Here’s the thing. I’m funny. I’m not one of those—oh, man that guys such a character like kooky funny but I can make people laugh. Most people who have this ability grew up with it—funny doesn’t stay hidden for long. Many of used cultivated this skill as a survival tool, though we may not have known it.
When I was a teenager and first started acting, I was cast as the funny guy, the comic lead or what they call comic relief. And I was good at it—I learned quickly how to supplement my natural gift with the tools of performance: timing, delivery, the whole deal.
Because of this skill and also due to my size, I was often cast in roles playing men who were thirty, forty to fifty years older than my actual age. I would put on the pale pancake makeup, add heayy lines using an eyebrow pencil, then powder the whole face to give the illusion of age. The dressing room air was thick with Streaks N Tips, the common spray-in hair color at the time. For a distinguished look, you’d spray just a little gray at the temples; if you were playing full-on grandpa or, say, a mayor you’d spray your whole head.
Being able to make people laugh is a great skill, and highly praised ability. It can also be an invaluable weapon and, in addition to the community theater I was doing at the time, I was known to use it in classrooms and in jobs.
I liked making people laugh—and yet, late in adolescence I remember thinking, why can’t I do those other things? I was never cast as the romantic lead, never the boyfriend-- Wait, that’s not true. Ha! I just remembered that I was cast as the boyfriend in the musical The Boyfriend! I had to learn to tap dance for that one—a purely joyful artform at which I did not excel.
To be taken seriously—remember how important that was when you were a teenager? As if you had to carve out a place for yourself in the world, fight to be seen, struggle for every bit of attention. And for some of us, it was like that. For others, that was simply how we perceived the world. Some still do.
I came to see my gift—laughter, joy-maker, bringer of happiness—if not as a burden then as a cage. Funny people have power but they often want a different kind of power. Think of all of the big comedians who long to be taken seriously? Jim Carrey comes to mind. Sometimes these attempts are sweaty—we can see them working. But then I think of Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People and I remember that humor is often a cover for a deeply serious person. And that the skill required to humor people can be deadly when applied to a dramatic role.
In my twenties I was still fighting to get out of the funny cage.
But, here’s the thing: My nature was bright. It felt odd when I tried to dim it.
I had an acting teacher back then who suggested we study the work of others, watch as much as you can and really figure out your casting—I bristled at this assignment. “I can do anything,” my thoughts went. But, when I started doing commercials in my thirties, I was often cast as young dad, beer drinker, wearing football jerseys.
Walt Whitman wrote: “I contain multitudes.” However my closet has never contained a football jersey.
Even in my thirties when my acting career began to flourish and I was working around the country as well as making my own original work with companies in LA, I always sort of downplayed my abilities. Maybe some of that was garden variety low self-esteem—sure—but it also was a lingering sense that being a comedic actor was somehow less important than being a dramatic actor.
When we started The Secret City, the events were intimate, small in size and rather quiet in nature—we were looking for the creative spirit and our beginnings took delicacy. But as word got out and the events grew and more and more people started to attend, the energy began to, not change, so much as expand.
The services became radically joyful—the word joy was written into every event and hitting that high note of joy--heart open, body energized, feeling fully alive--was common, and what people came to expect.
Here’s what I learned—Joy is a spiritual quality, and if you can bring people to a place of joy, you have done a great service, you lifted them. Earlier this week someone used the word elevate during one of the shows—I think it was you, Nancy Perlman. Even if the joy is just a moment, you’ve contributed to elevating the vibration of humanity. Joy is serious medicine.
In the work of somatic experiencing, joy is prescribed as a fundamental tool in healing trauma. When you find yourself taking the offramp to a place of terror or despair, try to access a moment of joy—anything that brings that bright spark can stop the slide into trauma response.
When I think of the times in my life when I have felt most alive, I’m laughing with people, making something beautiful together with others, dancing in clubs, getting married, being with dogs—the sadness of my life falls away. Mine has been a truly—and thankfully--joyful life.