How Comedy Gave Me A Glimpse Into A Different Relationship With My Father -- And With My Own Demons

My father sat with his arm around me on the couch. He seemed so briefly like a different man and our relationship seemed so promising.
Publish date:
August 13, 2014
mental illness, family, loss, comedy, Robin Williams

"Mork & Mindy" debuted the year I turned 10 and I became instantly obsessed with its comic possibilities. Every Thursday night I'd set up my tape recorder next to the television, record the audio portion and listen to it over and over.

I wanted to understand what made each line funny: the words? The inflection? The context? I re-enacted bits from the show, reciting Mindy's lines in a monotone using a stuffed animal snake as her stand-in. I would imitate Robin Williams' manic style for Mork's lines, trying to put the same energy into my performance as he did. I practiced doing Mork's classic upside-down-head-into-seat-of-chair move until it consistently got laughs from my school-mates; it took me a while to realize the comedy was in the surprise and that announcing, "Hey look, I'm Mork from Ork," before I sat with my face on a chair was actually killing the joke.

This obsession with comedy was nothing new; I wanted to be a stand-up comic from the first moment I understood what a stand-up comic was. As a second grader, I would stop by the pasture where my neighbors kept their beef cattle and practice telling my jokes to any cow within earshot. This required me to wedge myself in between two wires of an electric fence, often getting shocked in the process, and negotiate the poo-covered field. As gigs go, it was easier than fighting off drunken bachelorettes trying to pull down my pants to "see if you have a real dick" or fending off drag queens trying to sneakily spike my onstage soda with Jack Daniels, both of which have actually happened to me. Thankfully not at the same show.

What made the "Mork & Mindy" obsession unique was how I shared it with my father.

I didn't share much with him; my father was a stoic man who was raised on a struggling farm near the struggling town of Caro, Michigan by an even more stoic and also struggling father. My dad often bragged that he had never once seen his father smile and that he never went to the dentist as a kid because "we chewed roof tar and that worked fine for us." This last claim seems dubious to me now, since an Internet search for "chewing roof tar" leads to lots of listings of local poison control centers and no listings for Midwestern nostalgia sites where bloggers might write about this quaint practice my father recounted so fondly.

He prided himself on being a self-made man and loved a good inspirational quote. "Act enthusiastic and you'll be enthusiastic," he would say, slamming his fist down on the table to signal the beginning of breakfast. He attributed this to Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln alternately, although reputable sources list Dale Carnegie as the quote's actual author. He would often add, "Most people are just about as happy as they make up their mind they're going to be," and then follow up with his most favorite and my least favorite motivational phrase: "Soldier on."

"Soldier on" had an seemingly unlimited variety of applications.

Got a splinter? Soldier on.

Had a feeling? Soldier on.

Anvil fall on your head? Soldier on.

In contrast, I was an extremely sensitive and undoubtedly annoying child. When it rained, I regularly missed the school bus because I would be delayed by my quest to prevent worms from getting run over by returning each of them from the pavement onto the grass. I cried at everything and my father wanted us to cry at nothing and it's very hard to find middle ground in that.

My dad had little tolerance for making a big deal of what he saw as life's little difficulties; he once cut his index finger to the bone while using a chainsaw, and was convinced he could use adhesive first aid strips to keep it together. It took 20 minutes of arguing before my mother convinced him that perhaps a chainsaw wound was best attended to by a medical professional.

Likewise, it was difficult for him to have compassion for his kids: when I got hit by a car at age 11, his entire response was, "Well that was sheer stupidity." Whenever he was challenged either directly (by an annoying, sensitive, vocal child) or indirectly by circumstances, his stoicism morphed into smoldering anger and then occasionally into violence.

But he was a different person when we watched "Mork & Mindy" together, which we did every Thursday. He and I watched, and my siblings and my mom as well. We watched as a family because Robin Williams made my dad laugh. And because it made him laugh, he wanted to talk all about it: what made each line funny, about the words, the inflection, the context. Our "Mork & Mindy" conversations made way for talking about other comedy as well: We listened to the records of political satirist Tom Lehrer which is how I learned both about the conflict in the Middle East and the finer points of writing satire. I was even given special permission to stay up until 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night to watch Steve Martin's first stand-up show with my dad. He sat with his arm around me on the couch. He seemed so briefly like a different man and our relationship seemed so promising.

