They say laughter is the best medicine, so it's no wonder I got into the comedy business. After the life I've led, I could use a healthy dose.
See, I grew up in the deep woods of Texas with pot smoking deaf parents in a one-room tin shack and a trailer that was repossessed. When I was seventeen years old, I witnessed my father's violent attack on my mother and now my dad is serving twenty years in prison for the attempted murder of his girlfriend.
Comedians are notorious for having dark sides, so maybe I was associating with my "kind" by getting involved in the business. "Life's tough. Laugh more." That was the tagline I created as director of marketing and publicity for a comedy nightclub in New York City. I even married a comic who loved telling people at parties some of the more salacious tidbits of my past. I could see people's eyes grow wide as my husband revealed each crazier and crazier fact that included snakes, bathing in a horse trough and getting married to a man in the U.S. Navy while I was still in high school.
Reactions were always a combination of shock, awe and envy. The shock was that I'd made it out alive. The awe was that I was normal and successful in one of the most competitive cities in the world. The envy was for comic fodder I possessed that came with having an unconventional life. I was barraged with questions about deafness, sign language and prison and, time and again, people told me, "You should write a book!"
Finally, I caved to the peer pressure. It seemed unfair to sit on my treasure trove of material while my friends were mining their lives to find something--anything--worth making fun of.
Okay, fine! I would write a book, but I wasn't sure where to begin. I couldn't see myself penning a maudlin tale of betrayal, poverty and violence but, well, that's what my life had been. Just how would I write it and avoid it sounding like a dime store novella? I went with what I knew: comedy.
Growing up in the deep woods we only got four channels and one of those was PBS, which is great if you like Downton Abbey as an adult in 2012. But as a kid in the 1970s, I would've rather gone antiquing with my grandmother on a summer day than watch a single program they offered. Instead, I stuck with prime time television offerings like Welcome Back Kotter, Good Times and Sanford & Son. Those shows affirmed to me that life did in fact suck, but it was also worth turning into a sitcom. Hardships existed solely to set up a punch line.
When I was 11 years old, I filled out a Columbia Records club program to receive 11 cassettes for a penny (and a bonus twelfth cassette to come). Tapes of live stand up comedy performed by Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Eddie Murphy soon arrived in my mailbox. I played them so often that I wore through the cassette ribbon and had to Frankenstein them together with Scotch tape. Since my parents were deaf, I listened to them whenever I wanted, inappropriate words and topics be damned, and kept the volume at 10. At the time, I wasn't aware of the indelible mark these acts were leaving on me, but in my psyche it was branded: stand up comedians were talking about themselves and their families all for the sake of laughter.
It never occurred to me that I might do the same thing, though it should have. American Sign Language (ASL) isn't a written language and so the Deaf community thrives on storytelling. To convey meaning and nuance requires using your whole body, so a simple story can turn into a performance of sorts. I was accustomed to seeing my father holding court at Deaf events surrounded by friends all riveted at whatever tale he was spinning.
I picked up these same communication traits and took up acting in high school and community plays. I almost always chose to audition for comedies but they were a playwright's words, not mine. I eventually dropped acting altogether when life and the bills that came with it demanded that I seek a job with direct deposit and health insurance. My childhood in the wilds of Texas and stories of my deaf family were destined to become anecdotes I'd tell on rare occasions over a beer with close friends.
It was only after I moved to New York City that my love for comedy was rekindled. With dozens of comedy clubs and even more alternative venues around the city, it was nearly impossible to avoid my old, forgotten love. It seemed like destiny that I was at a seedy cabaret called Don't Tell Mama watching a comedy show the very night my dad was caught in the act of attempted murder. Comedy isn't pretty and neither is life.
With the encouragement of my future husband and our circle of eclectic friends, I gingerly ventured into the storytelling and comedy scene. I was hoping to say a few things out loud and determine if these stories were worth telling. I recorded my sets and transcribed them, turning them into scenes in a chapter. Or, alternately, I would write out a scene--like the time my horse ate the giant stalks of marijuana my brother was growing behind our shack--then tell the story on stage to hear how my words sounded.
After my husband's shows across the country, I'm often asked how I feel about him making jokes about our marriage. My response is that if it there weren't a universal truth in what he was saying, people wouldn't laugh. Sure, he's telling everyone about a specific fight he and I had during a particularly harrowing travel expedition. But would it be funny if we were the only ones in history to ever fight while vacationing? Probably not.
I held a similar measuring stick for the details I included in my memoir. A book was only worth writing if others could relate to the story and, even better, might learn from it.
The irony is that while the comedy community encouraged me to write my memoir and gave me a platform in which to do it, the book itself isn't funny. Sure are there are moments of levity throughout the book (My horse got high!) but the sad and jarring truth is: My dad assaulted my mother and viciously attacked another woman. He destroyed our family, devastated many lives and wasted his own.
I couldn't write cheap jokes about those things. To do so would be disrespectful to my father's victims and flippant of his offenses. Examining my childhood and how my father became who he is today -an incarcerated deaf man disowned by nearly everyone in his family--was heavy stuff to sort through.
Hopping on a comedy stage and sharing to stories with friends and strangers buoyed my confidence and gave me a much-needed emotional release. There is a reason comedians gravitate to the stage and why audiences continue to support live comedy and storytelling shows: Because life is tough, we all just want to laugh more.
Kambri Crews is the author of "Burn Down the Ground: A Memoir" [Random House, $25.00]
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