Thursday, April 22, 2010

Comedy = tragedy + time

by Laura Caldwell

It's been said that comedy is tragedy plus time. It's true, right? Sometimes when things are fresh they're simply too tortuous, too painful, to even come close to laughing at them.

Being from a partly Irish family that considers black humor important, I can testify that sometimes you don't need that much time for the humor to erupt and to help ease your pain. For example, I can easily go funny about the time I was mugged last year. In fact, I remember that within an hour after it happened, I couldn't help but laugh. I mean, c'mon, when your ex-husband, your assistant, her boyfriend, the police and all your neighbors are looking for your teeth on the street with flashlights, that's just good shit. (Excuse the language, that's a technical comedy term).

I was impressed, however--very, very impressed--to come upon comedy at the annual Innocence Conference this past weekend. The conference brings together all the innocence projects from around the world (the people who take letters from prisoners claiming to be innocent and investigate their cases, helping to free those wrongfully convicted). The grand-daddies of the innocence movement were there--Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld--along with 89 exonerees (innocent people who have been released from prison).

I lucky enough to spend some time with Kirk Bloodsworth, the first man exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. (http://truthinjustice.org/bloodsworth.htm). As we talked, I learned that Kirk was going to be teaching some college courses in the fall. When I asked what would teach, he said, with a straight face, "Shank Making 101." (A shank is prison slang for a homemade knife). I didn't know what to say. Then Kirk guffawed and raised his cocktail glass in a salute.

I knew Kirk had faced impossibly anguished days, sitting on death row for nearly nine years for a murder he didn't commit. But when he laughed again and winked, I saw there no doubt about it--he'd been able to go black with it; he was able to go to the funny.

"What else are you going to teach?" I asked.

He said me he was debating curriculum that would involve various recipes for hooch (prison booze).

Once I stopped laughing, I had to ask. "How can you joke about this?"

"Hell," he said, "you have to." And then he continued to riff on other possible mock courses, and people started leaning in, and soon he had a crowd cracking up and slapping him on the back.

And that wasn't the last time I witnessed something like this at the conference. Over and over, I met exonerees who could take the route of black humor. I finally realized that in addition to help alleviate their own mental wounds, most of them had realized that to be to laugh about it allowed other people to laugh with them and then to go ahead and ask about their real experiences. They wanted people to be able to talk about them because they didn't want the horror of a wrongful conviction to happen to anyone else.

If comedy can do that, I say - amen.

17 comments:

Naomi Johnson said...

And this is why 'Sullivan's Travels' is one of my favorite films.

Laura Caldwell said...

I've just been told by someone I very much trust that I have to see Sullivan's Travels, and that anyone interested in innocence issues should do the same. Ordering it on NetFlix now.

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