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  • Gabriel García Márquez is one of my favorite writers,

  • for his storytelling,

  • but even more, I think,

  • for the beauty and precision of his prose.

  • And whether it's the opening line from "One Hundred Years of Solitude"

  • or the fantastical stream of consciousness

  • in "Autumn of the Patriarch,"

  • where the words rush by,

  • page after page of unpunctuated imagery

  • sweeping the reader along

  • like some wild river

  • twisting through a primal South American jungle,

  • readingrquez is a visceral experience.

  • Which struck me as particularly remarkable

  • during one session with the novel

  • when I realized that I was being swept along

  • on this remarkable, vivid journey

  • in translation.

  • Now I was a comparative literature major in college,

  • which is like an English major,

  • only instead of being stuck studying Chaucer for three months,

  • we got to read great literature in translation

  • from around the world.

  • And as great as these books were,

  • you could always tell

  • that you were getting close to the full effect.

  • But not so withrquez

  • who once praised his translator's versions

  • as being better than his own,

  • which is an astonishing compliment.

  • So when I heard that the translator, Gregory Rabassa,

  • had written his own book on the subject,

  • I couldn't wait to read it.

  • It's called apropos of the Italian adage

  • that I lifted from his forward,

  • "If This Be Treason."

  • And it's a charming read.

  • It's highly recommended for anyone who's interested

  • in the translator's art.

  • But the reason that I mention it

  • is that early on, Rabassa offers

  • this elegantly simple insight:

  • "Every act of communication

  • is an act of translation."

  • Now maybe that's been obvious to all of you for a long time,

  • but for me,

  • as often as I'd encountered

  • that exact difficulty on a daily basis,

  • I had never seen the inherent challenge of communication

  • in so crystalline a light.

  • Ever since I can remember

  • thinking consciously about such things,

  • communication has been my central passion.

  • Even as a child,

  • I remember thinking that what I really wanted most in life

  • was to be able to understand everything

  • and then to communicate it to everyone else.

  • So no ego problems.

  • It's funny, my wife, Daisy,

  • whose family is littered with schizophrenics --

  • and I mean littered with them --

  • once said to me, "Chris, I already have a brother who thinks he's God.

  • I don't need a husband who wants to be."

  • (Laughter)

  • Anyway, as I plunged through my 20s

  • ever more aware of how unobtainable

  • the first part of my childhood ambition was,

  • it was that second part,

  • being able to successfully communicate to others

  • whatever knowledge I was gaining,

  • where the futility of my quest really set in.

  • Time after time,

  • whenever I set out to share some great truth

  • with a soon-to-be grateful recipient,

  • it had the opposite effect.

  • Interestingly, when your opening line of communication is,

  • "Hey, listen up,

  • because I'm about to drop some serious knowledge on you,"

  • it's amazing how quickly you'll discover

  • both ice and the firing squad.

  • Finally, after about 10 years

  • of alienating friends and strangers alike,

  • I finally got it,

  • a new personal truth all my own,

  • that if I was going to ever communicate well with other people

  • the ideas that I was gaining,

  • I'd better find a different way of going about it.

  • And that's when I discovered comedy.

  • Now comedy travels along a distinct wavelength

  • from other forms of language.

  • If I had to place it on an arbitrary spectrum,

  • I'd say it falls somewhere

  • between poetry and lies.

  • And I'm not talking about all comedy here,

  • because, clearly, there's plenty of humor

  • that colors safely within the lines of what we already think and feel.

  • What I want to talk about

  • is the unique ability that the best comedy and satire has

  • at circumventing our ingrained perspectives --

  • comedy as the philosopher's stone.

  • It takes the base metal of our conventional wisdom

  • and transforms it through ridicule

  • into a different way of seeing

  • and ultimately being in the world.

  • Because that's what I take

  • from the theme of this conference: Gained in Translation.

  • That it's about communication

  • that doesn't just produce greater understanding

  • within the individual,

  • but leads to real change.

  • Which in my experience means communication

  • that manages to speak to and expand

  • our concept of self-interest.

  • Now I'm big on speaking to people's self-interest

  • because we're all wired for that.

  • It's part of our survival package,

  • and that's why it's become so important for us,

  • and that's why we're always listening at that level.

  • And also because that's where,

  • in terms of our own self-interest,

  • we finally begin to grasp

  • our ability to respond, our responsibility

  • to the rest of the world.

  • Now as to what I mean by the best comedy and satire,

  • I mean work that comes first and foremost

  • from a place of honesty and integrity.

  • Now if you think back

  • on Tina Fey's impersonations on Saturday Night Live

  • of the newly nominated vice presidential candidate

  • Sarah Palin,

  • they were devastating.

