Beware, when you are in the company of a comedian, that you do not also see the black vulture of despair flapping in their wake.
Valentine Edward Charles Browne, 6th Earl of Kenmare, aka Viscount Castlerosse
I exist with a tender lurking melancholy...but I never know what will set it off. A certain end of day light, the vestige of a scent on a passing pedestrian, even a hint of a color or a trace of a pattern can hit me like a punch in the gut, leaving me stunned and breathless with sadness. But I also love to laugh and that, I think, is what keeps me trucking. I am (and always have been) afraid to enter the darkness of my own melancholic gloom without the torch of laughter guiding me through, lighting my way.
That's why I love comedians. Because laughter is like medicine for me. My favorite comedians will happily point out the appalling futility of the human experience (the only thing we are guaranteed in life is death) and then make jokes about it. Make jokes about the tragicomic nature of being human in the first place. I wonder sometimes if focusing in on the human experience drives some of them to self-destruct. Is that what makes them go crazy in the end? Is the vulture that flaps in a comedian's wake the same madness that infects anyone brave enough to closely examine the human condition?
Comedians seem to self-destruct a lot. I remember when Richard Pryor blew up his face while free-basing cocaine and ether in the 80s. When George Carlin, Russell Brand, Jon Mulaney and Theo Von were shipped off to rehab. I also remember the deaths of the great comedians Robin Williams, Freddie Prinze, John Belushi and Chris Farley. All died too soon, at the hands of a noose or a needle or a bag of cocaine.
I had a best friend growing up, Audrey, who always made me laugh harder than anyone else. She was my hands-down favorite comedian from the age of 5. She made me laugh until tears would stream down my cheeks and my stomach would ache. And she made me laugh that way for two decades.
I first met Audrey when we were in the same kindergarten class. She arrived at our classroom that first day looking like the poster child for the Rebublic of Ireland. I was drawn to her twinkly, mischevious bright blue eyes and from that day on we were fast friends. Remaining so for 20 years, even living together after college. We were still very close when, I can only assume, Audrey’s black vulture of despair finally caught up with her and she followed it out of a 6th floor window, falling to her death at age 25.
Growing up, Audrey's house was the only other house like mine in our town. Hers had the suffocating feeling of all the sad accumulated years the family had lived there. There was a strong smell of sealed windows, cigarettes, and dog and cat urine. At my house, we had a litter box that was rarely cleaned. So that smell, although nauseating, was somewhat familiar. Her house is like my house, I thought. It feels like my house, that fragile egg-shelly feeling, as if at any minute something is gonna blow. So oddly enough, I felt at home there.
Audrey and I knew there was something amiss in both of our homes. But we laughed about it. For twenty years we laughed about it. What else could we do? This was the 70s and 80s. We didn't know about counseling or Child Services or even calling a kind neighbor for help. We just dealt with it and we laughed. That was our shared medicine and our shared armor. We clung together, Audrey and I did, on our self-constructed life raft of laughter. I let her see more of me than any of my other childhood friends. It seemed that Audrey and I, since finding each other, were both just trying to stay afloat until we could get out of the house and off to college. We did that together and we did it laughing.
But sometimes there was something manic in our laughter. Something hysterical. We could work each other up to such a degree that, as children, we would have to be separated - and that forced separation would simply make us laugh harder. Looking back, I think maybe those laughing fits helped us keep our own personal vultures at bay. As children we used that laughter the way we used alcohol together later on, to forget our worries for a little while, to relax, to self-soothe, and as a drug. And I think that may be how today’s comedians keep themselves sane and safe, with the medicine of laughter. There was some strange beautiful joy and bonding that went on between Audrey and me during our laughing fits. A sense of release and happiness and friendship that I knew neither of us felt at home.
I loved Audrey like a sister. I really miss her. I think I always will. I still think about her most days and I dream about her often. Haunting chaotic dreams where we see each other in a crowded subway car or bustling airport before she turns away from me and disappears. I run frantically to catch up with her, but I am never fast enough, and she is gone again. I miss laughing with Audrey the most. I miss having a friend who felt the same way I did growing up and who managed those feelings with a deep cynical humor.
Recently I have met more people who remind me of Audrey. People who, like Audrey and me, just seem to have that cursed vulture of despair flapping in their wake. But most of them also know that laughter can help keep the gloom at bay. They have learned, with time, that laughter really can be a powerful medicine.
Very very slowly I'm learning how to simply ignore my own vulture. That melancholic bird which seems to follow me around, hovering and squawking, begging for my attention. Punching me in the gut when I least expect it. Now, on most days, I pay it no mind. I just keep marching ahead, not looking back. Marching ahead toward the laughter, toward the light, because I know that is where the healing begins.