Sam Sanders, Terry McMillan, Lindy West, et al
Humor as a Tool for Survival
Alexis Wilkinson is a staff writer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and wrote for HBO’s Veep. She’s also written for several publications, including Slate, TIME, and The New Yorker.
Daniel José Older is The New York Times bestselling author of Salsa Nocturna, The Bone Street Rumba series, and the young adult novel Shadowshaper. His short stories and essays have appeared in The Guardian, Salon, and BuzzFeed.
Hari Kondabolu is a stand-up comedian and writer. His albums include Waiting for 2042, Mainstream American Comic, and most recently Hari Kondabolu’s New Material Night.
Mark McCleary is a writer, radio producer, and head of communications at the Corrymeela Community of Northern Ireland.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Krista Tippett, host: If there’s one thing we can perhaps all agree on in our struggles and in the everyday mundane, it’s our need for the release and balm of laughter. Humor lifts us up, but it also underscores what’s already great. It connects us with others and brings us home to ourselves. And like everything meaningful, it’s complex and nuanced. It can be fortifying or damaging, depending on how we wield it. But as a tool for survival, humor is elemental. This was the animating idea On Being’s Lily Percy had for a shorter-form podcast we’ve just launched. We’ll get a glorious taste of the voices she captured this hour, ranging from a rabbi who started out in drag, comedians, an NPR host, writers of sci-fi/fantasy, social commentary, and even the TV show Veep.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: That new shorter-form podcast is called Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short. But for the next hour, it makes up a different kind of On Being, with Lily Percy as your guide.
[music: “Two Turntables and a Casiotone” by Lullatone]
Lily Percy: The idea of humor as a tool for survival is so personal to me, I wanted to start by talking to someone that I knew and admired, reporter and former NPR Politics Podcast co-host Sam Sanders. Sam has a very dry sense of humor. If you follow him on Twitter, you know that already. But what makes his voice so unique is the thoughtfulness and warmth that go hand in hand with his jokes.
Ms. Percy: You grew up in Texas, and you know what it’s like to be surrounded by difference. I mean politically, religiously, socially, culturally — every kind of difference. And you also grew up in the church. And I wonder how much those things have really influenced the way you cover right now and the way you see things.
Sam Sanders: Yeah, I mean I think that there were things that I kind of feel affected my worldview. One, I was raised in the San Antonio, Texas area. San Antonio is a city that is majority Latino.
Ms. Percy: What, what? [laughs]
Mr. Sanders: Yeah. Oh yeah. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: [laughs] We’re taking over your state. That’s right.
Mr. Sanders: That’s right. And I happened to live a few miles away from a base growing up — an Air Force base.
Ms. Percy: I didn’t know that. Wow.
Mr. Sanders: And so Air Force bases, surprisingly enough, are really diverse places, because the military is pretty diverse, much more diverse than the country at large, which is really still segregated. So at my public high school there were children of all colors and hues from all across the country, and that’s helped me so much. Because I’ve seen people that I encounter in college or in graduate school, where they didn’t make a real friend of a different color until they were in their 20s or later. And I didn’t have that struggle, so that’s helped me so much.
Ms. Percy: So covering this, as a journalist and also as Sam, have you had moments where jokes — where humor has really played a big role in helping you connect with someone, maybe even someone that you didn’t think you could connect with?
Mr. Sanders: Yeah. I think the Democratic and Republican conventions were crazy in different ways, particularly the RNC. You’ll recall that night where Ted Cruz gave his speech that was a non-endorsement of Trump, and then the crowd went wild, with the New York delegation about to rush the stage, boos all over the hall. And then Trump walks in through the side door midway through Cruz’s speech, and it was like a scene out of WrestleMania.
And it was just crazy. And so we had — there was no way that you could talk about that without making some wrestling jokes. And I think what we’ve had to do so much in this election is acknowledge some of the moments of absurdity. Like there was this moment where — I forget what night of the convention it was. But as part of the DNC’s Hollywood star-studded affair they had, like, three dozen Broadway stars on the stage singing “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”
Ms. Percy: No. No.
Mr. Sanders: And they’re all rocking and swaying side-to-side. And everyone in the hall is like, “Oh, my God, this is so cute.” And I was like, “No, this is so out of touch!”
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Exactly. Why did — who picked this song?
Mr. Sanders: What votes do you expect to pick up with this?
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Exactly.
Mr. Sanders: This is cheesy. This is cheesy.
Ms. Percy: You don’t even sing that in karaoke, Sam. You don’t even sing that in karaoke.
Mr. Sanders: Yes. Exactly. And so I think allowing myself to look at stuff and call it absurd, if it’s absurd — that’s telling. Because if you look back on the Democratic Party this last election, one of their biggest problems was seeming elite and totally out of touch with large swaths of the country. And some of that was foreshadowed with things like having Broadway stars singing “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” at the DNC.
Ms. Percy: Oh, yeah. Oh, God, so true. [laughs]
So I wonder, what do you — what does humor give you that you find nowhere else that you’re really grateful for?
