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'You Get Paid For Doing Therapy': Stand-Up Comedians On Anger

Feb 20, 2019
Originally published on February 20, 2019 10:50 am

Veteran comedians know all about the funny side of anger.

The late George Carlin wrote an entire bit called "Free-Floating Hostility." Jerry Seinfeld once declared in the Los Angeles Times that "All comedy starts with anger."

The rant is often a comedian's sharpest tool, whether it's the screams of the late Sam Kinison or the tirades of Chris Rock — like "Stop telling your kids they're special!"

Comic Mo Amer has plenty to be angry about — he's spent pretty much his whole life trying to explain his identity. Mo is short for Mohammed (as he says, it's the most popular name in the world, but try finding a personalized keychain anywhere); Amer was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents.

When he was 9 years old, his family had to flee the country during the Gulf War; eventually, they settled in Texas. Then, when Amer was 14, his father died.

"I was angry that I didn't get time with him," Amer says. "There was anger for having very little semblance of family life, and everybody split up and everybody is in different parts of the world because war sucks."

Amer found that stand-up comedy was a perfect outlet for his frustrations. Much of his material comes from his experiences as an immigrant from the Middle East — and, as he tells it, traveling internationally can be a nightmare. For years, his only form of identification was a refugee travel document.

In his Netflix special, The Vagabond, he re-creates a heated conversation he had with a customs official who refused to accept it.

"Stand-up, why I love it so much, because it's — you get paid for doing therapy," Amer says. "So that was part of my coping process."

Another part is feedback from the audience. Amer says he got a standing ovation for an early performance of that bit about international travel.

"It was one of those moments I was like, 'Oh, this is what it's all about,' " he says.

Turning pain into belly laughs is not easy, says Noam Dworman, who owns the renowned New York club the Comedy Cellar. He says Amer is one of the few who can elicit joyous laughter out of pain.

Stand-up, why I love it so much, because it's — you get paid for doing therapy. - Mo Amer

"The thing about Mo is that he has this background of incidents in his life that would cause resentment in somebody," Dworman says. "But the way he presents it is with such charm and appeal that it's endearing, you know, people adore him. They love him."

Stand-up comedians have long used pain, anger and hurt to get a laugh, whether it's Kinison's screams of outright rage, or the self-deprecating sarcasm of the late Phyllis Diller recounting a story of her husband getting up and putting on his work clothes after she asked him to kiss her goodnight.

And stand-up can be as much of a coping mechanism for audiences as it is for comics. People have sought relief from fools and jesters as far back as the Middle Ages.

In his 1962 book Heroes, Villains, and Fools, sociologist Orrin E. Klapp wrote that the clever fool is the "safety valve ... by which societies release tensions that might otherwise be damaging." In other words, the communal belly laugh can be cathartic, whether it's about serious issues or spilled milk.

Anger is energy. And I think you've got to be able to access that side of your psyche and be able to fully express yourself within the confines of it. - Sandra Bernhard

Sophie Quirk, author of the book Why Stand-up Matters, is a senior lecturer in drama and theater at the University of Kent in the U.K.. She says the comedy club offers jokes, social criticism and what she calls a "bonding experience."

"There are some comedians who I actively want to see when something happens that makes me angry, say, politically," Quirk says. "And the people around me are going to be expressing — through their laughter and their groans and their boos and whatever — it might be a real empathy with how I'm feeling about it."

Anger is, of course, just one emotion a performer needs to conjure up to really connect with the audience. "Some of my jokes come from empathy, too," Amer says.

Sandra Bernhard, whose sneers are legendary, agrees that a performer needs to tap into a range of emotions on stage. But she says anger is like fuel.

"Anger is energy," Bernhard says. "And I think you've got to be able to access that side of your psyche and be able to fully express yourself within the confines of it."

Within the confines of a comedy club, tension — or the release of it — is part of what you pay for.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All this month, NPR is examining anger to see what we can learn from this powerful emotion. Today, the funny side of anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE CARLIN: It's called free-floating hostility.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: The late George Carlin built entire shows around what made him angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLIN: Twenty-four minor cultural items I'm bored with, tired of and pissed at.

INSKEEP: Jerry Seinfeld once said all comedy starts with anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY SEINFELD: And if you don't like it, you can go to hell.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: The rant is often a comedian's sharpest tool. Just listen to Chris Rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS ROCK: I hate when people go, well, you know what? Cyberbullying's worse. Shut up.

(LAUGHTER)

ROCK: I never heard of anybody getting cyber-kicked down a flight of stairs.