  • Fey demonstrated far more effectively than any political pundit

  • the candidate's fundamental lack of seriousness,

  • cementing an impression

  • that the majority of the American public still holds today.

  • And the key detail of this

  • is that Fey's scripts weren't written by her

  • and they weren't written by the SNL writers.

  • They were lifted verbatim

  • from Palin's own remarks.

  • (Laughter)

  • Here was a Palin impersonator

  • quoting Palin word for word.

  • Now that's honesty and integrity,

  • and it's also why Fey's performances

  • left such a lasting impression.

  • On the other side of the political spectrum,

  • the first time that I heard Rush Limbaugh

  • refer to presidential hopeful John Edwards as the Breck girl

  • I knew that he'd made a direct hit.

  • Now it's not often that I'm going to associate

  • the words honesty and integrity with Limbaugh,

  • but it's really hard to argue with that punchline.

  • The description perfectly captured

  • Edwards' personal vanity.

  • And guess what?

  • That ended up being the exact personality trait

  • that was at the core of the scandal that ended his political career.

  • Now The Daily Show with John Stewart

  • is by far the most --

  • (Applause)

  • (Laughter)

  • it's by far the most well-documented example

  • of the effectiveness of this kind of comedy.

  • Survey after survey,

  • from Pew Research to the Annenberg Center for Public Policy,

  • has found that Daily Show viewers are better informed about current events

  • than the viewers of all major network and cable news shows.

  • (Applause)

  • Now whether this says more

  • about the conflict between integrity and profitability

  • of corporate journalism

  • than it does about the attentiveness of Stewart's viewers,

  • the larger point remains

  • that Stewart's material

  • is always grounded in a commitment to the facts --

  • not because his intent is to inform. It's not.

  • His intent is to be funny.

  • It just so happens that Stewart's brand of funny

  • doesn't work unless the facts are true.

  • And the result is great comedy

  • that's also an information delivery system

  • that scores markedly higher in both credibility and retention

  • than the professional news media.

  • Now this is doubly ironic

  • when you consider that what gives comedy its edge

  • at reaching around people's walls

  • is the way that it uses deliberate misdirection.

  • A great piece of comedy is a verbal magic trick,

  • where you think it's going over here

  • and then all of a sudden you're transported over here.

  • And there's this mental delight

  • that's followed by the physical response of laughter,

  • which, not coincidentally,

  • releases endorphins in the brain.

  • And just like that, you've been seduced

  • into a different way of looking at something

  • because the endorphins have brought down your defenses.

  • This is the exact opposite

  • of the way that anger and fear and panic,

  • all of the flight-or-fight responses, operate.

  • Flight-or-fight releases adrenalin,

  • which throws our walls up sky-high.

  • And the comedy comes along,

  • dealing with a lot of the same areas

  • where our defenses are the strongest --

  • race, religion, politics, sexuality --

  • only by approaching them through humor instead of adrenalin,

  • we get endorphins

  • and the alchemy of laughter turns our walls into windows,

  • revealing a fresh and unexpected point of view.

  • Now let me give you an example from my act.

  • I have some material

  • about the so-called radical gay agenda,

  • which starts off by asking,

  • how radical is the gay agenda?

  • Because from what I can tell, the three things gay Americans seem to want most

  • are to join the military, get married and start a family.

  • (Laughter)

  • Three things I've tried to avoid my entire life.

  • (Laughter)

  • Have at it you radical bastards. The field is yours.

  • (Laughter)

  • And that's followed by these lines

  • about gay adoption:

  • What is the problem with gay adoption?

  • Why is this remotely controversial?

  • If you have a baby and you think that baby's gay,

  • you should be allowed to put it up for adoption.

  • (Laughter)

  • You have given birth to an abomination.

  • Remove it from your household.

  • Now by taking the biblical epithet "abomination"

  • and attaching it to the ultimate image of innocence, a baby,

  • this joke short circuits the emotional wiring

  • behind the debate

  • and it leaves the audience with the opportunity, through their laughter,

  • to question its validity.

  • Misdirection isn't the only trick

  • that comedy has up its sleeve.

  • Economy of language

  • is another real strong suit of great comedy.

  • There are few phrases

  • that pack a more concentrated dose of subject and symbol

  • than the perfect punchline.

  • Bill Hicks -- and if you don't know his work,

  • you should really Google him --

  • Hicks had a routine

  • about getting into one of those childhood bragging contests on the playground,

  • where finally the other kid says to him,

  • "Huh? Well my dad can beat up your dad,"

  • to which Hicks replies,

  • "Really? How soon?"

  • (Laughter)

  • That's an entire childhood

  • in three words.

  • (Laughter)

  • Not to mention what it reveals

  • about the adult who's speaking them.

  • And one last powerful attribute

  • that comedy has as communication

  • is that it's inherently viral.

  • People can't wait