I’ve been teaching a music laptop class at Bard College for the last five years. It’s a hybrid composition/ tech class built around Ableton Live. The last two semesters I’ve been telling this Louie CK story on the first day to help the students understand what I want from them in class. It’s hard to get kids who have so recently escaped from High School see that the music they need to create for this class is not about like/dislike or good/bad; that it’s more about the untried and the unexpected. This particular Louie story seems to help.
It’s from his TV show, the last season (3rd I think). I actually went back and watched it again recently and realized I changed some things, but it makes it a better story in this context. It starts off with Louie and his two daughters, 6 & 8 maybe, sitting at the dinner table quietly eating dinner. They then start telling jokes to each other. After a while, the youngest daughter says, “I want to tell a joke,” and stops to think. A few seconds later she say, “Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet performance?”
Cut to Louie on stage doing his stand-up act. “You know, I’ve been doing comedy for almost 25 years. I see any comedian on stage telling a joke and in the first sentence I know where it’s going. Not that I’ve heard every joke there is but I know how jokes work. But when my youngest daughter tells a joke, I have NO IDEA where it’s going to end up. The other day she says, ‘Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet?’ Already I love this joke!” Louie goes on, “I have no idea where it’s going. I say, ‘I don’t know. Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet?’ and she says, ‘Just the people in charge of those sort of things.’” Louie makes a longer story out of it, but the students in my class laugh at that punch line and I go on.
I tell them, “That’s the kind of thing I’m after. I’ve been composing and listening closely to music for over 30 years. I can tell in the first 15 seconds of hearing something new whether it’s going to be something interesting or something formulaic or cliched. The best way to succeed in this class is to keep me guessing and to give me a reason to keep listening to your music. I don’t want to hear comfortable music. I don’t even want to hear music that you may like.” I go on and hypothesize that the reason Louie doesn’t know where this joke is going is because it doesn’t follow the normal flow of a joke. The funny image is at the beginning and the punch line is simply a statement of the obvious. This mash up of expectations is what makes this joke fresh, and they need to take that same approach with their work in this class.
No one of course “gets it” right away, but through the weekly assignments and a lot of conversation (and a few more Louie and Mark Maron jokes), most of them come around.