Laughing and Crying: Julia Ingalls

Essayist Julia Ingalls talks about the death of her ex-fiance.

In this five-part series, comedians and humorists write about their experiences with the grieving process and its effect on their comedy writing. Today, writer and humorist Julia Ingalls tells us about the death of her ex-fiance, and the dark period that ensued.


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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?

Julia Ingalls: I lost my ex-fiance to a brain hemmorage when we were both 29, but oddly: He made it okay for me to accept the part of myself I always thought of as “hilariously uncouth.”

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?

We were standing on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles and an ambulance, sirens-blaring, passed us by. Without thinking, he clapped both hands to my ears, to “protect” me from the noise. It remains one of those memories that, possibly because it’s so compact, never loses its resonant memento-quality.

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?

I encountered what I think of as a “cavern period,” wherein I lost my ability to pretend that life was anything but incredibly tenuous and short. It released me from certain cultural preoccupations (“Oh no – I’m a renter!”) and refocused me on others (“I need to write something of value IMMEDIATELY, and it has to be authentic”).

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?

For a while, comedy was difficult. I entered into a really dark humor period — films by David Lynch felt more like comedies, for example. And then I realized that to be able to face a terrible event and laugh at it is much preferred to spending years trying to kill a sadness demon with 40 proof.

In terms of jokes, anyone who can make other people laugh with all the crushing shit we collectively experience is, in my opinion, kind of miraculous.

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?

I’m working on a book-length piece now about my life experience. Sean’s life and death figures heavily in it. It’s been difficult writing about him, but I’ve also found it to be overdue. When staring down the gun barrel of mortality, it’s comforting to know you and yours laughed it up anyway.

Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Salon, Dwell, Guernica, The LA Weekly, The Nervous Breakdown, Radial, and 89.9 KCRW. She's into it.