David Heti, A Stand-up Comedian With Degrees in Philosophy and Law in Montreal's Wiggle Room

David Heti,
A Stand-up Comedian With
Degrees in Philosophy and Law

David, you taught a comedy writing course this summer at McGill University. You mentioned in one of the classes that, traditionally, comedians play the role of social outcasts or outsiders… Why did you choose to become independent of
social norms and morals?

I don’t think it’s a choice… I mean, I don’t think I want to be different from society. It’s just that so much of it seems ludicrous: what people aspire to be in terms of ideals of beauty, and wealth, and acquiring, you know, three watches and things like these… I don’t know it seems like a lot of work for little reward. And, personally, I think these ideals are unattainable… There is this kind of self-seriousness with which people I think often fail to see how subjective ideas are and notions of what’s real and true. So the alternative is, you know, the opposite where you kind of disavow what you imagine you cannot have and you make your way in the world that way.


I see… But when you had to switch your career from law to stand-up comedy, how did you explain that situation to the people close to you?

To be perfectly honest, working in law, I was miserable. It was not my everyday moment, but at its worst, I was like, “This is a life of no meaning.” I would sit in an office and read parts of the Tax Code and think, “I don’t want to understand this. I would hate to be here twenty years from now and have this information at my fingertips. It’s like the total waste of my existence.” I went into law I think because certain things outraged me. But, you know, you can change the world or you can make fun of it somehow… And through the stand-up, you are much more able to immediately engage with the subject-matter as opposed to dealing with marginalia, and footnotes, and format, which are mind-numbing I think… In doing something creative you bring something new to the world. And also I think that law really kind of responds to values and society whereas it’s more or less art which advances values in society.


You are often on the road along with many other comedians… Is there a community of comedians, a community of social outcasts?

You know there is this old joke of how I would never want to be a member of any club or something like that… I feel like the stand-up world is that club where you remain essentially as an individual. And you are constantly standing alone and yet you have this network. So the community is more for support everywhere, but where you are… You are not working with someone on your act or when you are performing. But this whole sort of family gives you moral support, allows you to sleep at different places, and hooks you up with shows and things like that…


Is humour for you, a form of resistance to, say, depression or oppression?

Well, I don’t feel oppressed. And I don’t think I try to alleviate others’ oppression which I may see. Resistance? Yeah, sure, resistance I think to maybe the lack of self-awareness or to self-righteousness. Or resistance to simply, you know, ideally, the human condition, certain irreconcilable things that you try not to think about, try to push away to the back of your mind… And the comedy really is this lack of contentment or peace of mind or happiness because of these irresolvable conflicts.


It seems like a professional comedian has to rely on people with secure jobs and regular paycheques, people who are often coerced into social dependence… So how do you balance the content of your performance with the needs and demands of your audience and sponsors?

I don’t know if I’m the best at doing that really… You have to antagonize up to the point where people allow you to continue antagonizing and understand it’s in good will, it’s in good faith. How do I try to do that? By trying to let people know that I’m trying to play with them. I’m not trying to say that anyone is a bad person or is doing something wrong because of what they choose to do… We are all kind of forced into this terrible situation and it’s the situation itself that is being sort of brought to light, hopefully.


So would you not try to stretch their boundaries of what is acceptable? Would you ever offend your audience just to see what their mood is like?

No, I don’t think there is ever a point where I’m purely trying to offend. That doesn’t interest me. That’s not what comedy is I think. I think you try to show something that maybe in another context would be considered offensive. But then again, there is this sort of double movement where you are bringing something to light. You are not simply talking to them straight…


Do you care about the audience’s judgement when they give you their feedback?

It feels bad when people aren’t receiving your performance the way you want them to. At the same time, you don’t know their story… But, you have to assume that you do have control. Otherwise, you are not taking responsibility I think. And you can have a bad night and you can have a good night. There are nights when the audience is too good and you go up there and you are getting responses that you did not deserve.


What is the intent behind some of your jokes that some people might find controversial? Are you trying to probe the audience, to set the tone, or to construct a certain character?

Setting the tone, for sure, but, at the same time gauging and probing to see who we are and where we can go from here. I think it’s just poking fun at like self-seriousness again… But why tell a controversial joke? Because, to be like… to make a point (tittering). I don’t know… to… If an audience is totally on your side, it’s not so interesting. You want to mess with people a little bit because, otherwise, what are you playing with? You are not.


You used the word “play” a couple times… You know, I was reading this book, “Inside Jokes” where the authors compared the relationship between a comedian and the audience to that of a predator chasing the prey, with each side trying to guess the next move of the other… Would you say that it applies to your performance sometimes?

I like the idea of a chase… A chase is funny. A chase is fun. I don’t think it’s a predator or prey… I think it’s more like a chess match or something. You are trying to push people into a certain corner and I guess that’s kind of what you do in chess. You manipulate the boards such that you forced your opponent to backtrack in a certain way. You have to make it such that they allow themselves to go where you want to take them. So, you have to allow them to say, “Oh, it’s okay to laugh at this.” But I’ll give this much more space for him or her to operate… Uh, I don’t know, it’s totally a power imbalance. It’s totally a power imbalance. I mean, it can switch like this (snaps fingers). But you are talking at people and you are eliciting a physical response which is a weird thing to do…


How do you organize and manage your jokes in preparation for your performance?

I’m very undisciplined in that. I think, generally, most comics are kind of disorganized. Having a good work ethic is really what distinguishes some for sure… It makes no sense to me as a performer to spend too much time classifying the material because you are responding to a live audience in front of you. The thing is that you have to have your material more at your fingertips. It has to be intuitive. It’s like in a conversation. No one wants to see a recitation of jokes. People want to see kind of this illusion of spontaneity I think more often than not.


Are you open to reinventing yourself?

I am open to, yes, for sure. That’s what I was doing for a period after having recorded the album. It’s hard though because your first work can take from years of material. And now you are starting anew? People say a sophomore novel is the most difficult one… I think it would be nice to have fewer jokes almost, fewer laughs, if you can believe, if can you imagine that…


(Laughing) Well, I didn’t expect that…


If you have any questions about the interview, do not hesitate to contact

Anastasia Prozorova: anastasia.prozorova@mail.mcgill.ca.