On Saturday I checked something off my personal bucket list, an item I'd placed there over a decade ago, and one I wasn't sure would ever get checked off, not for want of any action I could take.
More than ten years before, when I had the idea that I was going to be a playwright, I used to go to this reading series/open mic night in the city on Tuesday evenings. The series was for writers who needed scenes work-shopped; we would put our names in a hat, and if chosen, we'd pick from among the actors present to perform our scenes.
I know it was more than ten years ago because my father was still alive at the time, and he died ten years ago. Anyway, I did this on Tuesday nights for about a year or so, was never picked, and at some point stopped going.
One night, however, the playwright Kenneth Lonergan (This Is Our Youth; You Can Count on Me) showed up. There was no question we'd all yield the stage to whatever he needed work-shopped, which turned out to be a scene about a successful country music singer who returns to the town where he grew up following his mother's death and decides he wants to renounce his high-rolling life and work at the local feed store instead.
In the scene, the singer tells his brother his plan, and his brother is, to put it mildly, incredulous.
At the surface level, the lines themselves were hilarious, but the humanity beneath, the wrongheaded ways we sometimes attempt to live but fail, made it deeply funny.
All present that night---actors, writers, and directors; amateurs and professionals---felt we were in the presence of Art. This was so much more than the overwrought dialogue and small humor the rest of us had been trying to elevate. Lonergan's deeply funny scene turned a light on for me. This was what I wanted to do.
My previous relationship to comedy . . .
It started with my father, who was a fan of W. C. Fields, Woody Allen, and Rodney Dangerfield. Perhaps as result I was enamored of the lovable loser type. I never understood why the comedian wasn't the hero, why he never "got the girl."
I loved situation comedy, parodies, and farce. I always had a joke or sarcastic comment ready to fly. My dad called me a smart aleck as a kid. Eventually I graduated to smart ass.
I fell in love with writing and decided I'd be the next Erma Bombeck with a side of Anka Radakovich (look em up, kids!).
Fast-forward twenty years and I'd finished my MFA in creative writing, having written a slew of short stories and one comedic play. I didn't do much with any of it until fifteen years ago when a close friend died suddenly. She was one of the funniest people I'd ever met and we used to joke about writing a comedy screenplay together.
When a contemporary dies, I suppose, like many people, I felt I had a responsibility to somehow make up for the future that had been denied her. So I started getting more serious about my writing, sending stories out to literary magazines and submitting my play. Eventually I got some stories published and my play was performed off-off-off-no-keep-going-Broadway, by which I mean Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Over the years it also had several staged readings and won a contest or two. One of the directors I met said something that has stayed with me. He said that comedy doesn't get the same respect as tragedy even though he felt comedy was harder to do well, because comedy is what happens when you get to the other side of tragedy.
I always thought my father would one day see my play but then he died, ten years ago this past Sunday.
On Saturday I went to see Kenneth Lonergan's play, finally finished. Over ten years had passed since that Tuesday night when he'd work-shopped the scene from what would eventually become Hold on to Me Darling.
That scene was still there, with a lot of the same lines. My reaction was different, being older, but it was still deeply funny, in the way that had struck me years before. It ended with a poignant scene where the country singer meets the father who'd abandoned him as a child and finally understands both the limits and expanse of love, as well as fatherly pride. Overall the play was funny in its sadness, deeply human.
Deep funny is the funny I've felt many times since Zoe was born. It's what touches me when she's suffering from some mundane disappointment, and it's human nature, especially for a child, to give in to it. But I try to catch her before she gives herself over to whatever tragedy has befallen---the iPad has no charge; I won't let her take her tricycle to the park in the snow---and I'll shoot her a look, one of the ones in my arsenal---they have names: "comical surprise," "shrewd discernment," "mock horror"---and despite herself she starts to laugh instead of cry. It's a narrow passage between the two, after all.
It doesn't always work, but it works enough times to keep trying.