Mr. Sanders: It gives me connection. Everyone knows how to laugh, and everyone likes to be entertained, and everyone likes to see things that are funny and acknowledge the humor in them. And I cannot tell you how many times laughter has connected me with all different kinds of people throughout the country, of all kinds of political persuasions. And I honestly think that out of laughter, comes love. If I can laugh with you and we can see a commonality in humor, I can see you, and I can respect you, and I can love you. So I think those two emotions are really pretty closely linked. Like, name one time that you have had a good laugh where you haven’t really, down beneath that feeling, felt some love too. There’s love there.
Ms. Percy: I think a good laugh makes you fall in love with someone. You’re like — “Oh, yeah…”
Mr. Sanders: Right? I mean what is the one thing everyone wants in a life partner? A sense of humor. There is love in laughter. There is love in humor. There is love in finding joy. And that’s been fortifying, very fortifying.
Ms. Percy: Well, I leave you with the words of one Sam Sanders: “Whenever you think you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, stop, take a deep breath, and remind yourself, that’s not how gravity works.”
Mr. Sanders: There you go. True facts. No alternative facts here.
Ms. Percy: True facts. Only — Sam gives you true facts. [laughs]
Mr. Sanders: That’s right. That’s right. [laughs]
[music: “La Camisa Negra” by Juanes]
Ms. Percy: Humor hasn’t just been a tool for survival for Alexis Wilkinson, it’s also been a tool for success. Alexis is a writer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and previously wrote for Veep, a job that she got right out of college, at the age of 22. Before landing Veep, she made headlines as the first African-American woman to be president of Harvard Lampoon magazine.
Ms. Percy: One of the things that I read, that you wrote in Lenny Letter, it was called “Owning It.” And I love what you were writing about, about owning spaces. And you said, “I have strong feelings about space and things. At the worst times in my life, I haven’t had a lot of either, and I think that’s true for most people. People need space. People need to feel like they have some semblance of control over their environment. People need a place to belong.”
And that resonates so much with me and, I’m sure, with so many people, but especially people of color. And you’ve talked about what it was like growing up in Milwaukee and going to Harvard, and I wonder how humor helped you kind of take control of those spaces.
Alexis Wilkinson: It’s funny, and this is only the — especially coming from a place like Veep, insults, a very clever insult, can do a lot. If you get the person you’re insulting to laugh, that’s really a great feeling. And I remember once, I had just been elected president not too long ago, and I was doing this internship, and I had my email out in public, which I will never do again.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Terrible mistake.
Ms. Wilkinson: Nobody needs to talk to me, ever — especially not random racists from the internet.
Ms. Percy: Ugh.
Ms. Wilkinson: And so I got this really long email, and the subject line was, “Alexis Wilkinson, you make me want to vomit.” And that was the first time I had gotten something so — I was like, “Oh, hello.” [laughs] “How can I help you, sir?”
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Exactly. What are you even supposed to say to that?
Ms. Wilkinson: Right. “Okay? I don’t — why did you —” And so I read this long thing, and it was clearly racial and just weird and that I was some privileged, Obama — it was not about me. It had nothing to do with me.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, at all.
Ms. Wilkinson: And I wrote back, a not very long response, but said something like, “Hello, sir, thank you so much for your kind message. It is so great to know that people like you are out there. And you are the reason I continue to do what I do. And thank you so much for assuming so much about me. I’m sure my single, widowed mother and my family and stuff, I’m sure they would really appreciate that you appreciate the struggles that we all have gone through! And if you’re still feeling nauseous, may I recommend Pepto-Bismol? Here’s a link. I have a coupon. That’s for you. Cheers, Alexis.” And he wrote back and actually said something like, “Okay, that was kind of funny.” [laughs] I think that’s what he said!
Ms. Percy: Did he really?
Ms. Wilkinson: Yeah!
Ms. Percy: Look at that.
Ms. Wilkinson: Yeah, right? Now get out of my inbox. Begone! So, you know, I think that’s a good example. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: One of the things I really kept thinking about in reading about you was, you’ve been the first, in so many ways — the first black woman to be the president of Harvard’s Lampoon, one of the youngest, if not the first, young, 22-year-old comedy writer to be hired. That’s a lot of pressure, and I just kept wondering, how did you deal with that?
Ms. Wilkinson: I didn’t. [laughs] No, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself. And I think — we were talking about how much stuff I did in high school. And I think I have learned, now, to be a little easier on myself, just generally, and also just not to — I’m trying to think of the right way to say this. I think sometimes you just need to just telescope out, really far out in a certain situation, to just say, “It’s okay.”
If I focus on any one given thing or focus on what one person might be thinking or letting one person or one group of people down, then I can freak out, and I can feel a lot of pressure, and it feels like a pressure cooker because I’m in this small space. And sometimes, especially when I first moved out here, and when I started working at Veep, and I was so scared and so nervous, and I was just, like, “Oh, my God, this is a huge mistake,” and imposter syndrome started — like, “Oh, my God, the jig is up. It’s up. I am going to humiliate myself, and it’s going to be the worst thing that’s ever happened.” And I think I realized: I am 22 years old. I have a great job. I live in California. It’s great. I have a great boyfriend. I have great friends. Everything is fine. It’s all fine, you know? And I’m not poor anymore! [laughs]
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Ms. Wilkinson: It’s fine. Everything is fine. And so I think sometimes just really trying to big-picture it and just — that really helps me stop from just cannibalizing myself about the little things.
