by Jason Bayani
I’ve always found the comedic sensibilities of your work to be such an organic part of the storytelling–– something that seems to have naturally progressed into the columns you write for Opine Season. What do you believe makes a piece of writing funny as opposed to how it occurs in conversation or live performance?
I’m not sure there’s an opposition here. I don’t really strive to be funny, that just seems to be how it works out. I tend to be a very sarcastic and snarky person by nature. In everyday life–– in the work I write–– I come from a perspective of levity and derision, especially when it comes to painful subject matter. I find that a sense of humor is the best way to look at the darkest aspects of life. So the more unpleasant or ridiculous a situation, the more I make fun of it. It is how I process. And, hopefully, it makes what I have to say in my work more accessible to my audience.
I know you have made the correlation between humor and pain and often that seems to be the popular feeling amongst comedians and humorists alike. Aside from pain, are there any other places in our experience where you feel we draw humor from?
I am reading them as I go, so I think I kind of already answered this in part, but personally, I believe that people respond most to things they can relate to. Nobody wants to feel that they are being lectured or yelled at. It makes it harder for many to listen to what the artist is saying, and puts the audience on guard. But if they can see themselves, if only a little, in what is being presented to them, they are then able to really think about the issue or situation, because they have been there, or they have thought the same thing, or they are like that sometimes. Sometimes I’ll see a comedian not even really make a joke, just mention something that their audience has heard of, and everyone laughs. Even if it’s as simple as naming a familiar location, like a suburb to the town where the comedian is performing. People want to relate. They want to feel like they are part of something. We are pack animals. We are social beings. And we respond more favorably when we feel like the artist is, in part, speaking to or about us. We love to laugh at ourselves.
Your years in the public service industry is a subject that is very present in your writing. Do you feel it has affected you as a writer stylistically, and in what way?
Absolutely. The service industry is an awesome way to get a perspective on the world. I have spent twenty years dealing with an enormous cross section of humanity in a social and vulnerable setting. I speak to hundreds of people a day who I would never meet in my everyday life, when they are crabby and hungry, when they are happy and social, meeting old friends, when they are uncomfortable on first dates, when they are drunk and stupid, when they are having meetings. I get to fill in the holes and make up the rest of their stories. I get to make fun of them for their ridiculous behavior. I get to see how they are different, and what makes them all the same. And I learn from them. I learn about jobs I will never have, places I have never been, issues I wouldn’t normally know or care about. I learn what people are like who I would never have spoken to. I am forced to watch them every day. I am forced to help them, even if they are a bunch of careless, snobby, poor-mannered assholes. They usually aren’t. People tend to be perfectly ordinary and polite, but where’s the fun in that? And talk about relating? EVERYONE goes out to eat. What an easy thing to write about, which is incredibly familiar to me, and relatable to my entire audience. People often talk to me, when I have performed a piece about waiting or bartending, wondering if they are a customer like that, or because they have been a waiter too. But even when I’m not writing about my job, I still draw heavily from the people I meet and talk to there. It’s very much how I stay in the real world. And as a side note, performing about working in a restaurant is an easy way to get free drinks from the bartender after the show.
The Twin Cities have been a hotbed for poets in our scene, and it is particularly hot right now. You have St. Paul winning NPS in ’09 and ’10, and recently there’s been a host of young poets who have gone viral on the net. On top of that, when you look at the earlier generation of poets who were involved in slam and performance poetry you are looking at poets like yourself, Dessa (whose had a pretty successful transition into music), and two of my favorite poets: Bao Phi and Ed Bok Lee. What do you think it is about your city that fosters this kind of talent?
My city is great. There has always been an enormous, eclectic, eccentric arts scene there. We have, throughout my lifetime been enormously influential and prolific in film, music, hip hop, poetry, theater, and literature. It’s an easy place to live, because it is relatively inexpensive, compared to a lot of other cities, which makes it super easy for artists to live, work, and experiment. I remember moving to the Bay Area, and something I noticed when throwing shows out here was that everyone had to get paid. You had to come up with some money for the door guy, the merch girl, every performer, etc. It made sense. Rent here is high, everything is expensive. We can’t afford to spend much of our free time just screwing around doing shows for nothing. Not so in Minneapolis. People just collaborate for the hell of it, just because it would be fun to try a new idea. It’s a small enough town where everybody knows each other, but a big enough city to have extensive immigrant communities and many many pockets of neighborhoods with all sorts of things to offer and influence. We are central, near Chicago, smack in ther middle of the farm belt, so we have simple roots and work ethic. And there’s an honesty and openness about the midwest that I think you don’t encounter in other parts of the country. There’s a simplicity and clarity there, that is a great source for great art. We’re free to experiment. We have nothing to lose, so we can make up our own style. We are free to be very industrious and professional, or just fuck around and make up something new that may or may not break new ground.
And now for the standard broad-based question: At the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from your any piece of writing you put out there?
I referred to this before, but I tend to talk very autobiographically, and I tend to be funny. What inspired me originally to really crack down and seriously work as an artist was a friend of mine (he is now, he wasn’t yet then) who I saw for the first time at a folk festival in Winnepeg. He was very blunt and funny and unbelievably honest. I was shocked at the things he admitted about himself, and what he thought about things. I thought, people really think this way, but I can’t believe he said that out loud. I don’t mean controversial stuff. I mean he would say stuff that was downright embarrassing. And I was really impressed. I thought, I can do that. I can be that honest. This became an enormously prominent rule in my work, brutal honesty at the point of being embarrassing. And the thing is, I was so impressed at my reaction. The effect his stuff had on me was so strong and original and clarifying. I really want to hit people like that. I want them to see themselves in what I say, and I want them to hear something and be almost shocked that the same thing was on their mind, they were just afraid to say it. This sounds lofty, but whatever. Hypothetical. And in a broader way, I addressed this concept in my column recently. A lot of my fellow writers tackle very serious and controversial topics. And a lot of what I do addresses the common, the personal, the kind of thing that people do and see every day in their lives. I think there is a huge and important need for my fellow columnists’ work. They talk about sexism and racism, politics, legal issues, etc. in extremely critical, articulate, and educated ways. They inform our readers in very important ways. But sometimes, I think we need to take a step back, stop focusing on all the things that make us different, and the opportunities we have or lack over others, the ways we hurt and judge each other. Sometimes I think it would do us all a great deal of good to notice what makes us alike, that we live in the same world, have access to the same media, the same stores, worry if we’re getting fat, if that guy likes us, get annoyed at the same things, care about some of the same stuff. So I strive to do things that everyone can relate to, so we can laugh together, and see ourselves.
To read more of Thadra’s writing, check out her column at Opine Season,