Talking to Strangers

Elijah Manning

We are pleased to bring you this guest blog post from our 2019 high school intern, Elijah Manning!

Five years ago, if you asked me whether I would someday be writing and performing stand up, I probably would’ve said, “My mom doesn’t let me talk to strangers.”

I simply didn’t see comedy being a significant part of my future. Up until a year ago, the funniest thing about me was the way I looked. I had no desire to write or perform jokes. All that aside, the possibility of turning to comedy shouldn’t have seemed that far fetched.

Humor runs deep in my family. From a young age, I saw how humor could relax difficult situations, help us cope with loss, and lessen the pain and angst of life’s bad experiences.

A few years ago, for example, my dad told my family some very sad news at the dinner table. He said, “Your Aunt Fanny has passed away.”

There was silence for a moment, before my sister said, “Oh, so that’s why she doesn’t write back anymore.”

We all laughed, but then my sister, suddenly feeling guilty, started crying.

“Don’t feel bad,” my dad said. “She died very peacefully in her sleep.”

To which my mom said, “Which is more than you can say for the two people she was driving.”

Once in a while I even used a little humor myself, as a child. My parents always tell this story at Thanksgiving: I was about six years old and my parents were considering takeout for dinner. My mom asked me, “Do you think we should order in Chinese?” And I said, “Do you think they’ll understand us?”

My parents thought I was funny, but I was shy and didn’t make many jokes outside of the house.

That all changed at a pre-college summer program at Boston College. I found the new environment challenging and felt isolated at first, but I began to use humor more and more as a way to connect with strangers and make friends. During downtime, I started watching comedy online. After watching nearly every Comedy Central video on YouTube, I took a risk. I decided to start writing and performing my own comedy.

After my first writing session, I immediately called up my friend and told him a few of my jokes. He promptly hung up on me, and I haven’t heard from him since. However, over time I improved, and eventually, I actually began to make people laugh. As of now, my favorite joke that I’ve written goes something like this:

“I got my dog a metal hip replacement, and now when I take him on walks, instead of using a leash, I just use a giant magnet.”

This brings me to my first insight about writing comedy: you just have to start. Like jumping off of a high dive, it’s best to just do it without thinking too much about what could go wrong.

First, I find something to write about. I always choose a subject that I think has the potential to be funny. It doesn’t have to be funny right off of the bat. It could be literally anything. I’ve written about my terrible basketball team, about the time grandma put a lizard down the garbage disposal, and about rusty spoons. The topics that end up being the funniest are usually the ones for which I have the strongest emotions.

The second step is writing down every little thing that I think could be funny about my topic. It is really important to tackle the topic from every angle, approaching it from many different perspectives. Oftentimes, it’s the unexpected or unusual perspective that adds another dimension to the joke.

Then comes the final and most difficult step: trying my material out on someone other than myself and my dog (who doesn’t have a very good sense of humor). I try this in increments, starting with family members one-on-one and eventually braving it in front of an audience at an open mic. The bottom line is that the more often I try the material out, the better the work becomes. Eventually, with enough hard work, a little bit of talent, and a lot of revisions, I find that my comedy evolves from causing suicidal thoughts to actually making people laugh.

Trying to be funny is like trying to fall asleep; the harder I concentrate on doing it, the more difficult it gets. The temptation, especially after a rough night in front of a rougher crowd, is to give up and go back to watching reality TV with the dog. But in my short “career” in stand-up, when audiences have at times asked me to sit down, I am reminded that the best work I do has always required rewrites, rehearsals, and resilience. So, I keep on writing, and as hard as it may be, I try to withhold judgment and avoid comparing myself to others. It’s a delicate balance requiring dedication and an ability to shrug off the rough performances as “experience.”

Writing comedy is often difficult. The only thing you can do is try, try again, and before you know it, you will have wasted a lot of time. When it works, though, I have a hard time imagining a more rewarding experience (except for maybe eating mint chocolate chip ice cream). So the next time someone asks if you see yourself writing or performing comedy in the future, tell them, “My mom doesn’t let me talk to strangers,” and then give comedy some serious thought.

Elijah Manning is a stand-up comic and writer. He is a graduate of Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, New York, and will attend Kenyon College in fall, 2019. Congratulations, Elijah!

Featured image by  Alexas_Fotos