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.

 

Why Characters? Perspective and Sketch Comedy

Why characters?
If you’re ever at a restaurant where people drop their business cards in a fish bowl for the chance to win a free lunch, when you’re taking other people’s cards out to have a better chance at winning and you see my business card, you’ll notice that under my name it reads “Keynotes With Character(s).”

As someone named Jessica probably would say: “What even is that?”

Put simply, I do keynotes as characters to make audiences realize that we’re all characters, then I show them ways to build character.

That sentence was 134 characters.

As a writer, to build more effective (read: realistic) characters, it’s necessary to see the world from your character’s point of view. Every character has a completely unique background and has been met with completely unique life experiences, so they have a completely unique perspective from everyone else. This means, my POV has to change from my own to that of someone else – someone who doesn’t think, feel, or respond like me.

When writing comedic characters, the key is to write each character to be completely serious, because the humor comes from them seriously trying to get what they want, but mucking it up. People aren’t funny because they’re trying to be funny, people are funny because they’re trying to get what they want and they don’t know how. That’s comedy! Each of my characters is dead serious about getting what he or she wants. Each of my characters has a fully formulated backstory so that I can determine why they would each behave a certain way when confronted with what life throws at them. Each of my characters has shown me the value of seeing the world through the eyes of someone else – a skill I remember to use in everyday life when I’m not quite seeing eye-to-eye with others. Having this background allows me to take a step back and examine a new point of view, because I know that every single person I see comes from a completely unique background, and I wish more people could pause and take a moment to see the world through the eyes of another.

Because everyone, even you, is a character.

The Myth of the Pursuit of Happiness

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Declaration of Independence lately, and what really grinds my gears is the misinterpretation of what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “the pursuit of happiness.” They key word there is “pursuit.” When we think of pursuit, we tend to picture a coyote strapping himself to the back of an ACME rocket and hurtling at hundreds of miles an hour into a solid painting of a desert backdrop. Have you ever read Shakespeare and thought, “This is supposed to be a classic, but I can’t understand a damn thing anyone is saying!”? 400 years ago, the English language wasn’t the same vernacular we use today, so there’s a bit of a barrier. If I were to go into a nursing home with a megaphone and tell everyone to get “turnt up,” any number of things could happen, but chances are, their version of “turnt up” has to do with adjusting the volume knob of the color television set. Believe it or not, the Declaration of Independence isn’t a big deal anymore, probably because things that are over 240 years old tend to go out of style. Like the powdered wig I wore on a blind date (Helpful hint: girls like updated wardrobes). “Pursuit” is one of those words that has multiple definitions and the emphasis has shifted from one definition to another over time. The definition of pursuit that Tom was referring to had nothing to do with chasing after something. He was referring more to definition number three instead of definitions number one or two on dictionary.com:

noun
1. the act of pursuing :
in pursuit of the fox.
2. an effort to secure or attain; quest:
the pursuit of happiness.
3. any occupation, pastime, or the like, in which a person is engaged regularly or customarily:
literary pursuits.

While, yes, we are trying to secure happiness, the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence refers more to the occupation or the creation of happiness. Where we misinterpret the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness” is in assuming that happiness is something that can be chased after and attained by completing a goal, having possessions, or seeing that the girl you’re going on a blind date with is also wearing a powdered wig. But what happens when these things are taken away? What happens when we don’t reach a goal? We lose out on that happiness. That’s not authentic happiness. Pursuing happiness is creating happiness from within. Even if we don’t complete our goals, get lots of money and possessions, or have a romantic relationship, we still maintain that joy inside of us because we’ve made the decision to create it for ourselves.

We’ve been conditioned by society to believe that we’ll “be happy when…” This pisses me off, which isn’t very happy of me, but this idea is wrong in two key ways. First things first: this statement is an admission to ourselves that we’re not happy now. Hypothetically, if you have the choice to be happy or not, what would you choose? Now realistically, if you have the choice to be happy or not, what would you choose? Here’s the thing: we have that choice. We make the decision to be happy. We may think that external events dictate whether we should be happy or not, but the decision comes from within. Yes, it is normal to feel emotions other than happiness, but when we make the decision to pursue (read: create) happiness now, bringing happiness to our experiences instead of trying to extract happiness from them becomes automatic. To exude happiness not only makes our experience of the world a much more positive one, it also enhances the experience of those around us. The other major flaw of the “I’ll be happy when…” premise is that once we achieve that goal, purchase that Maserati, or start dating the person we’ve been after, we begin wanting more. It’s human nature. Once we achieve that goal, we want to do more, once we buy that car, we want something else, and once we start dating, we grow, change, and start looking for more in the relationship. Therefore, we may feel “happiness” at first, but once we set our sights on something else, “we’ll be happy when…” again. It becomes an endless cycle and we keep chasing, and chasing, and chasing, and chasing, and…

Happiness is our natural state of being, but it’s hidden by layer upon layer of conditioning. Chasing after happiness is like those people we hear about in the news who sell priceless antiques worth millions at a garage sale to make a few bucks. We have all of the happiness we need inside of us already, but we distract ourselves by looking elsewhere to be happy. If we believe that pursuing happiness “out there” will actually bring us happiness, we’ve just signed our lives away to a fictitious concept and the thing we’re after becomes impossible to reach. We become Sisyphus and are stuck rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity. The purpose of life is to create for ourselves, not chase after something that is impossible to catch. Pursue happiness the way it is meant to be pursued: create it from within and get off the back of that ACME rocket – those things never work right anyway.