“A laugh is formed when the storyteller creates tension, and then, with the punch line, releases it.” -Steve Martin, Born Standing Up
In the wake of the incredible damage that Hurricane Irene brought to countless towns and villages in Vermont, many have offered aid anyway they can. For most, that has meant pitching in to help clear rubble and coordinate relief efforts. Numerous benefit concerts have sprung up to offer aid to the many flood victims as well. Legendary jam band Phish performed their first concert in Vermont in 7 years, raising over $1 million in one night for those displaced by the storm. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals raised $300,000 more.
Downtown Brandon (Image by WingsOverVermont.com, Click For More Amazing Pictures)
Still, I was surprised when comedian Tony Bates asked me to be a part of a Hurricane Irene relief comedy show in Brandon, a small town in Vermont that sustained major damage in the storm. Truthfully, I was more apprehensive than excited. I wanted to help any way I could, but the last thing I wanted to do was tell jokes in the wake of a disaster that brought with it so much destruction and pain. I had experienced the hurricane firsthand, and it had been more frightening than funny.
Yet I’ve always sensed that there’s something significant about comedy. Emotionally, and biologically, laughter has been proven to be incredibly valuable. And comedy is essentially the quest to find life funny. All of it. Even the parts that seem like they’ll only ever be painful. So I agreed to do the show.
On September 30th, one month after the flooding had closed Brandon to outside traffic and destroyed a significant portion of the downtown’s roads and businesses, six Vermont comedians traveled to Brandon Town Hall to raise money for the amazingly-titled “Brand-Aid.”
Tony Bates, Chad Smith, John Lyons, Kit Rivers, Pat Lynch, Colin Ryan
Brandon Town Hall (below) is a beautiful, historic building that had not only suffered flood damage, but also sat within a hundred feet of unbelievable destruction. Just on the other side of the town’s main road, a new river bed of boulders and debris had formed. Buildings were hollowed out by the water, weakened, some even destroyed. The damage was staggering.
Right In Front Of Brandon Town Hall (Photo by Lee Kahrs, Brandon Reporter)
In preparing for the show, I had resolved to be as funny as I could possibly be. I knew I couldn’t change what these people were going through, but maybe I could at least make them laugh hard for a little while. As soon as the show started, you could just tell it was going to be a special night. More than 100 people packed into the town hall, looking forward to an evening where they could take their minds off of what they were going through.
Since I was last to perform, I sat out in the audience and watched as my friends and fellow comics were as funny as I’ve ever seen them. But the best line of the night didn’t come from a comic. It came from a heckler. And not just any heckler…
It was early in the opening set, when Chad Smith was getting the Brandon crowd relaxed, laughing, and enjoying themselves. Suddenly a firm voice from the back yelled out, “Watch your language.” The angry voice belonged to a small, elderly woman sitting in the back row. Her name was Priscilla, and she was clearly a bit of a character. It was an awkward moment for all involved. Most of all Chad. Despite being a tall, dominating guy who coaches college rugby and drinks beer by the pitcher, Chad’s a thoughtful guy. The crowd cracked up as Chad attempted to clean up his language by using the word “poopy.”
And then during John Lyon’s set, which featured considerably stronger language than poopy, Priscilla quickly became fed up once more, and yelled out, “Bring on Gene Childers.” John handled it very well too, asking why anyone would be asking to hear jokes from Gene Wilder.
From my spot in the crowd, two things were clear to me: One) the crowd was very uncomfortable. These guys had come down to volunteer their time and make people laugh, and for their troubles they were getting yelled at. I could tell this wasn’t a tough crowd, it was just a crowd that included one very vocal, and very unhappy, attendee. Two) that vocal, unhappy attendee had misread the calendar, and actually thought Gene Childers was supposed to be performing. No wonder she was unhappy. She came for jazz, not jokes. Priscilla left soon after, and I could actually feel the room change as the crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Having experienced all this from the crowd’s perspective, when I took the stage about 30 minutes later as the last act of the evening I decided to begin by sharing my thoughts on the whole Priscilla situation…
It was a powerful feeling to get that kind of crowd response from what were really just some off-the-cuff observations. But mostly I was glad that I had aimed the joke in the right direction: at our plight as heckled performers. That’s part of what comedians do – we observe things. And when we have to, we absorb embarrassment. Everyone was allowed to laugh, not so much at Priscilla’s expense, but at ours.
And that’s not all. After the show, a man walked backstage and introduced himself with a grin. “I’m Gene Childers!” he announced.
I Actually Met Gene Childers!
I had no idea he was even in the audience. But it made my night to know that he had been sitting there the whole time, laughing along with everyone else.
But really, all I did was light-heartedly address an uncomfortable moment everyone had experienced, so we could laugh about it. And in a larger and more significant way, that’s what the whole night of comedy achieved. We helped to make an uncomfortable experience okay to laugh about. For one night at least, we released some of the tension.
L-R: John Lyons, Kit Rivers, Pat Lynch, Colin Ryan, Chad Smith (just out of frame: Tony Bates)
By the time it was all over, both the comics and the crowd knew it had been a great night. A night that raised over $1,350 for Brandon. A night where over 100 people sat, within yards of unbelievable devastation… and laughed hard. “Laughter therapy,” someone called it. We couldn’t have received a higher compliment.
Because that’s exactly what we came to Brandon to do.
We came to bring laughter after the storm.