Humor and Grief: Putting the ‘FUN’ in Funerals

When a close relative of yours gets murdered, it shakes the foundation of your existence; it can send you on a downward spiral of depression, dependency, and regret. One of the toughest moments of my life was learning of the passing of my aunt, Kristie, at the hands of her own daughter – my cousin Taylor. I was lying in bed around 7 AM after a late night of shock and questioning reality – we had already known Kristie had been killed, but when we went to bed, we didn’t know the culprit – when my dad burst into my room with hate in his voice, declaring, “Taylor did it.”

My first thought was, “Christmas is going to be awkward this year.” I stopped myself from laughing: “This isn’t the time to make jokes.” The next few weeks were miserable – every day we learned more and more gruesome details about the murder. If you were to drive by our house, it would’ve been the one with the black cloud hovering above it. You always hear people say things like, “That kind of stuff happens on the news, it doesn’t happen to us,” so none of us really knew how to cope. We spend a lot of time together, consoling and comforting one another. In college at the time, I confronted my vulnerability by skipping two straight weeks of class – the only percentage I got was the .09 I blew into a breathalyzer. Needless to say, none of the family could find a way out of the black hole we were stuck in… until the funeral. That’s when I finally gave in to the humor of the whole situation.

During the eulogy, the minister said, “This is a celebration of life!” I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “celebration,” I think “party,” and not one person was partying. Besides, if you were to invite me to a party, then inform me it’s at a church, everyone would be crying, and the DJ would be bagpipes, I’d politely decline. And one more thing: he called it a “celebration of life…” with a dead body in the middle of the room – you couldn’t get more contradictory. That’s like having an open bar at a sobriety party. I had to laugh – and the moment I did, it was like a weight was lifted off of my chest. I began to notice even more incongruities: the first three letters in ‘funeral’ are ‘F-U-N,’ Kristie found joy in the happiness of others and, ironically enough, EVERYONE THERE WAS CRYING, and a stranger no one there had ever met sobbed uncontrollably into the microphone for five minutes, blubbering on about how he wished more people had known Kristie, while we wondered who the hell knew who that guy was.

In the face of tragedy was the moment I realized the power laughter has over our fears, stress, and sadness. But it shouldn’t come as such a shock: science has known this for some time now

A study from the University of Berkeley, bereaved widows and widowers able to laugh about their loss were observed to be happier, better equipped to deal with distress, and better socially adapted.

A study done at Kent State and reported in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care revealed that humor was present in 85 percent of 132 observed nurse based visits. Amazingly, they found that 70 percent of the humor was initiated by the patient.

Humor provides us with relief, not by washing away bad feelings, but by activating them, along with positive ones, so that we can enjoy a complex emotional experience. Tragic circumstances are an effective breeding ground for humor because they provide the same release as horror movies, allowing the participants to confront their emotions head-on.       –Scott Weems (author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why)

How have you used humor in the face of tragedy? How have you helped others experiencing tragedy, trauma, or even just a bad day smile?

Each of us has had a “Christmas is going to be awkward this year,” lean into it and let yourself laugh.

 

Comedy Creates Connection

Comedy: it’s more than just making people laugh – there are real life lessons that can be learned, and I just learned an important one this past weekend that I felt compelled to share: it doesn’t matter how funny you are, if you don’t make a connection with your audience (your customers), they can’t be invested in you.

I learned this the hard (fun) way this past weekend.

Last Friday and Saturday, I was hosting a comedy show featuring a musical comedian at a comedy club in Akron. As the host, it’s my job to set the tone for the show, so I had spent the week at open mics both working on my material and riffing with audiences. Then Friday night came around… I was instructed by the club owner to promote upcoming shows, so that’s how I kicked off the show.
“Give it up for yourselves for coming out!”
They cheer.
“Now, coming up next week is Jim Florentine from VH1’s That Metal Show! The following week is Dave Landau who has been a special guest on The Bob and Tom Show! Anyone here listed to Bob and Tom?”
Crickets.
“Well you should. They’re hilarious.”
Crickets.
Side note: I don’t even listen to Bob and Tom.
That was me trying to force a connection, but still not listening to the crowd. That’s not how you connect with people.
Now what? Do I stand up here and keep trying crowd work? I’m 0 for 1, that can only mean it’s going to get worse. I know! I’ll perform my set for them.
Before the show I went through all of my jokes and decided on the ones that would tie into the narrative of humans being too comfortable with the status quo to make meaningful change. For example, we call a peanut a nut when it’s actually a legume, Gettysburg will never be a progressive town because they can’t stop reminiscing over the glory days – you know, The Civil War – and the Cleveland Indians calling themselves Indians when their logo is clearly Native American – two distinct races.
It turns out the audience wasn’t there to laugh at thought-provoking humor. The headlining comedian used crude acoustic parodies of well-known songs, including Christmas carols, and the audience ate it up. I couldn’t believe it! What was I doing wrong??
“But I do smart comedy!” I reasoned to myself, “I challenge the status quo!”
If you went to see Bruce Springsteen in concert, but a world yo-yo champion was his opening act, you’d be like, “I’m not here to see this guy walk the dog, I want to hear about the glory days.”
So sure, I got some laughs, including one big laugh at my Indians joke (appropriate since the team was in the playoffs at the time), but I never fully connected with the people in the room, and it was a little disheartening to begin the show on a dud.