Ms. Percy: What does humor, what does laughter — and joy, really, because I think they’re all tied together — what does it give you that you find nowhere else that you’re grateful for?
Ms. Wilkinson: I think it gives me release. And you see it in real life, where something really, really bad happens, like, truly bad. You’re at a funeral or something, and then you go into the bathroom, wash your hands, and you just spill water all over. And you make eye contact with your aunt or something, and you both just start cracking up uncontrollably and just die. And it’s not that that was so funny. It’s just sometimes there’s just too much tension, or — everything, and you just have to let it go. And I think laughter is such a great natural, physical response to do that.
And I think for me, especially, the experiences I’ve gone through and just dealing with a lot of death in my life, like my father and aunts and uncles and grandparents and my roommate, and I think sometimes you just have to really let all of that stuff go. And for me, being able to tell jokes and being able to laugh is so much a part of that.
[music: “There Is a Wind” by The Album Leaf]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring the idea of humor as a tool for survival, told through conversations from our new podcast, Creating Our Own Lives, and guided by Lily Percy.
[music: “There Is a Wind” by The Album Leaf]
Ms. Percy: Hari Kondabolu is one of my favorite comedians. His jokes tackle politics, race, gender, religion — and yet they never sound preachy. Hari has a master’s in Human Rights and worked as an immigrant rights organizer, all of which you hear in his comedy. I learn something new about myself — and the world — every time that I listen to him.
Ms. Percy: The way that I’ve been thinking about this, especially when it comes through your comedy, is how somehow you being so specific to the way you grew up and your own kind of humor makes it so universal. There’s something really wonderful about that. And I just wonder if I were to ask you about humor as a tool for survival, what would you start to say about that?
Hari Kondabolu: Oh, I mean I learned that tool from my mom. My mom was a doctor in southern India in the ’70s in her small town before that was a thing that could happen. She was a special person because she was a woman in that town who was educated and was in med school very young and was able to serve her community and do something she loved. And she lost all of that when she got married and moved to America.
And I think about that, and that’s really painful — not only to leave everything you know and everything you love, but also to leave what you’ve dedicated your life to up to that point. And for her, throughout my childhood, she survived by making jokes. I think that’s how I learned how to recycle pain. You take pain and you figure out how to use it again in some way that’s positive, that makes you feel better and makes others feel good as well.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, one of my favorite jokes about your mom is when you say that you called her for Fourth of July, and you said, “Happy Independence Day,” and she said, “Thanks, son, but I lost my independence 35 years ago.” [laughs]
Mr. Kondabolu: Oh yeah. She’s just so quick. And some of it’s just natural ability, and some of it’s being in a family where they spoke English a lot, so that’s why she’s also quick in English, and also the fact that her father was funny, and she was in that household. But also, some of it is knowing how to cope.
Ms. Percy: What I find amazing about your mother’s sense of humor, which reminds me so much of my mother’s sense of humor — and so many immigrants that I know relate to your humor, because it’s essentially that idea of you have to laugh, you have to make a joke out of it; otherwise, you’re just going to cry. It’s just going to be too overwhelming. And I just wonder — what does humor give you in wrestling with these topics that you don’t find anywhere else?
Mr. Kondabolu: I mean it’s a positive end to something that necessarily doesn’t have a positive end. Do you know what I mean? You can analyze something and get down to what the core issue of a thing is — how come there are so many people in extreme poverty all over the world? You can get answers to that, and then what? Do you feel happy that you found the answers? No. You have more information, but there’s still a degree of helplessness and the fact that this is still awful. It’s just now I know how specifically awful it is.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Exactly.
Mr. Kondabolu: With comedy, there’s a laugh at the end of it, which is amazing. I can still talk about all these things, and there is this positive release. That’s important.
Ms. Percy: Something I remember you talking about in your interview with Terry Gross was how you had stopped making these jokes about God. And I’m really interested in — has it continued to shape your own sense of spirituality, humor? And it’s okay if it hasn’t. I was really struck by that idea of God …
Mr. Kondabolu: I’m thinking about that question. I mean… I don’t know.
Ms. Percy: Well, I mean and also it could very well be that telling jokes and making people laugh is your spiritual practice.
Mr. Kondabolu: No.
Ms. Percy: No? [laughs]
Mr. Kondabolu: Absolutely not. No, absolutely not. I will not — that’s an easy one for me to say. Every time I pray, I feel a sense of connection and calmness. When I perform, I don’t get that. They’re extreme emotions. They’re extreme happiness or just the depression of how bad that show went. The idea of my self-worth is based on the reaction of the others. That’s not spiritual. That’s sad.
