What was the purpose of my human?
I began to think a lot about how autism and PTSD have so much in common. And I started to worry, because I had both. Could I ever untangle them? I’d always been told that the way out of trauma was through a cohesive narrative. I had a cohesive narrative, but I was still at the mercy of my traumas. They’re all part of my soup, but the onions still stung.
And at that point, I realized that I’d been telling my stories for laughs. I’d been trimming away the darkness, cutting away the pain and holding on to my trauma for the comfort of my audience. I was connecting other people through laughs, yet I remained profoundly disconnected.
What was the purpose of my human?
I did not have an answer, but I had an idea. I had an idea to tell my truth, all of it, not to share laughs but to share the literal, visceral pain of my trauma. And I thought the best way to do that would be through a comedy show. And that is what I did.
I wrote a comedy show that did not respect the punchline, that line where comedians are expected and trusted to pull their punches and turn them into tickles. I did not stop.
I punched through that line into the metaphorical guts of my audience. I did not want to make them laugh. I wanted to take their breath away, to shock them, so they could listen to my story and hold my pain as individuals, not as a mindless, laughing mob. And that’s what I did, and I called that show “Nanette.”
Now, many —
Now, many have argued that “Nanette” is not a comedy show. And while I can agree “Nanette” is definitely not a comedy show, those people are still wrong because they have framed their argument as a way of saying I failed to do comedy. I did not fail to do comedy. I took everything I knew about comedy — all the tricks, the tools, the know-how — I took all that, and with it, I broke comedy. You cannot break comedy with comedy if you fail at comedy.
Flaccid be thy hammer.
That was not my point. The point was not simply to break comedy. The point was to break comedy so I could rebuild it and reshape it, reform it into something that could better hold everything I needed to share, and that is what I meant when I said I quit comedy.
Now, it’s probably at this point where you’re going, “Yeah, cool, but what are the three ideas, exactly? It’s a bit vague.”
I’m glad I pretended you asked.
Now, I’m sure there’s quite a few of you who have already identified three ideas. A smart crowd, by all accounts, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
But you might be surprised to find out that I don’t have three ideas. I told you I had three ideas, and that was a lie. That was pure misdirection — I’m very funny.
What I’ve done instead is I’ve taken whole handfuls of my ideas as seeds, and I’ve scattered them all throughout my talk.
And why did I do that? Well, apart from shits and giggles, it comes down to something my grandma always used to say. “It’s not the garden, it’s the gardening that counts.”
And “Nanette” taught me the truth to that truism. I fully expected by breaking the contract of comedy and telling my story in all its truth and pain that that would push me further into the margins of both life and art. I expected that, and I was willing to pay that cost in order to tell my truth.
But that is not what happened. The world did not push me away. It pulled me closer. Through an act of disconnection, I found connection. And it took me a long time to understand that what is at the heart of that contradiction is also at the heart of the contradiction as to why I can be so good at something I am so bad at.
You see, in the real world, I struggle to talk to people because my neurodiversity makes it difficult for me to think, listen, speak and process new information all at the same time.
But onstage, I don’t have to think. I prepare my thinks well in advance. I don’t have to listen. That is your job.
And I don’t really have to talk, because, strictly speaking, I’m reciting. So all that is left is for me to do my best to make a genuine connection with my audience.
And if the experience of “Nanette” taught me anything, it’s that connection depends not just on me. You play a part. “Nanette” may have begun in me, but she now lives and grows in a whole world of other minds, minds I do not share.
But I trust I am connected. And in that, she is so much bigger than me, just like the purpose of being human is so much bigger than all of us. Make of that what you will.
Thank you, and hello.