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Before every comedian in the world started hosting late-night shows, there was Johnny Carson. He was and is the King of Late Night. Here he is…uh…well… comedian-ing.
While Carson reigned, every comedian in the nation was obsessed with him.
They would try to memorize his catalog of gestures and sounds by heart. The reason? They knew that Johnny Carson was the gatekeeper for their wildest ambitions. And if Carson gave the right gesture, your dreams would be the stuff of reality.
“They ranged from subtle -- a wink as the comic walked offstage, a "good stuff" before the commercial break , the much-sought-after O.K. sign (which Mr. Belzer called "a gesture from God") -- to unmistakable, all the way up to the grail of Carson compliments, the invitation to sit on the couch.
Dissecting Carson's mannerisms was a late-night preoccupation of comics who were trying to break in.”
As a person who’s trying to be a somebody (aren’t we all), I’ve thought a lot about that wave.
In fact, I’ve spent my whole life waiting for that wave.
I’ve been waiting my entire life for somebody to bless me with the knighthood of creativity (or smartness or any of the other hundred things I want to be). I’ve imagined it all in my head.
I would get down on a knee. And the mentor of my dreams would look down at me and say, “Now you’re a good writer.” “Now you’re funny.” “Now you’re successful.” And a million other things. Then they would knight me (with a quill or something like that idk). As long as I don’t have to get the medieval haircut I would be into it.
That’s how I would know I would be okay. The mentor of my dreams had marked me for greatness.
But I don’t have a dream mentor or a wave or any of Carson’s other gestures.
Instead, I used to look for Carson’s wave wherever I could get it. Flawed stuff like grades used to be the wave for me. If I get an ‘A’ does that mean I’m officially smart?
I would look for this external validation, but it would destroy my self-worth. An ‘A’ is only good for a day until you have to earn the next one. And inevitably when the day comes where you don’t get an ‘A’, then your whole self-worth tumbles.
Now I recognize how dangerous it is to tie your self worth to external things. I’ve learned this simple truth: relying on external validation makes my life harder and much less fun.
I’ve been trying to switch from external validation —> internal validation. The first step has been to be aware of when I crave the wave. It’s useful to be aware of that. To know where my shackles are. It’s only then can I unshackle myself. Maybe it’ll be helpful for you. In any situation where you feel fear or anxiety or low self-worth bubbling under the surface. Ask:
Do I crave the wave?
“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” - Eb White
I don’t know about “people”, but I’m interested in it. I apologize for any dead frogs.
I’ve been interested in what makes something “interesting.” What’s the difference between a great conversation, joke, essay, and a bad conversation, joke, or essay? I’ve found the answer is simple.
A boring conversation, a bad joke, or dull writing all have one thing in common. There's no surprise.
Let me explain, with a bit of a detour.
I have to briefly explain the work of the famous mathematician Claude Shannon. Here’s an article by Marianne Freiberger that explains it well.
Shannon wanted to measure the amount of information you could transmit via various media. There are many ways of sending messages: you could produce smoke signals, use Morse code, the telephone, or (in today's world) send an email. To treat them all on equal terms, Shannon decided to forget about exactly how each of these methods transmits a message and simply thought of them as ways of producing strings of symbols. How do you measure the information contained in such a string?
It's a tricky question. If your string of symbols constitutes a passage of English text, then you could just count the number of words it contains. But this is silly: it would give the sentence "The Sun will rise tomorrow" the same information value as he sentence "The world will end tomorrow" when the second is clearly much more significant than the first. Whether or not we find a message informative depends on whether it's news to us and what this news means to us.
After lots of thought he decided that “Information is surprise.” Then he set out to build the mathematical formula that would calculate it.
Some words, like "the" or "a" are pretty unsurprising; in fact they are redundant since you could probably understand the message without them. The real essence of the message lies in words that aren't as common, such as "alien" or "invasion".
You could simply measure the amount of surprise you feel when a word occurs by the number of times it occurs per million words in some large volume of English text. But this would be missing a trick. The word "invasion" is pretty surprising when it follows the word "alien", but less surprising when it follows the word "military". Perhaps surprise should be measured, not only in terms of the overall frequency of a word, but also in terms of the word that came before it
This insight that information is a surprise was at the time mindblowing. In fact, that insight is what led to information being turned into the 1s and 0s that makes reading this on our computers possible.
But how can this lead to better conversations, stories, and jokes?
The obvious answer is the better stories contain more “information” and by definition more “surprise.”
The art is being surprising while still making sense. It’s an extremely tricky balance that executed incorrectly leads to terrible results.
If it's too surprising, it's too absurd. A niche crowd might like it, but most won’t. For example:
If it’s not surprising, it’s boring. We’ve heard it all before. It’s too “stupid” or “kiddy.” Example:
As I’ve been watching great comedians, I’ve noticed they’re masters of finding the balance. The jokes are surprising yet somehow inevitable.
Although it’s easier said than done. If you want to be an interesting person, here’s a start: be surprisingly inevitable.
Another article from the vaults. It’s about learning to love the ordinary beauty of daily life. I think it’s particularly relevant in our coronavirus quarantined times. Here’s the introduction.
Some of my favorite stories follow hopelessly broken protagonists looking for happiness. TV shows like Mad Men, BoJack Horseman, and Breaking Bad are some of the best examples of this subgenre. They examine their characters with nuance and without conventionality. They don’t fall into the familiar tropes most stories with flawed protagonists fall into.
The worst of these stories end the same way. Towards the end of the story, the protagonist has an event that changes their life and gives it meaning. Usually this is meeting a romantic interest or falling in love. At the conclusion of the movie, they realize love conquers all and they live happily ever after.
Because of movies like this, we too await some sort of life changing, beautiful event. We look for somebody else to complete us and fill the holes we have in our hearts. We think, “It’s gonna be okay. We are going to fall in love. We are going to experience great beauty and then we will be whole.”
The reason I like Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is because it rejects this narrative. The protagonist, Jep, meets many women he could love and yet undeniably inside of him, there still is that human existential void. He is a writer who writes a book which propels him to fame, yet he never follows his initial success with another book.
When asked why, Jep gives an answer that fascinates me.
He says, “I was searching for a great beauty. And I didn’t find it.”
You can read the whole article here: Why Great Beauty is actually in the day to day
If you liked my writing and found it valuable, I only ask you to do one thing.
Send me a zoom background. No context needed.
Till next time my lazy,
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