There’s a reason why comedians are depicted as sad, you know? It’s not a spiritual practice. It’s built in with ego, in addition to wanting to create something. I mean, I’m not going to be overly romantic about that. I know what it is. Let’s not pretend.
Ms. Percy: And yet, what you give to people, though — I mean when I laugh, when I see someone really funny and I can’t stop laughing, I feel like that’s a spiritual high.
Mr. Kondabolu: Well, that’s great for you, because that’s not — you know, that’s great. Christ suffered so you could have spiritual —
Ms. Percy: [laughs] So I could laugh.
Mr. Kondabolu: Buddha suffered so everyone else can learn from that example. People go through pain to teach us a lesson. I mean I don’t — I don’t see that. I think it’s good for the soul to laugh. However, I don’t want to see [laughs] — I don’t want to see comics as martyrs for that reason. I think it’s healthy to laugh, but for the performer, it doesn’t solve everything.
And it’s so much bigger than those moments. There’s a high and there’s a low, and that low is pretty devastating when you’re in a place you don’t know, and you’re not making people laugh, and you’ve built so much self-worth on others. And that’s a big thing, the fact that it’s not about yourself. It’s not about self-discovery. It’s not about you coming to terms with something. It’s other people’s reactions to you. How is that spirituality?
Ms. Percy: [laughs] I’m going to leave that there, then.
Mr. Kondabolu: It’s a clear answer! I gave you a clear answer.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] I love it.
[music: “Tomorrow” by Shakey Graves]
Ms. Percy: Hari Kondabolu may not see humor as a spiritual practice, but Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie definitely does. Amichai says the Jewish people have endured because of their ability to laugh at themselves and, in this way, laugh at the world.
Ms. Percy: So the first question I would ask you is, how has humor been a tool for survival for you? How would you start to talk about that?
Amichai Lau-Lavie: I think humor as a key to survival is something that I grew up on. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and I grew up in Israel in a situation of great privilege. But the way to deal with both the Holocaust trauma and the ongoing security challenges between the Israeli-Palestinian crisis was a lot of very dark humor. And dark humor as a way to tackle the unspoken and to laugh at our own folly was always there. And it can be, on its sinister side, cynical and sarcastic, and on its benign side, just gut-wrenching hilarious.
At some point in the late ’90s, when I was in my late 20s, I began channeling, or perhaps personifying, a drag character. Basically, I began performing as an aged Hungarian widow who was the wife of six illustrious rabbis and has become a sex advisor and a marital advisor to the ultra-Orthodox elite. Very fancy, very over-the-top. Three vodka tonics were necessary for me to leave the building so she can enter and take over.
And she’s hilarious. And she is not me, even though I represent her. And she gave me the permission to be publicly spiritual, to use humor as a way to conduct ritual, and to really blur the line between what is funny and what is serious. I no longer represent her on this earth. I became a rabbi after being the rabbi’s wife through her for all these years.
Ms. Percy: So two questions that come up with what you just said. The first is, what were those specific examples, growing up, that dark humor that you saw? And then I wonder if you can give me an example of how this woman that you were able to inhabit, how she allowed you to express yourself in a way you couldn’t otherwise.
Rabbi Lau-Lavie: I’ll tell you just one story that I’ve shared before. So like I said, my father was a Holocaust survivor. And he had a big, big story and dramatic and tragic and heroic. And when my father and I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, for a walk and a talk — we were in conversation then about faith. And at some point there was a poster on the wall of Jews who lived in Poland before World War II, and there was a poster of a woman whose name was Hadassah Gross, my drag name. Oh! And my father turned to me and giggled and said, “Look!” And we both started laughing in the middle of the Holocaust Museum about this very private joke that only he and I understood. And that, for me, was such a redemptive moment — deep laughter in the place of the deepest pain.
Ms. Percy: That’s amazing. So I mean all these questions, you’ve already answered. I thought about how does humor help you connect with your family, how about with other people, with your spiritual life, with your sexuality? I mean it seems like Hadassah embodied that for you.
Rabbi Lau-Lavie: She did, and people keep asking me to bring her back. And I say, you know what? It just doesn’t feel like I need her anymore. It’s like the scaffolding that now I don’t need. It’s when you begin a speech or a sermon, and you start off with a joke so that everyone feels relaxed. So humor opens up our hearts. It doesn’t allow us to take ourselves too seriously. It meets us where we’re at.
But I know that when I speak and when I lead worship these days, humor is an essential spice in the soup, because it simply opens up the possibilities. That it isn’t just one thing. There isn’t one truth. There isn’t top-down. It’s not “as is.” Humor is always about “as if.” And it just relaxes everybody. We’re going to laugh.
[music: “Preliminary Art Form” by C418]
Ms. Tippett: All of the voices you’re hearing on today’s show are edited versions of 15 fantastic episodes of the second season of the podcast Creating Our Own Lives, on humor as a tool for survival. It’s just launched on Apple Podcasts. You can subscribe there or wherever you download your favorite shows. You can also listen again to this show and all of our audio at onbeing.org.
