People in this episode:
Dr Jessamyn Fairfield (host)
Susan Messing (guest)
My grief counselor passed away last week. Fortunately, she did such a good job that I don’t even care.
Do a quick search for jokes about death, and you’ll find a lot, like a lot a lot, some of which are surprising and say something about this traumatic universal experience, and some of which are… less tasteful. But death challenges all the societal norms and mores we have. While it isn’t true that we all experience death and dying in the same way, for the same reasons, what is true is that we will all lose someone, and we will, each of us die. We know that. And we either find a way to face our own mortality, or we spend a lot of mental energy not thinking about it. Humor in the face of death is sometimes described as a coping mechanism.
But actually, you can think of a lot of the things people do – having children, writing epic tomes, building fantastic monuments – as coping mechanisms for death. So-called ‘immortality projects’ that distract and soothe us from the inevitability of our own death. This is the argument made by anthropologist Ernest Becker in his book, The Denial of Death, that basically all of human civilization is a coping mechanism. This includes both our brilliant inventions and our most terrible wars, motivated by fear that our own immortality projects will fail. Becker wrote this book a year after he was diagnosed with colon cancer, a year before his own death. And later, psychologist incorporated Becker’s ideas into ‘terror management theory’, which posits that our own terror at mortality spawns both escapism and cultural beliefs that counter this terror, so that we can, you know, function. So you might try to just not think about it. Or you might have religious beliefs that include reincarnation or immortality of the soul. Or you might seek symbolic immortality through some of the immortality projects that Becker described. Death is inevitable and absurd, and outside our control, like a lot of life, actually. So how do we find meaning in it together?
I’m Jessamyn Fairfield and I’m a physicist, comedian, and survivor of life. So far, in this season of You’re Up Next, we’ve been exploring some important topics through the lenses of science and humor. So now we’re going to talk about death. And I’ll be speaking with Susan Messing, an amazing improviser and teacher, who, like me, has lost someone important in the last few years.
My name is Susan Messing, and I’m a comedian, and I’m also an improviser. That is my I would say, my stronger skill set. I like to make it up and leave. But today we are, I guess, speaking about the role of satire and the ability to impact change in the world. Certainly comedy has made receiving unpleasant information easier, because a laugh is a plosive release of tension. And that has certainly saved me personally. It certainly made some professional disappointments and accolades even better, and has opened us up to the possibility of evolving more as human beings, because laughter and tears are about a few inches apart. Certainly, social satire and political satire have given us opportunities to learn almost as if you’ve put a pill into a piece of cheese. So that’s where I am in the ride. I’m not done by a longshot, and I have a lot to learn. But I’ve certainly already learned a lot. So I’m grateful to be here today and to hear what you have to say and what you might want to know.
Yeah, well, thank you so much for that, because I totally agree, like laughter and tears are very close together and very related. I know too, I have met you because you’re an incredible teacher of improv. Can you talk a little bit about like, how to teach people to to find the comedy in those more difficult moments, like if there’s any approaches that you have or things that you’ve learned over the years?
You know, I think what is interesting is that comedy-, you know, when you’re working with science, you’re really working with a prescribed set of rules that gets you somewhere. The longer I have been in comedy, the less I have been interested in the rules that are ascribed to it, including the rules of improvisation. You might have heard some basic ones that we agree with what is said, and we add to it, we don’t ask questions, we don’t do this… What happened with the don’ts is that people started worrying about improvising correctly, instead of having joy. And that’s why they might be suggestions that gets you off faster, but there’s not a tried and true way to get there. For me, my job is to access people’s imaginations, so they remembered why they are an integral part of a whole, and that their opinions are valued and will be used in the creation of this – of this art.
