Westword Book Club: Comedian Deacon Gray on comedy, comic books, and the Theory of Stew
Reading is about more than following a narrative or absorbing information; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, which celebrates the books that inspire Denver artists.
Deacon Gray, an Oklahoman transplant who honed his comedic expertise through years of working thankless road-dog gigs, is the new-talent coordinator in Denver's most celebrated comedy club. As such, he slaloms between developing his own act and mentoring insecure young comics who seek to benefit from his 25 years in the game.
In addition to functioning as Comedy Work's benevolent new-talent gatekeeper, Gray is a touring standup and the creator of fêted Text-A-Saurus, a monthly comedy show wherein Denver's finest comedians along with selected traveling crackerjacks improvise sets based on text messages submitted by the audience. Text-A-Saurus is held the last Saturday of each month: the next performance is June 29 at the Bug Theater.
Westword sat down with Deacon recently to discuss comedy, comic books and how the book The Artist's Way has shaped his career.
Westword: You had a particular book you wanted to talk about, right?
Deacon Gray: Yes. It's called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. This is the book that I recommend to people the most. I've given it to people as a gift, and told so many people, "Hey, you should try this." If not the book itself, I've definitely adapted certain teachings and approaches she has and I've done the exercises she writes about.
Is it something you use in your comedy classes?
Absolutely, absolutely. But it's also a personal philosophy as well. This book was just really in line with where I was at the time when I first read it.
When was that?
It was the early '90s, and I had just graduated college and decided to go out on the road as a comedian, and I was finding that it wasn't like I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be this glamorous life and instead I was going from one shitty gig to another shitty gig.
Gulping down the dregs of the '80s comedy boom?
Yeah, I was late to that party. It was bad. Clubs were closing and audiences were shrinking. It was awful. It got to where I wasn't being creative at all, I was just barely surviving at these gigs. I'd do anything to try and make it work.
You mean like pandering?
Yeah. I remember one time I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, and when I got off stage I realized, wow, I had an accent that whole time. I was like "how're y'all doin'?" I felt like it was what I had to do. So what happened was my act became stagnant, and I wasn't writing and I wasn't happy. This book hit me at a really good time and helped motivate me to be more DIY with my comedy, to write jokes that felt more like they came from me, bring creativity to opportunities I have. Comedy Works could have been just dealing with Tuesday [New Talent Night] and coming in one day a week. I've tried to be creative though, I saw that we had this great pool of local talent that we weren't using I've tried to spin that in new directions.
Do you remember who recommended The Artist's Way to you?
No. I wish I did. I remember that the book had just come out at the time because it's only about twenty years old: 1992 maybe? I also remember hearing something about how Julia Cameron and Martin Scorsese were briefly married, which is a pretty cool connection. There were a couple things I liked about it right away. First of all, it was self- published and this was before it was so easy for people to do that.
Back when you had to find an actual printing press and not just pirate e-book software.
Exactly, and since it was a book about getting yourself to write, knowing that she self-published gave her a lot of credibility with me. Secondly, her approach to to quote-unquote spirituality fit really well with my approach to it aw well. So I'd just come off of like a Joseph Campbell period in my life, when it was all about following bliss and heroes and the power of myth, and this hit me next she kind of showed me how to translate that, put things down on paper and create something out of this philosophy I had. The one area where she echoes Campbell the most is she uses the word "God" a lot. If you're purely atheistic, you might not like this book for that reason, but if you're agnostic it'll make you think differently. It's mainly a way of viewing creativity as a force greater than you that you can tap into and channel.
So is creativity something that comes from within or is it fleeting and external?
