Overdue Thank-You’s, Part Two: To The Laughgivers, Joybringers, and Lightbearers
“This is my charge to you. You are to be a light-bearer. You are to choose the light.” — Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light
It was after noon by the time I dragged myself out of bed on Nov. 9, repacked, loaded the car, and pulled away from parking lot of the hotel on the outskirts of Phoenix, Ariz., bound for my home in Southern California 400 miles away.
Twelve hours earlier, I’d been killing time at the “Democratic Victory Party” in the ballroom of a swankier downtown hotel people-watching and watching election returns come in while I waited for my friend Jen, a longtime Democratic operative who was in town from D.C., helping with GOTV efforts, to turn up for a celebratory drink.
The day before the election, Jen had asked whether any of her friends in California might be willing to drive to Phoenix to help canvass for voters on election day. For most of my adult life, I’ve been a newspaper journalist and such political endeavors were verboten. These days I’m not an officially ink-stained wretch, having lost my newspaper staff position, as so many of my colleagues have, to corporate downsizing, budget cuts, and pathological short-sightedness.
Jen is the kind of friend who could call me out of the blue and say she needed me to shave my head for the greater good of the planet and without hesitating I’d reach for the clippers. I’d voted early in Orange County and had a little free time between freelance and consulting deadlines, so I said yes and quickly prepared for a last-minute, solo road trip — my favorite variety, truth be told — to The Grand Canyon state.
Heading southeast from my home in Laguna Beach (a little blue-hippie island in the midst of otherwise bright red Orange County), I watched the sun rise over the high desert listening to U2’s The Joshua Tree album as I skirted a corner of the national park from whence it took its name. I was going on hour three of attempting to perfectly harmonize with the The Jayhawks’ latest — Paging Mr. Proust — when I pulled into the parking lot of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association union hall in Phoenix (a staging area for GOTV canvassers) a few minutes after noon.
I spent the next five hours or so canvassing a largely Hispanic, working-class neighborhood in southeast Phoenix with a lovely woman named Miranda who had flown down from Los Angeles to volunteer. It was a heartening experience—the people were kind and engaged. More than once we met entire multigenerational families who had voted or were leaving to vote together. Grandmothers and sons and their 18-year-old daughters voting for the first time. It made me proud to be an American and hopeful for the future.
By 9:45 p.m. PST, Miranda had flown back to California, Jen was stuck in fevered meetings with other Democrats somewhere in the bowels of the hotel, and I found myself sitting on the floor of the ballroom staring at the giant TV screens that lined the room and blinking at my smartphone in disbelief. Friends from all over the country and abroad were texting and posting Facebook updates and Tweets about their horror, anger, and fear. The first wave of panic descended, I felt my throat tighten, and my eyes filled with tears. I literally didn’t know what to do. In that moment, I turned to my Twitter and saw a post from comedian Patton Oswalt.
It made me laugh. Out loud. In one sentence, Patton shone a light into the darkness. I quickly tweeted a response.
And much to my surprise, Patton, whom I do not know personally but admire greatly, as an artist and a person and a parent, responded:
And I teared up again. Not snot-crying angry or sad tears. Grateful tears.
In that moment, Patton’s extemporaneous words—funny and empathetic, human and inspirational—were the tiny psychic life preserver I needed precisely when I needed it most, as discombobulation that accompanied the reality of the election’s result began to hit us like tsunami of radioactive, face-melting sewage.
I got up, found Jen, had the world’s saddest glass of wine to her tragic beer, took a taxi back to my hotel, snapped at the driver for saying the president elect was “not so bad,” crawled in bed, and eventually fell asleep without turning on the television or opening my laptop. I wanted to pretend what was happening wasn’t happening. Plausible deniability. Blame it on the apnea.
In the morning, I stayed in bed with the black-out curtains drawn as long as I could, pushing the late check-out I’d asked for to its outer limits. Begrudgingly I arose at noon, checked my email, confirmed that my memories of the night before hadn’t been a bad dream, grabbed a coffee in the lobby, and began the long schlep north.
As I mentioned earlier, I love road trips. Always have. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of driving in the early 1970s from Stamford, Conn., to Columbia University in New York City where my father was working on his doctorate, in his Karmann Ghia while we listened to the AM radio—traditional jazz on WGBO or Imus in the Morning on WNBC—and shared a box of Cracker Jacks retrieved from a secret compartment between the cushions of the backseat. Among many wonderful things, my father was hilarious. A dry wit with a face made of elastic. He always made me laugh.
Before Nov. 9, 2016, I can remember only one other road trip where I could not bear to listen to music—it was too evocative and my emotional state too tender—and that was the drive from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut the morning after my father died almost exactly four years before, on November 14, 2012. On that mournful trip I drove in silence for an hour or so before stopping at a Cracker Barrel in Maryland to rent an audiobook for the rest of the journey. Anne Lamott’s novel Imperfect Birds kept me company driving into the night after the unfathomable had happened and I faced a world I literally could not imagine—one without my father in it.
I sat in my car the morning after the election and tried to think about what I could listen to that wouldn’t rattle my nerves further or break my heart even more. If I could have willed or I-Dream-of-Jeannie-blinked my best friend from St. Louis to the passenger seat, I would have. Alas…
Instead, I turned to Audible.com and began perusing. I wanted something funny and a familiar voice. Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes, Please scrolled into view.
For the next 7 hours and 31 minutes, Amy road shotgun with me and it is not an exaggeration to say I don’t know quite how I would have made it home that day without her.
She made me howl with laughter, never more so than when she related the story of losing her shit when faced with an entitled, misogynistic, middle-aged male passenger in first class who whinged that Amy and her traveling companions were too loud.
