Please join me this Tuesday night, April 12th at 7:30 to hear John Lavey live at Zanie’s! He’s reading a story as part of That Time of the Month, a show created by his friend Melanie Vare in Los Angeles for funny female storytellers (and one token dude). This month’s topic is overindulgence. You can reserve tickets for half price by using the code “TTOTM” when buying online or at the door.
In the meanwhile, meet John if you don’t know him already! He’s sharing a few thoughts on humor and tragedy today…
Recently, around the dinner table with my wife and two daughters, I noted that it was the date of my late father’s birth. All three of them looked at me with concern. My oldest daughter, a truly empathetic young woman, turned to look at me with her big eyes full of warmth, then grabbed my arm: “Oh Daddy, how old would Opa be today?”
I thought about her question for a second, then started to respond, and I started to chuckle. “Sweety, Opa’s dead. So he won’t be ever be any older than 75. He wasn’t going to be 77 or 78. And you know why?”
“Why?” they asked me, simultaneously, flicking their eyes at each other the way you do in the presence of people who aren’t quite right. At this point, I’m laughing so hard I can’t even talk. It takes me a couple of tries to get the words out.
“Cause he’s dead.”
Thankfully, genetics showed themselves in that moment, and we all laughed and laughed. “Cause he’s dead” is our new favorite punch line in my little family.
Mark Twain said that “humor is tragedy plus time.” I’ve always gravitated to the stories and the storytellers who are able to shift gears between the two. Or able to explore painful episodes with a sense of humor. One story that made an impact on me was David Sedaris’ 2013 story in The New Yorker, “Now We Are Five,” about adult siblings renting a beach house after their youngest sister’s suicide.
The loss of my father in 2013 left me in existential crisis. Writing – specifically using humor as a way to explore difficult or painful experiences – became something I started doing as a form of therapy. Far more legitimate – and with less collateral damage – than my other ideas for how to pass the time. Seeing Sedaris in person and then going to see a friend of mine read at a comic storytelling show based here in Nashville gave me the courage to read my writing in public.
For the past two years, I’ve been writing stories, then reading them in bars or a comedy club. In my day job, as President of Hammock Inc. – a media marketing agency – we work with clients to tell their stories through the creation of print and digital media that goes direct to their customers or members. But I don’t do so much writing as I did at one point in my career. And I never imagined I’d share personal stories outside of a church basement.
As a reader, my most recent favorites in the darkly humorous genre are Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last. Based on the author’s own experience of growing up in England and at the family home in Southern France, the story reflects on the main character’s experience of abuse as a child, then addiction and recovery as a young adult and middle-aged husband and father.
St. Aubyn offers more than the standard treatment of addiction that writers like James Frey have rolled out in memoirs – an inventory of bad behaviors.
The Melrose novels are scathing looks at trauma, self-loathing, infidelity, growing old without grace, the traps of material comfort and really, really bad parenting. They aren’t perfect books, but the honesty and the humor of the writing makes it hard to put them down.
Other titles that veer from tragedy to comedy that I’ve enjoyed:
A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh. Any book that involves being forced to read Dickens to an insane captor is a gem.
A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor. This book of stories is both more violent and funnier than anything Quentin Tarantino has ever managed.
City of Thieves, by David Benioff. The German siege of Leningrad. And a search for fresh eggs to stay alive. Cannibals, Nazis and really, very funny.
Old Filth, by Jane Gardam. A Raj orphan and successful Hong Kong barrister looks back over his life. Bleak beginnings, and a complicated marriage. I always recommend this one.
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. Yes, I do have two books about heroin addicts on my list. This one is an enormous book about a gangster addict doctor in Bombay. Simply beautiful.
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Current producers of That Time of the Month are Chris Pilny, Autumn Rigsby Jones and Christy Bradley James.
Nashville has a community of storytellers (in addition to songwriters) and a number of venues for sharing or listening to stories. The format varies, but often a night has a topic or theme, and storytellers submit stories in advance then read them on stage. Time limits are usually 7 to 10 minutes (which works out to about 700 to 1,000 words).
“Listen to Your Mother,” televised nationally, takes place April 30 at TPAC.
And from me: Clark Akers, I know you’re involved in the storytelling community! I want to connect with you on this topic soon! xo