The dark side of comedy
Three comics share the wounds that inform their acts
Offstage, stand-up comics aren't so different. They wear their trauma under a thick skin like the rest of us. The difference is that onstage, every day is “Bring Your Trauma To Work Day.” The job combines the universal fear of public speaking with the task of confronting one's inner demons. Mike Cella, Becky Lynn and Melissa McGillicuddy are professionals in this field.
Their material spans the spectrum of post-traumatic stress disorder, breakups, isolation, identity issues and alcoholism, but each story overlaps in trauma, anxiety and alienation. It's the hammer, nail and wood to build gallows humor. It's only through comedy that they found a place where they feel accepted at face value.
Lynn describes comics as existing on the Island of Misfit Toys, a reference to the broken, idiosyncratic toys from the stop-motion animated Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
“There’s this sense of dependency on dread and bad things that exist in my life to be able to write humor to counter it,” she says, and her cohorts in the community share that trait.
Cella was working for a Fortune 500 company as a flight instructor. But his job placed him in the same planes he flew during his time in service, training recruits to do a task that led to recurring thoughts and guilt from deployment. He is a former staff sergeant in the Air Force with five years of service that includes one deployment to Iraq.
“Fear of flight is a real thing,” he says. “I was having a bad time and still sweating a lot and hid it as best as possible.”
Unable to withstand the anxiety, Cella quit that job. Now, his stage persona exaggerates that side of him. It’s a fidgety presence that he embraces.
“It turned into a thing where people liked it and I wasn’t even aware,” he says. “They’d be like, ‘I like your whole awkward thing,’ and I’d be like, ‘What awkward thing?’ It was never deliberate. If it was, I think it would have been transparent. It’s just a manifestation of my nervousness.”
He says he came from an old-fashioned home of children who are seen, not heard. The military was an additional five years of suppressing his self-expression. Recently, Cella decided to tell military stories on stage. Storytelling is a new approach for him, but it’s his way of leaning into many fears at once: the fear of failure, fear of people not liking him and fear of his past.
“I’m going for pure vulnerability, I think. It doesn’t happen every set,” he says. “The more things I do that feel true to myself, the better I feel about it afterward.”
Lynn’s first joke was about her childhood. She was born during the Loma Prieta earthquake. Her comic perspective is that she’s a survivor of shaken baby syndrome. She was transracially adopted, bullied for being adopted in junior high, and while researching adoption in high school, she learned a troubling fact about social services: ethnic babies are cheaper.
“I do a bit about how my parents couldn’t pass up a good deal,” she says. “That was the first joke I ever wrote. I open with it often. I love that joke. It sheds light on things people may not otherwise have been informed of.”
Born black with white adopted parents, she grew up with identity issues as well.
“When you grow up with a family whose entire experience is incredibly different than your own, there’s a sense of loneliness and frustration,” she says. “I’m surrounded by these people that love me, but can’t identify with the world that I live in.”
Lynn says stand-up taught her about self-reflection. Now, when she has a shitty day, she reflects on why in order to discover potential humor in it.
McGillicuddy is gay and a year-and-five-months sober. She was raised by her mom in Folsom in a neighborhood she describes as being above their income level. Her mom was funny and humor played a big role in their home. But finding an identity and being in tune with that person was put on hold until her early 30s. She got sober and the question became, “What to do with all this free time?”
A recent bit confronts her identity as a lesbian who doesn’t subscribe to gay culture. It stems from an inner conflict of not knowing she was a lesbian, learning it and yet still feeling unaccepted. It’s an issue she says doesn’t make for a “thriving dating environment.”
“I have a joke that’s just like me doing an impression,” she says. “The impression is that I yell, ‘Can someone please just fuck me already!’ And then, I’m like, ‘That was an impression of me asking somebody to please fuck me already.’
“It just happened one night. I was sitting on my patio thinking, ‘What is the deal? Can I just have sex with somebody?’ It just developed into a bit because it’s a serious issue.”
Besides the trauma, each comic also expressed a suffering from the absence of a creative outlet: loners that found a creative community to foster self-expression. Comedy isn’t healing the mentally troubled, but it is channeling that instability into an expressive artform.
“We’re probably all dysfunctional on some level, right? You have to be a little bit sick in the head to get up on stage and talk about shit,” McGillicuddy says. “We connect on that level.”