IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Became Comedy Writing Partners with a Man Serving a Life Sentence at a Maximum Security Prison

In his first letter, he pointed out that we were both members of two very distinct American institutions: Attica Correctional Facility and Harvard University.
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Publish date:
September 29, 2016
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prison, comedy, comedians, standup comedians, Penpals, writing

It’s an exciting adventure, checking your mail in college. Usually, it was just my way to procrastinate — waste some time so I don’t have to study for a class or write a paper. It was also the perfect way to walk through my dorm and run into a friend I could persuade to get late-night food with me. At that point in my college career, I would do just about anything except actual work, and checking my mail was the perfect distraction.

My mailbox had a tiny, metal, square door. As students, we mainly got junk mail. I mean, who even writes physical letters these days besides the occasional hipster who clings to the nostalgia of stationery and pen on paper? As for myself, if I wanted to talk to friends or family back home, it would all be in texts, emails, Facebook messages, or maybe Facetime if I were feeling particularly desperate. Things had gotten pretty impersonal, and perhaps that’s why every time I checked my mail, I was secretly hoping that a hipster had decided to write to me.

Instead of a hipster, however, I got an inmate.

Attica Correctional Facility. That’s where the letter was from, and I had no idea what that was. At first, I thought maybe I was in trouble. Had I accidentally skipped jury duty? Parking tickets? Had I not paid enough taxes on the little money I’d managed to earn that year? But soon enough, I realized that Attica Correctional Facility was the name of a maximum security prison located in Attica, New York, and the letter was not from someone trying to reprimand me but rather from William T. Oree, an inmate currently imprisoned there. Oddly enough, the letter wasn’t addressed to my mailbox. It just had my full name and the name of my college, and somehow by the magic of the US Postal Service and the virtues of the Harvard Mail Center, the letter had found its way into my mailbox, behind that tiny, metal, square door.

So, this is where I should probably give a little back story because you might be wondering why an inmate at a prison would attempt to send a letter in my direction. At the time, I was in my last year as an undergraduate student at Harvard studying computer science, but my academic role was secondary to my pursuits as a stand-up comedian. I started performing stand-up comedy when I was 16 years old, and I had become quite serious about it upon entering college. Right before the start of my senior year, I’d appeared on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, a TV show where various stand-up comedians compete in front of celebrity judges. The show did a short background story on my life as a college student, so when William saw the episode in prison, he knew he could potentially reach me by sending a letter to Harvard with my name on it. Furthermore, as an inmate, he did not have access to the Internet, so snail mail was his best bet.

In his inaugural letter, William detailed his dedication to comedy, particularly comedy writing. He mentioned that he had seen me on television and thought that our common interest in comedy, while coming from very different backgrounds, would make an interesting partnership. He also pointed out that we were both members of two very distinct American institutions: Attica Correctional Facility and Harvard University.

Yet what was most fascinating about his letter and his story was how he described his own love for comedy and how it had been key to his rehabilitation while incarcerated. He used humor as a survival tool to navigate his relationships with other factions of inmates, most of whom were quite dangerous, making them laugh in order to smooth over conflict. His sharp wit also came in handy with correctional officers in order to temper interactions with them, which could so easily turn violent if it weren’t for a laugh to lighten the tension. William’s knack for humor had helped him through the dark times behind bars because, as I’d soon find out, he was living out his life sentence.

Clearly, my story was quite different. I’d grown up in a suburb in sunny Southern California, went to a good public school, got good grades, went to a good college. No one I knew had even been to jail, let alone been imprisoned. So, here I was, reading a letter from someone who was so different, someone who certainly hadn’t been afforded the same privileges, yet we were both completely dedicated to the same thing: trying to make people laugh.

So began my steady correspondence with William. We would exchange our comedy writing for feedback, sharing stand-up sets, sketches, characters, or anything else we were working on in the field of comedy. It was a valuable partnership because of our differing tastes. I found his humor to be pretty raunchy, while he often thought I was holding back in my writing. Something we shared in our comedic stylings was our willingness to talk about race, but given our different racial backgrounds (I am an Asian-American woman and he is a half African-American, half white man) we could give one another feedback from our separate perspectives.

Somewhere along the way, we decided to start communicating via telephone to make collaboration a bit easier. Since then, we’ve made sure to talk about once a week, reviewing material we’ve sent one another and updating each other on various comedic experiences.

Perhaps what I found most fascinating about William was how he continued to pursue comedy despite his incarceration. For example, he would make sure to mail out copies of his writing as soon as he could because too often some of the harsher correctional officers would confiscate anything he wrote simply because they didn’t want him pursuing a creative passion. Entire sketches or comedic scripts he had worked on would be lost in an instant. Yet, he would not let that discourage him from continuing, and our phone conversations and mail correspondence gave him something to look forward to in his writing pursuits. His optimism and love for comedy helped him chug along even during those devastating times.

Though I’ve met a lot of talented people while working as a comedian, William has been my most valuable collaborator and mentor. There I was, feeling bad for myself because I wanted to follow this unconventional path after college, when in reality I needed a dose of perspective. No one was actively trying to stifle my passion for comedy, while William had to be careful how and with whom he shared his work. His perseverance and astounding work ethic put mine to shame.

We continue to talk and share our comedy writing, and he is currently waiting for his parole hearing in February. I never thought I’d find myself with an inmate as a comedy writing partner, but if I hadn’t procrastinated by checking my mail I would have never met someone with such an incredible outlook on the power of comedy.