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Make Them Laugh

Last night I started watching Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi. I heard of it a while ago because I watched Tig’s documentary on Netflix, on her cancer diagnosis, C-diff, and following stand-up show. Maybe it’s just my sense of humor, or that I like when gay women are successful, but I have really enjoyed what I have seen so far. It’s poignant, and real, and while the plot centers around Tig and her relationship to death, both her eventual own and her mother’s, the relationships around her and her family are both important and charmingly awkward. I’m bad at writing reviews. So let me get to a different analysis.

I know there are plenty of sayings:

“The truth is like castor oil. It’s difficult to take and hard to swallow, so we get them to laugh and while their mouths are open, we pour a little in.” -Harold Clurman

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” – Oscar Wilde

I’d say that I’m not a very funny off-the-bat joke person. But I do like to tell stories. And I have always had a hard time keeping my own secrets. Mostly the embarrassing, shame-filled ones. Because the more I sit on something that I have bad feelings about, my entire brain function stops and festers and all I can think about is this thing that I did and how disgusting I am. I curl up in a ball, and hyperventilate, and can’t go to sleep. So, as I got older, I dealt with that by making it as public as possible. I tell stories about the time I showed a boy that I liked in fourth grade my journal entries about him which he then told the rest of my class. Or the time that at summer camp, I called this boy I liked “Tom” when his name was “Tim” so often that one day after he corrected me for the upteenth time, I fell to the floor in front of him and cried. When a counselor tried to comfort me, I swatted her away and hit her in the face. I wore clown dresses on my birthday, I picked orange and electric blue outfits to “make boys not like me,” I was full of shame in middle and high school, weren’t you! And wasn’t it hilarious??

After my freshman year of college, I think the only reason I didn’t drop out is because I went home and satirized my entire life river experience. And I got people to laugh with me. And I got to laugh at me, even when in the moment, I would have probably rather died than tried to smile. Storytelling became my coping mechanism. And that’s not to say that I don’t also just love talking about this silly thing my mom did over Thanksgiving break or making an actually clever joke in response to the world around me. I have just learned to take at least part of my life less seriously, when I feel the most like I can’t.

So, Tig Notaro reminded me last night. Because there’s no good way to confront death or your own potentially fatal illness. But being able to confront the absurdity of one’s double mastectomy or one’s stepfather giving you a stool sample to cure an illness with humor instead of depression is powerful.

I think I’d also like to add a post-script to this post-election…

This is not to say that humor should let us normalize our President-elect like we did during the campaign. That is escapism of a different kind, one that we could have affected if we had been paying more attention. I don’t want to confuse the two. Use humor as a tool for one’s own good, not one’s own ignorance.


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