“All of my lower-middle-class Boston issues rose to the surface. I don’t like it when bratty, privileged old white guys speak to me like I am their mouthy niece. I got that amazing feeling you get when you know you are going to lose it in the best, most self-righteous way. I just leaned back and yelled, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOU.” Then I chased him as he tried to get away from me.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please
She made me cry when she dropped some truth bombs about pretense, perfectionism, and the creative process:
Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver. I wrote this book after my kids went to sleep. I wrote this book on subways and on airplanes and in between setups while I shot a television show. I wrote this book from scribbled thoughts I kept in the Notes app on my iPhone and conversations I had with myself in my own head before I went to sleep. I wrote it ugly and in pieces.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes Please
She gave me hope:
“A person’s tragedy does not make up their entire life. A story carves deep grooves into our brains each time we tell it. But we aren’t one story. We can change our stories.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please
And Amy showered me with joy by reminding me, on several occasions, of what matters most and brings the brightest light in this life of ours:
“When your children arrive, the best you can hope for is that they break open everything about you. Your mind floods with oxygen. Your heart becomes a room with wide-open windows. You laugh hard every day. You think about the future and read about global warming. You realize how nice it feels to care about someone else more than yourself. And gradually, through this heart-heavy openness and these fresh eyes, you start to see the world a little more. Maybe you start to care a teeny tiny bit more about what happens to everyone in it.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please
It’s been a long 127 days since the election (and an even longer 54 days since the inauguration). Thankfully the initial shock and dismay largely has given way to action and resistance, here in my own little universe and around the globe. Still, there is much work to be done, a lot to bemoan and fight against, and plenty of news (daily, hourly, by the minute) that can wear us down and summon the black dog of despair.
In times such as these, those noble few who bring us laughter—especially when it is the product of incisive commentary or satire (I love you so much, Kate McKinnon, I could hurl from sheer delight)—are even more precious to our republic. Those women and men are lightbearers and joybringers. They are the threads that hold this whole schmatte together.
There is no better example of how humor is essential to keeping this mortal coil thing spinning than HBO’s new semi-autobiographical series Crashing created by Pete Holmes and produced by Judd Apatow—both exceptional joybringers, lightbearers, and deeply menschy guys.
Pete is quite possibly the funniest human I’ve ever met, and he’s also one of the smartest and most empathetic. Crashing is undeniably funny and heartbreakingly poignant in its truth-telling about messy relationships, when inspiration and aspiration collide, and how we manage to keep walking when the world tilts off its axis.
Crashing’s third episode was especially rich as it followed Pete and fellow comedian TJ Miller (on whose couch, or rather giant bean bag, he was crashing in New York City a few weeks after catching his wife in flagrante with another man—“Leif” played by George Basil), on a trip to upstate New York to rescue some of Pete’s belongings from his ex’s elicit tag sale.
In one memorable scene, TJ jovially lays into Jessica for her treatment of Pete and in defense of comedians and comedy, a vocation he deems “noble.”
TJ Miller: What you need to understand is that comedians are the new philosophers.
Pete’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Jessica (Lauren Lapkus): You think you’re a philosopher? Did Socrates ever talk about his nut sweat? Did Plato ever talk about jerking off into a trash can?
TJ Miller: I’ve had fans write me letters about how my podcast saved their life after they split up with their wife. So hopefully something I do will make someone like Pete, who got totally fucked over by you, be able to make it through their day for the next six months instead of giving up on life entirely.
— Season One, Episode 3 of HBO’s Crashing
Like so many of us, I heeded the call to shore up the Fourth Estate by investing in good journalism. I subscribed to magazines and newspapers and magazine and newspaper websites. I donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the ACLU and other organizations that defend our free speech, civil rights, and common humanity.
Such endeavors got me thinking about comedy and comedians, and how we need to invest in and shore up our joybringers and lightbearers.
TJ Miller: Comedy is kind of a new religion. You’re traveling, preaching to people this ideology of seeing everything with a smile, ya know? People need it.
Pete Holmes: You think touring comedians are like preachers?
TJ Miller: Yeah. Exactly. Except we’re better than priests because we’re not lying.
— Season One, Episode 3 of HBO’s Crashing
So along with my new subscription to Mother Jones, The Nation and The Guardian, recently I’ve made a conscious effort to invest in comedy and comedians as well, on TV, in actual books and audio books and podcasts and downloads and streaming and in the movie theater.
I’ve also invested in tickets to live performances, where the magic really happens.
I’m lucky enough to live close to Los Angeles where an outing to the theater at the Ace Hotel to see Alec Baldwin interview the marvelous Megan Mullally and her husband (my spirit animal) Nick Offerman for his “Here’s the Thing” podcast or to The Largo to watch Judd or Pete or Patton (I was too slow on the uptake this month and Patton’s gig is sold out, but there’s always next month…) or Tig Notaro or Sarah Silverman or Louie Anderson (if you haven’t seen Baskets yet, do—Louie playing Zach Galifianakis’ mother is a REVELATION) is within the realm of fairly regular possibility.
But you don’t have to live near LA or New York or Chicago to see live comedy. Support your local lightbearers. Check the websites of your favorite joybringers to see when they’ll be nearby. Comedians get around.
So this is my long-winded way of saying thank you to the people who have helped me survive the Drumpocalypse, other tragedies and traumas the preceded it, and more than occasionally set a fire under my ass to be an agent for change, to resist and persist, and to keep laughing.
I think it was Ms. Lamott who said, “Laughter is carbonated holiness.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Thanks for that, Annie.
And thank you, Amy.
And Kate. And Melissa “Spicey” McCarthy, while we’re at it.
And Petie Pants. And TJ. And Artie Lang. And Lauren. And George.
And Alec. And Megan. And Nick.
And Zach. And Louie. And Martha Kelly.
And all y’all lightbearers and joybringers.
May you always have plenty of both.