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Finding Humor in Dark Times

What these comedy professionals learned about mental health in 2020.

by James Napoli
December 16, 2020 | Living
Collage of four headshots of young people, humor in dark times
From left: Ron Metellus, Lorelei Ramirez, Karen Chee and a self-portrait by Lars Kenseth  |  Credit: All images courtesy // Lorelei Ramirez photo by Daniel Rampulla

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been one of the most challenging years of our lives. 

And, sadly, that may be the only thing our deeply divided country can actually agree upon.

Between the coronavirus pandemic, worsening economic inequality, a national reckoning with race spurred by high-profile police killings, several climate-related natural disasters and a deeply contentious presidential election, there seems to be little, if anything, to make light of.

Yet, if anyone can find the humor of our current moment, it's the professional comedians whose job is to make us laugh, even — especially — as we grapple with the grim reality of everyday life in 2020.

Rewire spoke with four of the funniest people working in comedy to find out how this year has impacted their careers and how they've been able to find a bit of levity in such dark times.

Karen Chee, stand-up comedian and writer, Late Night with Seth Meyers

On her career in 2020:

The day-to-day has completely changed. We don't go into work anymore, which is a huge difference because so much of the job is social. Writing for Late Night usually feels like summer camp — all the writers are in the same room, and we spend the day doing bits and hanging out between deadlines.

Now we write remotely and only have Zoom for meetings or occasional hangs after work. The job is a lot more solitary and takes place in my bed or, if I'm feeling wild, on the floor. 

I mostly write topical jokes for work, and so much stuff that happened this year was really challenging to joke about. That being said, writing jokes is an extremely easy and risk-free job compared to so many others, like doctors and nurses and essential workers, so I shouldn't complain.

Big picture, I want to be more intentional about my work and what projects I choose to spend time on. There seems to be a real sense of both urgency and possibility right now to reimagine our culture across the board. I'm really stoked about that.

On mental health and self-care:

Once I realized we were in it for the long haul, my brain completely shut off for, like, three months, and it's been slow to restart. I feel like my friends got back to writing and making stuff a whole lot sooner than I did, and so much of adjusting to the new norm was learning to be more patient with myself. 

I was riddled with anxiety at the beginning, and it's been tricky trying to offload anxiety as often as possible so it doesn't build up and freeze me. I feel calmer these days than I did back in March, but I think I won't accurately know the full toll it's taken on my mental health until much later, if ever.

Self-care has been really tricky. I've spent a lot of time rereading and rewatching stuff. I do this a lot anyway, but I've really amped it up during the pandemic — it's super comforting opening a book and knowing exactly what's going to happen. 

Every single thing feels unstable or uncertain right now, but at least I know I can turn on Paddington 2 and have an excellent two hours.

Ron Metellus, comedy writer, The Onion

On writing about race and police brutality in 2020:

When it comes to writing about race and racism, it's tough because you want to allow yourself the space to just process it, and to be upset or sad. But, as a writer, you also feel this obligation to represent your voice in the room. So, it's frustrating — you're processing and trying to write through it at the same time.

There were a few times this year when I would much rather have had the space to be by myself, but I also feel like The Onion needs to have a comment on these issues, which means I should be stepping up and writing more. It's difficult to balance.

Writing about race, racism and police brutality isn't any more difficult than writing about anything else for me. But, when you're writing about something that has a very clear right and wrong, it can be difficult to not just say what's already been said. That's the hardest thing for me, because especially with Twitter, it's tough to make a point about police brutality that hasn't already been made.

On managing mental health:

One thing we've been trying to do at The Onion is allowing everyone to take as many personal days as we need and not feel like we're letting the team down. 

I've had to develop hobbies for the first time in my adult life. Before, either I was on a show doing stand-up or I could go to my friend's show, and we could hang out afterward. Now, without that, I've had to figure out new things to do.

So, I've golfed a lot this year. I'll walk the course without headphones, and just be by myself for four hours. I'm hiking more, cooking more — just trying to keep myself busy and off of screens.

