She has a Groucho Marx tattoo on her left wrist, and a biblically tinged Sufjan Stevens lyric inked on her right arm. So maybe it makes sense that radio producer Lily Percy has been exploring how people use humor to cope with the punches thrown by life.
“They sound obvious, but the two insights that I took away are: 1) humor connects us to each other, and 2) laughter helps us heal.”
The result is a 15-episode season of podcast interviews featuring an unexpected lineup of guests. A few are widely known – such as comedian Margaret Cho, “Waiting to Exhale” author Terry McMillan and “La Cucaracha” cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz – but there’s also a drag-queen-turned-rabbi, a sexologist, a Mormon journalist and a financial writer.
The project, called the C.O.O.L. (Creating Our Own Lives) podcast, was created by the same studio that produces “On Being with Krista Tippett,” a public radio staple that tackles spirituality, science and other deep thoughts.
For my money, the series would be stronger if it included conversations with experts on the psychology of mirth, the rise of dark comedy and perhaps the “science” of jokes (comic Jim Brogan comes to mind for the last one). But Percy cast such a wide net for voices, there’s probably something to intrigue any listener (or reader – the website also includes transcripts of each interview).
Journalists, for example, may relate to fantasy writer Daniel José Older, a former New York City paramedic who used gallows levity to “alchemize tragedy into humor” at his old workplace. As he explains to Percy, “You’re not going to be a good paramedic if you’ve fully closed off your heart, because then you just don’t care enough to do the job. At the same rate, you can’t fully just cry over every patient and carry that with you everywhere you go, because you will be a bad paramedic. You’ll be busy thinking about the last patient and not what’s in front of you. So what you learn to do is find a balance wherein you can laugh about other people’s tragedies [yet] not become a cold-hearted, horrible person.”
It’s reminiscent of one of my favorite passages from Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” where McMurphy breaks into hysterics because “he knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy. He knows there’s a painful side … but he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain.”
Via email, I asked Percy to discuss the background of the podcast, her own comedy heroes and how her unusual upbringing (she’s the Colombian-born daughter of missionaries to Florida) influences her work.
The cast of characters you interviewed was all over the map – a rabbi, a Mormon, a sex scientist, an architect. If any three of them walked into a bar, it’s the setup for a joke. How and why did you choose these people, as opposed to a more famous/conventional lineup of comedy practitioners (such as humorist Dave Barry, actor/writer Mindy Kaling and/or someone from the Onion or “SNL”)?
When we were brainstorming potential guests for Season 2 around the theme of humor as a tool for survival, we consciously decided to feature only a few comedians – since their job is often to turn their own dramas into jokes – and instead focus on people from a variety of fields and backgrounds to illustrate how humor is used by all of us as a survival mechanism, not just comedy pros. This point was important to get across, personally, because it is what I use to navigate my life and the world, and I had a sense that I was not alone in this.
Was the presidential election a factor in selecting humor as a coping mechanism for your theme?
This was a complete coincidence. When we recorded interviews for the first season in 2015 (under the theme of running as a spiritual practice), we already had Season 2’s humor theme picked out. But as we started recording interviews in the summer of 2016, with the campaign in full swing, it became clear that we all needed a good laugh to get through the news cycle, and so the election naturally came up in the interviews that we did at that time. Plus, we were interviewing a former “VEEP!” staff writer, so I knew that it was definitely going to come up in that conversation.
You asked each of your subjects who made them laugh the most as a child and what humor provides that they can’t find anywhere else. What are your answers to those same questions?
The person who made me laugh the most as a child is still the person who makes me laugh the most today: my brother. We’re very close and therefore say the stupidest, most crude “Porky’s”-esque stuff to each other; nothing is off-limits. Comedy is the way that we communicate, and we make fun of everything together: The more tragic, dark or inappropriate, the more we will make fun of it.
I have to steal “VEEP!” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” writer Alexis Wilkinson’s answer to the question of what humor offers me: release. Whenever I am stressed or sad or freaking out about some minute problem, I always turn to comedy to flip the situation. Whether that’s by making a joke about how silly I’m acting or the situation is, or by watching the Mel Brooks/Carl Reiner episode from “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” or this unedited clip from The Tonight Show with Bradley Cooper and Jimmy Fallon (which I watch every single time I’m feeling sad), laughing always reminds me that, as my favorite film critic, Mark Kermode says, “It’s all going to be all right in the end. And if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end.”
What is your favorite comedy scene, passage or moment and why?
The Louis C.K. bit about Jzan the Puss. His execution from beginning to end is astounding. I love watching him think through the joke as he is saying it, the way he pauses at exactly the right moments, letting the joke build. It seems effortless and natural, but that’s because he is a genius. By the time he says “You’ve gotta protect your kids,” I have actually stopped breathing from laughing so hard.
What are the top one or two insights you hope listeners will gain from Season 2? What was the most interesting or unexpected thing you encountered?
They sound obvious, but the two insights that I took away are: 1) humor connects us to each other, and 2) laughter helps us heal. These came up in some way in every single interview, but they were especially surprising and resonant in my conversation with journalist Mark McCleary. He’s from Belfast, and until I talked with him and spent time there last year, I had no idea that I’d find such a deep tie to my Colombian roots in Northern Ireland and in how they use humor to survive death, loss and trauma.
“As we started recording interviews in the summer of 2016, with the campaign in full swing, it became clear that we all needed a good laugh to get through the news cycle.”
The first season of your podcast focused on running as a meditative/spiritual practice. The new season examines humor. How do you pick themes and what topics are under consideration for the future?
So far, we’ve been going with themes that fit On Being Studios’ brand of “exploring the messiness and mystery of what it means to be human.” They’ve also been themes I’m especially interested in exploring as, selfishly, I learn from listening to other people, and my hope is that others do too. We’ve just started recording for the third season, which will feature different people talking about movies as sacred spaces to learn the big life lessons about ourselves and the world. Our first interview was with writer Gabrielle Bellot, talking about how Hayao Miyazaki’s “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” helped her shape her own identity as a trans woman. Movies are my form of church, so this is especially close to my heart, and I’m extremely excited to talk to others who feel the same. Having said all that, we would love to hear from folks about potential future themes, so please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I read that your family moved from Colombia to Florida when you were 4 years old, and that your parents were missionaries. I’m curious what prompted the relocation, and did they continue missionary work in the U.S.?
It’s always odd to tell people that my parents were Colombian missionaries who moved to the U.S. rather than the other way around. My parents moved us from Popayán to Miami in 1986 to start Spanish-language house churches. We were only supposed to stay in Miami two years, but the church that my parents worked for in Colombia kept extending their contract. My parents still have a small 20- to 40-person church that meets weekly in the same house that they live in.
How has your parents’ religious background influenced you and/or your work?
Because I grew up living in a house that also served as a church meeting house, people were always coming in and out of it. And because most of our family was still in Colombia, the church community became our family in the U.S. I think that constantly being surrounded by adults – most of whom were much older than me – taught me to be quiet in order to listen to their stories, something that I clearly took into my work. I also think that my father’s faith, in particular, which has always been centered with curiosity and big questions, modeled a way for me to look at difficult subjects throughout my life. And I think that’s helped me approach my work as a producer and an interviewer.
What does the tattoo on your right arm say, and is there a story behind it?
The tattoo says, “I always knew you.” It’s the first line of Sufjan Stevens’ “Vito’s Ordination Song,” off his album “Greetings from Michigan.” That song has always been one that I turn to for comfort when I’m feeling particularly isolated or too in my head, so the tattoo serves as a constant reminder of how not alone I am. On a lighter note, I also have a Groucho Marx tattoo on my left wrist.