[music: “Preliminary Art Form” by C418]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Preliminary Art Form” by C418]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today we’re exploring humor as a tool for survival with a rabbi who started out in drag, comedians, and writers of sci-fi/fantasy, social commentary, and politics, guided by Lily Percy.
Ms. Percy: Lindy West’s humor and writing has helped me survive. Her most recent book, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, had me laughing and crying — and sometimes crying while laughing. Lindy is funny and honest and vulnerable as she talks about being fat, being a feminist. She’s also very smart about the destructive power that comedy can have.
Ms. Percy: There’s a line in the book that just struck me so much, because I felt like it was out of my own diary, when you were saying, as a little girl, “I knew very clearly what I was not: small, thin, pretty, girlish, normal, weightless, Winona Ryder.” And it’s the “Winona Ryder” that killed me, because she was the person I admired. I had her pictures plastered in a scrapbook. I loved her obsessively. And I don’t think that — until the moment I read that sentence that you wrote — that I understood why. She represented, for our generation, beauty.
Lindy West: Yeah. I mean there was such an intense need to be like Winona Ryder, which is just the most inaccessible thing. [laughs] I remember very vividly, in middle school or high school, watching Reality Bites and realizing that there are Winona Ryders and Janeane Garofalos, and I was a Janeane Garofalo, for sure. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Yeah, same, same. [laughs] You’re the off-screen friend. [laughs]
Ms. West: Right. Exactly. [laughs] I have no home in the movies.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, no, it’s so true. And you talk about that so much, about not seeing yourself reflected in pop culture. And there’s something you write — and I swear, I’m just going to keep reading your writing, because it’s so beautiful, and it’s so wonderful to hear this.
Ms. West: Oh, thank you.
Ms. Percy: But you say, “For me, as a kid who felt lonely, ugly, simultaneously invisible and too visible, comedy felt like a friend. That’s its greatest magic — more than any other art form, it forces you to interact with it; it forces you not to feel alone. Because you can’t be alone when someone’s making you laugh, physically reaching into your body and eliciting a response. Comedy is also smart. It speaks the truth. It was everything I wanted to be. Plus, if you’re funny, it doesn’t matter what you look like.” And I just want you to talk a little bit about that feeling that you wrote about.
Ms. West: Yeah, I mean I think anyone who really loves comedy — and who loves TV, especially, can relate to this, I assume. I just remember, I would get so deeply attached to my favorite TV shows, to the point where I would need to have them on all the time. Then it felt like my friends were there, or even my family. I would listen to standup specials over and over and over. And then I — especially once I started to have these conflicts with standup comedians in my professional life and personal life, I started to be like, “Ugh, standup.” [laughs] And I moved away from that, to the point where now I almost entirely watch narrative, scripted shows.
Ms. Percy: I was thinking that you’ve talked a lot about holding comedians accountable for jokes that they tell, and you even talked about Howard Stern, who’s someone that I love but have had a real love-hate relationship with, just because — and even the way you defended him is exactly the way I defend him to girlfriends, especially. He’s this neurotic — he’s so enjoyable to listen to in his banter with Robin and with the staff. It’s just — you feel like you’re part of that family. But then there’s the other side, right, which is the side that makes you feel terrible, as a woman.
Ms. West: Yeah, I mean and there was this idea that by critiquing comedy, misogyny in comedy, specifically, that I was trying to destroy comedy. And it’s like, what I would like is to be able to consume comedy without feeling like garbage. It’s like, you know, women are just, like, sex nothings. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Yeah, pretty much. [laughs]
Ms. West: And then horrible, old, fat wives. Those are the two things that comedians talk about — at least when I was growing up.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, the nagging wife, always.
Ms. West: The nagging wife or the unattainable hot chick, none of whom are real human beings. But when I was getting really obsessed with comedy as a late teen, it was because I could feel its potential to move the world. And repeating over and over again that women are annoying does nothing. All it does is reinforce the past, which is just not interesting at all.
Ms. Percy: Yeah. So you write in the introduction of Shrill, you say, “There are a few simple directives that I tried to lay out in this book: Do a good job. Be vulnerable. Make things. Choose to be kind. That notion of choice — of choosing what kind of person you want to be — is more important now than ever.” And I wondered just how humor has helped shape this person that you want to be.
Ms. West: I mean I think humor has definitely taught me a lot about how to communicate with people. It’s really, really easy to deliver complicated, difficult ideas if you can wrap them up in a joke and make people want to consume them. Just figuring out how to interact with people who are different from me, how to get through to people who are really, really entrenched in their own ideas. Because if you can make a good joke, a good joke is a good joke. And the desire to laugh is pretty universal.
The best comedy, to me, is true, is illuminating truths that have been obscured or shared experiences that we haven’t talked about yet, pointing out absurdities that we may not have noticed. It could be used in the opposite direction, to cement generalizations that are harmful. But it can also dismantle those generalizations.
[music: “Everything” by City of the Sun]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today: something a little different. We’re exploring the idea of humor as a tool for survival, told through conversations from our podcast, Creating Our Own Lives, and guided by Lily Percy.
