Personal Essays

Misery Loves Comedy

Grief takes on many forms, though it’s rare to hear about a sudden addiction to comedy clubs and Seth Meyers’s political impersonations.

If the subway came quick enough after my 7:00-midnight shift at WNYC, I got home in time to catch the last 10 minutes of Saturday Night Live. It was the fall of 2004 and I’d developed a wicked celebrity crush on Seth Meyers. Even though I only saw him play a decidedly unattractive spoof of John Kerry, dorky as it sounds I was charmed by his grin and his sharp comic timing.

A close friend who is known for her kind diplomacy referred to my crush as inexplicable. Apparently she was not susceptible to Seth’s grin. At the time of my infatuation, I was also singing in an indie rock band that played clubs on the Lower East Side, and at rehearsal one night, I casually mentioned to my band mates that I dug Seth Meyers. They said, he’d be damn lucky to meet a fit rock and roll singer with a quick wit, and why the F not, I should contact him. That’s how they talked. In any case, they convinced me.

I wrote him an actual letter. After “Dear Seth, I like your work, you’re swell, I’m not a stalker,” I wrote something like, “Any chance you’d like to grab a cup of coffee with a classical music host who’s just as well known for soulful deconstructions of Beethoven as for jokes about the Dick Hyman ‘Sextet?’”

I didn’t hear back.


* * *

When my brother and I were too young to understand minutes and hours, we told time in the length of our favorite cartoon, Tom and Jerry. An hour was two Tom and Jerry shows. Fifteen minutes was half of an episode, or roughly the time it takes a mouse and cat to destroy a modestly appointed sitting room.

Teaching us time with cartoons was my mother’s idea. She was a single parent for about four years between her split from my dad and the introduction of my step-father, Jerry. Mom worked full time as a school psychologist, which meant she came up with innovative learning tactics like Tom and Jerry intervals and we watched a fair amount of TV.

I discovered that pain can hit a certain threshold after which the body forces the mind to pause all feeling except a bloated kind of serenity.My other favorite show was The Facts of Life, though the only bit of dialogue I remember was when Mrs. Garrett told a story about going to see a movie while she was mourning her mother. During the film she “laughed harder than she ever had,” she said, then afterwards “cried harder than ever.” Admittedly, it was a cheesy story told in treacly network TV language, but at the time, I thought, how awful; how can anyone laugh like that if she’s just lost her mom?

Twenty years later, my mother was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. A few weeks after the diagnosis, a close girlfriend came over to console me. We decided to rent girly fluff, Down With Love. I spent 101 minutes with a full-face smile that made my cheek muscles tired. The only breaks I took from grinning were to laugh loudly at “jokes” like:

Catcher Block: I’m so sorry, Miss Novak, the darndest thing. I got waylaid by the sweetest Swedish Lapphund who kept me up half the night, and I’m afraid I’m still in bed.

Barbara Novak: My, you do get way laid.

Afterwards, I ejected the DVD, sat on the floor by the television, and wept with sounds bordering on screaming.

During more placid moments, I’d do normal things like shop for groceries and daydream. I’d have little fantasies about the future—some about being a ninja, some pedestrian but sublime ones like growing allium in my future garden, and some truly satisfying ones like cradling my first child someday. And then, suddenly, I’d be filled with mourning. What if my mother never got to meet the family I hadn’t yet formed?

I discovered that pain can hit a certain threshold after which the body forces the mind to pause all feeling except a bloated kind of serenity. Maybe that’s shock. I also developed a need for comedy that for a spell was unhealthy. Pain so extreme needs its opposite.


* * *

I worked it out with the radio station so I could go home for four days every other week. Mom’s skin looked like someone had mixed ash into her pigment. She lost a lot of weight, which was saying something since I’d never seen her heavier than 103 pounds.

One of the stand-ups I met responded to jokes I made by writing them down; he called me his muse.On Christmas Eve the year of her diagnosis, my mother’s chemo made her so sick she threw up even water. But she was set on celebrating. It’s family tradition for her to prepare a feast on Christmas Eve, and she would not—despite Jerry’s and my efforts to admit her to the hospital—be swayed from cooking. The meal included standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding, baby greens with sherry vinaigrette and baked goat cheese, butternut bisque with brandy cream, and homemade dark chocolate truffles. My step-siblings and their children came for the meal, and between my mother’s sprints to the bathroom, Jerry and I met in the kitchen to impotently whisper back and forth, I don’t know what to do.

Those Christmas Eve dinners and my mother’s culinary skills have celebrity status amongst my family. That year, she gave us all a cookbook she’d spent months compiling, of every Christmas dish she’d ever made as well as our family’s favorite meals and desserts. The food that marks your childhood stands for home. She’d begun putting it together soon after her diagnosis. As everyone oohed and aahed, I pretended to rummage for gifts under the tree so I could cry without anyone noticing.

The next morning, Mom allowed us to take her to the hospital. Her doctor said, if the chemo nearly kills the patient, it sure as hell does a number on the cancer.


* * *

Around this time, a friend turned me on to a downtown comedy show that happened every Wednesday. It was a fast-moving hour with upwards of seven performances. Some of the bigger New York comics would blast through short sets. They weren’t all brilliant, but I could count on laughing or smiling almost continuously.

I started going every week, some nights when none of my friends were free to join me. I even skipped out early on a birthday party once, even though at the club it was becoming clear that I was an outsider, that the regulars wondered what my deal was.

If I stayed home on a Wednesday, I felt jittery. My close friends teased me about my new addiction to comedy. Even my mother made a joke that I should go cold turkey. Seth Meyers, I should note, was never in the audience.


* * *

The winter of Mom’s chemo, she and I were sitting at the kitchen table drinking Yerba Mate tea; it’s supposed to be good for your G.I. tract. On Christmas, the doctors had adjusted her chemo dose to one that was less poisonously high, and she’d become stronger. She looked less ashen. She’d put on some weight. Her fingertips had stopped splitting open and bleeding.

She confided that she wasn’t sure she was going to live. I asked, why do you think that? I presented her with the newest statistic I’d read: 80 percent of people with Stage III colon cancer never see a recurrence. Of the 20 percent that do, many of those cases are treatable. I pulled out the old lotto analogy and asked, if you had an 80 percent chance of winning, wouldn’t you play? And couldn’t you probably end up very rich? She laughed, said yes.

I saw an opening to tell her what I hadn’t said up to that point: “When you gave us those cookbooks, I knew you were saying goodbye. Don’t. I need you to decide you’re going to live. I need to know you expect to be here when I marry, when I have children.”

It was such a simple statement. I’d never felt so bare.

OK, she said.

I am weeping just thinking of that moment, when I knew in my gut I would not lose her.


* * *

I’ve stopped going to comedy clubs so freakishly often. I still love a good show, and the craft of a first-class comedian is hugely impressive to me, but I ’m not fanatical about stand-up like I once was.

In my months of obsession, however, during those Wednesday night shows, one of the thoughts I kept having was, “Shit, I’m funnier than that dude.”

I started noting where I saw humor and I started writing it down. I started submitting it, it got published, now I make a living writing comedy. Maybe thanks in part to one of the stand-ups I met during my obsession: he responded to jokes I made during a chat by writing them down; he called me his muse.


* * *

No offense to Seth, should he read this and desire my number to whisper sweet political humor over the phone, but my celebrity comedy crush is over. Still, what I sought in his persona is not mysterious to me; it was latent in me. Comedy is no longer a desperate clutching at life. It’s a craft. It’s a joy. It’s part of living.