I approached one of the other, more experienced comedians for pointers on how to more effectively open a show and get the audience riled up.
“Ask if anyone has a Birthday or anniversary and comment on that… and listen for the blender at the bar. Someone always orders a frozen margarita during the opening act. Commenting on that always gets a laugh.”
Noted.
Back on stage again: “Anyone celebrating anything?”
No one. Oh, great. Time to go into my routine – surely the first audience just didn’t get it and the second audience would be much better.
Nope.
Again, I got some laughs, but I was missing that ever-important connection… then the blender went off.
“If anyone needs a root canal, they’re doing them for cheap at the bar.”
Everyone laughed!
“This place has it all: comedy, cocktails, and clean teeth!”
Another laugh.
This was it! Time to ride the momentum train into the rest of my set!
“Did you realize human beings are the only animal to drink the milk of another animal?”
Just as quickly as I got them back, I lost them again, and it deflated me. What was happening?
Lightbulb: I wasn’t listening to them! They came to hear jokes about balls, and here I am telling them about the potential of Gettysburg before the Civil War.
Connection begins when you listen, and I forgot this vital rule of human interaction because I was so focused on getting laughs, rather than working together with the room to create an experience.
The first show the next night got off to a promising start – there was a Birthday and it was at a front table full of women – perfect – they’re probably wasted and I can have some fun at their expense.
“Do any pre-gaming at the Red Fox next door?”
They didn’t, so I asked what they were drinking.
“Vodka cranberries!”
“Ah, the vodka cranberry: the vodka cranberry of cocktails.”
I’m not proud to admit that that got a much bigger laugh than I expected, but hey, a laugh’s a laugh, right?
“Pam’s drinking beer!” Another woman at the table chimed in.
“I like beer,” Pam added. The second she said that, the next few words slipped out of my mouth and into an abyss of silence:
“So does Brett Cavanaugh.”
I didn’t read the room… this was a conservative audience, and that could be construed as a liberal joke.
That wasn’t my intention at all, but it’s how the audience read the joke, and just like that, I lost them. The rest of the set went okay, but I never felt a true connection with the people in the room.

One more show, one more chance.
“Anyone celebrating anything?”
“17th anniversary!”
“17! Give em a round of applause, everyone!” Applause break.
“I can’t make it past two years, but I just got into a relationship. If I’m lucky, in 17 years we’ll be catching a show at this comedy club together too.”
That got a laugh – off to a good start. After some riffing that included the rest of the crowd, it was time to go into my set, which I updated to be a little more off-color.

“When I was a kid, I used to get picked on for my last name. I resisted it because no one wants to be known as the horny kid when they’re ten. It’s a hard reputation to shake off.”
Starting the set with this was the first step to audience connection – it’s what they wanted – but when I felt myself beginning to lose that connection, like when I began a new joke on the absurdities of Tinder, I listened and recreated that connection. “Anyone in here on Tinder?” No one made a sound.
“Next joke.” Everyone laughed, including me. That’s what a real connection feels like.
Although it wasn’t my best set, the key is that I maintained that connection and got some good laughs, keeping the audience invested all the way through my ten minutes of time onstage.
The headliner approached me after I got off stage, “Great set, man. This is going to be a good show.”
If you want to get what you want, you have to look at it from the other person’s perspective and ask yourself, “What is it they want?” first. It took me three shows to remember this, but once I did, it led to me performing the best 10 minutes of comedy in my life, opening up for a national headliner in front of 100 people the next night.

By investing our energy into seeing the world through the eyes of others, we create connection, and once that connection is created, others will be more invested in us.

