong people, we can get there too early, we can provoke an attack, so it’s a knife that cuts both ways.”
“Well, this sort of sounds like anti-preemption here,” Colbert accepts what Dershowitz says and tries to take it to a direction Dershowitz doesn’t want to take.
“Well, it’s pro some preemption and anti some preemption,” Dershowitz clears his theme by understanding what Colbert said and explaining the difference between the two positions. “It all depends.”
“You can’t have it both ways!” Colbert aggressively introduces a new and unexpected premise (elsewhere known as The O’Reilly Premise).
“You can have it both ways. You have to have it both ways.” Dershowitz understands the other side but insists on his own.
“No, if you have to have it both ways, that’s why the knife cuts back and forth,” Colbert introduces a new premise in mid-argument, miming a knife cutting both him and Dershowitz.
“Absolutely,” Dershowitz accepts it.
“You want the knife to just do this,” he mimes the knife attacking only Dershowitz.
“But it has to be sterilized,” Dershowitz goes with Colbert’s premise even further. “You don’t want to cause an infection.”
Colbert moves on to his next thought: “Okay, so...” and then Dershowitz’s words sink in, and he stops, stumped for an answer. He was not able to adapt quickly enough.
The audience begins to laugh, as Colbert thinks of the next thing to say.
“I’m Jewish,” says Dershowitz during Colbert’s silence, accepting his own premise and going with it.
Colbert takes another few seconds, then, unable to think of something smarter, changes the subject.
And thus Dershowitz wins this battle against an intelligent, professional and mighty-quick comedian not because he’s funnier but because he’s that much smarter.
Accepting new ideas is a mark of intelligence. Understanding new ideas is also a mark of intelligence. Being able to adapt quickly is one, too. And always keep in mind that understanding the other side’s logic doesn’t make the other side is right. It just means you’re smart.