Laughing and Crying: Sarah Bee

Sarah Bee, writer of many things, including the picture book The Yes, talks about how dark humor helped her deal with the death of her father.

In this five-part series, comedians and humorists write about their experiences with the grieving process and its effect on their comedy. Today, writer Sarah Bee tells us about the death of her father, and the importance of dark humor.


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The Bygone Bureau: Tell us a little about your loved one. Did this person inform your comedic sensibility? In what way?

Sarah Bee: My absentee father Bill was a highly intelligent professional gambler, sometime English professor and an alcoholic, probably with some undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder. He was somewhat Jewish, though not as Jewish as I had assumed (I didn’t realize that my grandmother, who I never met, wasn’t Jewish). He definitely amped up his Jewishness and his Americanness, having spent the second half of his life in London and always needing to be the center of attention. He made himself into a bit of a caricature, although he was always in control of that and it didn’t get away from him.

I always describe him as being like Woody Allen possessed by the spirit of Jack Nicholson, and I’ve never been able to come up with a more accurate shorthand for him.

I think he did inform my comedic sensibility, from afar: I’m English and grew up in England, but I definitely have an ear for the American way of making the funny. There’s a fantastic interplay between the two nations’ comedic sense. He loved to flaunt his way with words and was very entertaining. He would dominate any conversation to the extent that it would almost be a stand-up routine, complete with nicely-turned lines you’d heard before. I think I have a similar predilection for wordplay, winkling out the absurdity in phrases, but I can’t say whether or not it came from him.

I didn’t spend a lot of time with him, but I do remember quite a few of his colorful phrases, and I’ve related them to others complete with accent and arm-waving. He once complained that his then-girlfriend didn’t have any ice in her freezer: “I couldn’t believe it, she didn’t have any ice. You come to my house, half my house is made out of ice.” He described his adventures with his best friend, saying, “We were never on the straight and narrow, we were wildly rollicking from side to side.” He left me a phone message asking, “How are you where are you when are you?”

It was all a performance for him, all stuff calculated to induce admiration and submission in others, but also he was genuinely funny and he really loved words and bending them into crazy configurations. That’s certainly something I shared with him, and if he did pass on some of those word-genes then hey, thanks, dad.

Can you tell a short (maybe funny, maybe not) anecdote that encapsulates this person? Has thinking about the events of this story changed for you in the grief process, and if so, how?

It’s a second-hand story, like most of my stories about my dad. My uncle tells me that once, during Bill’s brief marriage to my mother, they were all on their way to some evening event and he insisted they stop so he could place some bet or other. Shortly afterwards he found out that he’d won, and was full of beans. He tried to entice various people to dance with him and couldn’t, so he went whirling around the dance floor on his own. He had a particular manic energy that swept all before it, and he loved to win.

I suppose I’m more inclined now to see it as a happy story, rather than as another manifestation of his dysfunction. I think you naturally try to account for a life that has passed, and when the relationship is difficult and full of absence and space and misery and the person was not the greatest example of humanity, you have to accept that in the end you must reconcile yourself to your ambiguity.

Bill had good in him, certainly, and had the capacity to feel and express joy and could even spread it around a little. You’re kind of locked into loving your parents whether you want to or not.

Describe your experience with grief a little. Did it interrupt your desire to write or tell jokes? If so, in what way? When did that desire return, if it did? What happened that made it come back?

My grief was almost inverted, since I barely knew Bill and he wasn’t really a father to me in any meaningful sense. So I felt like I skipped it, and that that was very lucky, but I felt the absence of grief just as I had felt the absence of a father for 34 years. So it was like hyper-normality, and an unpleasant blankness.

I wanted to experience the kind of grief that we naturally dread in life, but I think that grief is like a flushing-out of all the emotional energy that has built up in your relationship with another person, and there was just nothing there to flush out. I was relieved in some ways and felt calm, but there was something a bit askew about it and I felt not quite myself for some months. It was partly because I knew I wasn’t really grieving for him so much as for myself. Maybe my sense of humor did take a bit of a knock, but then I didn’t feel very sociable for quite a while so it was all tied up with that.

I think it increased my desire for funny stuff, though. Right away I wanted to sweep everything away with fun and laughter and silliness, just to relax and get back to myself. People find it so difficult to know what to say and how to behave around death and dying, and since I wasn’t experiencing grief in the “usual” way, I felt quite liberated. I wanted to put other people at their ease by making fun, and also try to scandalize my friends a bit with my inappropriateness (it didn’t work, they were totally there with me, which was great).

I don’t think Bill would have disapproved. I wanted to find the comedy in the situation — comedy rounds out tragedy, there’s a natural balance there. There is a daftness around death which will come out like a burp, one way or another, and I fully embraced it.

How has experiencing grief changed the way you think about comedy in general or certain jokes in particular? How is it different, and how is it the same? Are there any sorts of jokes that you were comfortable with before that you aren’t now, or vice versa?

I’ve got a fairly dark sense of humor anyway and the experience hasn’t affected that or my perspective on comedy at all. I’m not crazy about jokes to do with male parents, but then those have always made me sad, so there’s no change there.

I’ve always thought it’s important to address dark stuff in comedy, although it needs to come from an essentially decent place — then you can go as far as you want and it will never be truly offensive. You’ve got to know and care what you’re doing and not just be a mindlessly provocative dick about it. Nobody needs that.

It’s been sometimes said that humor comes from pain. Has any comedy writing come directly out of your experience with the loss of a loved one? Is there anything funny about death or grief, whether in the abstract or in your personal experience?

It was natural to me to put some levity into my writing about Bill’s death and its aftermath. It’s all pretty sonorous and bleak stuff, so good writing practice and sanity dictate that you need a smattering of amusingness. It’s not laugh-out-loud stuff, but it’s lighter.

In the abstract, I’m not sure there’s a lot that’s inherently funny about death. I don’t think our relationship with it is especially healthy, although of course it’s incredibly difficult and we must give ourselves a break about it — but if we didn’t fetishize and elevate it in the way that we do, and if we didn’t force it from our minds and fail to deal with it, then we might be able to see more humor in it. It’s got to be funny that entire human beings just disappear. It’s ridiculous. But it is the most natural thing in the world.

I think there’s some comedy in the fact that you can say anything you like about a person once they’re dead and they’ve got no comeback. There’s a certain giddiness when you absorb that knowledge. Of course you mostly want to say good things, but it’s a bit of a thrill to know that you can go, “That guy, he was kind of a fucker” and the guy in question can’t come back with anything. Bill would have been infuriated by this, but also he could have taken it.

I don’t think it’s disrespectful — it’s more disrespectful to sanitize real, flawed human beings once they’ve gone, bleaching out all their faults and presenting them as more palatable pastiches of their true selves. It’s like posthumous Photoshop and I don’t want that done to me after I die (OK, I do, but my point remains).

Sarah Bee is a writer of things who gets all squirmy when asked to use the third person. She was born by the Thames to a Yorkshirewoman and a San Franciscan. She does go on about dogs a bit. She is really, really tired.