"If we don't find the funny, there's not too many other ways of healing."
-- Jim Breuer
Jim Breuer knows funny. The comedian who was named by Comedy Central as one of the greatest standup comedians of all time has been entertaining us since his days on "Saturday Night Live" to his recent Epix special, "Jim Breuer: Comedy Frenzy." But it was his movie "More Than Me," a documentary of Breuer's experience taking his elderly and sick father on his comedy tour, which was perhaps one of the pinnacles of his career.
At the end of the movie, Breuer tearfully contemplates losing his father. Breuer's father died of cancer in August 2014, making this Breuer's first Father's Day without his father. And Breuer is sharing a simple but powerful message that he learned from, and with, his dad:
You don't have to hide from life's uncomfortable truths -- sickness, death, fear -- you can look them in the eye, laugh and move on.
Breuer described how his relationship with his dad changed over time. "Well, with my dad, he was a solid-rock man. For me, fearless. I'm going to assume that came from his World War II days. And really quiet. We never had big talks. They were always short conversations," he explained. "But every pivotal move in my life, he gave the perfect man, fatherly advice. Leaving school, chasing my career, to getting married -- everything. One little line here, one little line there. He was so big and powerful."
But as time went on, Breuer's dad became older and struggled with his health. The comedian was taken aback as his father appeared to be aware of his own waning health. "So when he started getting old, I remember being in this kitchen, and he looked a little off, and I'm like, 'What's the matter, Dad?' And he goes, 'I think I'm coming into my last days,'" he recalled. "So, why would you say that? 'Do you feel like you're having a heart attack or something?' [He said] 'No. I'm just coming into the end of my days.'"
This was a powerful lesson for Breuer. His dad was calmly and assertively facing sickness and death. And this may be the healthiest choice. Studies suggest that far from improving well-being, suppressing or avoiding one's experience can actually worsen mental and physical health.
And it meant that Breuer himself had to face that reality. "It was so profound. He just knew. 'I want you to know, I'm out of here soon,'" he said. "When I heard my dad say that, he was the one thing where I was like, 'Oh, he's going to live forever.' Then I went, 'Oh, my G-d, he's leaving.' And I didn't know when or what."
It was then Breuer started to see a different side of his father. Breuer describes: "[F]or the first time, I saw him vulnerable. Never saw him vulnerable," he explained. "And I'd get him in the shower and get over that whole 'I've got to get over looking at my father naked, and clean his rear end and scrub him.' I know he's embarrassed. He's not going to say he's embarrassed. But I can tell by his face he's embarrassed. He'd be completely humiliated."
So Breuer took the lesson from his dad and explored how to make the best of a terrible situation. The comic started by remembering how what his dad had done for him. "And then as he started deteriorating, I just remembered all the little things he'd do for me to keep me going. And they were so little. But they were huge," he recalled. "And so when he started going down, it's those moments when you look at what's really important. I'm going to start lifting him up."
And so Breuer turned to what he knew best -- humor. This was a wise choice; not only because of his chosen profession, but also because of the evidence that humor can improve many aspects of functioning from mood, to immune functioning to learning.
"[W]e're going to laugh about it. I'm going to drive him nuts. I'm going to do what I do best. I'm going to drive you nuts. ... I would laugh so hard, busting his chops," Breuer said. "And he loved George Carlin. That would be the only thing that would make him belly-laugh. It's just something you take on. And I did everything in my power, and I think I succeeded to make that the best I could. We laughed. We'd make it a project. We'd laugh about it. It sucked at first. But then I'd overcome it."
And it was a two-way street. "As much as I'd bust his chops, he'd bust mine in different ways. He knew I'd get mortified when I'd say certain things in public. He got off on that," Breuer recounted. ."The laughing was always the healer."
For Breuer, the laughing was not an attempt to avoid the truth, but rather what made it easier to embrace truth. "Sometimes, people don't want to acknowledge the raw truth. Sometimes the truth is dark and ugly and hurts," he explained. "And that goes with death and everything else. And sometimes it's not pretty. Some of it's just plain evil."
And there's one raw truth that Breuer found he was able to accept over time.
"Men like that don't say 'I love you so much.' They say, 'I did the oil in your car.' That means, 'G-d damn. I love you.'"
'There's $20 on your bed means 'G-d damn. I love you.' That's their way."
"And that's up to you to figure out what that means."