Why We Need Comedy After Tragedy

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Actor Patton Oswalt arrives to the Los Angeles Premiere of 'Nature Calls' held at the Downtown
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18: Actor Patton Oswalt arrives to the Los Angeles Premiere of 'Nature Calls' held at the Downtown Independent Theatre on October 18, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Paul A. Hebert/FilmMagic)

As a comic I spend a lot of time thinking about how comedy fits into the greater scheme of life. How laughter has been proven to aid in the healing process, how laughter is contagious, how people, when they're feeling down and out, will still always want to laugh. But on days like the Boston explosion, when it gets hard to see the good in anything, I wondered how comedy fits into a tragedy -- if it belongs there at all. I believe it does, and only because I believe comedy is more than punch-lines. Comedy is the voice of an undercurrent that is constantly asking us to do better.

Caroll Burnett once said that, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." And for the most part I've found that to be true. The most tragic moments in my life have provided me with the best material, whether for the stage or writing or for my personal growth.

I remember being a freshman in high school. I was such a tomboy, I thought for sure I would be teased based on the perception of being a lesbian alone. I had a comeback for every situation imaginable, and most of them were mean. Eye for an eye! I was carrying this weight of shame, wondering when I would have to defend myself.

But ya know what? Over time, something remarkable happened. I let it go. In my own mind, I began to craft witty jokes in response to any insult someone could hurl. Even at the age of 16 I thought, if I can disarm this situation with a joke, this is a good thing. I thought, if I can take people away from a place of negativity and fear, this is a good thing. If the situation could be turned on its head, whereas even a potential bully could laugh with me, I just knew there was power in the healing of laughter. I happily came out in the 11th grade, and it was a good thing.

All of this was very much a subconscious evolution on my part. The idea that comedy can bring healing to both self and others.

We saw it after the September 11th attacks when Ellen DeGeneres was tasked with hosting the 2001 Emmy Awards, and we saw it again on the day of the Boston explosions when Patton Oswalt's words went viral; there is real healing that takes place through comedy, through comedians, and through the dialogue both can bring.

And it's not just people, it's the use of comedy in television and films too. One of my favorite movies is Steel Magnolias. There's a scene in the cemetery that is completely unbearable without the comedic break at just the perfect points. When Shelby dies and M'Lynn is aghast with misery, lamenting at her funeral to Clairee, Annelle and Ouiser, we see a scene that captures perfectly the heaviness of life and how necessary a flawlessly timed fresh breath of comedic air can be:

M'LYNN: I'm fine! I can jog all the way to Texas and back, but my daughter can't! She never could! Oh God! I am so mad I don't know what to do! I wanna know why, why Shelby's life is over! I wanna know how that baby will ever know how wonderful his mother was! Will he ever know what she went through for him! Oh God I wanna know why? Why? Lord, I wish I could understand!

When I was 25 I lost a friend younger than I was to cancer. Melanoma took her very sweet life within a very quick year. One of the last times I went to visit her she was sitting upstairs on a couch in her humble West Virginia home. Her eyes were closed, and her feet were surrounded by dozens of prescription pill bottles representing a hopeful yet futile fight. Her stepdad entered the room to speak to her:

Stepdad: "Hey, you want an apple?"

H: "No thank you."

Stepdad: "How about some turkey?"

H: "I'm okay."

Stepdad- "I think you need some turkey, how about some turkey?"

H: "okay, that'll be fine."

Stepdad: "Do you want some turkey?"

H: "I said yes!"

Stepdad: "Never mind I forgot we don't have any turkey."

And with that he bumbled out of the room to rummage the fridge for accurate offerings. My dear friend raised her eyebrow, sassed a perfectly timed double take and dryly says, "That man is going to be the death of me."

I marveled at her ability to joke even in such a deteriorating state. I giggled along side my friend in awe of the light she chose to bring.

It would be the last time we laughed together.

Somewhere along the way we grow past our youthful insecurities only to replace them with adult fears. We start to experience really big and heavy things like life and death. We start to see tragedy all around us and each and every time we experience tragedy going forward, we hit a moment where we are overcome by grief like we had forgotten before.

It's easy to be overwhelmed.

It's easy.

We are explaining to kids why there are broken adults who have decided to kill them en masse, while simultaneously communicating to them that they are the most precious and loved beings in our country.

It's not easy.

Violence that is usually reserved for our Xbox games, explosions that we have become numb to when it occurs in other countries has just happened on our very own soil. Explosions causing real blood and carnage on our own streets, for many, in front of their own eyes and the loss of their own limbs. And we start to ask, Why? We cry from the depth of our despair and we ask, Why? And in that moment, we are hurting is an understatement.

It's not easy.

Moments after the explosion there was a community of fellow comics on my Twitter feed. And like so many others, there was collective breath and then instant reaction, only on my feed it was by people who curate laughs for a living. It was remarkable to see people offer up their words of healing. Patton Oswalt came out with f*cking gold that shows the depth of his heart is as big as the depth of his jokes. Huffington Post Comedy offered to re-tweet whereabouts of lost friends, and re-tweeted facts about marathoners finishing the race and then continuing on to run to local hospitals to donate blood.

To an outsider it may seem like they were taking a "break" from comedy -- but what I saw was a community that was continuing to do what comedy has always done. Comedy is what moves us along, what causes us to stop and to think, and when we are ready, it's what gives us space to laugh again.

I know life is not Steel Magnolias. But I remember the moment I shared such despair with Sally Field's character and then the moment that a joke breaks the tension between M'Lynn and Clairee. I'd like to think, that in our deepest tragedy, there sits an entire community of real-life Clairees, Annelles, Truvys, and Ouisers ready to help us restore a bit of ourselves when it gets so dark that we can't see through to the hope; on Patriot's Day they were Pattons, and Barrs and Crutchfields and Murphys and Kalings and Kushners (and these were just a handful of people I can remember on my feed), but they're out there every day, comics who keep working, artists who keep pushing to reminds us that even if the here and now is tense and terrible and unthinkable; there will be a commitment to create so long as there a commitment to heal.

M'LYNN: I just wanna hit something! I wanna hit it hard!

CLAIREE: Here! Hit this! Go ahead M'Lynn, slap her! [snatches Ouiser]

OUISER: [taken aback and confused] Are you crazy?

CLAIREE: Hit her!

OUISER: Are you high, Clairee?

TRUVY: [in a frightened tone] Clairee, have you lost your mind?

CLAIREE BELCHER: We'll sell t-shirts sayin' "I SLAPPED OUISER BOUDREAUX!" Hit her!

OUISER BOUDREAUX: [snatches away] Let go o' me!

CLAIREE BELCHER: M'Lynn, you just missed the chance of a lifetime! Half o' Chiquapin Parish'd give their eye teeth to take a whack at Ouiser!

OUISER BOUDREUX: [to Clairee] You are a pig from hell.

With comedy, an offer to take a whack at Ouiser is around the corner.

And this is a good thing.