And so in my world, it’s exciting to collaborate. When I go off on my own, I actually feel sad, and I miss my friends, because that is where I get my inspiration. So if you’re somebody who likes to sit in a room by yourself and just create stuff, that’s great. But you might be amazed at how much fodder there is to your joy, when you bounce your ideas off of another human being and build off of them, you might end up somewhere even better than you started with. So for me, I’m not as much interested in rules, as simple table manners as human beings that we can bring to the table, which is so exciting to me. Because I’m a ‘no, but’ first person. If somebody says, “I have a great idea”, believe me, there’s a part of me that’s like, “no, you don’t, and mine is better”. I’m just a snottiest little person inside me that every day I fight, because when that voice is lost, then incredible things happen. I’m so inspired by the people around me, I don’t want to do things on my own anymore. You know, even this conversation is a conversation. It’s not what I think and ‘done’. This is going to inspire you to respond to that moment. And I think if this world, were built a little more on that… And again, funny does not come from, in my world of comedy, it doesn’t come from standing around and saying funny things – it’s commitment and recommitment to our choices, that starts pulling out comedy. So I’m excited about reminding people that they have a great choice, and not to dump it for something better, that where you are is perfect. And you simply don’t know why yet. And that’s what freaks people out, because people who like the thesis and then they want to prove it, that’s one thing. But sometimes you just go on a journey, and that’s where the really exciting stuff starts. That’s- I have full faith in my friends and partial faith in myself. But I turn down the dial that says “I hate myself and I wish I were never born, and did I leave the stove on last night?”, and then I recommit to what’s right in front of me. I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who likes to fulfill, you know, you have to prove what you said is correct. I am always discovering what works for me right now, which might not work later on. And so for people with empirical data, and they’re like, “but this is what it is”, science keeps changing and shifting. There’s a reason that they brought improvisers to work with the guys at CERN. You know what I mean? CERN. That’s Super Collider shit, that’s like, real shit. But they brought people in to support them in how to work together. Because that’s not a natural instinct, especially for people who like to take credit. So in my world, specificity is what pulls out the funny for us. So people can, you know, we either- I will either sympathize with you, empathize with you, or you will educate me. No matter what, I’m interested. So when I force myself to stay in to the moment, instead of move on to that next better moment, there is nothing better than where I am. That’s what improv forces you to do – stay exactly where you are and eat that.
It’s almost like if you’ve ever built a house, and then you go “ugh, I don’t want to build a house, I want a koi pond”, and then you start building your koi pond, and you’re like, “oh, this is so stupid, I’m going to build a retaining wall”, and you’re like, “great”. So you start building a retaining wall, and you look around and you have half a completed basement, two dead fish, and a rock. You know, and I’m like, “go back and finish that house, and if you want to build a koi pond, great, let’s add the koi pond and the retaining wall – but you have to keep building those things, you have no time for the judgment, you have time to recommit to it”. So as a teacher that is my job, is to force people to stay where they are and realize why those are such brilliant, brilliant choices simply by adding specificity to it. It’s almost like that book you love so much that you reread it every year. You know what you’re thinking about, your thinking about that book you love. You know you’re not thinking about, Susan Messing is a shitty improviser. So even bringing something into it spurs your imagination, and forces you to go with it. And I understand again, as scientists, you’re working with a formula. There are formulaic schools of improvisation, which simply do not interest me. People who are super left brain love to play improv like chess. And I come in, and I’m like, “I can play with you as a chess player, but I also might bring in magic”. And so if you have problem with magic, this might not make the best stew, but I just stuck paprika in it, and good luck for sifting it out because it’s not gonna happen. It’s in there now. We’re not going to ignore it. Well, that was a diatribe.
I loved it, though. I’m like, I also- I love what you said about like, just commitment and recommitment. So I think even before this chat, I was like, looking through the notes I have from the workshop that you did in Dublin, like five years ago. And there was a thing about like, committing to your ideas – “don’t fart and run” – and I was like, oh, that’s classic.
Fart and you say “yes, I farted – two bean burritos, no cheese, extra fire sauce, Taco Bell on Clybourn”. I’m staying there. And here’s the other thing too. Sometimes we say stupid stuff, and we know it’s stupid, and we want to hide. And I say what connects us as human beings are what makes us human. So if I acknowledge my stupidity right the hell away, we all get a good laugh. I don’t care that- what, I don’t have my status? Who cares? We’ve all had a good laugh, and now we can move on. Because I’m not going to ignore what exists right in front of me. That’s exciting to me. That’s the stuff I eat. My accidents in improv – sometimes I’ll screw up a word – has become my greatest comedy gift. You know, my friends don’t think it’s stupid, because I don’t indicate it’s stupid. So if I don’t say this is stupid, it’s not. I said, Starbücks. Once, believe me. I meant to say Starbucks, and a friend said “ah Starbücks! Almost as good as Starbucks.! And then my friend Rachel said, “yes, yes, it’s in the umlaut”. And by the end of the scene, you absolutely believed that Starbucks had a bastard cousin coffee shop, named Starbücks. It was like an outlet mall of Starbucks, where the super roasted beans were even worse. And the sippy cups were drippy cups, you know, but they were like the Avis of coffee shops – they just tried a little harder. So by the end, we had created this entire real thing based on, I mean, what would be perceived as a mistake that came out of my mouth that nobody said, “you’re stupid”. They said, “I’ll eat it”.
