Recently our family attended Robinhood: A Tale of Rotting Ham at the Macks Inn Playhouse in Island Park, Idaho. If you are ever in Yellowstone Country I would highly recommend it. The prime rib is excellent (I remember from times when I could eat and the family confirms that things haven’t changed). And the low-brow, fun-loving mockupastiche (that’s my own word) that follows dinner is hilarious. Think of a clean, family friendly Saturday Day Night Live skit-type genre. Going there has now become an annual family tradition—the highlight of our annual trip to the family cabin, in fact.
As I was watching the show and thinking about how my sides hurt from laughing so hard, it dawned on me that I’ve never really told the owner (who also stars in the show) how much the show has meant to me and my family. At the meet and greet with the cast after the show I’ve always said things like, “Great show!” or “Loved the show!” But that’s so shallow. It doesn’t make a connection. It doesn’t express how much this has come to mean to me and my family.
But now that I see everyone and everything differently, I decided that this year I would let the owner know what I really thought. I waited until all the other guests had filtered out of the theater and the meet and greet was largely wrapped up and then I pulled the owner aside. All throughout the show I put myself in his shoes, trying to imagine the pressure of being the boss, cooking for all those people, having the pressure of entertaining them, and then cleaning up afterwards. And he might just have to do all of this on a night when he wasn’t feeling particularly funny, when he was feeling sick, or when he was just feeling tired from the grind and trauma of life that we all experience. I put my empathy skills to work and realized what an amazing person and performer this guy really was.
So, after the show, I told him how I felt. I told him how hard I thought it must be to just gut it out every single night and put on a show, even when he might not feel like putting on a show. I told him what an amazing gift he had and how much it meant to me and my family. I told him how much I appreciated him. He expressed some deep and sincere thanks to me. And then I left and walked out to the parking lot to join my family. The owner came out a few minutes later, chasing me down with some cinnamon rolls that they hadn’t been able to sell at the show. He handed the family an entire tray of them.
As I lay in bed that night I thought about what an amazing gift of empathy this man must have. How do you make people laugh? You must be able to speak the language of the people. That takes empathy. You must find a common connection. That takes enormous empathy. What makes a comedian funny is that he “gets it.” He or she hits the nail on the head with incisive, spot-on insights that tap in to our common experience. You can’t do that without a lot of empathy.
And then I thought about how we develop empathy, and realized the eternal truth that empathy is the product of deep abiding pain, suffering, loss, hurt or grief of some sort. Sure, with some people, it’s just a gift. But with most, it comes the hard way. It comes from being a single mom, being underemployed at a job where you deal with the abusive, disrespectful and ungrateful public, or suffering tragedy, illness or tremendous pain. It doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t come cheap. When you think of a lot of the great “funny” people that have lived—take, for example, Robin Williams—you realize that, behind the curtain, there’s a veil of tears. There’s deep understanding and compassion for the human condition. And, for some, their hearts are just too enormous for the world to contain, or so it seems.
So hats off to all those of you who make us laugh! Hats off to my friend who runs Macks Inn Playhouse in Island Park, Idaho. Thank you for sharing your gift with the world. Thank you for channeling your tears into a brilliant, empathic form of communication that brings us to tears, feeds our bellies, and is balm to our wounded souls.
Empathy takes many forms. Comedy and laughter is one of the best. Empathy is also reciprocal. Empathizing with another person seems to provoke empathy from them. That is how we move beyond the superficial peripheries of “polite” social discourse and drill down to the core of each other. That is how we become built to love. That is how we slowly and gradually build a world that is built to love.