There’s something funny about loneliness.
Most folks with a terrific sense of humor know that loneliness, anxiety, depression and comedy share a basement apartment in a sketchy neighborhood.
Leighann Lord, a brilliant comedian, writer, actress and activist, recently made this connection when she wrote, “If I were a therapist, I’d go to comedy shows and hand out my card — to comedians.”
Humor runs toward the terrifying and taboo, flinging itself with outstretched arms to embrace subjects everybody else wants to leave on the other side of the room.
Humor, in some form, has been part of every culture, throughout history. It’s an essential part of life. It’s often therapeutic precisely because it helps us understand we’re not alone: We laugh together. We convene the spirit of comedy when we deliberately gather to be amused, and even those who are usually outcast are welcome at such an event.
What doesn’t polite society, in all seriousness, want to discuss? Sex, money, political corruption, bodily functions, religion, loss and despair?
These have been the very subjects attracting writers of comedy since Aristophanes penned “Lysistrata” as a vehicle for the young Joan Rivers.
The creator and performer of the comic story takes risks by revealing what the rest of us would prefer to keep hidden: That we worry about everything from the plight of the impoverished to whether headbands make our heads look fat, that we’re uncertain if our parents loved us and equally uncertain how to calculate an 18% tip, that we fear dying alone with cats as well as dying alone with dogs or, for that matter, surrounded by doctors, members of the clergy or any of our cousins.
Recognizing not only intellectually but psychologically and physically, through laughter, that we are not the only ones feeling such a range of emotions makes us feel less alone, provides a renewed sense of perspective, allows us to hit an emotional “reset” button and can relieve stress.
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The one creating the humor, as Lord points out, while inspiring feelings of connection, engagement, release and realignment in others, may or may not feel such a transformation herself.
Jim Mendrinos, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Comedy Writing” and a successful performer as well as teacher of comedy, put it more starkly when he wrote, “I’ve turned my public persona into nothing more than a sales pitch. Here’s the cost: I now literally have three people in my life I can speak to when I’m at a low.”
And it’s the funny people who, I believe, can explain loneliness best.
Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts” — whose character Linus is famous for shouting, “I love mankind ... It’s people I can’t stand!” — offers the most vivid descriptions of loneliness I’ve ever read: “The most terrifying loneliness is not experienced by everyone and can be understood by only a few. I compare the panic in this kind of loneliness to the dog we see running frantically down the road pursuing the family car. He is not really being left behind, for the family knows it is to return, but for that moment in his limited understanding, he is being left alone forever, and he has to run and run to survive. It is no wonder that we make terrible choices in our lives to avoid loneliness.”
Like Schulz, those of us who have experienced loneliness, especially as children, understand it remains pervasive and influential over a lifetime.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that many people engaged in the work of comedy lay claim to episodes of profound loneliness: according to the UCLA diagnostic scale of loneliness, it’s often extroverts who report unhappiness when experiencing isolation.
A stark sense of isolation encloses anyone who looks outward for validation.
Those of us who learned early on that the only way to be heard was to be funny will rely on it for a lifetime. It’s as if your identity exists only if someone else’s response to you draws a chalk line around it.
Is it surprising, then, that a lot of people who are part of the humor tribe have been profoundly lonely at some point in their lives?
When you’re fiercely lonely, you can almost entirely forget that other people exist — unless you are trying to make them laugh.
Because when someone genuinely laughs with you, it’s proof that you share a certain internal space. And that’s not so lonely after all.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.