The summer after the second season of "Mork & Mindy" aired, my dad and I were hoeing corn together when he had a protracted coughing spell. When he spit into the dirt around his feet, the spit was bright red with blood. He was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and even after surgery, a round of chemo and radiation, he died before "Mork & Mindy" went off the air in 1982.

Despite our brief comedy connections, my dad's demons -- his temper and inability to tolerate weakness -- were too poorly controlled for me to ever have a sustained relationship with him that was based on anything other than fear. I watched his extremely strong exterior crumble from the inside and felt something that bordered on pity for him: this man who believed so fervently in the doctrine of "soldier on" could no longer soldier on. I felt horrible for his suffering but I didn't feel personally, specifically sad for my loss.

I didn't have the words for it then, but now I know that the tragedy for me was not in his death -- the weaker he got the less afraid I felt-- but in the missed opportunity. If he had been given access to any kind of tool to make his emotional life better; even a little therapy, a few words of language to describe feelings, a smidge of Alcoholics Anonymous, perhaps things could have been different. Maybe that glimpse of him I had as we connected over comedy could have been a sustained relationship.

Fast forward 20 years to 2002: I am a stand-up comic myself, or trying to be, working out new material at a gross mainstream open mic in northeast Philadelphia. Everyone knows this is a horrible, misogynistic, homophobic mic. It's a place where the regulars goad one comic into telling his rape "joke":

"I took a girl parking and she said 'I'm not that kind of girl.' So I took out my knife and said, 'Yeah you are'."

They did this every week, and uproarious laughter always ensued.

"Why are you doing this?" my best friend asks. I rifle through my mental rolodex. I'm acting enthusiastic to be enthusiastic. I'm as happy as I've made up my mind I'm going to be. I'm soldiering on.

I get on stage and start my act, "I need you to ignore all visual cues and believe that I am adult female and not a 12-year-old boy."

A drunken fellow comic responds, "You're not a 12-year-old boy, you're just a big fat ugly dyke."

My temper flashes. "Oh yeah dude, you're just sad I'm not a 12-year-old boy. You and the Catholic priests both."

As the mic finishes up and we pour into the parking lot, the drunken comic breaks a beer bottle against the curb and walks towards me with it. As I realize I'm in no kind of shape to outrun a drunken and anger-crazed comic, I am also flooded with a feeling very close to nostalgia. I escape into a friend's car and it later occurs to me that I've moved 800 miles away physically, and a million miles away culturally, yet still managed to recreate my family of origin in an extreme form.

This close-up of my own demons at work scared the hell out of me. I stopped doing mainstream mics for the sake of soldiering on, and starting working in the kindler, gentler alternative comedy spots which also were more welcoming to my comedic storytelling style. Where there were no alternative shows, I asked to emcee random events, or created alternative performance spots or produced my own niche shows.

Ten years later I think of myself as an alternative-alternative comic, meaning my gigs are events like humorous talks at nursing conferences and performing at polyamory pride or emceeing an occasional livestock auction. I can almost guarantee that my comedy will not make me rich or famous, yet I've found a way of life that is fun and sustainable and doesn't feed my demons.

I am grateful that the work of Robin Williams in a ’70s spinoff sitcom could give me a glimpse into a different relationship with my father, even if that relationship was not sustainable. At the same time, I feel like kicking something. Not because I want to engage in a macabre Monday morning mental health quarterbacking, listing the ways Williams did or didn't find his demons; we know that severe depression is very hard to treat.

Rather it is infuriating that someone with seemingly good social support, access to care and the money to pay for it ran out of tools. If someone with the amount of privilege and access that Williams had can run out of options, clearly what medicine and what we as a society are offering is still grossly inadequate.

And we'll always have that bittersweet feeling of gratitude for what he gave us, at the same time wondering what kind of work he could have produced in his 70s, in his 80s, in his 90s even, if he had been able to stick around.

And I will always have a dissimilar but parallel question about my dad's life. If someone could have gotten him the tools to live in an emotionally different way, what kind of relationship could we have had? Even if he hadn't had survived cancer, he would have left a different legacy. I could have been sad that he was dead rather than just sad for him.

Writer Anne Lamott on a public post on her Facebook page today said, "Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining."

And we are reminded, all of us, the importance of fighting our own demons and the importance of handing others in our wide circles the tools they need to fight theirs, not just for our own happiness, but so we can continue to touch those who love us.