Ms. Percy: As a proud Colombian, humor is something that I’ve had to use every single time a Narcos, Pablo Escobar, cocaine, or drug mule reference is made to me about my country. If you’re from Northern Ireland, you can definitely relate. Everything I know about that country comes from tragic movies about the IRA. Until I visited there last summer and spoke with Mark McCleary, I had no idea how complex — and Colombian — their issues are.
Ms. Percy: So the whole idea of this series is humor as a tool for survival. When I say that to you, how does that play a part in your life?
Mark McCleary: I think a lot of the story of Northern Ireland, particularly for people of my generation who grew up through the Troubles is, humor was a way to survive, and laughing at things that probably you shouldn’t be laughing at. But it was a way of actually getting through the next day. And that runs kind of right through a lot of writing and a lot of — there’s comedy routines, there’s people who’ve made a living out of telling the same joke about Protestants and Catholics for the last 30 years, and they’re still being paid by the BBC to do it.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] What are some of those jokes, because I don’t know them.
Mr. McCleary: Do you know, I wouldn’t even go that low to… [laughs]
Ms. Percy: [laughs] To repeat them? People just need to look them up online.
Mr. McCleary: Well, it’s that level of humor that is run — if it’s even humor; I don’t know. There’s a novel I read years ago, a Samuel Beckett novel, where one of the characters talks about three different kinds of laughter. One of them is laughing at things that aren’t good. One of them is laughing at things that aren’t true. But the ultimate kind of — the laugh of laughs, the best laugh in the world, is laughing at things that are unhappy, and that’s how his character describes it. And there’s probably a certain level of that in Northern Ireland, a kind of a laughing at things that are bad.
Ms. Percy: So how does humor connect you with your spiritual life? Is that something that you find?
Mr. McCleary: I think part of my journey is coming away from a very rigid, rules-based kind of religion to the point of thinking the God that I want to interact with is a God who has a sense of humor. And seeing the madness within the kind of traditions that I came from, being able to laugh at that, has kind of helped release me from even the Irish saint tradition. Half the Irish saints were completely mad. The stories they combined — they set their fingers — one guy used to set his fingers on fire so he could read holy scriptures at night.
Ms. Percy: There was always so much fire. What’s up with the fire?
Mr. McCleary: One of my favorites is St. Kevin. So St. Kevin came to Glendalough, south of Dublin, in about the sixth century. And apparently one of the local ladies took a shine to St. Kevin and one day in the field asked him to come and lie down with them. And St. Kevin was so horrified that he jumped up as she was trying to pull his clothes off. So the naked St. Kevin ran and then rolled about in some nettles, which — covering himself in nettles: holy ecstasy.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] What?
Mr. McCleary: And the naked form of St. Kevin was still so attractive to the lady that he had to pick up some nettles and start beating her with the nettles, at which point she immediately repented and became a nun. And it’s just like, [laughs] what is that about?
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Oh, my God.
Mr. McCleary: But we tell it as a story of a wonderful saint.
Ms. Percy: Yes. I hope there are no illustrations of the story. [laughs] This is insane.
Mr. McCleary: [laughs] But it’s full of stories like that.
Ms. Percy: And so how can you not laugh at that when you hear it?
Mr. McCleary: You have to. It’s kind of — if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. It’s the old one. Taking that and sort of throwing it into the Northern Ireland context, being a Protestant Presbyterian, I only learned a couple of words of Irish. Well, I did some Irish classes recently. But I love the way the language describes emotions and things like that. And if you really get into it, like when you’re angry, it talks about almost like “the cloak of anger was upon them.” And I imagine it’s the same with laughter, that it’s like a cloak that you put on that almost surrounds you. And I love that kind of imagery that you can get out of the Irish language even when you can’t speak it, when you have other people who can give you those insights. It’s a lovely way to describe it. And I think laughter just does that sometimes. It just wraps itself around you. You can kind of snuggle into it and go, “That’s what I needed” after a really horrible day, just embrace that and enjoy it.
[music: “Finding Family” by Ben Sollee]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring the idea of humor as a tool for survival, told through conversations from our new podcast, Creating Our Own Lives, and guided by Lily Percy.
Ms. Percy: One of the main reasons I wanted to speak with our next guest, writer Daniel José Older, is because the humor in his writing makes his characters come alive. Daniel practices Lucumí, also known as Santería, an ancient religion that originated with the Yoruba people of West Africa, and he was also a New York City paramedic for a decade — both of which have deeply influenced his writing. It’s especially true in Shadowshaper, his young adult novel about Sierra Santiago, a teenager in Brooklyn who has to figure out how to use her family’s powerful magic to save her community.
Ms. Percy: I feel like you handle — you use humor in so many ways to confront big issues, like all the -isms, basically: racism, classism, sexism. I mean a sentence that blew me away, the way you wrote it, is when Sierra is trying to decide what to wear on her sort-of-date with Robbie.
Daniel José Older: Right. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: And there’s this sentence where you say that “She chose a skirt and a tube top. But it was hard work making suggestions and not blatant declarations with her ever-changing Puerto Rican body.”
