On a humid Sunday evening not too many years back, a young woman in a bright, flirty dress bounced impatiently on her toes. The deceptively thin velveteen curtain only inches from her face was meant to create a false backstage, and everyone maintained the lie even though it hung only a few feet perpendicular to the cinder block wall and could be seen around easily by the left third of the room. The audience members pretended to be oblivious to the awkwardly poised performers on the brink of entrance, and the performers pretended there were enough people in the audience to be worth fractioning into thirds to begin with.
At the boom of her name, peaking the available output of the small amplifier, the young woman’s grin stretched a little wider and she shoved the curtain aside. Even low heels were a risk on the narrow steps strewn with loose cables, and the emcee’s perfunctory handshake served double duty as a safeguard against falling. He felt her tight grip and mercifully complied, making sure their binary orbit was complete before letting go.
“Hi, guys!” she chirped into the microphone, still warm from previous hands. Then in a single breath, “You’re all looking really good tonight I have two kids with autism.”
A gleeful pause, relishing the silent pain. Then finally… the release. “And if you ever want to know how to bring down a room, that is a gooood place to start.” Ah, the laughter. A palpable melting of the club that felt like a ten-meter-wide cloud of morphine. The next 3 minutes of self-eviscerating confession would be bliss.
I did stand up comedy for about a year. I used a false name, and almost no one in my real life knew I was doing it, let alone saw me perform. I played a recording once for my husband, but it was as uncomfortable as I thought it would be, and I never repeated the experiment. I wasn’t doing it for accolades, and I certainly wasn’t trying to make a career of it like most of the comics milling around the club. I was simply at a critical point of healing in my life, when it seemed the itch of flesh knitting back together was almost as horrific as the original injury had been, and performance had always been my go-to mechanism for relief for as long as I can remember.
I didn’t care that I was only passably successful at it, due in large part to the fact that I wasn’t really telling jokes. Usually after the show two or three people would make a point to come up to me, and none of them ever said I was funny. What they all said was that I was an amazing storyteller. The stories I told were funny, yes, but they were sad too, because I don’t really know how to separate the two. Once the host even told me in a sincere but baffled voice, “That was really good,” as if he couldn’t figure out what the hell he had just witnessed. We both knew I was in the wrong venue, but for now, this was the only place I could get my fix.
People often praise my ability to “find humor” in the circumstances of our lives, but it’s like playing hide and seek with a three-year-old. Humor is a giant giggling lump crouching behind a lamp stand, and I feel like everyone else in the world is emphatically calling out, “Now where did humor go? Under here? Nooooo…” Oh my God you guys, it’s right there! How can you not see it? But you can see it, I know you can. You’re just afraid to admit you see it. Or maybe you’ve even spent so long being afraid of it that you’ve truly stopped being able to see it. But the key to writing about touchy subjects with humor is not to be funny (or worse, to try hard to be funny.) It’s simply to be honest.
For some of us, being honest means just admitting the thing we find funny but were afraid to say. (Again, not the thing that we think will make other people laugh. This is where brash, shock-jock comedians get themselves in trouble, because they’ve settled too hard into the job. For the most part comedians’ jokes don’t actually make other comedians laugh, and they all know it. It’s why the phrase “comedians’ comedian” exists.) You’re looking for the thing that makes you, yourself, laugh. Often people with terminal diseases develop very dark senses of humor, but it’s not a new development. It’s only that they no longer care what other people think. Take the fleeting absurd thought you had, and don’t worry about whether people will think you’re a terrible person for making light of a sad situation. Just write it down and see what happens.
For others, the social construct is more established, and they will insist they really don’t find anything funny about a situation. If that’s you, then the answer is still to be honest, you just have more layers to dig through. Start with the thing you’re afraid of. The thing you hate. The horrible thing that you would only tell a therapist after half a bottle of wine, and put it on the page. See. What. Happens. I am terrified of dying, because I’ve never really believed in God and I don’t know what’s coming. I am afraid of my spouse leaving me, but only because it will mean my mother was right that I’m a failure. I regret having children and fantasize about my alternate future at least once a day. I truly, seriously want to murder my relative, preferably in a painful way. Anything and everything that makes you want to follow it up with, “but I swear I’m not a bad person!” Really practice being honest, and then when you’re ready, let just one person in your life see what you’ve written. Trust me, they won’t reject you. They will marvel at your honesty, and secretly wonder if maybe they could say some things out loud, too. Before long, you may notice that giggling huddle behind the lampstand. It was there the whole time, you just had the lights off.