by: Jamie Rautenberg
As long as I can remember, I’ve lived with a persistent and insatiable compulsion to explore as many aspects of the human condition as possible. In fact, I believe most humans share this same curiosity. It was my commitment to this constant urge that eventually led me to become a therapist.
But, before professionally supporting others as they dove into the depths of their psyche, I set out to write about it while earning my bachelors degree at New York University’s dramatic writing program. It was there that I met countless others who shared in the obsession to translate the world in a craft of their own choosing. However, one particular craft I seemed to always land near was comedy.
Between sharing an apartment (and rehearsal space) with the co-founder of The Wicked Wicked Hammerkatz, NYU’s revered sketch comedy group, and working at the satirical newspaper The Onion, I observed some of today’s most gifted and successful writers/performers, both on and off stage.
So, when actor/comedian Kevin Pollak’s recent documentary Misery Loves Comedy appeared on my Amazon movie recommendations, I was naturally intrigued. The film, which is dedicated to the late Robin Williams, explores the commonly accepted stereotype that all comedians must be miserable in order to succeed at his or her own craft. Pollak examines the subject through insightful conversations with over 60 famous comics including Tom Hanks, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow, Lisa Kudrow, Larry David and Christopher Guest. The interviews dig into everything from career motivations and narcissism to profound pain and suicide.
Though each interview brings a different piece of the puzzle, they all shared in the universal theme that we are driven to belong, especially if we feel different from the norm. The movie highlighted what I find so compelling about the performing arts. Collectively, we all long for connection, and it’s in watching another perform that we catch glimpses of ourselves and feel that sense of belonging. What comedy does is provide us those glimpses into our very human truths in a way that enables us to laugh at them. Comedians literally lighten the emotional loads they hold within themselves through their vulnerable jokes, and we breathe the same relief through learning we are not alone in those feelings.
Being on stage makes it instantly permissible to expose the deeply personal and painful experiences and feelings that make many of us feel so “screwed up”. We may see this as an entertaining way to momentarily escape our life, but in escaping we are missing the pure beauty of this exchange: we all share in the same spectrum of human emotion. What separates us is our willingness to honestly share our experiences of those emotions with ourselves and others without judgement. Over time, society categorizes these feelings into acceptable and unacceptable, and the mask of performance creates a more accepted form in which to express them.
We each have a tendency to relentlessly judge ourselves against the standard of “normal”, but what creates the norm is merely the repression of the undesirable aspects of the human condition. So, we’ve viewed those who willingly share their most uncomfortable moments in front of an audience as the most troubled souls.
Penn Jillette of the duo Penn & Teller exclaims, “Yes, there are really fucked up people in show business… The people that talk about how fucked up people are in show business — have they met anyone that’s not in show business? The same pain, the same suffering, the same angst, the same tortures, the same doubts, the same misery are all there. In show-business, you show what you’re feeling. So yes, they show the angst, but they’re showing the angst of humanity. The angst that we all share. If you have a comic that truly had experiences that were outside of the realm of the general humanity, no one would go see them.”
If more of us acknowledged this truth within the spotlight of our everyday lives, we’d all learn very quickly that our experiences aren’t as separate as we thought. As a therapist, and general lover of humanity, I’m both hopeful and excited to see us all head in the direction of our shared acceptance of one another because we are all born out of the same darkness. It’s from this dark place that comedians teach us to find the lightness of our being.