You guys, I had the craziest dream last night. Basically I was at my grandmother’s house on Lake Ontario, which is weird because I haven’t thought about that place in years, on account of her being dead and all, and it was raining but like slowly, and you could sort of feel something strange going on, and then me and my dad climbed into this cave-type-thing, and, okay, I don’t exactly know how this happened, but it was sort of like in the second “National Treasure” movie when they were all inside Mount Rushmore? And there was all that gold or whatever? And it all started flooding? Because in the “National Treasure” universe there’s a river on top of Mount Rushmore? And then I woke up.
Let’s pull off the bandaid: Dreams are tough to talk about. Okay, sure, our subconscious wanderings are fascinating and mysterious and inscrutable and one of the cooler parts of being a sentient life form, but that’s mostly only true while we’re experiencing them. Trying to explain the images and sensations that played in our heads is murky territory.
There are a few reasons for this. Dreams rarely lend themselves to easy narratives, and are usually associated with powerful emotions that may not translate to words or imagery. Yes, they may touch upon deeper psychological truths, but it tends to take a therapist to make sense of these musings — or a truly gifted storyteller. Say, for instance, a comedian.
In our quest to discover whether or not dreams can be an enlivening subject of conversation, we asked several comics — people whose job is to make the mundane interesting. The answers we received ranged from strict nopes to soft maybes to a strict yes.
“I firmly believe it is impossible to make dreams even palatable for conversation, let alone comedic performance,” says up-and-coming New York comic Jo Firestone.
Even in the comedy world dreams are divisive.
The Case Against Dreams
If anyone can spin a yarn where no yarn’s been spun before, it’s Jo Firestone. The New York-based standup, a “New Face” at this year’s Just For Laughs festival, is a master storyteller and devoted boundary-pusher. She once told a marvelous five-minute tale about eating falafel in front of a mirror, spending practically half the story explaining the difference between a falafel pocket and a falafel platter, and somehow managed to turn exposition into high drama. Asked if dreams are every a worthwhile subject of conversation or comedy, she gave a hard no.
“If you ever hear someone start to describe their dreams, tell them you have to go to the bathroom right away, and then run as fast as you can,” says Firestone. “Dream narration is about as captivating as a pet lizard.”
For Firestone, the crux of the issue is that dreams simply aren’t real. “I’d say dream stories have no direct stake in reality or the present,” she said, “and so the point of connection becomes murky.”
Charlie Hankin, a New Yorker cartoonist and half of the terrific comedy duo Good Cop Great Cop, took a similar position. “No relationship to real life, no stakes,” he said. “It’s harder to reach for a laugh, and you’re more likely to get it if the dream, say, accidentally reveals something very juicy about your subconscious.”
Hankin suggested that the broader limitations of storytelling are particularly punishing to dream narratives. The mere description of a thing, any thing, can never fully capture the experience of the thing; our awareness of this is heightened when we’re subjected to listenening to someone else’s dream.
“Seems like the whole thing boils down to how hard it is to tell an engaging story, period,” Hankin said. “I was skipping school, so I stole my best friend’s dad’s car, and we went for a joyride and sang in a parade, but then my principal came over so my sister had to cover for me! Well, sure, but I would rather watch ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ than hear you describe it. Now imagine if the story you were telling was not written by veteran writers, but rather by your own dumb brain while you were literally unconscious.”
The Case For Dreams
If there is any hope for dream narratives, it lies in the storyteller’s ability to go big — to make the story about much more than just a dream. Few comedians are able to take an audience straight from A to Z with more skill or charisma than Josh Rabinowitz, a “Broad City” writer who formerly wrote and starred in truTV’s “Friends of the People.” (For proof, simply watch “The True Meaning of Awkward,” which was later expanded into a beautiful short film.)
“I don’t currently have any jokes about dreams, but I’m not opposed to it,” Rabinowitz said. “I think dreams can be funny and useful. Maybe not just the dream itself, but the conclusions that someone would draw. The bit [should be] grounded in their feelings about the dream, and what they think it means and that being relatable or interesting. I think I would care less about the honesty of the exact plot.”
Rabinowitz also pointed to fictional dream sequences — such as those in “The Sopranos” — as evidence that dreams can indeed “serve a purpose in fiction.” The challenge for conversational dream-weaving, of course, is that we have fewer tools to work with.
Matt Ruby, a standup comic and filmmaker, is a touch more optimistic. “There is something way more boring than someone telling you about the dream they had last night: When someone tells you about their actual day!” he said. “What kind of goon wants to hear about your day at work when there’s crazy, absurd, Dali-meets-David Lynch dream action going on?”
Ultimately, Ruby agreed with Rabinowitz: The key to a successful dream story is its relevance to the teller’s waking life. “Keep it brief and edit out all the crap that doesn't matter,” he said. “Take a stab at interpreting what things in the dream might symbolize. It might even help you figure out why you had the dream — maybe you'll realize it's your subconscious telling you to quit your job, or that you're gay, or that you weren't asleep at all and you just ate too many magic mushrooms.”
And there’s the key: Always keep ’em laughing.