Wise Fools

Honesty. Insight. Outside-the-box thinking. Today’s great comedians may not know much about Buddhism, but they practice some of its core principles.

Rod Meade Sperry
3 September 2015

Unflinching honesty. Insightful observation. Outside-the-box thinking. Today’s great comedians may not know much about Buddhism but they practice some of its most important principles. Rod Meade Sperry takes a look at today’s comics of merit, including Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman, Mike DeStefano, Garry Shandling, Tig Notaro, and more.

What is it about comedians and Buddhism? They sure love to joke about it. Last week alone, between late-night spots and satellite radio, I heard six different comics make jokes with Buddha references — and not one of them about smoking weed. Keep listening, and it becomes clear: there are tons of these jokes, and some are best left untold. (If fat jokes are lazy, then ones that feature the Buddha, who wasn’t fat, are just plain lame.) And even when these jokes are sort of clever, they don’t kill. Which, of course, sounds very Buddhist, but means something quite different in comedian-speak.

So why do these jokes fall flat? There are a few comedians who actually are Buddhists. But Buddhists often heed counsel to not talk too much about their practice, so this means Buddhist comics rarely make explicitly Buddhist jokes. On the other hand, your average non-Buddhist comedian doesn’t know shit from Shinola when it comes to Buddhism, and a joke without a proper setup will suffer out there. To wit: two comedians’ lines I heard last week — via Myq Kaplan’s Conan set and Sarah Silverman’s Twitter feed—were about the kooky notion of Buddhist militants, as if such a thing could never exist. Unfortunately, at exactly the same time, a group of self-identifying but horribly misguided Buddhists in Burma were aggressively tormenting local Muslims. This was full-on international news, and still is. Oops.

Fearless and Inquisitive: Sarah Silverman

Silverman doesn’t need to feel sheepish about not knowing much about Buddhism. After all, she has said, “I have no religion” and has described herself as “very Jewish” culturally. What’s interesting, though, is that her work and life nonetheless point to a raft of qualities that Buddhist practitioners try to cultivate. In fact, a surprising number of comics express values that are consistent with the essence of the Buddhist teachings.

On stage and in her writing, Silverman is fearless and inquisitive, taking on religion and sexuality and injustice and identity with abandon. She doesn’t hide from the suffering in her own life, either. The very title of her 2010 autobiography immediately telegraphs its author’s willingness to put it all out there when it comes to the truth about herself: It’s called The Bedwetter.

She seems to have developed a nice relationship with reality, too, and a sense of compassion. (A Silverman tweet from June reads, “My religion is science, nature & love love love.”) She believes in and works for social justice and political fair play.

And then there’s that sense of humor, that ability to laugh at all of it, which many a dharma teacher will tell you is fundamental to Buddhist practice.

The Buddha talked about spiritual friendship, of the value of having “admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades.” Spiritual or not, someone like Sarah Silverman sure comes across as being genuine, being boundless, being herself. That is, she comes across as a dharma practitioner’s comrade.

What’s the deal with that?

It Hurts to Laugh: Jerry Seinfeld & Larry David

As blowhard TV producer Lester (Alan Alda) opines in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors: “Tension, pain, and craziness…that’s the first part of comedy.” Yes, and it’s the first part of the capital-T Truth of the dharma, too: Existence, by its very nature, is pervaded with suffering and unsatisfactoriness.

But where Lester went on to say that “comedy is tragedy plus time” (nicking the line from Carol Burnett), the dharma doesn’t wait around for time to catch up. Neither does a good, brave comedian. That’s why “Too soon?” is a favorite, effective rejoinder to overly sensitive audience members. It’s like saying, “Really, you ninnies? If you’re going to groan at this true thing I’m saying, how are you going to deal with life?” (And dealing with life is what the next three truths of the dharma are about.) Great comedians are often great, at least in part, because they’re willing to speak to us in this way. Genuinely. About what matters.

But what really matters? In the great scheme of things, can Jerry Seinfeld’s well-chewed airplane peanuts really be worth commenting on? Maybe not. Sometimes, what matters to us doesn’t really matter at all. But then, it’s been said that the enlightened view of the Buddha is one in which everything is holy. Which is to say, what doesn’t matter at all can matter very much. The trivial, the miniscule, the fleeting, the impulsive — the roles these play in our lives can tell us as much about ourselves as our reactions to even the biggest Big Life Events.

