Artists like to take the art out of art. The playwright and screenwriter Noah Haidle once described a play as an equation: “You set up a problem and you solve it.” In a 2012 video for the New York Times, Jerry Seinfeld likens jokes to jigsaw puzzles—once he’s found a narrative, writing becomes little more than an arithmetic rearrangement of words and syllables. Then there’s William Carlos Williams’ famous declaration that a poem is a machine of words, designed with the sole purpose of reproducing in its reader whatever feeling inspired the writer. There’s an attractive single-mindedness to these ethos, which cast the writer’s work as just that—work, intensive and unglamorous in the same way cabinetmaking is intensive and unglamorous. You don’t have to be a genius to write a joke; you just have to come at it from enough angles, with enough time, using the right combination of tools. On the other hand, you have to do all that just to tell a single little joke.
Liz Miele, a 30-year-old comedian based in Brooklyn, has been doing stand-up long enough that she’s figured out its fundamental calculus. “I’ve been doing it for fourteen years,” she told me as we made thank-you cards in her apartment, “and I’d say that 85% if the time, if I want a joke to work, I’ll make it work.” An even-tempered performer and a ruthlessly methodical writer, Miele has made a name for herself with the deceptively simple observational humor all observational humor aspires to be. It seems so easy—a thing happens, you notice it, you talk about why it was worth noticing. Yet the appearance of effortlessness is usually the result of weeks to years of grappling with an idea. Miele recalls one joke whose inspiration came, as so many do, on the streets of New York City. “My brother was living with me and we were walking down the street when this couple passed us,” she said. “They were both on Citi Bikes but the guy was way ahead, and as the girl was passing us we just heard her yell, ‘I thought you said leisurely!’” This line ricocheted between the siblings as an inside joke until Miele eventually figured out how to work it into her set—three years later. This isn’t particularly unusual; in that Times video, Seinfeld claims to have spent two years writing a joke about Pop-Tarts. Observational humor requires a depth of perspective—the capacity to see oneself from outside oneself, to understand precisely what makes a thing resonant—that often cannot be brute-forced, only learned with age and experience. “It took me three years to even identify that this was something I wanted to talk about,” Miele said. “It ended up being this kind of Facebook relationship joke: on Facebook they’re probably deeply in love, but I know she hopes he gets hit by a bus.”
Miele’s jokes don’t all take three years to write, but most come from lengthy interrogations of some thought or feeling. “Something bad happens to me and then I cry about it and then I write a joke—that’s usually how it happens,” she told me. “I’ve never thought, ‘What’s funny about this?’ It’s always, ‘Well, why do I feel like this?’ And then pulling back the layers and pulling back the layers and showing people: this is why it’s absurd.” She attributes her entrepreneurial work ethic to her parents, both veterinarians—her father owns two animal hospitals in New Jersey—who grew up poor. Right now she’s on the road in Europe (which she says pays better than nightly spots in New York, thanks to currency exchange rates) and will perform her hourlong show “Mind Over Miele” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; these are all projects she has self-organized and self-produced. “It’s almost to a detriment that I’m not in business—I have the right kind of bitchiness to be a CEO everybody doesn’t like,” she said. “And I enjoy creating a business, I enjoy problem-solving. Jokes, to me, are just problems to solve. Why is this not working? I know I’m funny, so if the joke isn’t funny, it’s not coming across in a way that’s digestible. My intelligence is in divergent thinking—if you give me a problem, I can give you five solutions you didn’t even think of. So for comedy, it’s really just going, ‘Okay, this route isn’t working. What other routes could I use?’”
If Miele sounds like someone who’s developed an acute self-awareness through years of therapy, well, it’s because she has. Her ability to zero in on the feelings behind her feelings evokes Chris Gethard: even when the material is dark, it is affably so; when it is light, there is darkness woven into the fabric. (I’m fond of a bit in her recent set at the Paste Studio in which she considers pregnancy as a means of treating hormonal acne). “I really do think how reflective you have to be in comedy and how reflective you have to be in therapy really came together to give me a little more understanding of who I am as a person, which helped me have more of an understanding of who I am as a comic,” she said. This was not an easy process—“There were like three years of finding out everything that sucks about me”—but it seems to have proven crucial to her work. “We all go into comedy as a defense mechanism,” she speculated. “I think a lot of us feel ostracized by whatever community we grew up in, so then we start to build our own community. It’s weird.”
Over the course of our hourlong conversation, Miele accrued a tidy pile of thank-you cards for the folks behind Nobodies of Comedy, a now-shuttered company she recently toured with. It took me roughly the same time to finish a single card, which ended up looking more like a ransom note. We used Miele’s personal stash of glitter and rubber stamps—mostly cat-themed, relics from her childhood—and a steampunk-looking blow dryer-type ordeal that heated the ink, allowing the glitter to dry into it. Her cat, Pasta, lazed on a stool beside me, at times permitting a neck-scratch and at others biting my knuckle. “He can be fickle,” Miele warned, then told me about an in-progress bit—she suspects she’s a cat person because her parents are cat people. “I think they’re vets because they’re not good social beings,” she said. “They have more consistent and better relationships with animals, because they had crappy upbringings and that was a more stable thing. Animals hurt you in predictable ways; people get to hurt you in a sporadic, you-don’t-know-how-to-calculate-it way. And as I’ve gotten older, as a cat person, I’ve realized I date men that are like cats. They can be very loving, but they can also be distant ten seconds later.”
“So the joke is like, I’m a cat person, but what does that mean?” she continued. Then she teased it out, slowly, mathematically: “I was raised by other cat people that are just kind of unstable. I like unstable people and cats are unstable. They’re moody and unstable and that’s apparently what I’m attracted to, in animals and dudes and friends. All my friends are mentally unstable. I’m an unstable person looking for unstable people. And it doesn’t matter whether you have fur or not.”
Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.