You know, how many mistakes have you made with food? Even then I- you know, I’m not a good cook. I don’t think I am. And if I said to my daughter, “I don’t think this food tastes good”. She would say, “well, I don’t know if I’d like to eat it”. If I say “food, bitch eats”, right? So it’s a part of us that needs to silence our inner critic, or to even say, I’m not sure where this will go. But I’m just putting this out there. Or if somebody comes up with an idea, instead of us saying, “that’s a stupid idea”, we could simply say, “how would you like that to be achieved”, and then all of a sudden, this person can start, and maybe other people will fill in the blanks for you. We seem to think that we need to have all the information right in front of us, and I disagree. I disagree highly, because that’s how some of our greatest inventions came about. And that’s how some of our greatest art came about. Or that people write five pages of pure drivel, someone reads your drivel and says, “see this one line, that line was perfection”. And then they might say, “but I have four and a half pages that were so awesome”. And they go “no, no, this line is perfect”. And so now you have something, but you wouldn’t have had it if you didn’t write those four and a half pages of shit. I’m sorry, am I allowed to say “shit”?
You definitely are. Well, and how do you- so how do you feel that that kind of philosophy of improv and everything feeds into what you mentioned earlier about, like humor as a way to cope with things? Right, like a way to cope with shitty news, a way to process things. And especially, you know, a way to make meaning out of loss because it can feel like it’s wrong to laugh at bad stuff that’s happening or about bad stuff that’s happening, but at the same time, you know, it’s part of this sort of process of connecting and everything like you were saying,
Well, there are simple things like for example, racism, homophobia, and sexism has never been funny and never will be. So we don’t punch down at people who are marginalized, or I mean, that’s just not only- it’s wrong as a human being, and if we’re looking for evolution, we’ll punch up. I appreciate that. Because what it does is it takes imbalance and it balances the scales so that we as human beings, maybe can evolve a little more together. I’m not saying that I am more evolved than anybody else. As a matter of fact, I’m probably a very young soul that has so much to learn that comedy has been pushed in my face. But if you’ve ever been, you know, when I went to my Grandma Jean’s funeral, the rabbi didn’t know my mom, my grandmother at all. He was sort of a mercenary, and he started spelling out her name and letters and he said “J is for joyous, Jean was joyous. E is for effervescent, Jean was-” and I turned to my mom and I said, “Jesus Christ, you know, thank God her name wasn’t Jennifer”, you know, because it’s just like ugh. So, you realize in those moments of pain, that this gives you just enough time to catch your breath, just enough time for you to remember that there is a balance between pain and joy, and that they are extremely close.
