After watching yet another comedian get reamed for not simply just “sticking to the funny” in regards to the climate we’re in, I must say I’m increasingly bothered by the continuation of this response (in different forms depending on your craft): “shut up and tell jokes,” “shut up and sing,” “shut up and dribble.” First of all, the first two require one to not shut up, which I can only then assume the comment to actually mean, “stop saying things I don’t want to hear and say things I agree with.”
I know my place as an entertainer, meaning I know I’m not famous by Hollywood standards, and I know I haven’t performed long enough to even comfortably call myself a comedian. Nonetheless, I am on a journey that has led me in the direction of comedy, not so much because I have intentionally pursued it, but because I accidentally stumbled upon it later in life, and for some reason I kept showing back up. I have an audience though I admit not a wide one. This might sound nice to say, but I quite sincerely mean it when I say I care more about the depth of my audience than the width. Perhaps that is why Hollywood has not come a-knockin’.
When I say “the depth of my audience” I mean the capacity to which they are able to care about humanity. People as individuals are troublesome, even I have a hard time giving people a chance and trying to understand them. But when I look at humanity as a whole and what it is meant to be to each other, I hold out hope for the good in individual people. I don’t want to simply make people laugh, to be a talking voice that says things people agree with so they can feel good for the moment only to return to hating their neighbor. I don’t want to be a comedian who distracts, I want to be a comedian who adds… value, meaning, purpose.
I don’t simply want to “find the formula” for good comedy that is guaranteed to have a positive audience response while I’m emotionally unattached to what I am saying. When I say “I care about the depth of my audience more than the width,” I mean I don’t care how large or small the crowd is, I want to show up as my true authentic self and trust that the adults in the room can handle what I have to say. They can agree or disagree with me, but we can hold space for each other, and acknowledge tough things going on in the world (and our lives), and we can still have time and space to laugh. There can be humor and pain at the same time. Not all comedy is like this, which I appreciate, I enjoy many different forms of comedy, I’m just honing in on the type of comedy that works for me.
While I’m not here to speak for or defend all comedians, trust me, they don’t need me to, I’ve seen some of them handle hecklers and they’re good, I will say, I don’t think most people get what it’s like to be a comedian. To be someone who’s talent (somehow) is to make people laugh, but to still be a person who is functioning not only in a hurting world but also in the midst of their own hurts.
Someone messaged me recently, someone I don’t know very well but who has followed my work, and with no formalities or introduction, they simply said “tell us some jokes, we really need to laugh right now.” I’m trying not to assume intention, but being on the receiving end I admit I was a little irritated. Mostly because comedy is part of what I do, but it is not all of what I am. I was an artist before a comedian and a writer before that and I don’t simply “just tell jokes,” especially as a means to distract you from the reality of what is going on right now. Even the greatest entertainer in the world isn’t only an entertainer. It is actually not our sole job description to not care about what is going on in the world and simply entertain. While we might most frequently have entertainment to give, life, as we all know, has ups and downs and ebbs and flows and the person inside of that entertainer is just as affected the by chaos of life.
To tell comedians to “just be funny” right now (or in the midst of any of their own grief and pain) is to take the heart right out of what they do. Same with athletes or musicians. It’s the human heart, the emotional connection that gravitates us toward watching someone perform in their craft. The humor in comedy often comes from pain, the talent in sports from the pain of hard work and practice, and the rawness in good music from the heartbreak we experience in our human condition. To tell these performers right now to not acknowledge the pain they feel, whether or not you agree with their reasons why (life hack: you can’t tell someone they don’t feel pain), to tell them to “shut up and just (fill in the blank)” is to dehumanize their craft as if their sole purpose in life is to simply entertain you. It reveals your self-centeredness, not a weakness in their ability to entertain.
I haven’t said a lot on social media recently simply because I have learned the value of listening. Something I don’t see very many people doing right now. Without taking the time to listen first, I see noise piled upon noise and no one is hearing anyone’s message because they are too busy defending their own. People don’t care about your self-defense, they care about whether or not they are being heard, and if you are someone who wants to be heard right now, then start by listening.
I’m aware that saying “start by listening” may not be applicable to everyone in this moment. Some people have been listening for a long time and have only now begun to speak up. Some people have been actively listening for a long time and have spoken up before only to continuously get drowned out. I get the frustration. So without being aware of how far this message will reach, my intention to say “start by listening” is mainly to the audience I have seen on my own personal social media accounts.
As of recent, I have discovered some of my own blindspots that don’t require me getting into Facebook fights over in order to address. I have learned to become educated about the things I do not understand. Simple enough, educate yourself, so simple in fact that I missed it for a very long time in many different ways. Instead of turning away from what is hard, I am looking right at it, listening to people I thought I disagreed with because I was taught to, and realizing even if some disagreement is still present, they are just people too who are trying to figure out how to express their core beliefs. It doesn’t mean I excuse “bad behavior,” but it means I understand the motive behind it, the heart condition of the person engaged in it, and even the fact that I myself am not the judge on that which is good and bad— maybe so for my own personal life, but not the entirety of the human race.
I am heartbroken and sad over the state of the world right now, especially America since I am an American watching what appears to be her country falling apart. I say “appears” because I know there is still so much good out there, so much is being left out of the narrative. That said, I am still heartbroken and sad. I don’t say that in a “poor me, I’m sad, comfort me” kind of way. I do not want an “I’m sorry” response. I’m a grown woman with a lot of feelings who is fully capable of not only navigating her feelings, but having boundaries with them so as not to dump them on the rest of society in an attempt to get people to look at her instead of what is going on. I am heartbroken and sad over something worth being heartbroken and sad over, I don’t want a pity party, I want people to look at the thing that is heartbreaking and sad. I want people to figure out what it looks like to help instead of hate.
