We need to talk.
Most weeknights, while you are onstage, the upstairs office of the Laugh Factory becomes my therapy room. I sit in that room, across from the couch that once belonged to Groucho Marx. Yes, it’s been reupholstered. And yes, it’s far more comfortable than the wooden stool on the stage. Maybe you should try me out. You might as well. I’m already there and I don’t look like the typical shrink with turquoise and Birkenstocks. The spotlight that I shine on you will be far softer and more inviting than the stage lights below.
We’re not that different, you and I. We are trained observers. Each renders our observations with a specific language: mine is the language of therapy, yours the language of humor. It’s our job to air the taboos that others keep inside. George Carlin said, “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”
We are both expected to be fearless in our choice of words and to not tread lightly in our explorations of human thought, behavior, and interaction. We talk about the same issues: family, relationships, career, finances, childhood, abuse, addiction, depression, trauma, and pain. We both know that this is not easy.
The difference lies in our methods. Yours is therapeutic. Mine is therapy.
Consider your life. You live a near monastic lifestyle, sans the celibacy. You are self-employed–an office of one. You practice your craft for validation night after night. Often times it’s on the road, absent familiarity. You are lone travelers, doing lonely work, with only fleeting minutes of camaraderie, praise, applause and attention. Your support network is slim to none. An occasional bad set will unravel even the most seasoned of you. You practice one of the few art forms that is not only immediately heckled, but where heckling is invited.
Very few people truly ‘get’ you.
It takes a confident, self-reliant, independent and completely trusting person with high self-esteem to date you. How many of those people do you actually meet? A new love interest’s ‘crazy’ typically reveals itself after the third or fourth date–if you make it that far. Relationships unfurl easily from the stresses of your profession.
Thanks to Robin Williams, we’ve learned success leads to financial rewards and the grandest of public love. Success doesn’t equate with happiness.
You joke about your problems to rooms full of strangers who laugh, or worse, don’t. Very few of those read between the lines, especially when they’ve had their two-drink minimum and only want to be entertained.
Then there are the lean times when you’re not being booked. The more desperation you feel to be onstage, the higher the propensity to seek immediate gratification, or engage in avoidant/dangerous behaviors.
Upstairs, it’s just you and me. I am an awesome audience; I am easily entertained. My heckling is called feedback and is non-threatening. My two-drink minimum is the professionally acceptable, not so environmentally conscious water bottle. I’ll laugh if you say something funny or completely ridiculous. I’ll provide the support that you need.
To the audience, your pain is a punch line. The cruel irony is the greater your pain, the funnier it is, and the more hits you get on YouTube. Humor is one of our most sophisticated defense mechanisms. Reducing your pain will not make you less funny. Being funny is a character trait. It is core to your personality. Your funny will remain even when the pain goes away.
There is no confidentiality on a stage. With me, you hold privilege. I am legally obligated to keep my mouth shut. I am totally willing to catch your set any time you’re at the Laugh Factory, but on Groucho’s couch there is no need to perform. My specialty is reading between the lines. I will listen to the same painful story that brought a room full of strangers to hysterics, and work with you to let go of the manifest pain behind that story. I have a seemingly magical way of reminding you that your fears of loneliness are normal.
After a recent late night dinner at Greenblatt’s with one of my favorite comedians, I relayed how I sometimes hear a story onstage that sounds strangely familiar. It’s something I’ve heard in a therapy session, although in a completely different context. Behind every joke about an abusive or absentee parent, an impoverished childhood, a child witness to addiction, or any other trauma, there lies a painfully unfunny truism that has ruined relationships, cost jobs, led to addiction, and, at times, made it difficult to get out of bed.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is having the opportunity to provide support for you. Through my work with you comedians, I gain more and more respect, on a daily basis, for you and your craft. I’m a therapist. I’m also a human. I secretly watched episodes of Johnny Carson starting at the age of eleven. He brought me levity and laughter, and gave me the strength to process through my own childhood pain. I understand what you may not.
We’re not that different, you and I. You help others process their pain through being funny, just like Carson did for me. Now Groucho’s couch is there for you, to let me help you process through your pain.
Come visit. I ‘get’ you. And I do recycle those water bottles.