It’s easy to boil the observational approach of Jerry and his Seinfeld partner, Larry David, down to “Didja ever notice?” But it’s what they notice, the scope of it, that takes it from trivial to timeless. Yes, the Seinfeld/David-style mind knows, intimately, how strongly we might rebel against the perceived injustice of a too-teensy bag of airplane peanuts, the lengths we’ll go to to avoid even the smallest discomfort, and how we’ll kvetch about it endlessly when avoidance isn’t an option.

And when the discomfort isn’t small? Forget about it. On Seinfeld and on David’s show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, characters will choose to gripe out loud — about nothing — instead of being actually present when acquaintances’ lives fall apart. In a 1995 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry listens only too willingly as ex-turned-bestie Elaine goes on and on about the difficulties of keeping up a decent wardrobe. It’s familiar, typical human blather—except that the scene takes place at the funeral of a friend who just died of cancer. “I really hate my clothes,” Elaine says between mourners’ wails. “It’s getting to be a terrible problem for me.”

Dark? Yes. Funny? Yes, that too. Funny because, as they say, it’s true: we’re all capable of abiding in this kind of disconnected darkness. Whether you’re a comedy writer or a dharma practitioner, suffering — big and small — and how we deal with it, or don’t, can be your bread and butter.

Digging Deeper: Louis C.K.

People these days like to talk about “culture wars,” and sure enough, the comedy world is as divided as any other. Just look at the industry’s biggest earners. On the one hand, you’ve got the lowest common denominator approach: the gratuitous and mean-spirited. There’s even a racist ventriloquist who lets his dummies do the bashing. (Ventriloquists, plural, are among comedy’s royalty these days, believe it or not.)

On the other hand, you’ve got the megastar Louis C.K. (the letters serve as shorthand for his birth name, Szekely) and a whole breed of comics for whom “the other” is only rarely as juicy a target as one’s self.

[Author’s note: This piece was written years before the 2017 backlash against C.K. that followed public allegations of sexual misconduct, eventually prompting him to acknowledge that “These stories are true.”]

C.K., taking a cue from the late George Carlin, C.K. creates a whole new act nearly every year, often positioning himself as the target of his jokes. “When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs,” he told a crowd while honoring Carlin, “what do you have left? You can only dig deeper. You start talking about your feelings… and then your fears and your nightmares… Eventually, you get to your balls.”

Crudity aside, his point’s a real one. In his work, at least, C.K. is only too happy to dissect what he sees in the mirror: his aging body, his drooping balls, his pettiness, and his capacity for hatred, which mostly comes back on himself. Yet, he exudes glee all the while—the glee of someone who’s been digging and digging and is inching closer to some truth.

That must be why he fell in love with Tig Notaro’s now-famous performance from August 3 of 2012, which he called one of the few “truly great, masterful stand-up sets” he’d seen in his life.

The Great Matter: Tig Notaro

When thinking about Buddhism and comedy, it’s easy to think “Zen.” The diamond-like one-liners of Steven Wright, for example, have often been noted for their koan-like concision. And, like the Zen view itself, Wright’s world is boundless. Anything can happen. “I went into a place to eat,” he has quipped. “It said ‘breakfast anytime.’ So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.”

Also emphasized in Zen is what’s known as The Great Matter. This matter of life and death. She may not be a Zennie, but when it comes to life and death, Tig Notaro seems to be a stone-cold master. Her album, Live (not “Live” as in Live at the Apollo but as in the opposite of die), is the proof.

I first really noticed Tig on Conan. She was doing a seemingly never-ending bit that mostly consisted of her dragging her standard-issue stand-up’s stool across the stage, its wooden legs scraping on the floor and emitting beagle-like howls. That was the whole bit: just producing and enjoying, reveling in, this odd sound. But Tig had the studio audience rapt with laughter. And me, too. Now fully a fan, I felt actual disappointment when Tig cancelled a subsequent appearance. But she had good reason; life was becoming complicated. As she explained to O’Brien in a later return slot:

“I got pneumonia, and then I contracted this life-threatening, deadly illness called C. diff., and it’s this bacteria that just eats your intestines. I was in the hospital for a week, lost twenty pounds… Then it was my birthday… After that, my mother passed away unexpectedly, a freak accident. I got off of a relationship shortly after that, and then I was diagnosed with cancer… This was all in four months.”

