First published in Smith Journal, Vol. 12.
“With humour, the equation is: tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now.” – Tig Notaro
In August 2012 the internet lit up with buzz and hype around a set of stand-up delivered by a then relatively unknown comic named Tig Notaro. In the thirty minute routine – less a routine than it was an ordering of her thoughts, with jokes – Notaro described a four month period that had seen her lose her mother in a tragic accident, break up with her longterm girlfriend and contract both pneumonia and a gastric infection that almost killed her. Then, the day before the set, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The half hour is raw, powerful and very, very funny, traversing the sorts of subjects that make even the most experienced of comics seize up – death, grief, cancer – with almost impossible ease.
I was perhaps more intrigued than most by Notaro’s story because I also do comedy about cancer. I’ve had it twice, so I can. First at 11, second at 22. At 33 I plan on exploding at a party of friends and loved ones, just to really drive the point home. My first, uncharitable, thought upon hearing about Notaro’s set was, ‘She’s stealing my shtick!’, followed by a ten minute journey into a void made from pure guilt. Cancer doesn’t offer you an escape from pettiness, just a better excuse for it.
When I was diagnosed with cancer for a second time in November 2007 I had just performed my third set of stand-up. Unlike Notaro, a veteran of 15 years by the time she took on this most taboo of topics, I had little idea what I was doing on stage, and even less of an idea as to what the underlying mechanics of comedy were. But when they discovered a 7 cm growth on the top of my right lung, I was confident of only one thing: I wanted to make people laugh about it, because I could see that laughter offered the clearest path out of what Christopher Hitchens once described as the “land of malady”. Laughter trivialises the serious, and right then the last thing I wanted was for anybody to take this thing that was happening to me seriously.
Laughter is one of our most common forms of communication, if also one of our least understood. This is in part due to the elusive, subjective nature of comedy. People like what they like, and they don’t what they don’t. You can’t explain to someone why a joke is funny if they haven’t found it instinctively funny. As the legendary humorist E.B. White once said, analyzing comedy is like dissecting a frog – nobody cares what you discover and it kills the frog.
This may be true of jokes themselves – and the people that find them funny – but the concept of why we laugh at all can be articulated more clearly. Peter McGraw is a chief researcher at the University of Colorado’s Humour Research Lab. Yes, this is a lab that actually exists. McGraw’s contention is that humour is derived from what he calls “benign violations” – ideas that go against the established order without jumping to the point where it becomes actively offensive to our sensibilities. Jokes take something dangerous and make it safe. They provoke a sense of wrongness and then tell us that it’s all going to be OK.
It’s a process that predates language. Back before we could communicate with one another using words, laughter was our way of telling others that a potential predator was, in fact, the wind blowing in the trees. Laughter comes from knowing that our place in this world is forever fragile. It seems that Mark Twain was on to something when he wrote, “The secret source of humour itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humour in heaven.” Comedy permits us to delve into the dark aspects of our souls without fear of becoming lost. Through comedy, a chaotic world can be reordered.
There is much power in the act of telling jokes. I think I realised that tacitly when I’d stand upon the stage, bald from chemotherapy, and encourage people to laugh at my plight. I could see that even in this moment, exposed and vulnerable, it’s still the man with the microphone who dictates the dialogue, who gets to take something and say, “No, this is OK. This is free from fear.”
One of cancer’s less acknowledged traumas is the powerlessness that it inflicts upon its sufferers. Suddenly your life, so well ordered and routine, is made dependent upon medical abstractions and arbitrary chance. Certainty vanishes; the healthiest die in weeks, the unhealthiest survive to 90. The land of malady becomes your unwilling home, a country populated by the awkwardness of friends and the unfettered sympathy of strangers. To everyone else, cancer is a malignant violation, too raw, too uncontrollable to ever be funny.
But it is. How could the patent absurdity of being told your own body is trying to kill you be anything but hilarious? How could you not want to strip cancer of its ludicrous power and show it for the grand joke that it is? To laugh together with those you love and tell them that the predator in the bushes is nothing more than a breeze rustling through the leaves.