I think it's something within. I think being creative is our true nature, and when we ignore our creative impulses we're denying part of ourselves. We have a logical side and a creative side, but we put up all the barriers to being creative. We block ourselves more than anyone else does. Identifying the patterns that block me from being creative was on of the most important lessons from this book. It helped me come up with my own analogy that been very helpful. I call it "the theory of stew." My brain is like a cauldron of stew, and the ideas are the carrots I'm trying to pick out of the stew. Most people's strategy is to wait for a carrot to circle around and then fish it out. The problem with that is that it's not efficient, you're at the mercy of the swirl. But what if you just dump the entire pot of stew onto a blank page? It's messy, and at first it seems counter-productive, but I can see the carrots because I got all that other shit out of the way. That's why I keep a journal. I write half-finished premises which are more like just ideas, I draw pictures and some things that make no sense. It's supposed to be ugly and illogical, but the process of writing everything out, or pouring out that stew has made me more efficient at identifying good ideas. I forget who's quote this is, but someone notable said "the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas." Not everybody is creative in the same way, but I do think everybody has that capacity. The people who don't satisfy that part of themselves are the people who I worry about going off. I never worry about some crazy artists going off, it's always some repressed guy.
Yeah, if an artist loses it there's nothing more at stake than unappealing art.
It's like Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon, and he had a copy of Catcher in the Rye and it showed him how empty his life was because he didn't pursue anything? Those are the guys I worry about.
Do you read more fiction or non-fiction?
I like to have a mix of both. I am usually reading two or three books at any given time. I make sure that at least one is fiction because it's important to have stories to get into, and the other is some kind of non fiction. If there's a third, it's usually a comedy book, or plays, I read a lot of plays. I also like graphic novels.
Well, as a kid I remember when the first comic book shop opened in the neighborhood. I could ride my bike to it and opened up a new world of stories and characters. Before I was mostly stuck reading kiddie cartoons like Richie Rich, Little Lulu and Archie from the racks at the gas station. I didn't understand the dynamics of Archie, this ridiculous Americana that never existed. I just knew that he had two girls, and good for him! Why does he have to choose? He must have been swinging some heavy rope, because he had the hottest blond girl and this rich chick fighting over him.
I was always more of a Veronica kind of guy. Who doesn't want a raven-haired sugar mama?
You always knew she'd end up with Reggie though, and then probably cheat with Archie.
What about after that comic-book store opened?
I've always liked the teams of superheroes, you know, Justice League, Avengers. Weird groups too, like the Defenders of the Seven Soldiers of Victory. Now I mostly just follow writers, like obviously Alan Moore, and this guys Matt Fraction who did an 8-issue run on a b-list, half-forgotten character called Iron Fist that was incredible before moving on to a run on Iron Man. More recently there's been this guy Brian K. Vaughn.
He wrote Y: The Last Man, right?
Yeah, that's a great series, and it's nice that it has a definite ending point because it's too expensive to try and keep up with the sprawling legacy titles, and besides, graphic novels are like well-honed short stories compared to an endless soap opera. Another good one this trade paperback series called The American Way. Do you know John Ridley? He worked on the screenplay for that movie 3 Kings, and he also wrote a book called Everybody Smokes in Hell. He wrote a graphic novel about a super-group called the Civil Defense Corps, but it's set in the 50s or early 60s, so everything's real Americana. One character, New American, who wears this helmet, and during a battle he's unmasked this villain called Wander. It reveals that New American is a black man, and the revelation divides the team. It becomes this exploration of racism in America through superheroes. John Ridley also has a great book about comedy. It's called A Conversation with the Mann, and it's about a young black comedian coming up through the ranks during the civil-rights era.
That's an underreported facet of comedy history.
It really is. It was so segregated back then. It still kind of is. There was a whole separate circuit that most white comics were hardly aware of. The chitlin circuit was this whole different culture that has hardly been written about at all, definitely less than other comedy scenes. I got into all different types of comedy right away, I had Cosby, Carlin and Redd Foxx all on vinyl. The Redd Foxx record was surprisingly dirty stuff. No RIchard Pryor until later which was too bad, but I've always been interested in being a a casual historian about comedy.
If you enjoyed the word-wrangling on display in the blog above, please follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more enjoyable words.
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