Jokes (and the Marginalized)
Last night I got to see Woolly Mammoth Theater Company’s newest production, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The tickets were free (thanks to a talented graphic designer who comped us) and I felt bad for leaving having paid nothing, because the show was amazing and Mike Daisey deserves money for having created it.
Think Spalding Gray meets Louis Black. Laugh out loud, large-scale and shameless, but also an intricate non-fiction piece on the ethical (or rather, unethical) activities of Apple and other tech companies.
It reminded me of why I went into writing, and why I wrote my first dramatic nonfiction piece (on protest, about 10 years ago). I wanted to “get my hands in it,” as Daisey puts it. It is a beautiful experience, and certainly can be a funny one, too.
I remember when I was writing on coal ash, I met a guy who was dying of cancer and kidney failure. He led me around his house showing me where ash was deposited, all the while joking about “doing it” in the bedroom and how long it had been since a pretty girl had been in there. His wife, who was about two feet away and who also had just survived cancer, laughed and made sure I knew if I tried anything he’d die of heart attack, and that I didn’t want to be responsible for that.
The house reeked of sauerkraut (his latest batch was sitting out), and while I tried to find a polite way of holding my nose he asked, “What ethnicity are you?”
“Jewish. Irish. Mostly.”
“Oh boy,” he said, “I’ve got some good ones on Jews.” And he proceeded to tell me all of them.
Sexist bigot? Cancer patient? Victim? Perhaps. Also: hilarious.
Somewhere there’s room for laughing out loud in the midst of great pain. Daisey’s Steve Jobs bounced back and forth: every other scene was funny; the rest, heartbreaking. The relief from darkness was always welcome. He made his point without hammering into my head.
I get caught up with sadness in my writing sometimes. It is hard to infuse sad stories with humor, and the more meaningful the story to me, the harder it is to joke about.
But the people struggling are often more than ready to laugh. This is life for them, and it’s as natural for them to make fun of their situations as it is for me to make fun of the staffers who sit across from me at the coffee shop (they’re asking for it).
I got jokes. Sure, not so many about the Jews, but I’ve got a lot up my sleeve about politicians and what teenagers wear to megachurch.
So I’m going to work on becoming more like the people I interview – sad and funny. Humor that’ll break your heart.