Editor’s note: UC Davis department of English lecturer John D. Boe recently sat down with Aggie Features Writer Danai Sakutukwa to talk about everything from his journey to UC Davis to his experience as a stand-up comedian.
1. Where are you originally from, and how did you end up in Davis?
I was born in Detroit, moved to Chicago, moved to Los Angeles, moved three different places in New York, moved to Redwood City in California, moved to Highland Park in Illinois, went to high school in Ridgewood, N.J. – where I met my wife – went to college in Ambers, Mass., went to graduate school at UC Berkeley and then decided I never wanted to leave California. I moved every couple of years as a child. My father was an encyclopedia salesman, and he’d get transferred, or he’d quit or he’d go somewhere else.
2. So did you go to school intending to become a teacher?
No, no – the only reason I went to graduate school was to beat the Vietnam draft. I graduated in 1965, and was too dumb to realize that all you had to do to get out of the draft was hire a lawyer. But like lots of young men, I panicked. I considered other graduate programs – one in creative writing in Iowa, navigating a teaching credential in becoming an elementary school teacher – but it wasn’t a long enough deferment. A Ph.D. program seemed like a good, long time. I was interested in literature, anyway, and I was good at it. But a big part of the motivation was to avoid the draft.
3. How long have you been a lecturer at UC Davis?
Since 1981, the year of the birth of my youngest daughter. That’s what motivated me to get a job. I used to make a living as a consultant writer – I wrote jokes for comedians and cartoonists, and taught courses here and there. But suddenly having a third child set off the need to get a real job, so I became a teacher at Davis.
4. I’m guessing you’ve taught a million classes, but what’s your favorite class to teach?
I’ve taught a million classes. Yes, I’m actually 1,400 years old. I know I don’t look it – it’s the vitamins. [My favorite class to teach is] probably the storytelling class I teach for integrated studies, because the students get up and perform and tell stories. They do a lot of the work and I give them feedback, helping them develop their true-life stories and techniques in telling folktales. But I like a lot of my classes. I love my freshman seminar, “Poetry by Heart”. The students memorize poetry and go up front to say it out loud; it’s great fun. I like my writing classes.… I also do a big lecture class, Comparative Literature 5: Fairytales, Fables and Parables, which I enjoy a lot because I tell stories as a part of it, so I get to use my talent as a performer. I like having a crowd, it’s my performing instinct.
5. How did you get into professional storytelling?
As a graduate student, I had to support myself and my family, supplementing my income as a TA by teaching courses at the UC Davis extension in Berkeley. I taught a course in psychology on fairytales, in which we used fairytales to analyze the archetypes of the unconscious. There were adults in the class who worked all day and wouldn’t be able to read the stories, so I started summarizing them, and soon, I realized that they preferred my telling of the story to the given interpretations. A couple of storytellers took the class and told me I could make money being a storyteller myself, and told me I was good at it. They told me to lose the interpretations, so I started doing it. In high school, I did a stand-up comedy act – I’ve always been comfortable in front of crowds – so it was easy to translate to storytelling.
6. What is your history with stand-up comedy?
I’ve always been a person who wants to be funny, who thinks he’s funny, who makes jokes. I read joke books, I’ve written gags for cartoonists. I’m constantly making jokes….the negative about me is “Oh, doesn’t he take anything seriously?” because I’m always finding a funny side in things. I make people laugh, whatever the story is. If it’s Sleeping Beauty, it’s going to be funny when I tell it. I can’t help it. That’s my instinct. I’d always admired comedians and learned their jokes. My teaching style is influenced by comedian Lenny Bruce…I admired how he improvised. That’s what teaching’s about. I don’t read the same lecture every time I come in, and I hope there’s excitement for me and the students. I just like getting laughs, whether it’s making my wife, my children or my students laugh. Although, sometimes I do have to remind myself that I’m supposed to be teaching and not just entertaining.
7. Do you have any current favorite comedians?
I like Larry David’s show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” a lot. That’s the humor of embarrassment, which I find very amusing, because I’m always embarrassing myself. Bad things happen to me, but at least I have a story to tell. My mother always said when something bad happens, at least you can laugh about it afterwards. Sarah Silverman is hysterical – she’s mean, and I like that. I am a nice person, but I do like a little of the mean, humorous side.
8. Your stand-up acts, like the ones at Bistro 33, are a lot more risqué than any of the jokes and stories you tell in your classes. Why?
These are actual stories [in my acts], and they’re part of folklore. But I make up the poems. Dirty stories have been told for years. Go back to the Ancient Greeks, and you’ll see it’s a part of literature. I’ve always been interested in the suppression of erotic folktales. They aren’t that easy to find, especially since they’ve been wiped out in some cultures. But there are still some Norwegian ones, Russian ones and even some from Arkansas.
9. What is your Summer Abroad program about?
It’s called Shakespeare Live. Basically we go to London for four weeks, and see Shakespeare plays at the Globe Theatre. We go to Stratford-upon-Avon [the birthplace of Shakespeare], which is sort of Disney meets Shakespeare, which is a little too cute for me. We see five or six plays outside at the Regent’s Park. We’ll talk to some actors, maybe have a director come and see us – basically read and talk about Shakespeare production. I find the students learn more than a regular class on Shakespeare because they’re around it, and they talk about amongst themselves.… I just find it a delightful course to teach. I have a farewell party at my apartment for dinner – I take them out for dinner once at Regent’s Park. I get to know the students in a way that I don’t get to know them during the school year because I get to see them socially.
10. OK, I have to ask – what’s your favorite joke?
[I have] a favorite from my joke book that I wrote with a friend named Alice Kahn called Your Joke is in the E-Mail: Cyberlaffs from Mousepotatoes. [The joke goes,] after a quarrel, a wife said to her husband, “You know, I was a fool when I married you.” And the husband replied, “Yes, dear, but I was in love and didn’t notice it.”
DANAI SAKUTUKWA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.