Jokes Make the World a Little Less Lonely
Jonathan Sun is an interdisciplinary researcher, designer, engineer, artist, comedian, author, and playwright. He is a PhD candidate at MIT in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and a 2016-2017 Berkman Klein Fellow at Harvard. His book is Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too. He tweets @jonnysun.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
JONATHAN SUN: Ultimately, when I do find a joke that works for me, it makes me feel like I’m part of something that other people are also part of and that I was able to find a connection there and find some sort of truth, because that’s ultimately what makes something funny, is if there’s that truth that other people can see, as well.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
LILY PERCY, HOST: I’m Lily Percy, and this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully, by listening, we learn how to create our own.
MS. PERCY: This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. And humor is my coping mechanism. It’s what I use to make sense of sadness, anger, fear, and especially loneliness. And it’s why I was so drawn to Jonny Sun when I first read him on Twitter. His tweets alternate between silly jokes and insightful, almost Buddhist, poetry, as told through his alter ego, a lonely alien who views the world, as an outsider, with curiosity and wonder. Through his words, Jonny Sun has formed a community of almost half a million followers on Twitter, and I’m one of them. Reading him makes me feel less alone.
MS. PERCY: Well, I have to say, I’m resisting the temptation of reading, essentially, all of your Twitter feed, because it is so wonderful. So I’m just going to read — kind of pepper through the conversation a couple of my favorites, if you don’t mind…
MR. SUN: Sure, yeah. Absolutely.
MS. PERCY: One of which is: “waldo we cant play hide and seek with u anymore first of all u keep bringig us to terifying worlds of whimsy and second u never actualy hide”. It’s so good. [laughing]
MR. SUN: Thank you.
MS. PERCY: So I have to say, where — growing up, where did you find humor? Who was the person who made you laugh the most?
MR. SUN: Oh, man. So I grew up in — I was born in Calgary, Alberta, and I moved to Toronto when I was a kid. But I was one of those kids, I think, who always had the TV on. And my parents were always like, “Stop. You can’t watch The Simpsons after school.” But they wouldn’t be home sometimes, so I would go home and turn the TV on and watch The Simpsons until they came home, and then I’d turn it off and pretend to be reading or something. But I always, I think, had comedy as this thing that I could go to. And I think, as a kid, it was kind of a retreat from, I guess, the real world, or it was a way to satiate myself. And it was — before The Simpsons, it was The Muppet Show. And I think those were the two big influences, as a kid, for me.
Media and entertainment, I think, was one of the ways that I found I was able to communicate, just through reference, or just through being able to have everyone gather around and watch TV or watch a movie and then kind of be able to talk about it. And I guess, growing up, that was my primary way of interfacing with everyone else.
MS. PERCY: Are your parents immigrants? Because what you’re saying is really — I mean I relate to it. I’m Colombian, and we moved from Colombia when I was four. And that became a way for me to kind of be able to connect with the world, was TV. And even with my own family, TV and movies is what we did to be able to connect. And I wonder if that’s something that you notice.
MR. SUN: Yeah, that was why — I didn’t know how to really bring that up, but yeah, my parents are immigrants. And I find it so fascinating that, the more people I talk to who have immigrant parents, that is a common experience, where this is the culture that I was born into but my parents were not.
MS. PERCY: Yeah. And it’s like we’re learning to fit in through watching other culture, particularly — yeah.
MR. SUN: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it was — we were all learning in different ways, right, like this was — for me, this was how to become part of this culture. Because my parents were also figuring that out, and so I had no guideposts, aside from what popular culture was showing.
MS. PERCY: Where are they from?
MR. SUN: China.
MS. PERCY: China.
MR. SUN: And my brother and I were born in Canada.
MS. PERCY: So are they funny people, your parents? How do you see humor in them, or is that something you turn to pop culture and television for?
MR. SUN: So the way I would describe it is, I think my parents were funny in China.
MS. PERCY: [laughs] Yeah.
MR. SUN: And I think — when I see them amongst — we went to China to visit their friends and family and their old lives. And when we went there, they were the stars, and they were the center of attention, and they made everyone laugh. And it was this way of seeing my parents that I never really saw them here. They have very much become part of the North American culture and the culture in Canada, but I think the time when they really come alive, when they really kind of shine and their charm and wit and character kind of comes out: when they’re amongst other Chinese people. Because, I think, that’s the shared culture, right, and that’s the shared language and the shared expectation. And they are just — oh, they are so great and so social and so funny in that context.
MS. PERCY: So one of the things that I love about your writing is — I mean it really reads like poetry, when I read it. And it’s — the words are so perfectly framed and positioned, which they have to be in order to have the meaning and really land, you know?
MR. SUN: Thank you.
MS. PERCY: And you have such a strong, intimate community. One of the things that I really admire is that people aren’t just re-tweeting your writing, they’re inspired by it. They create works of art and paintings and — I mean they become even more creative because of it. How has that helped you connect with other people?
MR. SUN: Oh, it’s just the best thing ever. Someone created a moment, a compilation of all these paintings and drawings that someone did based on one of my tweets. And I was flipping through them, and there were so many, and I just started crying. Because that’s what I did when I was a kid: I looked to other artists, and I created stuff based on that, because I think that’s how you learn to find your voice, and that’s how you learn to know how to create, is by finding your heroes or finding the people that make works that you love and being inspired by them.
And so there was a moment of realization where I realized I’m that person to some other people. And it was just this incredibly overwhelming, emotional moment for me, because that’s all I did. And that’s all I still do. I still just find the things I love, and I just want to play with them, and I play in those worlds and kind of learn from them and coalesce that into something new.