I have laughed and cried within seconds, and I don’t think it’s because I’m bipolar, because I’m not. But you know what I’m saying, like, like, it’s just, it can vacillate so, so quickly, and that bringing humor to a situation just gives us a moment of, of joy, even in hell because there is such a balance. Isn’t that part of Buddhism or something, that there that there is so much of a balance in nature, and that you really don’t know the joy unless you have received the nadir? And I think COVID has been really difficult for people who are in mourning because people are – even if you look at Facebook, or any social media, you’ll see “oh, sorry about your mom, sorry about your dad”. And I’m going, “my goodness, there were systems in place to support the severity of this loss”. And I remember when my sister Bonnie died in the end of 2017, just piles and piles of people sending their regards, especially because Bonnie was such an exceptional human. But – and I don’t say that as your sister, she was an exceptional human – but I was like, what do they know that I don’t know? Even though I had suffered that kind of loss with my dad, it was, then all of a sudden, when it hits you, you go “oh”, and so to share pain, and to share memory, and to share this experience, and to not negate it; but to kind of wade through it gets you to the other side. This last year has been very difficult for me. My husband died right at the beginning of the pandemic. And again, it’s been a very complicated grief for me. So my grief is different than my daughter’s. And sometimes when I see her weeping, just weeping, and I look and I think oh, I wish I were there. Until I realized that if I were consoling someone, I would say “your grief path is your grief path”. And I am so- I welcome everything from the distraction of you know, getting our noses pierced together, my daughter and I, or any other event that doesn’t stop the process, but makes it just slightly more palatable to get through the minute and then the hour and then the day. And then time has passed in something that was biting and stabbing. Maybe, I don’t care how long it takes, it takes what it takes. You start being a little more patient with yourself, and you live in it. And part of it starts- you start realizing you know your dog is rolling and shit while you are in a shit place and you’re laughing as you’re trying to clean shit off your dog. You know what I mean? You’re going “everything is shitty and horrible”, but you’re laughing. I invite people to find those people that make you laugh in the middle of hell. Those people are your saviors. They really are. And I live in comedy and even then I was in hell. All my friends are funny. That’s like saying “do you breathe?” Do you not I mean? So, you know, and that I will be sitting alone and making myself crack up with something very, very stupid. Which then I discover I am laughing, and I might be crying at the same time. And that it is okay to simultaneously grieve and laugh at the same time. Also, I do believe that our dead relatives and friends and even the job you lost, they would not want you to walk around being sad because that wins. That means sadness or bitterness or anything negative wins, that the way to clock great revenge on that is to pursue joy and happiness. And even for an hour in a room of rabbis who are all suffering from compassion fatigue, that all of us could be sitting there laughing together. Me also laughing at the fact that I have no right to be in a room full of rabbis. Rebbe means wise person and I’m like, “awh Jesus, I’m the line leader holding the Purell right now? This is not okay!” And so I’m laughing at myself, and like who gave me status? This is ridiculous.
I think like you said about like the length of time that grief takes. I feel like that’s something, you know, people will have this idea of like, you know, someone is grieving and then you’re just like super sad all the time. And then you like you come out of it and you get to be happy fun person again. And even like after I lost my dad a couple years ago, I remember I came back from his funeral, back to Ireland, and I had a show with my improv partner like the following week. And I went and did it. And another improviser that we knew came along. And he was like, “Jessamyn, gosh, I’m surprised to like, see you here. I was sort of worried about you. But like, I guess you’re fine if you’re doing a show.” And I’m like, “this is how I don’t think about what’s happening”, and also, I was like a dad in all of those scenes. Like, it just was how I was like, bringing this energy forward.
One of the nice things about that, though, is because we are the ones who manipulate ourselves through space. When my father died, look, I still miss that, you’re still going to miss that he doesn’t get to be physically present during your child’s birth. You still- my father didn’t walk me down the aisle, but he is very much who I am. He very much propels my shit.
And I think we are arrogant about the people that we love, that we assume that because we have our memories of them, that they never die. Do you notice that, how arrogant we are about the people that we love? My sister never died, my husband didn’t die. Nobody died, nobody died. And I hate those poems that justify it- “they are just in the other room”. But you know what I mean? But really, as long as we remember, we are- you’re going to see in your child physical manifestations. You know, I look at my daughter, a picture of her when she was three years old, and she looked exactly like my father, which is kind of bizarre because sometimes she looks like my ex husband, sometimes she looks exactly like me. But to see where it comes from, to see the shape of her eyes. To see how smart she is. I do know that my father gave me his humor, gave my sister Robin her litigious nature, because she’s a lawyer – and my father was litigious in nature – and gave Bonnie his business acumen. He gave us a legacy means it lives in you, you know. So oftentimes, when I’m sad about that, I have to reframe everything to talk myself in, which is also part of improv, because every fiber of my being wants to say, “everybody go fuck yourselves, and no”. And then I say, “you know what, today, I’m going to agree with this”. And then all of a sudden magic happens, and I’m like, “man, it was just a simple word, to talk myself in”. Do you know what I mean? And if we all talked ourselves in a little more then action wouldn’t stop. Forward propulsion, wouldn’t stop, because “no” is so important. What it means is “stop and deal with me right now”. I cannot go forward, unless you deal with me, which is great in some ways. But if you’ve got a runaway train, let’s see what happens, where it runs to, you know? Why do we have to stop and make sense of all of this right now? Why don’t we discover at the end what this was? And then you get to deal with the pride of, “I was able to propel myself through space, even during my worst moments, even during moments where I thought I was paralyzed, I was not”. And so maybe we have lost the ability to mourn in a process that we have this three day, you know, viewing or we have a shiva. And then a year later, we put a tombstone on it, and all these systems that were set up in place, traditionally to happen. I think a lot of things are being blown out of the water with COVID. And, and in some ways, it’s bad, because I do believe that those structures were put in place for a reason. But it’s also maybe a new way to discover what death means or what mourning can be.
