My current relationship with my sister was strained, to say the least. I used to drive my sister Jonah to all of her road gigs; I accompanied her at the Improv, and I held her hair as she puked outside of the Punchline. I was a great brother at one point, I really was. But her attitude about others wasn’t just problematic, it was draining. But Jonah offered me a hundred dollars to come with her to her gig in Santa Barbara. I wasn’t a comic, but I was a big fan of comedy in general. I grew up on Pryor and Foxx albums, and I used to study the comics that my sister ran with. I wasn’t a funny person, but I knew what funny was, and the depth of the comedian’s responsibility to society. I mostly agreed to come along because I felt as if our diminishing relationship was at least partially due to me being so busy with engineering school. It was her idea to record our drive for her podcast. She figured that we would say funny and interesting things like we did back when we used to talk. But we didn’t have anything to talk about, and as she drove us down a congested Highway 1, I could tell she was desperately grasping for something. So she asked me a question that I’m sure she’s always wanted to know.
“Isaiah,” she said suddenly, “You’re an engineer. That’s the exact opposite of a comic. You came out to these shows. You know the comics, and the language. You’re here, right now, as an assistant for a job that is not in your field. What is it that’s drawing you to comedy?”
I stared straight ahead at the road, thinking about my answer intensely. “Comedy is big. It’s important. Comedians are important.”
“What about comedy is so important to you?” What a stupid question! The answer seems so obvious.
Back in the day of Kings and Queens, the most valuable member of the royal court was the Jester. I asked my sister if she had a guess as to why this could be. “Well, they were pointing out the fallacies and shortcomings of their kingdom, or society. I mean, others did too, but the Jester could do it without getting beheaded, for the most part. You know, since comedy and satire back then were the same thing.”
She was right! And what a big responsibility that is. The Jester’s job is to stay as grounded as possible in reality, while also having a clear picture as to how things should be. When you can see both of those things, it’s easy to point out the things that make life ridiculous.
“And before Jesters,” I continued excitedly, “do you know what we had?”
“You’re going to tell me,” Jonah said with a smile.
“Philosophers.” And it sounds silly that scholars today celebrate and revere these “thinkers” – but back then, there weren’t a lot of people doing much big thinking. “The world might be round,” said the thinker. “No, shut up, screw you,” said everyone else. “Okay, my bad,” said the thinker.
“The first hecklers,” my sister chuckled.
“No, no, no. The first hecklers were way before that. Picture this scene: Sundown. Jerusalem. Jesus Christ is on the cross. He says, ‘What’s the deal with Philistines?’ and then they crucify him.”
“Well, he ran the light.”
“So you believe that comedy is less of a profession and more of an unidealized social responsibility?”
“It has to be unidealized. The whole point is that you have to be beneath us. Otherwise it’s just punching down,” I added. “Nobody likes a bully. The whole point is that we make it seem like you’re the buffoons so that we might be a little more open to you pointing out societies’ buffoonery.”
“That’s why the Jesters wore those hats.”
“It’s why comedians are alcoholics.”
She threw her head back and laughed. “That’s funny. But that’s not why comedians are are alcoholics. We’re alcoholics because we think too much.”
“You misspoke. You meant to say ‘We’re alcoholics because we drink too much.’”
“Listen, your job as a comedy fan is to laugh at our stuff and move on. Maybe, if it’s possible, you can find a positive way to apply it to your own life. Our job is to sit there and stew in all of the problems of the world – society, ourselves – and try to find a way to make that funny. And that’s why we drink. Wouldn’t you?” What a question, I thought to myself, as I sipped my coffee that I quietly laced with vodka.
“You have a cross, and a beer.”
“The comics dilemma. Do I put down the cross long enough to drink the beer? Or do I just kill myself?” She pauses. “I like this. This is good podcasting.”
Forgetting that we were recording, I woke up a little bit. It’s been a while since my sister and I both felt so at ease.
“So, I have a question. Why are you a comic?”
“Because I’m very funny.”
“Because I’m very, very funny.”
“Whole story, please.”
If you hang out with comics as much as I do (without actually being a comic), you’ll hear a lot of stories about how people landed at their first comedy open mic. Some of these stories are pretty depressing. My girlfriend left me, or my dad left me, or somebody died and they just left me here alone. Ah-low-ne. And its all about me, me, me. Somebody left me here alone, and they didn’t even keep the TV on for me. Someone play with me! Feed me attention! Woof! Woof!
“I’m a comedian because it’s all I got.”
“Comedy isn’t all you got, Jonah. You’re very smart.”
“Yeah. Smart doesn’t mean shit alone. If you’re smart and brave, you can be a detective. If you’re smart and charismatic, you can be a politician. Sure, success starts with smart. But what matters is the ‘smart and’. If there’s no ‘and’, you’re just smart. What’s the point of sitting there on that smartness if you can’t do anything with it?”
“And what’s your ‘and’?”
“I’m smart and sad. Smart and brave is a detective. Smart and caring is a doctor. Smart and sad makes you a comedian.”
“Smart and funny make a comedian.”
“No, smart and funny make a smart, funny, happy person. I don’t know. Maybe an improv artist, or a humorist. Smart and sad can make you a few things. A poet, a songwriter. I don’t have those skills. I can’t relate to people that way.”
“So that’s why you’re a comedian? Because it’s your only way of trying to relate to people?”
“I realized recently that trying to relate to people is more difficult for me than it is for others.”
“Do you believe you’re a sociopath, Joey?”
“I would, if I believed the things other people said about me.”
I didn’t think she was a sociopath. I was looking at her face. It wasn’t the face of a sociopath. It was the face of someone who was trying her best to feel something. It was our mom’s face. If you’re trying your best to not be a sociopath, does that mean you’re not a sociopath? Or just really good at hiding it?
“How would you relate to people if you didn’t have comedy?”
“I think that’s enough questions for me. But I have one more for you, before we drive in silence for a few hours.”
“Ha! Jonah, this isn’t about me.”
“Sure it is. This isn’t just a story about me, or my friends, or even you. This is a story about everyone. It’s my last way to try to relate to people.”
“Your last way?”
“My last resort. I don’t know. Anyway, do you want to answer the question?”
“Why do you hate me so much?”
“You used to love me. I was your best friend. Everybody else left me, and you stayed. But something changed and now it’s like we’re strangers living in each other’s bodies, trying to pick up where we left off. What’s going on?”
Maybe it was the vodka, but I started to cry. Jonah sighed and pressed the big red button, and held my hand. And then when I stopped crying, she let go. We drove in silence most of the remaining way.