MS. PERCY: Yeah. It’s so true. I mean it really is inspiring to look and see what you’ve inspired others to do. But just on a personal level, what I love is that you, in your writing, you’re unafraid to say the things that we’re all feeling and thinking [laughs], which is so brave. I mean even — you gave an interview once where you were talking about — I think the interviewer asked you if there was one thing that you could say to make everyone’s life a little bit better, at the end of the interview. And you said that — acknowledging we’re all going to die.
MS. PERCY: And I read that, and I said, yes, it’s so true!
MR. SUN: [laughing] Yeah, why ignore that?
MS. PERCY: Why are we not talking about this? Why are we just always pretending that this isn’t really true? And what you said after that is that if you recognize that, then you really know that your time is limited, and you just have to do what makes you happy. And that means that you have to find love. You have to do the things you want to do. You have to make things. You have to follow your interests and your passions. And
I feel like that’s at the heart of — I mean so much of your writing is just that wanting to reach and hold onto the things, because we know that we’re going to die.
MR. SUN: Yeah, yeah. Once you accept that, you kind of — or I’ve become more grateful.
MS. PERCY: Definitely. I was curious about — especially reading this one tweet where you said, “a child lets go of a helium balloon & watches it float up into the sky. ‘i hope dad gets this one’ he quietly whispers to himself”. And I was thinking, did you grow up hearing Jack Handey on Saturday Night Live?
MR. SUN: I didn’t.
MS. PERCY: Really?
MR. SUN: I didn’t at all. And it’s — sorry, I get really excited when we talk about Jack Handey. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: No, because that was someone — I wrote down my favorite things that he said. [laughs] And that one reminded me of: “If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is ‘God is crying.’ And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is ‘Probably because of something you did.’” [laughs]
MR. SUN: Oh, how — yeah. I mean Jack Handey is a legend, right? And I only discovered him after I started doing sketch comedy. So I discovered him really late. Again, that’s because I started watching SNL — and SNL was another big staple, once I started getting old enough to understand why it was funny and what it was, and when I was old enough to stay up that late.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, which always felt that you were doing something wrong, I know, when my dad let me stay up with him. And he’d change the channel when it was too sexual. [laughs]
MR. SUN: [laughing] Yeah.
MS. PERCY: That was always the thing. But Jack Handey was very welcome. And so human, too.
MR. SUN: Yeah, exactly. And I think that’s what I’m interested in, as a writer, is to find that humanness from any source. And I think, the sillier and the more bizarre the place you can find that humanness, the more affecting that humanness is.
MS. PERCY: So true. Yeah, I mean I’m looking at something you wrote: “giv a man a fish adn he’ll say ‘wat is this i ordered a mcflurry’ / teach a man to fish adn he’ll say ‘how ar u the manager of this mcdonalds'” [laughs]
MR. SUN: Right. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Oh, God, it’s just — it’s perfect.
MR. SUN: [laughs] Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I think what I love about Twitter, one of the things, is that because it’s constrained to 140 characters, there’s that challenge. And it’s basically a design challenge, where you’re given this limited palette and this limited set of tools, and what can you make out of it that’s original and different and strange. And I think one of the cool phenomena of Twitter and of internet comedy is the idea of formats and the idea of memes and these things.
I think, because you have so little space to work with, anything that you can borrow or that you can establish that gives you structure and that sets up the joke right away is helpful, which is why the “giv a man a fish” thing is such a popular format on Twitter, because it’s so — with that one line, it’s a very economical way to establish place, setting, tone, character, all that stuff. And then it’s — once you have that platform, and once you can set that up, it’s so much easier to upend that and flip that around and find the humor in it.
MS. PERCY: I love that you said “economical,” because it makes me think that you’re attacking it like a math problem. [laughs]
MR. SUN: [laughs] I feel like I’m always attacking things as a math problem and as a design problem. [laughing] So, thank you. I appreciate that.
MS. PERCY: Very, very cool. So I’m really curious as to how you are going to answer this: what do you find in humor, what does it give you that you’re really grateful for, that you find nowhere else?
MR. SUN: I think it’s a way to connect. When I write something that resonates with people and that makes people laugh, it’s gratifying, not — not for the reason of, “oh, I’m funny,” or “I’m smart.” It’s more like I am still part of this larger group of people. Because I think humor ultimately is a social tool. I think it’s something that is used, essentially, to say, “Oh, you’re part of us.” And as much as it is a tool for exclusion sometimes, it’s a tool for inclusion and for making people feel comfortable and making everyone realize: we’re all together on this.
MS. PERCY: And we’re not alone, which is how I feel when I read your writing.
MR. SUN: Yeah, exactly, and for me, that’s — a lot of people have that response, and they’ve said things, like: “this makes me feel not alone,” or “I’m glad that I read this.” And for me, it serves the same purpose. I’m writing this to help myself feel less alone and help myself feel more connected. So I think when I do find a joke that works for me, it makes me feel like I’m part of — I’m still tapped in, I’m still part of something that other people are also part of, and that I was able to find a connection there and find some sort of truth. Because that’s ultimately what makes something funny, is if there’s that truth that other people can see, as well.
[music: “#88” by Lo-Fang]
Jonny Sun is an architect, a poet, a designer, an engineer, a playwright, a doctoral student at MIT — his remarkable resume is 12 pages long. His book, Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, is out June 27th. His Twitter handle is @jonnysun, and his funny, thoughtful tweets keep me from hating social media. So follow him.
Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.
[music: “#88” by Lo-Fang]