Mark Peters

Laughing Stock

Comedy Is Part Coping Mechanism, Part Tornado

An interview with humorist and standup comedian River Clegg

Posted Sep 14, 2015

There are a lot of funny people on Twitter, which is the most comedy-conducive medium since the rubber chicken. But who’s the funniest person on Twitter? I think it might be River Clegg, a humorist (published in McSweeney’s and The New Yorker) and standup comedian whose jokes are sharper than a Hattori Hanzō sword.

Some are pure absurdity:

“I don't throw salt over my shoulder, but sometimes I sneak into my enemies' bedchambers and dust them with parmesan.”

Others are personally revealing:

“Subconsciously, everything I do is meant to get back at a ringtoss guy who made me feel bad once.”

He loves board games:

"The most realistic part of Monopoly is how criminal tycoons only ever go to jail by random chance."

Be warned, River enjoys a good jest:

“I love pranks. The other day I called the aquarium and told them fish were bad.”

And he can identify the essence of a great film:

“The lesson I take from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is never gaze upon anything cool.”

Fortunately for us, River’s never afraid to get profound:

“Fishing's a lot like life, son. In that the primary goal is to murder fish.”

On email, I talked to River about comedy and was relieved to learn I’m not the only person who watches the same comedy over and over as a security blanket.

Mark: Who are the biggest influences on your comedy? Who makes you laugh the most?

River: The first comedian I ever knew about was George Carlin, and he's always been my favorite. His album "Back in Town" was so mind-blowingly funny when I heard it as a kid. It's still my favorite special. Also, I got his first book, "Brain Droppings," for Christmas. So I would read that and try to absorb everything.

Aside from stand-ups, my favorite TV show has always been "The Simpsons." Watching old episodes is a security blanket for me. When I was a young kid, I watched a lot of Monty Python with my older brother, and I would memorize and recite all the sketches with him. He then introduced me to The Onion when I was 11 or 12, and shortly after that I got a subscription from my mom. "Our Dumb Century" is my favorite humor book. That's another security blanket for me. I read it on the couch a lot.

I also love Gary Larson and Jack Handey. I can pick their stuff up and read it and laugh right away, no matter how many times I've read it before. I love how they present dark material in this very playful way.

Mark: Those are some good security blankets. Carlin was my first fave too.

I can definitely see the Jack Handey influence in your tweets. Speaking of Handey, who I think is the best joke writer ever, what makes a good joke? What are you aiming for with jokes? And do you aim for different things with standup and Twitter jokes?

River: Wow, thanks. Handey is so influential, I bet a lot of people end up sounding like him without trying. His punchlines are so surreal and sneaky and dark. And unexpected.

My favorite jokes are ones that surprise you, where you can tell they came from a weird part in someone's brain that no one else has. One of my favorite Far Side cartoons has a front yard with a tree, and outside the gate there's a sign that says "Beware of Doug." And you can see this guy hiding behind the tree. Why is he hiding there? Why should we beware? Is he dangerous? All these unanswered questions are now rattling around in my head. I love it.

I also like jokes about old-timey gold prospectors and stuff like that. I don't know why. Probably because of Handey.

I don't have different aims for Twitter and stand-up. Sometimes I turn tweets into stand-up jokes, actually. But the performance aspect of stand-up makes it harder, at least for me.

On second thought, I have been trying to make my stand-up a little more autobiographical—to talk about things like being married, for example. Whereas tweets are so short that I try to make them into little stand-alone stories that may have no truth at all. But those aims bleed into each other. It's not a strict separation.

Mark: Awesome. I've dabbled in stand-up and it's very hard... I admire the stamina it takes to get out there and do it over and over.

I did a McSweeney's column about Larson that's kind of about what you're talking about.

River: Yes! I think you nailed it. All three of those duck cartoons are classics. They remind me of another one, actually, where there's a couple driving. Behind them is a dog in a taxi, following them and looking sinister. Again, so many unanswered questions. Why is the dog after them? Have they upset the dog? Does the dog pick his targets at random? How is any of this possible? Anyway, yes, none of these have that "cymbal crash" punchline.

Mark: Since this is for Psychology Today, I need to get psychological. On a basic level, or on a deep level, or on whatever level you find apropos, what do you think makes things funny? Do you have a theory of humor? Well, at least that doesn't sound pretentious.

River: I don't know about comedy. I've heard a lot of comedians say that it comes from feeling like you're an "outsider," so you're looking at the world from a distance and remarking on how weird it is, or on how weird it would be if things were different. That's probably true. But I also think comedy is a coping mechanism for when you're sad. I also think comedy is a naturally occurring thing. If you ask someone when's the hardest they ever laughed, I bet a lot of them will say on a road trip with their sibling or something. Funny situations, when you just lose yourself with laughter, happen on their own. To me, great comedians are amazing because they've figured out how to harness that natural phenomenon and use it. Like they've figured out how to ride a tornado or something.

Mark: Awesome.

One more question: Do you have a favorite joke of your own? And why that one? What about a favorite joke in general?

River: My favorite joke I've written? It's a piece called "Which Ad Experience Do You Prefer?"  The piece has a lot of what I think are worthy targets: the culture of advertising, the treatment of women by that culture, the sadness produced by that culture, etc.

My favorite joke ever always rotates. Right now it's a line from "The Simpsons," where Homer is watching the Three Stooges and chuckles, "Moe is their leader."