While this might sound like something you’d read on a boho cushion from Kmart, this was in fact, one of the last things said by my grandmother – who, for reasons you’ll find explained elsewhere in my work, I called my Mum – to me just before she died. For as long as I can remember, she’d been telling my sister and me that when life smacked you squarely in the guts, the one thing you could control was whether you were going to laugh or cry. ‘And I know which one I’d prefer!’ she’d say.
I hasten to add that in spite of her steadfast philosophy, she certainly did do her fair share of crying. As do I. Her life advice was not to ‘turn it off like a light switch’ Book of Mormon style, but rather to force yourself to find the funny in it. Even if you can’t right away, keep trying. Because it’s usually there. Sometimes the funny is so dark you’d never dare even share it with anyone else, but then humour, while wonderful, is not always meant to be light.
Whether light or dark though, what it is about, is relief.
From stress, from awfulness, from reality…
Laughter, I’m convinced, is life’s epidural. Or rather, life’s gas mask. It doesn’t entirely negate the sensations of pain; you still feel them, but even for a few intakes of breath, you can forget: the edge is taken off and you believe that, in spite of everything, yes you can still feel joy and light and you might just make it through.
These days, we need comedy more than ever. It’s how the poor have dealt with the injustices of the powerful since the beginning of time: by making fun of them. Cartoonists make light of even heavy political problems. We see reflections of ourselves on screen to poke fun at; sometimes as it’s just easier than to poke fun at ourselves. I have wondered at times whether pursuing a career in comedy is just self-indulgent bullshit, but I firmly believe that it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
In my work as a Clown Doctor – where for several years I performed in hospital wards and rooms to provide comic relief and distraction for patients and their families – the examples of this I experienced were extreme. While on the surface it might seem like we were just there to provide 5-10 minutes of light entertainment, the reality is that often the effect remained long after we’d left the room. Humour is a mood changer. So often we walked out of a hospital room and could hear the family continuing to talk and chuckle about what just happened.
A history of trauma, sadness or mental illness seems to be a pretty common thread between almost all comedians, so much so that those without it almost deserve their own label: ‘Certified Trauma-Free!’ So, when it comes to my own sadness/comedy combo, I’m not a unique little snowflake. But I do hope that in sharing my own story in my work, it might be a call to arms for you to proactively find, create and embrace the funny into your life.
It’s NOT a luxury.
It’s NOT a selfish pursuit.
It’s vital: you must secure your own nitrous oxide mask first.
Life is an unexpected variety show It’s full of mind-blowing highs, It’s full of soul-crushing lows. There’re happy bits, and crappy bits, Some parts just give you the shits. There’s twists and turns and bends, There’s parts that you wish would just end, when you’re singing ‘Things did not turn out the way I wanted…’
— From my cabaret An Unexpected Variety Show