INSKEEP: In the hands of the right comedians, something that enrages you can be turned into a big, communal belly laugh. NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes us to the comedy club, where anger is often center stage.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Mo Amer has plenty to be angry about. Pretty much his whole life has been spent trying to explain his identity. Mo is short for Mohammed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VAGABOND")

MO AMER: And what's frustrating - Mohammed is the most popular name in the world, but I can't find one keychain with my name on it anywhere.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: That's Amer from his Netflix special "The Vagabond." He was born in Kuwait. When he was 9, during the Gulf War, his family had to flee. They eventually made it to Texas. Then, when Amer was 14, his father died.

AMER: So I was angry that I didn't get time with him. There was anger for having, you know, very little semblance of family life. And everybody's split up, and everybody's in a different part of the world because war sucks.

BLAIR: Amer found that stand-up comedy was the perfect outlet. Amer is constantly traveling. For years, his only proof of identification was a refugee travel document. In this bit, he recreates what happened with a customs agent in Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VAGABOND")

AMER: It shows here you're born in Kuwait, yeah? Can I please have your Kuwaiti passport? I was like, man, I don't have a Kuwaiti passport. He's like, and why don't you have a Kuwaiti passport? I was like, relax, OK? First of all, in Kuwait, doesn't matter if you're born there. It matters where your parents come from. He goes, yeah? Well, where do your parents come from? I was like, well, my parents are Palestinian.

He goes, well, give me your Palestinian passport. I was like, bro, I don't have a Palestinian passport. Well, why don't you have a Palestinian passport? I was like, because Palestine's not a state. He goes, well, why don't you make it a state? I was like, what?

(LAUGHTER)

AMER: Have you not read the news the last 70 years?

(LAUGHTER)

AMER: And by the way, I'm in Germany. This is all your [expletive] fault to begin with.

(LAUGHTER)

AMER: Stand-up, why I love it so much - because you get paid for doing therapy. (Laughter) You know, that - like, I get the opportunity to vent. And people will laugh at this, at my pain, and I'll get paid for this. This is tremendous. That was part of my coping process.

BLAIR: Another part? Feedback from the audience. He says at an early performance of his bit about traveling internationally, he got a standing ovation.

AMER: There was a lot of Jewish people in the audience, lot of Arabs and Muslims and Palestinians in the audience. And both parties got up at the same time as I did that joke. And it was one of those moments where it's like, oh, this is what it's all about.

NOAM DWORMAN: There's so few people who can pull this stuff off - I mean, so few people.

BLAIR: Noam Dworman owns The Comedy Cellar, a renowned New York comedy club. He says Mo Amer is one of the few who can elicit joyous laughter out of pain.

DWORMAN: The thing about Mo is that, yeah, he has the background of incidents in his life that would cause resentment in somebody, but the way he presents it is with such charm and appeal that it's endearing. You know, people adore him. They love him.

BLAIR: Stand-up comedians have long used pain, anger, hurt to get a laugh, whether it's the outright rage of the late Sam Kinison...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAM KINISON: Remember this face. (Screaming).

BLAIR: ...Or the self-deprecating sarcasm of the late Phyllis Diller. She called her husband Fang.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHYLLIS DILLER: One night I asked Fang to kiss me good night. He got up and put on his work clothes.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: People have sought relief from fools as far back as the Middle Ages. In his 1962 book "Heroes, Villains And Fools," sociologist Orrin Klapp wrote that the clever fool is the safety valve by which societies release tensions that might otherwise be damaging. And those tensions could be over serious issues like a perceived injustice or spilt milk, says Sophie Quirk, who's written about and taught stand-up at the University of Kent in the U.K. She goes to stand-up for the jokes, the social criticism and what she calls a bonding experience with others in the audience.

SOPHIE QUIRK: There are some comedians who I actively want to see when something happens that makes me angry, say, politically because they have had the same experience of current events, and they're going to talk about them. And the people around me are going to be expressing through their laughter and their groans and their boos and whatever it might be a real empathy with how I'm feeling about it.

BLAIR: Stand-up comedians will tell you anger is just one emotion they need to conjure up to really connect with the audience. Mo Amer.

AMER: Some of my jokes come from empathy too. I think there's just several layers. I mean, some of it comes from, like, having sympathy for a particular topic.

BLAIR: Sandra Bernhard, whose sneers are legendary, agrees. But she says anger is like fuel.

SANDRA BERNHARD: It's energy. You know, anger is energy. And I think that you've got to be able to access that side of your psyche and be able to fully express yourself within the confines of it.

BLAIR: Within the confines of a comedy club, tension, or the release of it, is part of what you pay for. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.