I think sometimes people go, “there’s right way to do it”. And I’m like, “well, who discovered that? People controlling you? I mean, let’s talk about religion, right?” Religion is a way to go, “but the fish guys meet on Friday, they need you to eat some more fish” or whatever. You know what I mean? So let’s fold that into the religion and say “God won’t love you”. You know, the only reason I even stayed Jewish is there’s a loophole. You can question the existence of God and be Jewish. And I’m like, “okay, that sounds okay, I can deal with that”. You know, why the fuck not? But I do understand, like, I cellularly understand that weird loss that you don’t understand until you’ve lost your parent, or until you’ve lost that great love, or until you’ve lost anything in your life that’s meaningful. I don’t like people diminishing people’s pain. But I do know that there’s an opposite side. That is what begins to heal. And thankfully, through a lot of pain in my life, a lot of it just growing pains, I’ve had comedy by my side to get me through those moments. And I’m so grateful for it.
To me, this all goes beyond comedy as a coping mechanism. And it’s part of the real value of humor. My dad, like Ernest Becker was diagnosed with colon cancer, he was suddenly hospitalized, needed surgery, needed chemo. And none of it seemed funny… at first. But you know, when I was growing up, my dad and I love to tell jokes to each other, over and over – old jokes, new jokes, we would go through all of ‘Who’s on First?’ together, the classic Abbott and Costello routine. Or we’d practice telling jokes with long and elaborate punch lines, and then we’d tell the same jokes, getting every element of the punch line wrong, and presenting the mangled ending of the joke as a triumph. Because failure is funny, right? So humor was consistently something my dad and I used to deal with his cancer, on top of medicine, that is, I don’t want you to think I’m advocating some sort of humoropathy here. At one point, he was going into surgery and had signed over power of attorney to me. And after we talked about how much we loved each other, I told him about all the tattoos I could have done on his belly while he was under. ‘Rebel for life’ was my favorite. When he was coming up from anesthesia, and someone asked him, “Eric, can you hear me?” My dad shook his head. He had a tube down his throat, and was barely conscious. And still, his first instinct was to make a joke. It was our way of still having control over the narrative of what was happening, making meaning out of the absurd truths that we were living through. Death is scary, but it’s really just change. And that’s the frightening thing to cope with. This thing we’re all doing, of living in this world, is inherently absurd, and beautiful, and funny, and tragic. And it can’t be encapsulated, unless you allow for contradictions, the way that comedy does. This openness to contradiction, to change, to surprise, is at the core of both good comedy and good science. It requires a willingness to listen, to connect to others, to ignore things like status and hierarchy, and rather to honor our shared humanity and knowledge. I’ve said over and over again, that I think the silos, the categories that we placed knowledge into, are artificial. It’s all connected, and so are we, even as we search for the same things in 10,000 different ways. There are many paths up the mountain, but it takes a certain lightness of heart to find them.
This episode was made possible by support from the Community Knowledge Initiative, the CÚRAM Medical Device Research Centre, the research office at NUI Galway, and Science Foundation Ireland. We’re grateful to our guests, our host, which is me Jessamyn Fairfield, our producers, Maurice and Shaun, and to you our listeners and our Bright Club Ireland community. A transcript of this episode is available at brightclub.ie where you can also find more information about what we do at Bright Club Ireland.