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My love life is a joke.
My husband, Eric Walsingham, does stand-up comedy and his set is punctuated with punch lines about our marriage. To be clear, none of these punch lines are of the ball-and-chain variety, a style of joke that seems to be mostly, and thankfully, out of fashion.
Eric’s jokes are about the mundane details of our everyday lives together that he somehow twists, shimmies and polishes into hilarious anecdotes. But carving the minutiae of one’s love life into comedy material isn’t exclusive to him. In fact, doing so is so much the norm that it’s rare for comedians to leave the stage without the audience knowing their relationship status. In that way, most comedians’ love lives are, well, jokes.
When Eric booked a recurring spot on a stand-up show in Los Angeles, I became a regular audience member. But here’s the sad truth about being a regular: It stops being funny. I’ve watched the same rotation of comedians take the same stage and tell the same jokes for years. At this point, I know the turns and surprises of their sets by heart, and, like roller coasters, the thrill of comedy is not knowing exactly what will happen next.
You may think I dread these shows, but I don’t. Yes, I’m resigned to the fact that I won’t find many of these sets funny anymore, but I’m entertained by other elements, like watching Eric stand on a stage and attempt to work the crowd. There is something deeply endearing in watching him find pleasure in an activity I would find excruciating.
The strangers in the room also provide entertainment. I take delight in noting what an audience finds funny, offensive, or dull. I also enjoy the creative process of comedians tightening their sets — their deliveries punchier, the jokes sharper, their limbs looser — as shows go by. What I’ve come to most look forward to, are the updates about the comedians’ love lives. By sitting in the audience, show after show, I’ve been able to piece together the larger stories behind their jokes — that is, without much nuance or emotional detail. I’ve watched a cynical comedian (whose schtick is practically lecturing the audience), separate from his wife, reconcile with his wife, and finally, file for divorce. Now divorced, he styles his hair with a lot of product. I don’t know what that means, but I’ve noticed it nonetheless.
Another comedian, who’s beautiful and does a whole, “Hey, buddy, eyes up here” thing, was engaged to a man who had previously dated a swimsuit model. So the comedian turned her his-ex-girlfriend-is-a-swimsuit-model insecurity into punch lines. Suddenly one show, she reverted back to jokes about dating men in Los Angeles and no longer wore an engagement ring. My inner curiosity is as loud and impolite as a city block, but I’d never actually ask what happened. But, in what may be a happy ending, the last time I saw her perform, she told a joke about her first date with an actor who played the love interest in a late ’90s romantic comedy.
Here’s the time I gasped: One male comedian always told a joke about a woman who had “Why Men Love Bitches,” by Sherry Argov, on her nightstand. I especially hated this joke because I, too, have read that book. During one fateful show, a female comedian took the stage and talked about how she once hooked up with an insecure male comedian who made fun of the books on her nightstand, notably, “Why Men Love Bitches.” My jaw dropped. “At least I know how to read,” she said, shooting a raised eyebrow and self-satisfied smile toward the back of the room where the male comedian stood. I haven’t heard him make that joke again since.
I often feel like a privileged member of the audience, as if I’ve seen all the episodes and the rest of the audience is simply tuning into the second season. Still, I’m just another neutral face in the crowd from which the comedian is attempting to elicit laughter. So, yes, I know these comedians don’t know me, but I’m rooting for them, not even so much for their comedy success, but for them to find love. Sure, get a Netflix special, but more important, find someone who doesn’t mock the books on your nightstand.
Audiences might feel an intimate connection with comedians, singers, actors, and whoever else might be onstage sharing something seemingly vulnerable. But that intimacy is a facade. Whatever the performer reveals is a half-truth chiseled into an art form meant to elicit a specific emotion, like laughter. The audience isn’t privy to the heartache or embarrassment or disappointment of real life.
For instance, Eric has Type 1 diabetes and one joke recounts my falling deep into an online forum called something like Wives of Diabetics. The audience laughs at his joke, but what sparked my reading these threads was a night during which Eric’s blood sugar had been so low that he needed emergency attention. In the middle of the night, I rolled over and felt that Eric’s chest was covered in sweat. I knew excessive sweat was a side effect of low blood sugar, so I nudged him awake. He wasn’t making sense or even registering who I was, and I had to act under the crushing weight of panic. I called 911.
For the record, Eric’s diabetes, which he’s had since he was 3, is controlled, but even well-managed diabetes can result in scary moments of one’s sugar being too low or too high, or at least that’s what everyone on those forums writes to each other. I read those forums in the sleepless nights of the following weeks. I was too afraid to sleep, lest Eric’s blood sugar drop in the middle of the night and I not be awake to help. I was shocked at the information I didn’t know and felt guilty that I hadn’t been more proactive in learning about the disease. Eric was mostly just annoyed at the absurd questions he’d wake up to every morning, one of which was about the anonymous woman who claimed her husband bit her as a result of her diabetes. And then, Eric distilled this entire experience into a joke that makes audiences laugh, a joke that even makes me laugh.
Because I know the difficult truths of the realities that Eric has harvested for jokes, I occasionally wonder what other comedians might be leaving out of their sets. What are the difficult truths at the center of their funniest jokes?
What I do definitely know about comedy, from these years of watching stand-up, is that jokes are mostly just painful experiences dressed in silly, shiny costumes, and one’s love life tends to fit in the silliest and shiniest costume of them all.