I’m reading Sick In The Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, a collection of interviews conducted by Judd Apatow (director of the 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, This is 40, Trainwreck) from 1983-2014 with the greatest comedians of our time (Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Ben Stiller, Stephen Colbert…). It’s a fascinating, rambling, unexpected read.
It almost seems like a cliché to say comedy comes from pain, but real comedy is connected to the deep pain and anguish we all feel. I worked with Robin Williams in an obscure film called Club Paradise. (…) Robin is one of the most deeply melancholy people you’ll ever meet. You can just see it all over him. It’s what makes him so human, and I love and respect him. Deep down, Bill (Murray) is as serious as a person can be. He’s raging, angry, and full of grief and unresolved emotions. He’s volcanic. Comedy gives them a place to work out ideas and entertain – and these guys love to entertain – but they want you to know they feel. (…) You go see Robin Williams do standup, and you can’t get more laughs than that. I’ve been onstage. I know what it feels like to have those waves of laughter. It’s like being bathed in love. Once you’ve had it, it’s like a drug. It wears off, and then you need something more. I want the audience to feel something more than that. I want them to feel my pain. – Harold Ramis (p.126)
That, ladies and gents, is why I write. To share what is painful. Sometimes – hopefully, most of the time – it is painfully funny, but sometimes it is the ugly painful. Exploring the pain is an exercise in excrutiating vulnerability; vulnerabilility, to quote Brené Brown, is “the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
When I write, I feel alive. Writing, after all, is communication; communication involves interaction. I feel connected to all my readers, who have not yet read my thoughts, because I know I am writing about truth, which is something people will relate and respond to.
As a kid, my only dream was to be a comedian. I never thought about being a writer. Gary (Shandling) was the first person who ever sat me down and said, “Look, this is what a story is about. This is how you write in this format.” He talked a lot about how the key was to try to get to the emotional core or the truth of each character, which I had never heard before. He taught me that comedy is about truth and revealing yourself, and these are all lessons I apply in my work every day. – Judd Apatow (p.109)
I might be an accountant by trade, and a damned good one at that, but I am increasingly convinced that my true vocation is to be a comedic writer.
Robin Williams died at the start of my last depression in August 2014. His death was one of the red flags that motivated me to get help. Sure, I was aware that crying for 4-5 hours a day without cause was not normal, but I thought I could ride it out, like I always had. Sure, the intensity and the speed with which the dark cloud was asphyxiating me was unusual, but I thought it was the price I had to pay for being such a fuck-up. I was on a family vacation when the news broke of Robin Williams’ death broke. My uncle exclaimed, “But why? How could someone so successful, so funny, so blessed, want to end his life? Surely he must have been able to get the help and the support necessary to work through this?” His lack of empathy shocked me, and I embarked on an empassioned explanation of what might drive someone with depression to commit suicide. My words echoed in silence, as my uncle and aunt stared at me. “Vanilla, are you sure you are ok?”
- I am vanilla: I hadn’t kissed a guy in 17 months prior to that post
- I don’t sleep around
- If someone treats me badly or hurts me, I will write about them.
I thought it was only fair that he know this prior to going on a date with me, so that he could make an educated decision about whether or not I was worth listening to 4 hours of opera. Not only did he accept the associated risks of hanging out with me, he poked around my blog, reading up about my depression and my thoughts about gender and racial bias. Rather than write me off as a mentally unstable pampered feminist, he continues to read my blog. It is an odd dynamic, getting to know someone to whom my writing has already revealed so much.
Beaut recently admitted that reading my blog, and seeing how much good it does me to externalize my stories, has motivated him to pursue his own writing with more conviction and discipline. That is a compliment: it means I’ve successfully achieved Judd’s definition of comedy – truth and revealing oneself – to the point of making it contagious.
I’ve started getting fan emails from strangers with regular frequency. People who were compelled to write to me, to share how one or more of my posts made them feel a strong emotion. An acquaintance at the gym told me she cheered aloud because I’d put into words her fleeting thoughts. A guy from LA, who found my blog because I comment frequently on one of his friend’s blogs, wrote to me to share his own struggles with grief. Strawberry invited me to his Christmas party; he’s become a friend.
When I started this blog, I was overwhelmed by the realisation that I have a voice. The more I write, the more I realise my voice speaks not just for me, but for others.
Judd Apatow, I owe you.