How To Cope With The Future… By Laughing
“Stop and smell the roses — but also, stop and make fun of that bumblebee that’s tripping over the roses”
There’s a lot going on right now: We’re in the midst of a contentious election, during a 24/7 news cycle with a lot of troubling developments happening across the world (including climate change). All of these things are incredibly important and worth being focused on, of course. But Elle writer R. Eric Thomas has mastered the art of pausing and finding humor in the minutia (well, the stuff it’s okay to laugh about).
Here, Thomas — whose new memoir Here For It, or How To Save Your Soul In America, is out now — offers some advice for how to stop and laugh every now and then.
Wake-Up Call: At a time when so much is going on — including so many horrible things — how are you able to find the humor in it all?
R. Eric Thomas: Well, I think part of it is having a sense of context. Knowing that this isn’t the end of a story is really helpful. And within that story, being able to look at some things that are going on in the present and saying, “This is absolutely unacceptable, and there’s nothing funny about it.” Then looking at other things and seeing it from a vantage point of drama, farce or comedy.
I have the background of a playwright. You can look at some of these things that go on in the public eye, whether it’s with celebrities or it’s Elizabeth Warren taking Mike Bloomberg apart at a molecular level on the debate stage — those things have huge ramifications politically and nationally, but they’re also deeply interesting, dramatic moments with very vividly drawn characters.
Being able to step outside the headline for a second and examine the weird humans who have incredible power and hold up their behavior to the light can be really refreshing.
You just mentioned Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg at the last debate, but what have been some other cringeworthy or dramatic political moments that have caught your attention?
The moment that I think a lot of people discovered me was right before the Trump administration began, when there was a group of congresspeople meeting with former FBI director James Comey. One of those people was Rep. Maxine Waters. She came out of their meeting and she was clearly unhappy. There was a gaggle of reporters waiting for her to give some sort of canned statement — and instead, she surveyed the room with disdain continuing to exude off of her. They said, “You know, how did it go?” And she was like, “Not well!” That level of honesty was really refreshing, and her frustration continued to be like a present factor in the important and skilled work that she was doing.
You’re an accomplished playwright, and now your debut memoir is out. How was writing a book different from writing in the other mediums you’re used to?
Online writing and playwriting, in some way, are about immediacy. Online writing needs to be up in a couple of hours, or else the news is old and things have changed. Playwriting has that same relationship with immediacy. A play is something that happens only once in the same way: The audience is never going to be the same, the air is never going to be the same. So you’re writing to a really electric, and temporary, moment.
I started writing the book in 2017, and I finished it in early 2019. It’s just been sort of permanently sitting in some computer at Random House for over a year now. Hopefully it will continue to sit on people’s shelves and in libraries, most importantly, for decades… until we all go live on Mars. And then I guess it’ll be translated into Martian. So the book is much more like trying to have a relationship with the future, with the unknown and with this idea of permanence.
Well on that note: How can we deal with the idea of the future… when the present can be so scary?
I have a lot of anxiety about the future, and the book touches on that. I tempt fate a little bit: The epilogue of the book flashes forward into the far future. I envisioned myself at older ages. Some of those are great experiences, and some of those aren’t. And I was like, “Well, it’d be really ironic if I die and people will be like, ‘You thought you were going to see the future, but you didn’t.’” But that’s the gambit we all take when we open our eyes in the morning, get out of bed, make a plan for the weekend.
There are definitely things that are always top of mind about the present that make the question of the future a really anxiety producing one. But one of the powerful things about storytelling is that, whether you’re telling an anecdote on a date or you’re telling the story of your life, you get to choose where the story begins and where the story ends.
Oh, that’s so true. And Eric, here’s the part where I ask you for advice: How can we find the humor in the world right now? We’re deep into the 2020 race. How can we look at what happened in Iowa or a memorable moment from a debate, and find the humor in it… rather than fall into a hole of existential dread.
That’s a good question. The way the news is set up, and the way that the internet is set up, leads us to believe that everything is a crisis that we have to address immediately. “Why aren’t you yelling at your uncle on Facebook right now to change his mind? Why aren’t you in the streets getting people to register your vote?”
There are actionable things we can do to change our situation. But it is also really important to remember that, the world is so much bigger than the headlines. Minutia is where the humor lies. Sometimes the headlines are things that we should actually panic about. But there’s a thin line between comedy and tragedy.
Look at any plotline on Friends. You turn the volume down a little bit on it, and you turn the emotional residence up on it, and it goes from being a hilarious caper between Ross and Rachel — and ends up being a story of unrequited love and heartbreak.
There was this moment on Lost years ago, where one of the characters is panicking. The plane crashed, and she doesn’t know what’s happening. She remembers some advice someone gave her: Just be still, and count for 10 seconds. If you count for 10 seconds, everything will be okay for 10 seconds… which, well, I don’t think that’s practically true. But it’s a really beautiful moment of mindfulness in the middle of this terrifying situation.
Stop and smell the roses — but also, stop and make fun of that bumblebee that’s tripping over the roses.
Do you find that laughing about all of this is calming?
I do. It right-sizes a lot of things, and I think it also helps to separate. If you watch the sitcom that’s supposed to have a laugh track — and doesn’t have a laugh track — you notice that when a joke happens, they just stand there for a couple of seconds while the laughter is supposed to be filling the space. Laughter inserts a pause the action, and I think that’s possible to put into play in real life.
You can watch CNN all day long, and there will be no space for laughter. Or you can take in the information that you need, go about your day, insert a little pause to examine the ridiculousness of something that happened, or something that was said, and throw it onto the larger canvas of the rest of your life — where your dinner is waiting and your kids are playing and your coworkers are getting on your nerves and there’s free cake in the break room. It’s only part of the experience of what’s happening.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.