The Simple Solution to Boredom

“You must get so bored.”

I’ve made the 8 hour drive from Akron, Ohio to New York City at least a dozen times, and this is the reaction I get from most people who hear that I drive as opposed to flying. I may not be able to take a nap, write a blog, or do yoga while hurtling at 70-80 miles per hour down a highway, but I don’t have to be bored either. Instead, I choose to enjoy every second of the drive, and I almost wish it was longer because I’m enjoying myself so much. Am I crazy? It’s debatable, but I’d rather be crazy and enjoying myself than be bored and dread any part of my life. We have the choice to be bored or enjoy ourselves in every situation – and life is too short to be bored for even one second. All you have to do is make the conscious choice.

How do I combat boredom? I create excitement. The it’s-so-simple-it-can’t-possibly-work solution to boredom is to stop telling yourself you’re bored. This can’t be done by saying, “Stop being bored,” because when we try to stop something, we’re thinking about that thing. That’s why I create. It’s the law of the universe: when we try to destroy or stop something, we create more of that thing (How many times have you seen someone try to stop violence by using violence?), but when we create something different, the energy used on boredom is transferred to creating something different. It’s how our thinking works

When we have a thought, we’re commanding our brain to say, “Okay, this thought must be true, so I’m going to work to make sure that it’s the truth,” and then filter out anything that says otherwise. By saying, “I’m bored,” “This is boring,” or “Time is going so slow,” our brain completely filters out anything else. It’s not our brain’s fault, it’s just doing its job, and then we take action on that thought. It’s up to you, the boss, to command your brain to see things differently. Because we have 50-65,000 thoughts a day, it can only take in so much information, so it only accepts the information we consciously tell it to accept. By getting frustrated at your boredom, you’re basically ordering a burger, then getting mad at Burger King for giving you a meat sandwich when you’re a vegetarian. Choose to order up excitement. Here are a few ways to do it:

  1. Condition your imagination

We’re all born with an imagination, but just like those 6-pack abs hiding under the Pillsbury Doughboy stomach you’ve worked so hard on, it takes practice. You’re not going to look like an Abercrombie model overnight, and you’re not going to go from droning through spreadsheets to Tolkein overnight either. Imagination doesn’t necessarily mean you’re imagining dragons everywhere you go (people will wonder why you’re randomly ducking and carrying a spear with you) Inject a little creativity into your life wherever you can: take a different route home from work every day, imagine that spreadsheet you’re working on is going to save the world from a terrorist attack, create a different meaning for street signs, or every night, write down one thing you did differently that day that was new and fun. Disrupting the previous thinking pattern is the first step towards building an imagination 6-pack.

2.   Ask “What else could this be?”

When you hear yourself use the words “I’m bored,” immediately challenge that thought with, “Which means I have an opportunity to make this AWESOME.” Train your brain to find the all of the reasons why you’re having a good time instead of finding the boring. A common opportunity is when we’re waiting. If you’re in line, that’s a great opportunity to people watch. When I’m in line, I love to observe other people and ask myself, “If they do that, what else do they do?” and then I create a story about that person based on just one observation. Try it; it can be a lot of fun. You can also notice and appreciate something you wouldn’t normally notice and appreciate: trees, the patterns in woodwork, the sound of silence, darkness, your breath or heartbeat, or the vastness of the unknown in the universe, man. There’s an infinite number of things that we don’t take the time to appreciate. When we do, it’s really amazing where our thoughts can take us. Time can start to fly in an instant.

3.   Start a fire

Fires are never boring. They make movies based on fires. You’re also helping a firefighter, who may be bored, liven up their day. Whether it’s a house, a forest, or a bon, fires, for whatever reason take a “boring” gathering and turn it into a great time with the simple flick of a lighter.

4.   Do several hallucinogenic drugs at once

Have you ever seen air? Have you ever seen air as moving colors? Have you ever thought you were dying when there was absolutely nothing wrong with you? Combine numbers 4 and 3 and chances are, you will.

Sing, dance, imagine, be grateful, use your senses, read about the census, think about tents, file for bankruptcy for fun, file for a new filing cabinet and then file files into it, paint, turn boring ol’ productivity into a game, breathe, see how long you can hold your breath, see how long you can hold your hand in the air while your hand is holding a gun, fight imaginary dragons with said gun, listen to Imagine Dragons, dress in drag, drag race, pretend you’re a racist on Facebook, re-friend everyone who de-friends you, make friendship bracelets; I don’t care what it is, but whatever you do, make sure you always create. It’s why you’re here. Life is too short not to create, and creating boredom seems silly. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to create enjoyment out of boredom, because boredom is an opportunity to create our lives how we want, and no one wants to be bored.