Notaro was being incredibly forthcoming about all she’d been through, but it wasn’t the first time. The first time was a month earlier, in the stand-up performance that Louis C.K. admired so much, the one released as Live. She pulled no punches in the performance, which begins “Hello! Good evening. Hello. I have cancer,” and spills forth from there. Furthering the sense of full disclosure, Live’s cover featured a photo of Notaro topless, her hands covering breasts that were no longer there. A double mastectomy had been called for. It worked. She remains cancer free.

She also remains fearless, willing to address her experiences with illness and loss in her stand-up and as a writer for the hit sketch show Inside Amy Schumer. Professor Blastoff, the podcast she produces with fellow comic Kyle Dunnigan, provides a further glimpse into her thoughtful mind, looking at subjects ranging from her unusual connection to the late-eighties’ pop star Taylor Dayne to her thoughts about emotional intelligence, quantum physics, and enlightenment.

Enlightenment, as defined by Professor Blastoff guest Kevin Berntson, a comic performer who meditates at Against the Stream in L.A., is “being okay with the push and pull of emotions or events.” Sounds a little like Tig, who told Salon earlier this year that her own worldview, post-illness and in the absence of her mother, is “about being in that moment and trying to realize what is happening, what is really happening.”

Who Am I?: Garry Shandling

He’s a comic’s comic if ever there was one, but Garry Shandling is also a searcher — “a serious student of dharma,” as he’s put it — looking to find The Real Thing, and The Real Garry Shandling.

Maybe that’s not a surprise, given how much of his work has played with ideas of self and ego: for example, the odd, long-running It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which applied a meta spin to the classic sitcom format, with Shandling, as himself, frequently breaking the fourth wall. And then there’s The Larry Sanders Show.

Larry, which ran through most of the nineties, was a send-up of late-night TV, tracking the life and death of a Tonight-style show and its neurotic but lovable host. Careful not to put forth a too-simple, too-cynical view of show business, Shandling made sure that authenticity reigned: Larry and his staff of producers, handlers, and lackeys thought, acted, and treated each other like real people do.

“It’s like taking a Buddhist temple bell,” Shandling has said, “an authentic, two-thousand-year-old Buddhist temple bell, and ringing it and going, ‘Can you tell me why that rings so purely?’ [It’s] because it’s the real thing. All these people in show business are human beings.”

A longtime mindfulness practitioner in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, Shandling revealed his lesser-seen meditative side in bonus features shot for 2007’s Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show DVD set. Having started the show to, in his words, “discover more, Who am I?” we see him visiting with a Zen monk and with friends from the Larry era who help him weigh the Garry of those days against the Garry of the present. When Jeffrey Tambor (who stole scenes as Sanders’ sidekick, Hank Kingsley) says, “The secret to everything [is,] don’t think,” it’s not a big leap to infer that he’s learned how to do this from his old boss and pal.

The otherwise-private Shandling does lament the camera’s presence once or twice at these meetings, but we can see he’s really trying to be open, to be willing to say and hear things about himself—no matter how intimate. He even allows us to see his previously secret dharma tattoo, an enso (Zen circle) meant to remind him of his work toward, as he says, “Ego-emptiness.”

As for finding The Real Garry Shandling, he seems to be getting warmer. Asked to contribute nuggets of experiential wisdom for Esquire’s What I’ve Learned section, he included this among a clutch of one-liners: “Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence.”

Is he a Buddhist? He resists the label.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Yet, for some, formally embracing the idea of being a Buddhist can make all the difference.

Taking Refuge from the Darkness: Mike DeStefano

It was a chance meeting on an airplane that set the late Mike DeStefano on the Buddhist path. Bronx-bred and raised Catholic, the famously foul-mouthed comedian known as Mikey D had struggled with drugs, darkness, and loss for much of his life and was already sure that he was no good. Now his father had died, and he was a mess.

But then the Tibetan Buddhist teacher who just happened to be seated next to him started to talk about buddhanature. As DeStefano’s friend, the Buddhist scholar John Dunne, recalls: “He told Mike, ‘You have a lot of crazy ideas about yourself. Your nature is not evil. You are a good person by nature.’ Mike said that saved his life.”

Suicide was suddenly off the table, and DeStefano became interested in the dharma. Still, he felt he needed permission to call himself a Buddhist: he didn’t feel worthy of it. Eventually, Dunne explained to DeStefano that he could just go ahead, drop the self-doubt, and take the refuge vows that mark one’s commitment to Buddhist practice. “It’s not like anyone has to give you a little badge or sacrament,” Dunne told his friend. “Your nature may be perfect, but you don’t have to be a perfect person.”

