This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2018

Stand-up comedy got me through the darkest point of my life

How I laughed through the pain

Erica Ruth Kelly

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 10.03.22 AMDear stand-up comedy,

I almost threw up all over you the first time we met. I was 18. My then-boyfriend took me to a Just for Laughs showcase in Montreal. Mascara ran down my face as I watched one of the performers, Jeremy Hotz. You and I were still getting to know each other then. I was sweating and hyperventilating and I got dizzy and my jaw was sore and my stomach felt ready to implode—and it was the most distilled joy I’d ever experienced. I wasn’t anticipating, as I normally did, that the joy would soon be over, replaced by grey feelings I carried everywhere; I thought I could laugh that hard forever. I only knew of one way to fall in love: hard and fast. And so you and I began.

Falling in love hard and fast means that when you lose it, you fall hard. And fast. That boyfriend and I broke up. He left the country. I tried to take my own life. You were there every night the following summer after I was in the hospital. My little brother and I stayed up watching you on Conan until my brain settled enough so I could sleep. Thanks to you, we created a secret language—a world of inside jokes where I felt safe from my own mind.

That world expanded the first time I hung out with the person I’d later marry. “Do you know the D?” I asked. “Yeah, I know the D,” he answered, referring to Tenacious D. Our shared appreciation of this silly rock-comedy band sealed our friendship. Our close friendship soon grew into a loving relationship. You were around for that, too. At the beginning, he and I watched old Dana Carvey Show sketches. Years later, we watched a Paul F. Tompkins special where he pretends to be an employee for the South Carolina Electric Company who invites a colleague to a private work function: “Take care to wear your rubber-soled tuxedo, I hear tell they have a punch bowl filled with lightning!” We had to pause the show because we were falling off the couch in hysterics. We spent a decade retelling jokes, inventing new ones. We threw in puns, personification, and celebrity impressions. We were a silly army of two until we separated. Then nothing was funny.

Maybe you’d know exactly how I felt. So many people use you to talk about pain, after all. But me it took me writing to you to find the words. A separation means being lost in a cold place. It’s not getting warmer. You have no map. No compass. No phone. No one knows you’re there. They don’t realize you’re missing.

Crying was my only outlet. I clogged up the work bathroom with snot-filled tissues. I screamed into pillows. I didn’t bother wearing makeup to therapy anymore.

Still, you were there.

You were there every time my colleagues pity-laughed as I stumbled through a DeAnne Smith or Aparna Nancherla bit. It was better than nothing. You were there when my friend, Erin, introduced me to Baron Vaughn and Ron Funches one afternoon when I was sure I’d never experience joy again; I did that day. You were there when I stared down the weepy woman reflected in my computer screen reacting to a Hannah Gadsby line: “Your resilience is your humanity.” I realized I might love that woman. Maybe the heart is like the liver, I thought later. Maybe it regenerates, no matter how raw.

And so my raw heart connected with other people’s raw hearts—those of comedians and the audience. And I started to wonder: Maybe the best thing we can ever hope for is to look at each other’s raw hearts and laugh with understanding. Laugh at how the world is falling apart but we keep showing up every day. Laugh at how absurdly devastating it is for two people who care about each other so much to separate out of love. Laugh at the fact that one small thing could’ve been different and the comedian, audience, and I wouldn’t be sharing that moment.

In those spaces, the cold place got a little warmer. I told people where I was. They came looking me for me. They realized I was missing, and you were the compass out.

Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

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