Transcribing jokes nearly always produces awkward results. I've cringed at people's attempts to capture the humor second-hand. Inflection gets lost, exact language is often neglected or abused, and many times the reader is at a disadvantage because he/she can't see essential touches of visual humor that accompany a joke – for example, the fact that the comic is performing the joke with women's thong underwear stretched over his head, and a microphone pointed at his ass. Awesome stuff like that almost never makes it to the page.
I reacted with a mixture of curiosity and dread – leaning more heavily toward dread – when I received an email from Comedy Central (brag) containing a full transcription of my stand-up set, culled from a DVD I'd sent them. The transcript was prepared for review by the network's Standards & Practices department, who will then tell me what I can and can't say during the Premium Blend taping next month. (Other comics have already asked me if I'm going to be allowed to say "cock smoothie" and "abortion schmabortion!" onstage, which is weird because I've never said either of those things in my act. And no, you cannot steal those jokes, political humorist Mark Russell. Shame on you!)
When I opened their attached document I saw they'd not only transcribed my entire set, including any "um"s or "likes" littering my otherwise pristine comedic flow – I was actually surprised how few of these were in my set – but they also made notations wherever laughter followed something I'd said. The result was almost like a scientific chart analyzing my words-to-laughter ratio. I could see where laughter was separated by 15 words in one place, then 50 words in the next. Seeing my set laid out like that was really fascinating. And by fascinating, I mean paralyzing.
I have never really been the kind of comedian who obsesses over the mechanics of jokes. I think a certain amount of instinct goes into what is funny, or at least what feels right, and then you hear how audiences react and promise yourself you'll adjust accordingly. And then, if that adjustment doesn't work, I stop telling the joke forever. And sometimes, even if it does work, I stop telling the joke forever anyway, because I have a tendency to forget what new jokes were in my set on any given night.
But seeing it all transcribed right there, and knowing exactly where the laughs sit, well, that was pretty crazy. And crazier still, the person who performed the transcription took it into his/her hands to qualify the laughter. So, instead of just "[LAUGHTER]" there would be separate notations for things like "[LOUD LAUGHTER]" or "[SUSTAINED LAUGHTER]" or even "[SOMEONE IN AUDIENCE FARTS, FOLLOWED BY UNCONTROLLABLE LAUGHTER AND BARELY AUDIBLE COMEDIAN SAYING STUPID STUFF NO ONE CARES ABOUT BECAUSE, HOLY SHIT, THAT FART WAS TOP-NOTCH.]." It's strange to discover the laughter you've received has been ranked, and it made me freak out a bit, wondering why certain areas contained "[REGULAR LAUGHTER]," while others contained "HONEST, SINCERE-SOUNDING LAUGHTER]."
The transcript even included reactions from the audience that weren't exactly laughter, like "[COLLECTIVE SIGH]", "[RUSTLING OF DOCUMENTS]", "[COYOTE HOWL]", "[MOTHER WARNING SON TO STAY IN SCHOOL AND GET HIS DEGREE, OR ELSE 'THIS' IS WHAT HE'LL HAVE TO LOOK FORWARD TO.]", and "[SARCASTIC APPLAUSE]."
But the worst part was when the stenographer included his own notes commenting on my set and delivery, like, "[GRINS SMUGLY]," and "[LETS HIS HANDS HANG AWKWARDLY AT HIS SIDES]," and "[FIDGETS WITH MIC STAND...AGAIN!]," as well as, "[THINKS HE'S HOT SHIT EVEN THOUGH HE'S JUST COLD DIARRHEA]."