I see a lot of hate right now, some is visible obvious hate, some is less obvious disguised as “concern.” To be honest, it’s the less obvious hate that is more dangerous; it can cover more ground and breed more followers. It has a sneaky way of invoking emotion to get one to justify their own beliefs and separate themselves from anyone different; it says “I care about my own” while dismissing the other, the least of these, the marginalized. To use the word “care” only in regards to those that are just like you and your thoughts and your beliefs is not to actually care but to self serve.
Facebook now has a “care” button. Why did we need this? Just another way to say “I don’t love what you’re saying, I don’t even like it, but I really care about it.” Thanks Facebook, for helping us continue to excel as moderates, “caring” from far away, doing nothing to be helpful, while getting in argument after argument with people we don’t even know, people we’ve already made decisions about because of their religion or political views or list of arrests. Thanks for helping us turn people into divisive strategies to get our point across. Too much? Maybe, but maybe not, maybe some of us need to stop thinking the rest of the world should think like we do and maybe we should just let people be who they are; that includes allowing a family to grieve over a lost family member, no matter what their past includes.
(For the record, I feel like I need to actually clarify for certain people that I’m not blaming Facebook for anything, I’m just making a point, maybe even a joke. Can’t wait to see how many people will “care”!)
I watched an African American pastor recently explain to a congregation that for the most part, white people experience things as individuals. It is easy for us to not experience something that happened on a greater scale if we were not individually or personally involved in it. That made sense to me. I often pride myself on being an individual, I always thought that was a good thing, and it is, but I never thought about there being a downside. For example, if I’m not aware, my individuality could hinder me from feeling compassion towards someone who is hurting or from standing up against something that is wrong simply because I did not directly play a part in it. I want to be an individual, but I do not want to be an individual who looks at injustice and says “yea that sucks, but it’s not my problem.”
The pastor continued to say that African Americans tend to experience things as a community. When they see a black man being killed in the street, it is very real for them to see it being themselves or their immediate family, hence why they have such a strong emotional reaction to it. It’s not as simple as “what a sad story,” it’s “that is my family.” It’s a different experience, neither being right or wrong, just different. Anytime you go through a trauma with someone you are bonded to them, even if you didn’t know them before. Whether it’s holocaust survivors or plane crash survivors, when you survive something with other people that no one else went through, it bonds you to those people.
The African American community has a history of trauma in the United States, that’s not an argument I’m trying to make, that’s just a simple fact, a history lesson. As uncomfortable as it is to say, in my attempt to experience something communally, we enslaved them, then we “set them free,” then we poured acid in the swimming pool when they tried to swim with us, amongst other things. Not only did we say “you can’t sit with us,” we had them them hosed, beaten, sometimes even shot if they tried. And I know, not all of us, I’ve made the same argument (I wasn’t even born yet!), but it’s that very same argument of individualism, “I did not do it so I am not a part of it” that has kept me from seeing where real hurts still exist.
Some of the trauma done to the African American community was recognized enough to change the law, but not enough to fully heal from the pain of the damage done. In many ways, I have failed to see oppression because I have refused to be grouped in with the oppressors. (The modern day) we have to at least be curious about this. For me personally, it has been asking myself “what part, no matter how small, have I continued the pain through the act of dismissal?” By saying there’s no more problem, I’m saying there’s no more pain. There’s very clearly still pain. I can’t unsee it.
This communal experience helps explain why the African American community responds the way they do, they didn’t pick George Floyd as their hero, they easily saw themselves in his place and he now represents what many have been talking about for a long time, a less obvious continuation of racial injustice.
It’s not to say that those are the only two experiences or reactions, individual or communal, it’s just to help give a better explanation of how things happen the way they do. When the same pastor was asked about the riots he was quick to clarify the difference between riots and protests which the media has clumped together, making all of it seem wrong, but even with riots he said something to the effect of it being the voice of an oppressed people who don’t have the tools or the resources to make the change they’ve been asking for, and so they essentially “throw a tantrum,” an outburst of anger which seems to be out of nowhere, but the reason it’s bursting out is because it’s been pent up for so long. Again, not all, but some. It doesn’t justify it, but it explains the why.
I think we all need to start listening more to people’s why because that’s where the heartbreak is. The heartbreak is what needs to be helped, but it can’t be helped if we keep condemning the how while ignoring the why.
I’m listening more. I haven’t checked out, I’m tuning in. I’m taking time to actually pay attention. And sure, I’m not telling a lot of jokes right now, because even though I do believe laughter to be medicine, I also believe there is a season for everything; a season to grieve, a season to heal, a season to find the humor in the pain, but in my experience, I only became a good comedian because I dealt with my own pain.
While I’ve dealt with my own individual pain in my past, I realize there’s a communal pain I’ve ignored for a long time, and since I’m part of the community that is the human race, I’m taking time to address that. I’m listening to what a lot of different people have to say. It doesn’t mean you have to do the same. I don’t think there is a formula, everyone’s role will be a little different in this season of life, perhaps even circumstance by circumstance. Some people need to speak up and some people need to listen, but I do think it’s worth discovering what your role is in a way that shows love to the other, no matter how different the other is from you.
We’re all each other’s other. What does it look like to love yourself and love your other?
Original Artwork by JJ Barrows