PEN International Talk – 7

  1. Humorists know that a lot of humor comes out of pain

Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Likewise, Erma Bombeck offered this explanation: “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Jerry Lewis, in talking about his movies, said “Comedy is a man in trouble.”

One of my favorite examples of the connection between pain and humor is from playwright Nicky Silver:

“Like most couples [referring to his parents] they certainly weren’t always happy, but somehow I saw the violence of their pain and their humor simultaneously. There is a moment in Raised in Captivity [one of his plays] that really exemplifies this. The play opens at Bernadette’s mother’s funeral, and she is distraught to the point of near-hysteria. At one point she wails ‘I never said goodbye! I never told her I loved her!’ Her husband tries to calm her. “Yes you did, I heard you.” “But I never meant it!!” Every night the audience would howl at this line. But to me it’s really slice-of-life stuff. I mean the character is simply being honest. Her pain is so oversized that it erupts in this grand explosion of sadness and rage all mixed up together. It feels theatrical to some people. It feels like home movies to me.”

Likewise Silver’s play “The Lyons,” which on Broadway starred Linda Lavin as Rita, whose husband, Ben, of many years is in a hospital bed dying. She sits nearby thumbing through interior design magazines looking for ideas for, as she puts it, “a new beginning.” Ben tells her he’s dying. She replies:

“Yes, I know. But try to be positive. My mother used to say, ‘Dying’s not so bad when you consider the alternative. Was that it? Was that what she said? Maybe it was the other way around.”

That’s Nicky Silver. I recall a Jules Feiffer cartoon set in a hospital. In the first panel a woman stands in a hallway outside of a hospital room; we can see a man is hooked up to machines inside the room. In subsequent panels, the woman paces, smokes, frets. She pleads with God. She tells God she knows she has not been a good person. But she’s willing to change her life and be a better person if he, God, will let her husband live. She promises to be good. She smokes, pauses, thinks. Finally, she looks at the ceiling and says: “If you have to take someone, take the doctor.”

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