Like everyone who heard the shocking news this week, I was horrified, outraged, and depressed about the school shooting in Connecticut. Dealing with these kinds of feelings can make it difficult for comics and speakers -- and their audiences -- to continue as if everything were normal.
In the face of tragedy, how do we comics and speakers do our job? How can we get onstage and make people laugh -- and is it even appropriate to do so?
The events of last week took me back to another tragedy - September 11, 2001. I know you know what happened on that day, but what you might not know is that was also the day of the release of my book, “The Comedy Bible.”
The next day, I boarded a plane for my tour to promote a book I had spent five years of my life writing. In comedy, timing is everything; starting a tour where the goal is to make people laugh the day after 9/11 is not exactly great timing.
At first, I thought my shows where going to be called off, but to my surprise they weren’t. I was filled with dread. How could I possibly make people laugh in midst of a national tragedy? That’s when I remembered the lessons learned from one of my standup students.
Kathy B. came into my comedy workshop looking very ill. She had cancer and in the middle of her chemo treatments, she decided to take my standup workshop. Looking at her frailness, I gently suggested that perhaps she would want to wait until she felt better. That’s when she stood up and spoke in a voice that came from a deeply powerful place, “This cancer has taken away my health; I’ll be damned if it’s going to take away my sense of humor.”
On showcase night, she stepped onstage with her head high and her voice clear and got laughs -- and a standing ovation. Ten years later she is cancer free. She triumphed.
Stepping onstage on September 12th, I took a moment to reflect on the victims of 9/11 -- and then I went on with my act. What I found was that people really wanted -- and needed -- to laugh.
There's a healing power to laughter that helps us deal with not just small everyday problems, but with the great tragedies and challenges as well.
(Kathy clearly understood this; that's why it was so important to her to continue.)
Keep hold of your sense of humor; sometimes, when it's the most difficult to laugh, is exactly when the healing power of laughter is needed most.