What Stand Up Comedy Taught Me About Dysfunction
I suppose there was something about managing to keep two kids alive, simultaneously, for a whole year that made me feel like I could conquer anything. If nothing else, it made me feel like I needed a hobby that – at a minimum – required I put on actual pants and get the hell out of the house.
I could have easily found myself a nice Zumba class, but
I’d rather drink paint thinner
I’m terribly uncoordinated. So I chose the next logical way to spend a Wednesday night: sitting in a fluorescent-lit office space honing the craft of stand-up comedy with a handful of strangers.
We were instructed to show up to the first class with five minutes of material ready to go. It didn’t have to be polished, just a funny story or a handful of ridiculous observations. We’d come to each class with newly scrawled notes, and workshop jokes in front of an audience of peers.
Over six weeks, we’d whittle our bits into a tight five-minute set we’d showcase at a local bar.
It wasn’t hard to find inspiration. Spend all your waking hours with people who require you to say things like, “Well, I don’t know what you expected to happen when you tried to put that keychain on your penis,” and, as it turns out, the jokes write themselves.
Suddenly I had a use for the absurdity of bribing someone with ice cream to oh my god, please just eat four bites of your damn pizza!
Even the trip to the grocery store which ended in a displeased toddler literally biting me in the ass had the silver lining of becoming stage fodder.
As a kid, I never fancied myself one of the funny ones.
And by the time I reached 8th grade, everything relating to my family seemed patently unfunny. Even under the best possible circumstances, at that age, you’re self-conscious, easily embarrassed, and generally unimpressed. But when you’re the only person you know who has (begrudgingly) accompanied their mom on a “let’s catch dad cheating” reconnaissance mission, or called 911 because the other husband wasn’t keen on the whole thing either and offers that opinion with flying fists – well, then you have every right to those feelings.
I tried to keep the truth of my highly dysfunctional family a secret from everyone. While it's not that hard to keep your middle school interactions strictly surface, I resented that my parents' problems became my burden to explain to friends. So I just didn’t. Admitting just how deeply my family was failing felt like I’d somehow be owning up to being less than.
Sleepovers happened at their houses, not mine. Never mine. It was too much to chance they’d bear witness to a screaming match. Or worse.
For stretches, things would seem to improve. In retrospect, that was just more wishful thinking. Eventually, the unraveling became irreversible, the highs ever lowering to the point that unless we were all getting in the car that minute, there was no reason to bank on my parents being on speaking terms long enough to plan for anything. And if the car ride were long enough, I’d cross my fingers that we’d even get there.
As a teenager, your story is that of your family. You’re poor. You’re rich. You’re “normal," or you’re not. (And forget the notion that “normal” isn’t even a real thing. Normal is the currency of adolescence, a smoke and mirrors game of finance, much like the one I recently pulled off to get a mortgage.) Reconciling the image of who you want to be, and who you think that story dictates you are is a daily battle.
What I didn’t know then is that the only thing that dictates who you are is how you tell your story; how you arrange your view of the world through the lens you were given.
Those six weeks of stand-up, from the writing, to the performing, to the hours spent watching others be their honest, messy selves, taught me an invaluable lesson about taking ownership of every moment that leads to the next.
The bonus? There’s always going to be a comic with a family more fucked up than yours.