In an interview for I Smile Back, comedian (and now dramatic actress) Sarah Silverman explains that comedy comes from a place of pain. It’s not a ground-breaking examination of The Human Condition, but it landed with me emotionally this morning when I got out of bed at 3 a.m. unable to sleep.
It’s partly some haunting images from Mockingjay Part 2 that have me out of bed before the sun. Just a dash of recently all night soothing Pringles through an ear infection. Add a swirl of the obsessive mind, and voila, up before dawn.
I chuckled yesterday with the pediatrician about how time flies, but the dark part of my mind screams, “We’re barreling towards death!” Six and a half years ago, my dad made me cringe the way only a dad can by commenting on how “hot” my pediatrician was. Odie had to work when Viva was just a few days old, and so my own father escorted me to appointments to monitor Viva’s jaundice. Now, nearly seven years later, he’d probably see just another mom in the white coat and stethoscope, struggling through her own cold, grinding through her workday with the promise of Thanksgiving on the horizon.
My blonde daughter, her big brown eyes at half-mast from exhaustion, sat on the exam table dangling her long legs, looking simultaneously grown up and impossibly small and fragile. It’s so painful to love her so much. Silverman’s character in the film shares the sentiment. I haven’t seen it, but the trailer resonates deeply. You hear so much about the “joys” of motherhood. Almost daily, people
admonish threaten remind you to “enjoy every second of it.” What you discover for yourself almost immediately after giving birth is that along with the joy is constant terror. Wrapped up in my love for my children, braided so thoroughly with the strands of joy and pride and love, are my own fears of failure, my own childhood hurts, the complexities of my relationship with their father and mine.
Out of the pain comes the comedy. I’m never more aware of my need for group laughter than when a joke doesn’t land. I became a teacher for myriad reasons, only one of which is my need to correct people. I require an audience. Attention. Some days, some periods, 30-40 people listening to me (my smallest class is 35, but let’s be real: they’re never all listening). I have one class that hangs on my every word, mostly because they’re serious students and have been trained to respect the instructor, but partly because I’ve established a classroom rapport where the first 5-10 minutes they have to listen.
It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m a middle child. I had many choices when it came time to clamor for attention. Misbehavior, excellence, illness, all were on the table. One sister took misbehavior out of contention, and the other took illness. Excellence was expected, not rewarded. I learned that a surefire way to get people to look at me and smile is to be funny.
But even the most successful comedians tell jokes that don’t work, see the humor in a situation and fail to communicate that perspective to others, or find an audience unreceptive to laughing at that time or about that subject. Silverman was asked about the relationship between depression and comedy and I believe the intersection is right here. How do we feel when our quips are followed by groans or silence? Do we move on and forget it? Do we wake up at 3 a.m. unable to shake it off? Shake it off? Yes, the song is in my head now too. You’re welcome.
It’s the difference between “the joke failed” and “I failed.” The latter is quickly followed by, “nobody loves me, I’m terrible, I’m so embarrassed, what am I doing here?” Whether it’s nature, nurture, or a winning combination of the two, my brain spirals into shame and self-blame and it can be really hard to climb back up that spiral staircase.
I have self-awareness and coping mechanisms, not to mention resources. The trailer for I Smile Back shows the character coping by snorting coke, getting drunk, and having extra-marital sex. Seeing these alternative ways of dealing with the anxiety and the self-loathing, I can’t help but compare my own life to the character and think, Damn.
She’s so lucky.