When I watch comedy, I’m always curious as to what kind of life this or that comedian lived while growing up. Like many theorists of comedy, I do think there is some plausibility to the claim that comedy, in some way, is born out of and addresses some kind of trauma or loss. Ruth Wisse, in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, claims that schlemiel humor is a response to failure and weakness. After all, Jews were often excluded from history and often related to the countries they lived in from a position of weakness. Given this situation, Wisse argues that the schlemiel and it’s brand of Jewish comedy are a “theoretical reversal” of history and creates what she calls an “ironic victory.” However, the victory is ironic because the memory of trauma, loss, and failure persist. Jews are acutely aware of this. But, at the very least, comedy mitigates the power they have over Jewish life and gives the comedian some kind of freedom. The victory is, at best, minimal. But, at the very least, such humor provides, as Irving Howe might say, a margin of hope. The comedian, to be sure, gives the audience not something to laugh at so much as a way to address suffering and loss that is not a negation of it so much as a way of facing it with some kind of intelligence which, in turn, bears on our freedom.
When I first started reading Marc Maron’s book Attempting Normal, I was astonished to learn that he grew up in a house with a psychotic father. Like the comedian Marc Maron, I also grew up in a household with a brilliant psychotic father. And like him, I also felt like, because of my life growing up, I was also “attempting normal.” Reading this book for the first time, I was so excited to learn how he, through humor, addressed the suffering he went through by virtue of being the child of a psychotic. Like Maron, I became very interested in humor. And when I started reading his book, I knew he would approach it in ways that would make perfect sense to me. Through humor he found a way into a way of life he had, since youth, never known. And although he would never “be” normal, at the very least he could “attempt” it. This very thought is one I know intimately. To be sure, I feel that I “attempt” it in nearly everything I do. And there is something comical and something very sad about that fact.
To be sure, as a result of my experience, I have spent most of my life trying to put the pieces together. Along the way, it occurred to me that, as a result of my odd and brilliant father, and the psychotic experiences I had been a part of, I had, like Maron, become a schlemiel. In one of my first blog entries I called myself a schlemiel and a son of a schlemiel. It stuck me that this is appropriate because, from what little experience I have of psychotic individuals (I was raised by one) I can say that they are, by and large, schlemiels. They dream big and often reinterpret reality to fit into the their psychotic narrative (in which they are the winners and they control the show). However, unlike the schlemiel, the psychotic is far from a nebbish. He or she goes out of her way to make reality conform to his or her vision. The psychotic is not simply living in an imaginary world; they actually change reality. And this often gets them in trouble. To be sure, my father was arrested several times and was thrown into many mental institutions because of his psychotic actions (and by psychotic I don’t mean violent but…unusual). In the film Shlemiel (2011), by Chad Derrick, I recount some of these experiences. And, as a filmmaker, Derrick was interested in why I turned to this comic character and how I, like Maron, attempted normal.
Maron’s retelling of his father’s psychosis has a comic element that touches me and inspires me to write my own account. For this reason, I’d like to briefly discuss some of Maron’s stories and bring together what makes them not only a lesson for me but for anyone who wants to understand who humor relates to madness and suffering. Being the children of psychotic parents, and not being psychotic ourselves, we can laugh at the stories and gain some kind of understanding of our parents and ourselves.
Maron begins his account of his father’s psychosis and its relationship to his life by noting the saddest pat of his father’s madness; namely, the times his father had a psychotic episode:
The most peculiar, sad, and entertaining part of living with a manic-depressive is the timing of erratic emotional behavior, whether it is up or down. My father has had some really impressive mood events. (39)
The first event Maron recounts – vis-à-vis his father’s timing – is his graduation from university. He notes how his father – just like mine – was the Valedictorian of his high school class. He also notes how his father was deemed “the center” and the “wunderkind” of the family. He was, as Maron says, “mythic in the family. The doctor, the genius, the golden one.” I find this description so close to my own, because my father was also regarded in this way. And, to be sure, he regarded himself as a legend as well. (He was a Valedictorian, also, at Columbia University, went on to receive the prestigious NASA fellowship, and went on to a promising career.)
However, Maron, strangely like myself, had to live with his father’s high estimation of himself, his mind, and is capabilities. Like Maron’s father, my father was also highly selfish and erratic. And like Maron’s father, mine could also be abusive. But what I like most about Maron’s account is how he addresses it; he wonders if his father was consciously manipulating things. I wondered the same about my father:
I had lived with my father’s erratic, selfish, sometimes abusive behavior all my life it was always about him. A midlife diagnosis of bipolarity seemed to be his way of taking an easy way out, at least to my mind. Initially I didn’t buy the diagnosis. Even now, sometimes I don’t know. It’s very hard to determine the validity of a mood disorder when someone is as plain old narcissistic as my dad. I thought he was just a man-child who refused self-awareness and defied wisdom even as his life fell apart around him. When necessary he would blame the “illness.” (39)
His father, in his eyes, was a man-child, a schlemiel. And he sees him as simply refusing self-awareness. This is a fascinating claim because I also thought of myself as more rational than my father and saw him opting out as things went down the tubes. But although the son of the schlemiel may be the rational one, in the end, he is still deeply affected by the erratic nature of his father’s actions. Nonetheless, by recounting it, in this way, Maron gives the background for the comical events his father would spur on him – namely, in moments that would require the greatest seriousness.
In these moments, the inappropriate things his father does are comical; but seen against the background of his life and upbringing, we see the humor as bordering on sadness.
…to be continued….