So encouraged, DeStefano took the vows on his own and got a massive Buddha tattoo on his arm. His relief was noticeable, says Dunne. “It allowed him to create a different kind of identity. Buddhism’s roots were such that it was outside of the mainstream, as was he.” In 2010, DeStefano would go on to become a favorite on the TV stand-up competition Last Comic Standing, but one suspects that his tough-talking, no-bullshit persona was probably not “safe” enough for prime time.

DeStefano didn’t have the opportunity to connect more deeply with a Buddhist teacher but he studied and thought about the dharma devotedly. Wanting to bring what he was learning into the comedic realm, he was sketching out ideas for a graphic novel featuring a jokey but sincere Buddhist hero based on himself. Yet his graphic novel never materialized.

On March 6, 2011, a heart attack ended DeStefano’s life. He had by that time lost his wife, who had been suffering with AIDS, and had himself been diagnosed as HIV positive. But he’d also been clean for many years and was excited about his new one-man show, which was just days away from opening.

Noting that “hero” is one of the ways bodhisattva might be translated, Dunne suggests that DeStefano was onto something with his semiautobiographical graphic novel idea. “He was certainly imperfect, but he was a kind of fighter. He was fighting with himself but also all those parts of our society that he was embodying in his act: the judgmentalness, the lack of compassion, the stupidity, the mean-spirited aspects of our society. He had this tenacious, even pugnacious, urge to go out and help people.”

Of a Mikey D show at Greenwich Village’s famed Comedy Cellar, Dunne remembers: “He knew I was there, and he was trying out this Buddhist joke. It completely flopped.”

A couple of Buddhist oneliners would resurface now and then in his act, but they didn’t land with the oomph of so much of his other material. Talking about the institution of Buddhism was one thing. But suffering? That, Mike DeStefano knew, would always be good for a laugh.

Wise Fools: Select bits

As the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “If there were no humor, it wouldn’t be Buddhism.” Here are some of my favorite bits and video that reflect, explicitly or implicitly, a Buddhist take on comedy. Honest, insightful, poignant, or just plain funny, they all bring us some sort of deeper truth.

Mike DeStefano: “The Junkie and the Monk,” as told on The Moth podcast

I’m not gonna lie. My oldest friends would tell you that I’ve not only partaken in but also invented some of the most vivid and creative cursing in human history. And yet even I find a lot of Mikey D’s act, as captured on his live CD OK Karma, pretty nasty at times. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy a lot of it. But it doesn’t capture the depth and breadth of DeStefano’s heart and mind like “The Junkie and the Monk,” his heart-wrenching retelling of the loss of his wife. He also speaks about dipping his toe into Buddhist practice and tonglen meditation, his drug use, and suicidal ideation — and manages to wring laughs from it all. Note: A DeStefano documentary is in production now.

Tig Notaro: Live

Not enough can be said about this incredibly frank and funny post-cancer-diagnosis performance. Seek it out. And to hear Tig and the rest of her Professor Blastoff crew discuss enlightenment, catty Buddhists, and more, visit earwolf.com/episode/enlightenment.

Arj Barker: “The Sickest Buddhist”

This parody music video, shot at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, replaces your typical, commercial hip-hop bling-and- party vibe with clever (though not always spot-on) jabs at spiritual materialists. A sample couplet: “I look so serene when I bust a lotus, but I don’t have an ego so I wouldn’t even notice.”

Portlandia: “Meditation Crush”

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have offered a seemingly endless parade of lovingly-rendered semi-stereotypes on their widely-enjoyed IFC show. So it was only a matter of time before they got to meditators. This look at how easily we can be carried away by our thoughts while on the cushion will ring true for many of us — whether we’ll admit it or not.

Pete Holmes: “Google and Not Knowing,” from his album, Impregnated with Wonder

In this brilliant bit, Holmes, whose work is at turns observational and absurd, gets right to the heart of the difficulties that our so-called conveniences bring us: “Having Google on your phone is like having a drunk know-it-all in your pocket. There’s no time for mystery, or wonder… The time between knowing and not-knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not-knowing… So life is meaningless!”

Also recommended:

Garry Shandling and crew’s Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show DVD set and Sarah Silverman’s autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.

Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar), and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.