I recently had the worst comedic experience of my life.
My college’s satirical newspaper, The Brown Noser, had been invited to the first "National Intercollegiate Humor Conference" at Princeton University. I was excited to write with my friends and meet funny people from other schools. The organizers even encouraged pranks (so long as they adhered to a sizable list of guidelines, of course).
The crowd at the conference was pretty much what you’d expect at a gathering of college comedy writers: an overwhelming majority of bearded white guys and a smattering of bearded white girls. Pimples made a great showing, as did t-shirts with jokes on them.
One MIT student with a long ponytail and a moth-eaten black sweater wandered over to our table and introduced himself as Pevner. “Satire?” he asked, eyeing a copy of our paper. “Eh, I feel like that’s kind of been done. Sure, it’s all the rage now, but I think humor should come from the abyss.”
I asked what MIT’s magazine was like. “To give you some idea, we once got a letter to the editor complaining that we only wrote about abortions and Nazis,” he said. “So the next month we started a comic strip called Aborted Nazi Fetus.” Pevner!
The writing sessions themselves ranged from lightning prompts (tweets for the hashtag #straightthuggin, “anti-jokes”) to longer stories for which the organizers would call out plot twists like “a main character is revealed to have an addiction in his past” or “someone pulls out a gun” (Remember the Office episode where Michael Scott pulls out a gun in every improv scene he’s in? Yeah). The sessions were broken up by a very funny, and slightly depressing, talk from CollegeHumor’s Streeter Seidell about writing comedy professionally and dealing with advertisers.
Writing with so many strangers felt like the first week of classes when everyone’s trying really hard to prove themselves to the teacher. You could see people opening their mouths during a lull to pitch a joke before anyone else could fill the silence, being careful to project so the punchline wouldn’t be lost in the giant room, and sitting back to see how much laughter they’d get compared to everyone else.
There was something strangely gross about 90 people sitting in one room trying to be funny. In order to stand out, we were forced to go to extremes – to stories about homeless guys shooting each other and pedophilic uncles. Personally, the writing I value isn’t pull-out-a-gun humor or humor from an abyss. It’s humor that in some way illuminates a truth about real life. And I was feeling pretty disconnected from real life at this conference.
In the early evening (right around the time everyone started drinking) we filed into a small room for each school to give a persuasive presentation of “what is best in life.” One kid gave a ten-minute speech about how boners were the best thing in the world. Another spoke about the majesty of America, and the room erupted into boisterous chants of “America! America!” Someone was banging a long wooden stick against the floor. I felt like I was in The Lord of the Flies. I needed some air.
On my way back inside, the drunk UVA student who’d spoken about America tapped my shoulder. His friends looked embarrassed, like they knew what was coming. “You know, if you tried, you could look presentable,” he told me.
It was the last straw for my sleep-deprived and comedically-frustrated mind. I felt like I’d been punched. I was baffled by the bizarrely misogynist, jingoist attitude suddenly in the air. I mean, I was at a humor conference, writing jokes with funny young people from all around the country. So why wasn’t I having any fun at all?
I went inside and slumped in my seat to await the night’s finale: three full hours of student stand-up comedy. Act after act went up, and the sheer volume of jokes I’d heard in the last twenty-four hours numbed me to anything that might have been enjoyable about them. They all blended together: Setup, punchline. Setup, punchline. Setup, racist punchline.
Finally, the last performer was announced. It was Pevner. I felt my similarly frustrated classmates perk up around me: finally, we’d get to hear some good old humor from the abyss.
Pevner began his set with a little background — he’d been scheduled to graduate from MIT three years ago and was now working in “what you’d probably call financial risk analysis.” No punchlines seemed imminent. He was just talking about his life. It was weird.
“My co-worker, he hates racist jokes,” he continued, “but he’s the worst race of all…”
I steeled myself for another offensive joke.
“…He’s a muppet.”
He continued. There was no punchline. No explanation. Just about a half hour more material on his muppet co-worker.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see my friends starting to shake, their hands clamped over their mouths. Soon everyone in my row was laughing harder than we had all weekend. It was buckled-over, screwed-up-bright-red-face, crying-actual-tears laughter.
I’m not sure why Pevner’s set hit us so hard. Part of the reason, I’m ashamed to say, is that we were happy to see our biggest critic bomb. Part was the schadenfreude of watching something unintentionally terrible. And part was exhaustion and relief that the day was over.
But we were also laughing because it felt so good to see something different. We were laughing because after so much effort to plan pranks and deliberately write anti-jokes, after so much effort to be the funniest and the most outrageous, it was amazingly cathartic to see someone who wasn’t telling jokes at all. Pevner was just up there being himself — the opposite of what we’d been doing all weekend.
We were laughing because finally, we weren’t supposed to be laughing. We were laughing at the irony that we’d been trying and failing to make each other laugh, and finally someone was succeeding totally by accident. And we were laughing because the image of a muppet working in a cubicle is funny.
I guess maybe comedy from the abyss isn’t so bad. I’d rather be in an abyss than at a humor conference, anyway.
Hallie Cantor is a student and in five weeks she will be an unemployed person.