The Comedian’s Way, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Laugh

I was lying on a massage table in the middle of one of those health expos that are so popular nowadays. A practitioner had explained the technique: two inhales—one to the lower belly and one to the heart—and an exhale. And I was working it hard. But I was also worrying. I’d asked her what this technique was called and she’d said pranayama. But what kind of pranayama? I felt my brow furrow, an almost perfect reverse of her calm smile.

Worry leads to worry. That’s why there’s a whole strand of worry beads instead of a single worry bead. You never have just one worry.

So worrying about not having the information I needed to understand this healing modality (I like to do it right!) led to worry about my bags. Were they safely tucked away under the table? Were they tucked too far under the table and sending their all-too-material vibes up into my ethereally healing body? Of course I got that the worry itself was my real baggage. I reminded myself that the Kabbalah says “Worry is the devil,” but don’t worry about it, I told myself, or the devil wins.

I felt so vulnerable, waging this very personal worry war in a room filled with Los Angeles yoga-chicknics. I refocused on the sound of my breath and tried to drown out their chattering—the baby was due … the non-toxic nail polish rocked … the job hadn’t panned out…

“How does your body feel?” the practitioner asked. “Good,” I answered quickly.

“How does your body feeeeel?” she asked again. I stopped breathing and tried to assess. Now I felt worried that I wasn’t feeling enough.

“Relax,” the practitioner said, “healing doesn’t have to be so serious.” And then I burst out laughing. And, finally, the healing could begin.

It may strike you as ironic that I teach comedy, yet I take everything so seriously. But we teach what we need to learn. And apparently lightening up is something I have to learn over and over again. I mean get to learn. Because I do love to laugh.

My first step toward en-lightening up came years ago, when I was still very serious, even more serious than I am now. One bleak New York day it occurred to me that we live, accumulating wisdom, until finally we really get it. And then we die. To my twenty-something-year-old eyes, this seemed Bergmanesquely tragic. “Or,” I heard a little voice say, “maybe it’s funny.”

Maybe it’s not tragic, maybe it’s comic. I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. They say repeated thoughts are angelic. I knew nothing of angels then. I was a scrappy/brainy/artsy-fartsy downtown-Ivy League-performance artist. But I did know something about listening to that little voice. So I made one of the most difficult changes I’ve made in my life: I stopped working in serious performance art spaces and started working in comedy clubs.

What a rude awakening that was! Still, an awakening is an awakening; take them where you can get them. And what I woke up to was the fact that I was hungry for laughs in a way that I’d never been hungry for anything except love. And maybe buttery toast. And that surprised me. Which is perfect, because surprise is one of the essential elements in comedy.

I’d never been the class clown. In fact, I loathed the class clown. Why couldn’t the class clown pipe down so we could all get back to learning? I loved learning! In the comedy clubs I loved learning the craft of comedy. But I was horrified at how old fashioned, hateful, and divisive so much of the comedy was. The difference between men and women? Between L.A. and New York? Between cats and dogs? Really? Weren’t we well past that? And even more than the retro subjects, just the way stand-up sounded seemed old fashioned. And violent. All those punch lines. And comedians talking about killing and bombing.

One night a club owner called me over. “It’s strange,” he said. “The audience isn’t laughing at you but they are listening. That barely ever happens. And the only reason you’re not getting the laughs is that you’re in the wrong rhythm. You’re going ‘one two, one two.’ And it should be ‘one two, one two.’”

Could it possibly be that simple? I was horrified and elated. I walked around for weeks trying to internalize that rhythm. No luck. Or maybe extreme luck, because what I did find was the courage to take the next step on the Comedian’s Way: to find my own rhythm, beyond one and two.

I didn’t have the opportunity to act on it until a few years later. I was in L.A. waiting to follow Andrew Dice Clay at the Comedy Store. I was hating him for his misogynistic act, hating the audience for laughing at him, and hating myself for hating it. And I felt all the comedy drain out of me. Shortly thereafter I created Un-Cabaret, the show that made my Hollywood reputation. A place where great comedians could tell stories and talk the way we talk on the phone: intimately, organically, authentically. Sometimes it was confessional, sometimes it was a rant, sometimes a story, sometimes stream of consciousness. But it was always rhythmically varied, with each comedian sounding uniquely like themselves. And that really was key, because the rhythm of your voice is the wave that your inner truth rides on.

But how to make that inner truth funny? That was the next step—and even harder than the first two. Because in order to find the really deep funny you have to be willing to go to the pain. Anger, bitterness, shame, blame, frustration, humiliation, despair. That’s where the real comedy lives. Some people will tell you to follow your bliss, but I say follow your pain. Follow it, convert it into comedy, and the laughing creates an alchemical reaction that takes the “ow” out of now. As long as you understand your pain better than the audience.

The one thing that really keeps an audience—be it a club crowd, a boss, a class, a date, or even a jury—from laughing is that they are worried about you. Which is maybe why I still pre-emptively worry. I worry so you don’t have to.

But I shouldn’t. Because the one thing that is most worrisome to audiences is the feeling that they know you better than you know yourself. Self-knowledge (svadhyaya in Sanskrit) is not just the knowledge of the big Self and how you are connected to it, but the deep understanding of yourself, in this particular incarnation. Which, of course, will end just as you come to understand it fully! And because of all this comedy work, I have come to know myself deeply. I am very well known, to me anyway. Which is a lot like being famous, without all those pesky paparazzi.

Although I love the paparazzi. The flashing lights, keeping you right there in the moment. That’s what I love about the stage, too. There is nowhere else except now. And in the now, with the laughs rolling in, I feel light. Lighter than I do in any healing session. Light as a feather.

In fact, in Egyptian wisdom traditions, the heart of the deceased, the seat of their soul, is weighed on a scale against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth. If the heart is free from the impurities of sin, and therefore lighter than the feather, the deceased can enter the eternal afterlife. So, the whole goal of life is to be lighthearted.

For me, there is no one aha moment of getting this lightheartedness, of learning to activate the seventh sense: the sense of humor. It’s a practice. All along we look for the truth, the laugh-out-loud truth. And then we die anyway. Which is, I am learning, possibly the funniest thing of all.

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Beth Lapides is an entertainer, producer, author, and host. She has taught extensively in theaters, universities, clubs, cultural institutions, and at...

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