Mr. Older: Yes.
Ms. Percy: And that was — I mean that really struck me. You say so much in that sentence. And I just wonder, when did you first realize that language had that power, that you could use it in that way?
Mr. Older: I don’t know, but I will tell you that Shadowshaper, and really all my work, is as much inspired by conversations we have on the street as it is by the great books that we’ve read. And I just think that’s such an important element of writing that I go back to again and again: that the roots of writing really go back to people telling stories to each other and not to the written word. And that’s a lot wherein, I think, lies the power of it, is the words that we say out loud to each other and the power and the poetry of just the vernacular. And the way we roast each other or the way we tell each other we love each other or the way we just have a conversation about something, but we’re really saying we love you. And I think there’s so much power in that. And I really have been intentional, throughout my growth as a writer, to just recognize that as I’m writing.
And to read, of course — of course, great books have inspired me deeply, but just as much, conversations on the ambulance. I used to be a paramedic, and certainly, paramedics know how to alchemize tragedy into humor in a way that few people do, by storytelling. And then just living in Brooklyn and bodega chatter and just hair salons and the way that folks talk and tell stories.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, that’s where your being a good listener really comes in. I hear that. I hear that in your writing.
Mr. Older: Right. And I just want to shout-out Elegba, because as a santero, we can’t talk about humor and not mention Elegba. And Elegba is really both the crossroads, the decision-making point, and he is definitely the Orisha that we can most associate with humor. And he’s the little old guy on the corner, throwing dice, and then he’s, like, little kids.
It’s always hilarious to me, speaking of humor, that corner stores, bodegas here, are on the corner. Their whole identity is connected to Elegba. And what you get there is liquor, games, toys, candy — all things that Elegba loves. That’s an Elegba spot in the city.
And you see the old folks in the neighborhood gather there, talk trash, gossip. It’s a place of people coming in and out. Diners, too — anywhere where there’s just lots of different energies entering and sitting next to each other and then leaving and bringing in their energy. And all that, to me, is Elegba energy, and he is the jester. He’s hilarious. He’s making the divine joke of life constantly and making us laugh, but also very powerful. He’s a warrior.
And I think that duality is very real. We look at literature — you look at Falstaff. Falstaff is the comic relief, but he’s a tragic character. It doesn’t go well for him, ultimately. It’s not a cute story. It’s really, really heavy. But he’s thought of as the jester, as the fool, right, as so many different things. So I think the best kind of humor, I think, carries that depth with it.
Ms. Percy: And you have that duality in your writing. I mean I think about even the way you would title the paramedics blogs that you write.
Mr. Older: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: One of my favorite titles is “This Week in Other People’s Disasters.” [laughs] I mean, that’s exactly that duality of being around — in many ways, being there for people’s hardest moments and having to find the humor of life in it.
Mr. Older: Yes. And I think there’s a deep misunderstanding, which I talk a lot about when I lecture, in the way that paramedics — back to this idea of oral tradition — we will literally have a terrible tragedy and deal with it, drop off whoever at the hospital. They may live; they may die. Either way, we’ll go get a pizza afterwards and talk about it, and it’ll be funny. And it’s hard to see that from the outside and not think, “Oh, these guys have closed off their hearts, and they’re just building walls around themselves. They don’t care anymore. They’re calloused.”
And it’s, like, very much the opposite is true. You can’t really be a paramedic — you’re not going to be a good paramedic if you’ve fully closed off your heart, because then you just don’t care enough to do the job. At the same rate, you can’t fully just cry over every patient and carry that with you everywhere you go, because you will be a bad paramedic. You’ll be busy thinking about the last patient and not what’s in front of you. So what you learn to do is find a balance wherein you can laugh about other people’s tragedies and not become a cold-hearted, horrible person on the strength of it and continue to do your job and exist in the world.
Ms. Percy: That’s so true. That is so true. The duality of life: You’ve got to laugh, or you’ll be crying all day.
Mr. Older: Yeah, and I think that’s true in a larger scale of just existing in the world, right? There’s an aspect of celebration in humor that is very necessary to survival. And again, from the outside it can seem callous, it can seem crude, but that’s to misunderstand, I think, where we’re at and who we are, deep down inside.
[music: “Timtar” by Bombino]
Ms. Percy: Terry McMillan knows how to write funny yet complex female characters. Savannah in Waiting to Exhale, Stella in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and Georgia in her latest wonderful novel, I Almost Forgot About You. I know these women, I see myself in them and in the way that they use humor to face whatever life throws at them. And after talking with Terry McMillan, it feels like she looks at the world this way too.
Ms. Percy: One of the things that I’m so grateful for in your work is how you capture the loneliness of being single in your writing. One of my favorite passages about this comes from Robin in Waiting to Exhale. I’m just gonna read it, because it’s so good. She says:
“I have always fantasized about what life would be like when I got married and had kids. I imagined it would be beautiful. I imagined it would be just like it was in the movies. We would fall hopelessly in love, and our wedding picture would get in Jet magazine. We would have a houseful of kids, because I hated being an only child. I would be a model mother. We would have an occasional fight, but we would always make up. And instead of drying up, our love would grow. We would be one hundred percent faithful to each other. People would envy us, wish they had what we had, and they’d ask us forty years later how we managed to beat the odds and still be so happy.
