The following is an excerpt from my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING. In it I reveal the shocking, and sad, truth about comedy.
Comedy is like landing a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the night. When it’s done by those with no aptitude, experience, or timing, the results are hideous to behold and hard to clean up.
To be funny, you have to be funny. Any moron can learn a handful of nasty, racist, sexist jokes. Many do. A smaller number of morons can deliver them with that most elusive of comedy prerequisites, good timing. But to actually be funny you need to think funny. You need to see the world askew, you need a warped perspective. You need to be bent. That can’t be faked and it can’t be learned.
I don’t remember exactly when I first realized I was funny, but I do know where I got it. My father was extremely funny. He was a masterful storyteller and entertainer. Also, he was a ruthless iconoclast, with no respect for anything. His madness too was a great contributor. Frequently he’d burst into song, making up absurdly comical lyrics as he went, sprinkling in hilarious fabricated words like mackooshla, glutch, and scradznitch. His perspective was uniquely his own, he skewered convention gleefully and pointed out absurdities at every available opportunity.
The more I viewed life as an outsider, the funnier I became. The more I refused to get serious about life, get ambitious, get greedy, get fiercely competitive, the funnier I became. Instead of engaging fully in the contests of life, I made fun of them. I was far too liberal to engage in cheap shots, no racial, religious, or sexist humor for me. I went for humor that ridiculed all of humanity. And I only told other people’s jokes when I was desperate. Normally I created my own jokes. My favorite humor was situational, made up on the spot in response to something somebody said. People do enjoy this, but sometimes it has a way of pissing them off. If they want me to take them seriously, they don’t need my constant wisecracks. Sometimes they feel like I’m ridiculing them directly.
Humor plays an absolutely essential role in my life. It’s as important to me as music, it’s a reason to live. At its best, it’s a way for me to be happy and to make other people happy. It’s a way to celebrate the fundamental lunacy and absurdity of life. It’s a wonderful way to say outrageous things and get away with it. It’s also a way to tell the truth and get away with it, and truth means everything to me.
These are the nobler aspects, as always, there are also murkier qualities.
Humor is a way for me to get attention and keep people at a safe distance at the same time. It’s also a safe way to have power over other people. I tell a story, they’re under my spell. I make them laugh when I want to, I control them, I control their responses. It’s a benign power trip. Real power would be too frightening. It’s also a very safe way for me to show off, I command the spotlight, but I can easily relinquish it whenever I want. As a comic I have complete control. If I bomb, it’s my fault. If I kill, I get all the approbation. It’s a safe way to be on stage, to face the judges, and come out a winner. And of course, it’s a safe way to get approval.
But there’s a deep hostility in humor. At times it’s a way for me to build a wall around myself. If I dazzle you with funny smoke and mirrors, I distract you from my unwillingness to open up. I seem pleasant, because I’m funny and personable. In fact, I’ve wrapped my anti-social nature and my aggressive feelings in a velvet glove. This falsehood, this lie of comedy, penetrates many of my relationships with people.
In my normal life I make jokes constantly. I tell funny stories, I even have a few impressions up my sleeve. This can be a device to hide my power. By playing the buffoon, I tell people that I’m non-threatening. This, I hope, will keep them from being mean to me. As long as I’m funny, people don’t have to take me seriously so I never provoke a showdown. Unfortunately, this technique paints me into a corner. When I do want people to take me seriously, they’re disappointed that I’m not being funny. And that’s a frustration, because under all the jokes is a very serious person, a person with strong beliefs and strong opinions. They do say that comics are the most serious people of all, the most serious, and the most damaged.
But, live by the rubber chicken and you die by the rubber chicken.
All comedy has its origins in pain, he said, dragging out the heavily bandaged remains of an observation first made in the time of Heraclitus. And life is pain. You laugh or you cry, it doesn’t matter which. I’ve chosen laughter. It’s been a way to make the pain tolerable. In my daily life, my humor is freewheeling and fun. When I was Manic, it roared like a chain saw. It was relentless, often cruel, and completely out of control. A massive edifice, keeping people out. It felt like my brain’s way of amusing itself, I barely directed it at all. I was more the vehicle for, than the originator of, the humor. For much of the time I was every bit as surprised by my jokes as my audience.
My bewitched, bothered, and bewildered audience.
Well, that really wasn’t very funny after all.
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