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Laughing through the pain

I’m one of the “lucky” comics. You hear about those who became comedians after enduring a rocky road of early difficult life. Not me. I grew up with a lot of the good stuff, and it’s now been over 25 years since my first paid gig at The Holy City Zoo,  an iconic comedy club in San Francisco.

I know that when my comedy happens, and it comes to “edge” or being “edgy,” I’m never gonna be edgier than say… a bowling ball. That’s OK, my comedy doesn’t cut deeply into issues of the day, and I don’t make fun of anyone specifically, more everyone in general. I love what I do, how I do it, where I came from, all of it, even if it’s taken some time to understand anything about it.

Early on I learned that there are several kinds of comedians, and even more kinds of comedy. I have my own set of tools and make my own “view of the world” jokes from them. That said, I can certainly appreciate comedians who take much different route. Like those who masterfully take serious or painful topic and give others pleasure from it. My first “deep end” exposure to this skill happened about 30 years ago.

After the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up.

Yep, a horrible, sad, nothing-good-about-it situation. And as I trudged to my open mic to try a new joke or two, and beat my less new jokes into my brain a bit more, I thought I’d be only playing to other comics trying to escape the sadness that seemed to cling to everyone like the San Francisco fog.

I was wrong.

One guy, ahead of me in every way on this comedy-traveled road (he was working, had an act, and knew how to use his brain to solid effect) showed his skill that night by doing material about the Challenger disaster.

I couldn’t believe it.

In my memory he said that sure, it was sad, tragic thing, and he had heard about it, but had missed it on the news, until they played it over and over and over again. Went on to say that he started turning the channels to see it. BOOM, turn, BOOM, turn.Then he yelled at the audience for being sad, that those people died being heroes, and we all should hope to go out that way: BOOM.We should hope that we didn’t go out watching someone else on the TV being heroic. BOOM. Their lives had meaning: BOOM.

His set was inspirational, shocking, relieving, hilarious—it constantly changed in my mind. It was one of the most powerful pieces of comedy I have ever seen, and I left hoping that there were more people doing that kind of material. I also knew it wasn’t my “bag,” that my brain didn’t translate tragedy in that way. But I sure liked seeing people who could, and I still do.

Even writing the tiny shadow of my memory of that bit feels complicated, and in no way am I doing it even a total 1% of justice, but to make up for that let me be clear: the bit was beautiful. I felt better after, felt great that he pointed out that I wasn’t alone in my pain. Just like there are all kinds of different things to laugh at, there are different ways to feel pain. I love that comedy can change perceptions. It’s great to be in a business where sometimes sadness is a necessary ingredient to healing.

The comedian was Clark “T-Boy” Taylor. I didn’t know him well, other than to say “hello” and I still don’t know him any better. I do know, happily, that he’s still in the biz. So lucky me, glad where I came from, glad for what I get to do, and lucky to have seen one of the best comedy lessons about life, given to me live: Laughter helps unite people, even when they’re all feeling pain.

Thanks for that Clark, and to those heroes 30 years later…