I was this stupid for a long time.”
Terry McMillan: I was about to say that. You took the words out of my mouth. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: That sentence kills me. I mean it makes you laugh, but you also understand exactly what she’s talking about.
Ms. McMillan: Oh, yeah. Dreaming out loud. But you have to have it.
Ms. Percy: When did you realize that this was an effective tool to convey and deal with the struggles of heartbreak, insecurity, loneliness? I mean these are big things, but you’re dealing with all of that in just one sentence.
Ms. McMillan: Well, because I think that all of us — well, those of us who’ve ever been in love know how good it feels. And it’s almost like if you could have an orgasm for 20 minutes as opposed to a minute-and-a-half, who wouldn’t? You want what makes you feel good. You want to be around people that make you feel good, that make you feel lighter. And almost anything that we do that makes us feel like that, you covet it. You want it. You want to repeat it, and you want to sustain it. I think then, too, I was maybe 40, which seems like a long time ago. But I think that’s really what a lot of us struggle for — struggle to get to.
Ms. Percy: I wonder, what women have shaped your own sense of humor?
Ms. McMillan: I think my sisters, except for one. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: She’s the one that tries your patience?
Ms. McMillan: Oh, Lord — yes, Lord. No, my sisters — all of us — no, all of them except for one, we find laughter in almost everything. And we make fun of each other, and we make fun of ourselves to each other. And we’ve been doing this since we were kids, and I’m the oldest. But when you know that you love and care about someone, you can get away with this stuff. You know, like: “What have you been doing? Your ash is as wide as a door!”
Ms. Percy: Yeah. [laughs]
Ms. McMillan: And then she might get up and walk over to the door and say, “You know what? You’re right. You’re right.” And then we just fall out laughing. And this is sober. This is sober [laughs] I mean — I’ll put it this way. I think that with so much that’s going on, anything that we can find to laugh about and see humor — because to me, humor is also a form of hope. It means not so much that you are portending or pretending, but you have to try to elevate things into a space that is manageable.
Ms. Percy: Yeah, I mean it’s really beautiful to hear you talk about humor as being hopeful, because that’s the feeling that I get, especially in the dialogue you write in your books. I mean these women are always telling their troubles to each other, but there is hope added with that laughter, with making each other laugh, trying to make each other feel better.
Ms. McMillan: I think that there is so much ugliness in the world right now and so much sadness every day. And I don’t think that humor is a way of pretending that something isn’t happening. I don’t think it’s evasive at all. On some levels, I think it’s a safety net, and it’s how we also protect our hearts from just bleeding to death. [laughs] You know what I mean?
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Oh, yeah.
Ms. McMillan: And also, I think that it’s healthy to be able to make someone else smile or make someone else laugh and see the humor in things. Because in some ways, humor is beauty, I think, because it’s not meant to do any damage: just the opposite. And I don’t think it’s the same as sarcasm. But I don’t know; I don’t know where we’d be without humor. I really don’t. It’s also a tonic. It’s like an elixir. And it can help us sometimes heal a little faster than medication. Maybe not — but sometimes it feels like it.
Ms. Percy: I definitely agree.
Ms. McMillan: I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t laugh at something, and especially my own stupidity and shortcomings, because I don’t have enough fingers to count them. [laughs] But I know I can still — there’s still time left to evolve.
Ms. Percy: Well, thank you so much, Terry. I have to say, you’ve given me one of the best words of wisdom that I use often, in many different situations. You can only imagine. But the line from Savannah: “There’s a big difference between being thirsty and being dehydrated.”
Ms. McMillan: Oh, yeah.
Ms. Percy: That’s a good one. [laughs]
Ms. McMillan: And that’s kind of funny.
Ms. Percy: Well, it’s very funny, but it’s also so wise and so appropriate in so many ways. So thank you.
Ms. McMillan: Thank you very, very much.
[music: “Mind Eye” by Nightmares on Wax]
Ms. Tippett: Terry McMillan, interviewed by Lily Percy. This hour you also heard Sam Sanders, Alexis Wilkinson, Hari Kondabolu, Amichai Lau-Lavie, Lindy West, Mark McCleary, and Daniel José Older.
Longer conversations with all of them and other amazing guests, like comedian Margaret Cho, sex educator Emily Nagoski, and cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz are in the 15 episodes of the second season of our podcast, Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, on humor as a tool for survival. These conversations are rich and funny and utterly original, and I promise you will love it. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you download your favorite shows.
And you can also follow COOL on Twitter @realcoolpodcast and find us on Facebook at facebook.com/realcoolpodcast to get updates, guest insights, outtakes, and other fun things from the show. Listen again to this show and all of our podcasts, as always, at onbeing.org.
[music: “Ethnic Majority” by Nightmares on Wax]
Staff: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, and Selena Carlson.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.