The philosophical comedy of David Heti

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David-Heti

David Heti swears he’s not a bad person. It’s just that not everyone gets the joke, and since the (mostly) Montreal-based comedian — who was a lawyer with a philosophy background in a previous life — mainly likes to tell jokes that poke at the boundaries of our complex views of ethics and morality, there’s a lot of potential for misinterpretation.

An illustration of David Heti

An illustration of David Heti by Shannon Gerard

“You can’t concern yourself with people who don’t understand what’s going on, really,” Heti tells me, in reference to the polarizing nature of his comedy. I reached him by phone when he was in New Hampshire earlier this week, breaking between shows on a tour that will stop at Montreal’s ComedyWorks this weekend. “You can’t create things for them.

“What concerns me are questions of what it means to be a good person,” he continues, “what it means to act responsibly amidst others in some social collective, how oneself can best be happy being surrounded by others and the freedoms you can take with others or yourself.”

This weekend’s performances at ComedyWorks will give Heti the opportunity to work a larger room than he’s been used to in Montreal, having been a frequent guest at open mic nights in small venues like Burritoville and Théâtre Sainte Catherine, but only recently breaking into headlining slots in comedy clubs. Heti notes that rigorous touring across North America and performing in new markets has helped him gain access to larger rooms.

“Going to the Laugh Factory in Chicago or the Comedy Studio in Boston — these are good clubs — they don’t know my history, whereas clubs in Montreal and Toronto saw me coming up and working out my kinks during that time,” Heti explains. He can’t help adding, “It’s like being a sex offender who’s changed neighbourhoods.”

Having lived a nomadic lifestyle over the past few years, never staying in one place for more than a couple of months at a time, Heti is looking forward to returning to Montreal where he says he feels most at home. “Coming back home and doing shows with your buddies is just so fun, it does make for better nights of comedy,” Heti says. He’ll be joined at ComedyWorks by local comics François Tousignant, Scott Andrew Carter, Chris Sandiford and Jakub Stachurski. Later on this year, he’ll mark an extended stay in the city as he prepares to teach a six-week course in comedy writing at McGill University, a course he’s offered several times in the past.

What can you expect at a David Heti comedy show? “Perhaps the jokes aren’t going to be as clean, in terms of strictly cleanly structured.” Heti says. “[The jokes will be] a little more extemporaneous, a little looser, a little more sophisticated perhaps — if you think that clear thinking is unsophisticated.”

With a canon of sophisticated, multilayered jokes that touch upon the most taboo subjects imaginable such as pedophilia, abortion and racism, Heti puts the audience at the edge of their comfort zone and, with a quiet, non-threatening demeanour that’s wholly unlike the chest-beating, noisy machoism that accompanies so much typical “offensive” comedy, he keeps on gently nudging until you’re forced to forget about whether Heti himself is a bad person or not in favour of wondering whether you yourself just boarded a rocket straight to hell for laughing along with him.

“Comedy is my way of discussing these topics, poster words like sexual deviancy or genocide and all these things. [I joke about] hypocrisy and self-righteousness or self-certainty, and the rightfulness of anyone’s moral indignation or sense of propriety. It’s really just a way to get to something deeper, which is our understanding and our feelings for those subjects. Maybe it fails at all levels, but those are the feelings behind it.”

Heti explains to me that he’s always been interested in questions of morality and the philosophy of our conduct towards each other—perhaps no surprise for someone who grew up in the same household that produced his sister Sheila Heti, author of the bestselling book How Should a Person Be? At first, Heti gravitated towards a career in law, earning a bachelor in philosophy and two law degrees from McGill, and later working for the Government of Canada’s Department of Justice.

Before long though, Heti realized that approaching the fundamental questions of morality could be done in more dynamic and accessible way through comedy than through academia or bureaucracy.

“Philosophy is just an exploration of truth, and law is saying ‘Okay, we can’t figure out truth, but we can try to work things out somehow,’” he notes. “And comedy is like looking directly at the problems which are irresolvable. It’s an acknowledgement that there are problems that cannot be reconciled, in ways that law and philosophy can’t deal with in as enjoyable of a manner.

“Also, who reads a philosophical text? Who’s going to read your thesis? Whereas in comedy, you’re talking to everyone basically, in every little town in North America. It’s kind of a cool thing to be able to address these issues and communicate these thoughts with people from all over who have different values and different life experiences. You’re immersing yourself and engaging with people on a more relatable level than simply some opinion piece in the paper.”

And perhaps the best part of turning your life’s mission of existential inquiry into a comedy routine instead of an esoteric academic text? “[With comedy], you get to go drinking and carousing as well,” Heti laughs. Well played, David Heti. Well played.

 

David Heti is headlining at ComedyWorks (1238 Bishop) on Sept. 10 at 8:30 p.m. and Sept. 11–12 at 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., $15

To learn more about his comedy writing course at McGill University, click here.

For more information about David Heti, including a link to his comedy album, check out his official website here.

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