A little over two months ago, I sat down with my friend Lisa for our occasional two-person writer’s group. I had a clear mission. Once a quarter I perform poetry (almost always poetry) at Jubilee, this non-denominational church I attend. I had looked at the themes for the next quarter and saw that on September 15 (today) the theme for the service would be “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. I thought, “I have a new grandbaby – I’ll write some sweet poem about the innocence of childhood or something like that.”
The Jubilee Celebration Room
When I sat down with my writer friend, however, I was manic – and what poured out over the next 55 minutes was a wild piece of comedy titled, “It’s never too late to have a screwed-up childhood.” In it, I teased Jubilee, Howard the minister, Don his brother-in-law and church administrator, Don’s wife Genevieve – and skewered our eccentric town of Asheville, Catholics, Baptists, Mormons and especially the Tea Party.
Howard our minister
I loved it. I laughed out loud as I was writing it. My friend Lisa did not respond as enthusiastically, but then she hadn’t been feeling well, so I (in that moment) made nothing of it. I was in a pretty unstoppable mode. I put a post on Facebook, telling people the date and saying how much fun it was going to be. As I rehearsed it over the next few days, my enthusiasm over the piece only grew. They love my stuff at Jubilee – they love the serious stuff, but they especially love my funny stuff. They consistently find it funnier than I do, rehearsing it out loud while walking my dog in the woods. And this piece I myself thought was hysterical.
When I was high. Then, after a few days, I crashed. And suddenly this piece of comedy didn’t seem so funny. I remembered Lisa’s muted response and thought, “She’s right – it sucks.” And it was too long. The window for pieces at Jubilee is five minutes, and this one was clocking in at eight. When I was still high, that didn’t seem like a problem: “They love me at Jubilee – nobody is going to be watching the clock. This is great stuff, it’s worth a couple extra minutes.” Back down on the ground, eight minutes looked egregious (and really is way too long). And some of the humor was a little mean-spirited – actually a lot of it seemed that way. So it’s not funny, it’s mean-spirited, it’s way too long, but if I take out all the inappropriate stuff there will not be much left.
I tried to pull the plug on it. I wrote Howard that there were a whole lot of problems with the piece and I wanted to pull it. “Fortunately you still have a lot of time to find a replacement.” Howard is one of my very biggest fans – and loves what my poetry and comedy does for the Jubilee community. He didn’t want to hear it. “Can’t you edit it? Or is there some other piece of yours that you can pull out?”
Well, apparently I wanted my arm twisted. I told him I would try. A couple of days later, my mood had lifted (too much, actually) and I found that when I edited out the edgier humor, leaving only the affectionate teasing, there was still a lot of funny stuff left – and it now clocked in just a little bit less than five minutes. So I was back to enjoying it – got freshly enthused about it during my dog walks in the woods.
Then nine days ago I crashed again. Now there were two problems with the piece. I again became sure that it was poorly written and not funny – and I was equally sure that I would not be able to perform it effectively. “Comedy is all about timing – and when I’m this down my timing is all off. I have no flow, everything I do falls flat.” This assessment is probably overly self-critical, but actually has some truth to it.
“So the writing sucks and my performance is going to be pitiful. This is going to be an embarrassment, In nine years of performing at Jubilee once a quarter, I’ve never bombed, but this is probably going to be it.” All along I had intended to put a reminder up on Facebook a few days before the performance, but I did not. I wished there were some way that I could get out of it altogether.
This morning, I was not only depressed, I was angry. I didn’t know where the anger had come from or what it was about. In addition to my frequent nihilistic mantra “This is bullshit” (muttered under my breath), this morning I added “Fuck you”. This was not an auspicious mode for delivering comedy – it actually scared the shit out of me, but I couldn’t shake it.
Finally, as I was getting ready to leave – kind of out of desperation – I tried to use the 3rd Step of Alcoholics Anonymous (and Overeaters Anonymous, my addiction). It’s a new behavior for me to “turn it over” to my Higher Power. New because I usually try to muscle through things on my own – and because I basically have no idea what my Higher Power is. I do believe that Life is intelligent and in some very mysterious way benevolent, has our best interests at heart – somehow loves us. I believe it, and sometimes (especially when I’m up) genuinely, in my guts, experience it as true. But mostly (especially when I’m down) I live from a place of isolation – it’s tiny little me against an overwhelming, uncaring universe.
But, neophyte that I am at this turning it over business, I tried. “Life, I can’t handle this by myself. I don’t know how to shake this anger. I can’t seem to get out from under this depression. I don’t know how to find the kind of rhythm I’ll need to deliver comedy. It’s up to you – I’m turning it over to you.”
And it worked! As I was walking up towards Jubilee, I saw one of my friends going in ahead of me and thought, “There are so many people in this community whom I love – and who genuinely love me. I have the chance to give them something today. I want to give them a gift, a gift of laughter.” My mood started to lighten.
As i walked into the celebration room, a friend said,
“I see you in the program today – I’m looking forward to what you have to say about childhood.”
“Don’t expect anything today except hopefully a bunch of laughs.”
“Ah, but I know that with your humor there is always some deeper meaning underneath.”
“You’re going to have to really dig to find any deeper meaning here.”
“Well my childhood had nothing funny about it – if you can make me laugh about childhood, that will be worth it to me.”
This post is pretty long already. Let me just say that I hit my stride, had a great time at both services, the people of Jubilee adored the piece – found it even funnier than I had ever (even when I was up) expected. I came away with my writer’s voice feeling very affirmed, at a time when I have been discouraged about writing anything of any use to anybody. I realized that this piece was not only funny – but that getting people to laugh about the whole happy childood/screwed-up childhood dichotomy actually did have deeper significance, was in a way genuinely healing. The piece was actually wiser than I realized. And the process of co-creating a few minutes of magic – me and the audience, creating it together – really punched a hole in my isolation. It all was healing for me, too.
An earlier funny piece at Jubilee
Sometimes I sink into the truth that I’m loved at Jubilee, but it’s so easy to forget. Step 3 – “Made a decision to turn over my life and my will to God’s care, as I understand God.” Life loves me.
I’m posting the piece, also. Some of the Jubilee humor may be lost on you, and most of my stuff (maybe especially comedy) has less impact on the page than performed, but you’ll get a sense of it. My friend with the not-funny childhood said afterwards that he smiled non-stop through the whole thing. i hope you get a couple of smiles out of it.
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