Westword Book Club: Jodee Champion on Candide, Catcher in the Rye and comedy
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; 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, a weekly feature that celebrates the books that inspire Denver artists.
This week we checked in with standup mainstay Jodee Champion, who performs all over Denver and does the weekly Comic Cents Radio on tradiov.com/Denver, which airs at 1 p.m. every Friday; she also cheekily documents the humorous disarray of her love life on her website Onlinedatinggems.com. Keep reading to learn her childhood literary favorites as well as the influence that satirists have had on her comedy.
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Westword: What point were you at in your life when you read Candide? I remember reading Candide when I was seventeen; it didn't puncture my optimism, which was already fading, but it did make me feel like I was in good company as a cynic. Did it shape your political beliefs at all?
Jodee Champion: When I was a kid and I'd say something liberal that triggered my dad's staunch Republicanism, he'd chuckle and say, "Well, Jodee, agree to disagree -- but I won't hold it against you because if you're not a Democrat in your younger years, you don't have a heart. Just remember that if you're not a Republican in your older years, you don't have a brain." Now, as an (obviously brainless) adult, I wouldn't call myself a Democrat. But I sure as hell wouldn't call myself a Republican. In other words, no, Candide didn't influence my political leanings in any way that I was not already... leaning. He believed in freedom of expression, separation of church and state -- and those reasons alone are enough to have made me feel like I was in good company with an author who'd long been dead.
How did Voltaire's satire influence your comedy? Are you particularly drawn to satirical humor?
Undeniably, I am drawn to satire. As a comic, it is your job is to tell the truth, so to me, satire is the holy grail of comedic high art. Well-executed satire exists to serve the greater good, and that is extremely appealing about comedy to me. One of my favorite meme-able Oscar Wilde quotes goes something like "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." I remember reading Candide for the first time and being like "Holy shit, the frickin' balls on this guy; he's openly mocking the government and corruptions of the church." In eighteenth-century France, that was a pretty brave thing to do. I thought, "Wow, you can get away with saying more if you're funny -- even during a time when you could've been sent to the guillotine." But they won't do it if you make them laugh -- and you can change the world when you get people to think. You can change it for the better. "That's it." I thought. "I wanna do that." There are meo-Voltaires like Jon Stewart, who use wit as a weapon to expose the absurd and the unjust. And that is so vitally important. I realize, of course, that I am still mostly writing dick and fart jokes. I am in no way lumping myself in a category of crusaders like Jon Stewart or Voltaire. But I guess Voltaire did influence my comedy; not by me writing the wrongs of society on some mass scale, but by simply inspiring me to be brave enough to tell the truth.
Do you think that it's essential to read Catcher in the Rye as an adolescent?
I was heavily influenced by Catcher in the Rye. As a sophomore in high school, it was required reading. I'd never done more than skim books that were required reading. In my budding cynicism, it really spoke to me and I even read it twice before we had to be done reading it. As an angst-filled teenager, I had this secret growing dislike for humanity and I remember feeling guilty that I did -- reading Catcher in the Rye I felt strangely exonerated. I identified with Holden and could empathize with his desperation and isolation. I'll never forget being called on when my sophomore lit teacher asked us all in class what impressions we had from reading the first three chapters. I said, "It was really funny," which was true, but I couldn't think of anything more articulate to say at the time. The whole class turned around and looked at me like I was in idiot or that I'd completely missed the point...but they were phony-baloney jackasses. It is funny. Essential? I don't know, maybe. It's hard for me to imagine not having read it, and I'd certainly recommend it highly to any inquiring adolescent.
The Cay focuses on shipwreck survivors finding racial reconciliation in their dependence on each other. When did you read this book, and why did is resonate with you?
I read The Cay in elementary school. Before we started reading it, my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Apking, told us that Theodore Taylor wrote the book for the sole purpose of being able to write one this one specific line. In the book, a little white boy is shipwrecked with an older black man, and because of the chaos of the wreck the boy goes blind. He has spent every waking moment with this man whom he remembers as black and inferior. This man who's taken care of him and protected him and fed him and been his constant companion -- and he tries to remember what Timothy (the black man) looked like before he went blind. That's the line: At one point, he asks, "'Timothy, are you still black?'" I hope that Dave Chapelle eventually does a parody of this exact scene.
Why do you think children are so drawn to tales of survival, like The Cay, or
That's a good question. I have no idea. Probably just the appeal of adventure? I still am holding out hope that one day I'll be a cowboy astronaut who trains sharks, rides unicorn Clydesdales through hell and back, but lives to tell the tale.
What are some good comedy books you'd recommend?
Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-Up Comedy, by Franklyn Ajaye, has a lot of good advice for new comics. Bill Hicks: Love All the People is a great book by a sorely missed comic genius; America, by Jon Stewart, has more of the satire I was talking about.
Mother's Day is coming up. What's your favorite book to read aloud to your son?
Instructions, by Neil Gaiman. Such a beautiful book. My aunt introduced it to me just a year ago -- she bought it for me and shipped it out because I loved it so much. I get choked up every time I read it. Been a huge fan of Neil Gaiman ever since.
What books from your childhood have you passed along to your son?
Definitely Oh, the Places You'll Go. Dr. Suess was such an amazing human being. I could write sonnets about people like him or Jim Henson. This book particularly is so amazingly metaphysical and universal.
Jodee Champion will be performing at Pump and Dump at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at Local 46, as well as at Urban Citizen's Garden Project -- a night of comedy for the kids, which is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 12, at Voodoo Comedy Playhouse. You can also see her at Narrators on May 16 at Deer Pile, as well as featuring for Mitch Fatel at the Denver Improv May 30-June 2.