Moments in tragedy can still be funny, right? - A Reflection on the Boston Marathon
Moments in tragedy can still be funny, right?
I didn’t ask myself that exact question – I would over the next few months – but that concept was circulating in my brain as I tried to answer a customer who inquired: “So, if we were standing right here when the bomb went off, would we be ok?” I wanted to say, “Well, if I use your body as a shield I’ll be fine.” I was answering thoughtless questions like that at least four times a day since Marathon Sports reopened it’s Boylston Street location on April 25, 2013. It was wearing on me. I had only worked there a few days before the bomb blew up and killed three people a few feet in front of our store. I saw awful shit. I had smoke in my eyes and alarms ringing in my ears as I helped a bleeding lady in our basement. In that moment I felt not the cinema-quality “This is it!” moment, but rather a heavy sense of resignation. After that day I didn’t want to be around comedy except I had a show in Davis Square three days later. While talking about that day, I cried on stage in front of everyone.
For the last handful of years I’ve found moments to laugh amidst tragic shit. I think most of us have. I think in most cases I had empathy sure, but joking about it was how I processed it all. Except when the jokes didn’t help me process anything at the time. It took me weeks to be able to joke about much of anything. I did laugh, however, at Sam Morril’s joke about how the marathon bombing reminded him that he needs to spend more time with his brother.
I think the people who asked me stupid questions, “Like, was there blood?” want to sympathize, but a lot of times, in my experience, their dumb questions meant to satisfy their curiosity come across as callous. And do they want the answer? I don’t think they really do. We insulate ourselves from terrible details especially if we weren’t there. While we keep the details at arms length, you can forget that others are in a different place.
A woman – way too casually – asked where the bomb went off as if she was asking directions to the Prudential. And I think it was just that it had been weeks of this, and I just said, “You mean the bomb that scared an 8-year-old boy to run right into a second bomb and die?”
This woman and those other people had no idea that their questions were taking a toll on an actual person.
It would be like asking someone who just lost a relative: “Was their fear in his eyes when he died?”
At some point after being away from comedy for a bit, I started thinking more about what I say on stage and how it’s interpreted. How it might affect someone. Those customers didn’t think they had to consider their words, because who cares about one person? But we usually have a larger number of people listening to us. And I think we should still say what we want; I can’t emphasize that enough, but that we should take a few moments to consider how we address a certain topic and consider our intent. If you do this already, you’re a better person and comic than I am.
For about six months after the bombing I just didn’t want to be around comics – of any level – clumsily trying to make sense of it. I honestly was surprised by this, because I tend to process a lot of things through stand up. Now, that I’m doing mics and shows again, I try to to have a good reason behind everything I say on stage. I think I’m a less lazy writer. I think.
Is it cliche that a traumatic moment changes your perspective? Sure, but I think it’s unavoidable. It’s really easy to exist in a very small comedy-centric bubble. I think after this crazy shit, I have become better at listening, being patient, and at the same time periodically accessing a deep reservoir of rage. In a healthy way. I now think it’s important that I don’t immediately slam an audience member for disrupting when I talk about a sensitive subject – not immediately at least – because I think we all know what drunk manufactured outrage sounds like. My plan now is to try a meaningful approach first. Maybe – and this is a big maybe – their perspective might provide some clarity and help make it funnier for those truly affected by it. And if that fails then at least I tried.
Getting people to laugh about difficult, terrible things is the whole point of stand up, I think. That and catch phrases. I always hated the “too soon” knee-jerk reaction, and I still think the tragedy + time equation thing is stupid. However, I know the people who really do need more time about a subject shouldn’t be faulted for it, and at the same time we shouldn’t have to avoid what they’re sensitive to.
So, really, all I’m saying is that we can be our regular jerk selves, but we can be slightly more understanding jerks. It may even help with our regular lives.