How Do You Reach An Audience? Watch Chris Bliss' "Comedy is Translation"

If there is no respect, there is no connection. - Chris Bliss

With academic roots in comparative literature and a career in comedy that has spanned decades, Chris Bliss delivers a laugh filled, frank and inspiring talk on the power of comedy as translation, saying that the form offers us "permission to question the relevance of any topic." And while in an introductory aside he is quick to point out to the audience that his talk will in places betray a point of view, there is no need to be afraid. "I won't be using any language or subject matter that isn't commonly heard on public school playgrounds."

Unlike playgrounds - or in the grown up workaday world of break room discussions and cable news broadcasts - Bliss explains that comedy works because the final success or failure of the exchange depends on skillfully acknowledging an essential balance of power, the unspoken assumptions that each of us bring to any conversation, while simultaneously transcending those assumptions to shed new light.

What I found so intriguing while sitting in the audience listening to him is how alike comedy and the adventurous and curious spirit are. Comedy, like curiosity, never stops probing, even when it fails. Comedy, like curiosity, never sets the parameters so that conclusions are baked into the discussion. Comedy, like curiosity, entertains multiple possibilities that may or may not be currently in conflict. Comedy, like curiosity, suspends judgement, even if for a moment. Comedy, like curiosity, is open, expansive, receptive to something true, even hard truths, and yet remains hopeful.

Bliss explains elsewhere why comedy works so well “as a bridge to new perspectives:”

Comedy succeeds at this because it travels along a distinct wavelength from other forms of language…. What I’m talking about is that unique power that the best comedy and satire has to circumvent our ingrained perspective - comedy as the philosopher stone. [It] takes the base metal of conventional wisdom and transforms it through ridicule into a different way of seeing and, ultimately, of being in the world. [It is] a communication that doesn’t just create greater understanding within the individual… [but] somehow manages to speak to and expand our own individual concept of self-interest.

Robert Frost once said that "poetry is what gets lost in translation." Insofar as poetry is nearer to the truth than any straightforward telling of the facts could ever hope to achieve, I think Bliss would agree that comedy, depending on the skill of the writer, is likewise essential because it too speaks to the full range of human experience. The vast majority of us will never acquire the comedic skill and practiced timing needed to discuss, much less transcend, the touchy subjects Bliss and any other successful comedians will address. One reason, I suspect, is an unwillingness to fail spectacularly and in public.

Don't miss the final several minutes of his presentation at IdeaFestival 2013. You won't be disappointed!

Stay curious.


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Video: "Comedy Is Translation" The complete keynote, including Q &A from Chris Bliss on Vimeo.