Majoring in Minor Things

Why Focusing on the Little Things Blocks Out the Big Picture

My return flight to New York City was set to leave from Akron-Canton Airport at 5:00 PM. It was 2:30 and I had just realized that I forgot my contact lenses, glasses case, toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, and vitamins at my girlfriend’s apartment in Cleveland, 45 minutes away from my parents’ house, which was another half hour away from the airport. What I should have been doing was enjoying the last couple of hours in Ohio with my family. What I was doing instead was imagining spending the next couple of months blindly fumbling around New York City with God-awful breath, an unkempt beard, and a weak immune system. There was frantic pacing, unnecessary cursing, and, “Oh God, I’m going to miss my flight! Is my girlfriend going to break up with me over this!?” I had my keys in my hand and was on my way to my car, ready to make the hour and a half trek to and back from Cleveland when my dad suggested I slow down and think everything through. I needed that. Because I let these unchecked thoughts have a field day in my brain, I completely forgot that I had six pairs of extra contacts at my New York apartment and could buy everything else at literally any pharmacy. Crisis averted.

It didn’t have to be a crisis though. Now, any time I’m confronted with a minor obstacle, I’ve learned to slow down and ask myself a couple of questions. “Is this fantasized prediction of the future guaranteed to come true? Is this worth the stress I’m putting myself through?” The answer to both questions is always no. When we’re immersed in a seemingly stressful situation, it’s not always easy to stop for a few seconds and realize there are better options than the worst-case scenario that we project inside of our heads. Any time something goes wrong, it doesn’t mean everyone we know is going to hate us, it means we have an opportunity to grow by weighing out worst-case scenario, probable scenario, and best-case scenario, and then choosing our next move accordingly. Personally, I prefer best-case. Looking back, we’ve all made it through every stressful situation intact, so we shouldn’t allow these “panic-inducing” situations to loom so large in front of us. They’re never as serious as we make them seem.

Stressing out actually reduces the number of options of actions we consider taking because we’re so focused on the potential ramifications of the problem (which are all imagined), we filter out many possible (and logical) solutions. In fact, according to a study done at the University of Toronto, our line of vision is actually worse when we’re in a negative state of mind!^1 I was producing a sketch comedy show at Carolines on Broadway, and two nights before the show, my computer crashed. If anything was a panic-inducing situation for me, this had the potential to be the Titanic (no offense to those on board the Titanic – I’m not minimalizing your situation, I’m just being dramatic). I needed to use my laptop for music cues and sound effects, and with the super-important dress rehearsal just hours away, my initial reaction was pounding my fists on the desk and shouting, “No, no, no, no, nonononono, not now!” I felt my brain start running away with stinkin’ thinkin.’ “The show is ruined! We’re going to have to cancel! All of this hard work for nothing!” But I remembered the famous forgotten contact debacle, asked myself, “Is this fantasized prediction of the future guaranteed to come true? Is this worth the stress I’m putting myself through?” Just like that, I stopped my panicking brain from deciding on anything rash and took a much-needed moment to really weigh my options. Worst-case: I throw my computer against the wall and do the show without music or sound effects, ruining everything! Probable: someone else downloads the sound effects and music and we use their computer to run the show. Best-case: I take my computer to the Genius Bar and get it back in time for the show. I chose the latter and my computer was repaired and ready to go literally minutes before the pivotal final dress rehearsal.

We’re faced with problems and obstacles, big and small, every day. If we spend our time thinking about how bad the problem is, no matter how small, it takes over our lives and has a dramatic impact on what happens next. Basing our choices on imagined future worst-case scenarios that aren’t even guaranteed to happen causes us to forget to focus on right now. As a result, the actual solution becomes ever-evasive and we create a self-fulfilling prophecy based on decisions made in a stressed-out state of mind. Take a breather, ask yourself the questions, and imagine a future where the result is the best-case scenario. I guarantee the next action you take will help guide you there if you let it.

1: Elias, C., & Luke, K. (2009, June 2). People Who Wear Rose-Coloured Glasses See More. Retrieved September 4, 2014.
http://www.artsci.utoronto.ca/main/news-archives/people-who-wear-rose-coloured-glasses-see-more/