Bobbie Oliver connects her inner self with standup in her book ‘The Tao of Comedy’
By Carl Kozlowski 03/12/2014
Bobbie Oliver has been performing comedy for 25 years and the past decade teaching others how to perform. But it wasn’t until four years ago that Oliver realized that her approach to the art form was thoroughly intertwined with her Zen Buddhist spiritual beliefs.
That realization inspired Oliver to write her first book, titled “The Tao of Comedy: Embrace the Pause,” which she hopes will help “de-hackify” the industry by helping performers reach deeper within themselves for material. It’s a thought process that she had been inadvertently using throughout her classes at the Ice House Comedy Club, where she taught for nine years before opening her own school — Tao Comedy Studios — in Los Angeles last year.
“How it came to pass is that when I started teaching standup, people kept asking me questions about it and I realized my answers came from things I learned in Eastern philosophy,” says Oliver, a longtime Eagle Rock resident who also launched the annual Eagle Rock Comedy Festival.
“People would ask ‘what should I write about? ‘And I’d say, ‘what are you thinking about?’ Or they’d say, ‘What is my persona?’ and I would say ‘Who’s asking the question?’ Basically, the whole of it all is a really organic, natural flow to finding out who you are and what you want to talk about.”
Hearing such peaceful and positive thoughts coming from Oliver might surprise area comedy fans, whom she has entertained for years as a regular presence inside both the Ice House and Comedy Store clubs. For when she’s onstage, Oliver is a feisty fireball who brings her Southern liberal perspective to bear on all aspects of her life and the world at large.
A Georgia native, Oliver fell in love with Buddhism while living in the hipster college town of Athens. There, she and her friends would spend their Sunday mornings listening to recordings of famed Buddhist speaker Alan Watts, who utilized a humorous approach in many of the speeches that were played on a local radio station.
Oliver has employed Taoist and Zen Buddhist principles in establishing her comedy school, noting that the 35-seat venue is “like a Zen, mini swanky pub” and that she leads her students through a minute meditation at the start of each class session. She says that meditation and mindfulness are keys to her entire approach these days, as a performer, writer and a teacher, and that the book appears to be helping even those with no interest in performing.
“I’m getting a lot of feedback from people who don’t even want to be comedians and they’re saying the book’s making them less anxious and happier,” says Oliver. “There are sections about writing, performing and the business side of things, but the overall philosophy behind it all is the components of what I call the Tao of Comedy — the idea of being engaged in life fully, turning off the radio of your brain and experiencing things one on one, of living life for the first time.”
Oliver compares the way the mind normally works to the characters in the Comedy Central cult classic series “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” in which a human and his robot pals watch the worst movies ever made while making snide comments about them. The show’s audience winds up laughing at the characters’ comments, while being forced to miss the actual movie they’re commenting about.
“They were like the voice in your head, constantly judging and labeling things,” says Oliver. “And that judging and labeling is the same as fear keeping people from doing or keeping at their goal when they turn difficult. It’s like me thinking that everyone hated me when I gave my science fair project in seventh grade, and now being afraid to do standup. You get so nervous about this idea of what’s going to happen and we say ‘What if they don’t like me?’ But if you bring yourself into this moment, then that fear dissipates. That’s what meditation is a lot about too.”
More than anything, however, Oliver says “The Tao of Comedy” is a reaction “to every awful book and class on comedy that teaches you how to be a hack so you can be rich and famous, and they completely left the soul out of it.”
She believes that those books and classes are destined to fail their students by limiting readers and students to thinking that their comedic worldview has to come from “one tiny thing about yourself,” when in reality anyone can find a million unique ways and reasons to be funny just by deciding to truly see and comment on the world with their own eyes.
“Sure, you can say everything’s been said and done, because George Carlin alone has done 30 minutes on every topic under the sun,” says Oliver. “How do you find a new perspective in 2014? You bring you to it, fully present, shutting up and watching the movie. Do that, and you’re going to see subtle nuances that no one else can see because they’re not paying attention. Don’t write from the collection of facts you think you know about a thing. Really look at it and be present in it.” n
Bobbie Oliver’s book, “The Tao of Comedy: Embrace the Pause,” is available on Amazon.com, Bobbieoliver.net, and at Flappers comedy club’s bookstore in Burbank. She will also be hosting a “Sunday Best” showcase of her current students at 9 p.m. March 16 at the Ice House, 24 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.