Not having stand-up also forced me to do more independent projects. I wrote a pilot, and I've also started doing video projects, like funny shorts. It's important to find hobbies that are relatively inexpensive and that you can do when it gets cold and dark in the winter. And you have to find things that aren't going to make you miserable.

Lorelei Ramirez, stand-up comedian, writer, actor and podcaster

On their career in 2020:

Before COVID, I felt like I was finally in a really good place. I was having so much fun on stage, getting invited to cool shows. I was about to do South By Southwest for the first time. All this stuff that I had worked so hard to do was just coming into place. And then this pandemic derailed it, like how it's derailed everyone's lives, and it's shifted my focus a bit.

I've been trying to figure out, what can I contribute now that I can't do live performance? I'm mostly focusing on not-funny stuff. I can't make jokes if not everybody can participate right now.

I started Helpers International with friends in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. We did care packages for people on the front lines and for Black and trans people. We also offered free reiki and yoga, and collected handmade goods to give to people who needed them. I did a fundraiser for my mom and seven low-income women who were basically forced to work during the pandemic. I also did a fundraiser for my dad's hometown in Peru.

Something I can't do is pretend everything's OK and just come up with characters and post them online. That's not my vibe right now, maybe because it's so heavy around me. So I'm trying to redirect my energy into writing and translating my thoughts to words. I'm doing all the projects I told myself I didn't have time for when I was performing every day.

On mental health and self-care:

I would say my mental health has probably been better this year, just because we have to survive, you know? There's no way out of it.

I meditate and do yoga every day, or engage my body in some way. There are things I've always had to do to stay stable and emotionally secure. For me, the most important thing during the pandemic is to take care of my inner self. If I'm not well, I can't take care of other people the way that I want to.

What I've tried to do is activate my community — when I get down, somebody else is up and can bring me up, and I feel like we all have to depend on each other in that way.

On finding levity in dark times:

Go offline. Go off social media when you need to. Live your life. Go outside and say "Hi!" to someone through a mask. It works.

Be a little selfish with how you give out your energy to people and with how you're helping. Care for yourself, like you're caring for a little baby — that's where people should be at. Make sure to offer help. Telling people you're supporting them and thinking about them does a lot.

Death is all around us — like it was before, but it's so close right now. The only way to combat that feeling that death has over you is to live your life and to openly love. Tell your friends, "I love you." Tell your partner. Tell whoever. Love every moment of your day, as much as you can.

Lars Kenseth, New Yorker cartoonist and TV writer

On cartooning during COVID:

I joke about how I am uniquely inured to the forces of a pandemic — being a cartoonist is a very inside-person's job.

Cartooning this year has been great in some ways, because it makes me think about funny stuff when I try to lampoon what's going on right now. 

But that also means you have to reckon with the existential aspect of all this, which is just sad. I don't understand how people can't take this seriously and how the conspiratorial mindset has run rampant across half the country. It's been hard to find what's funny in that.

New Yorker cartoon of couple on couch, humor in dark times

On managing mental health:

I have anxiety issues and panic attacks. Some days will be completely normal, and other days I will just be like, "Oh God, I gotta lie down." Part of what's helped me is having a sense of humor about it.

I've been playing chess with my brother online and playing games with friends on Zoom. It really is important to connect with people as much as you can. 

I'm also playing guitar — leaning into creative pursuits has been really helpful. The other big thing I've been doing is just running a ton. That's helped clear my head.

Mindfulness has helped with anxiety a lot, too. UCLA does podcasts every week at the Mindful Awareness Research Center. That's definitely something I leaned on more in this time. And it's free, which I also enjoy.

This year has been an emotional pressure cooker for everybody. Mindfulness helps give some perspective: Even if now isn't great, you can be OK with not great.

New Yorker cartoon of volcano erupting
Portrait of shaggy-haired local man with arms folded, wearing a cap, in front of pine trees
James Napoli, a former editor at Rewire, is a freelance writer, photographer and radio producer. Find him on Twitter @jamesnapoIi or Instagram @james.napoli.
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