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When humor becomes armor

Comedian Ashley Ray on grief, theater camp, and learning to make herself laugh first.

I was still expected to go to theater camp the day after my dad’s funeral. My mom fought to get a refund from Northern Illinois University, but they said there were no exceptions; I’d have to attend, as I had for the past three summers, or forfeit the money. I didn’t like wasting my mom’s money because we didn’t have much of it.

So after the funeral, I flew right back home. And while I grieved the hardest loss of my life at age 14, my mom drove me out to a college campus in a cornfield so I could spend two weeks zip-zap-zopping. Normally, I’d perform in the final improv or musical theater performance. I stuck to tech that year because, well, my dad had just fucking died and why did they even make me come here? I was miserable. The best performance of the summer goes to my roommate pretending she didn’t hear me crying at night.

Even though my mom told the counselors what had happened, they hadn’t really changed the schedule for me. When we’d play icebreaker games with questions like, “What did you do this summer?” eventually a counselor would suddenly remember, take me to the side, and say I didn’t have to participate. This only brought more attention to the situation. People either knew what happened and felt bad, or it just made them wonder why I was getting special attention. I liked making people laugh for attention. Pity wasn’t really my style.

I didn’t spend all of camp entirely alone. I’d been hanging with this same crew of nerds at the camp for a few summers. They’d still invite me when they’d sneak out of their dorms at night, even if I was just going to be quiet and sulk the entire time. One night, we snuck out to smoke cigarettes we found or stole from somewhere. I don’t remember the exact combination of Truth or Dare or Never Have I Ever that led to it, but at some point, someone asked me a question. I don’t even remember what it was. I just know I was silent and unresponsive, probably just trying to focus all my efforts on seeming normal. Finally, a friend cut through the silence by saying, “Well, her dad did just die.”

I don’t know why, but it made me laugh. Like, a deep, loud laugh that turned into tears, then back into laughter, and back to tears. It was one of those silly things where the way someone says something just gets you. I broke open and realized this is my life now. I just had to get through it and grieve. I had to feel the feelings — something I hadn’t allowed myself to do in the rush to hide from everyone and everything since I’d found out what happened. It was a moment that felt like it gave me permission to tell the truth.

My dad died in a sudden accident. I flew on a red-eye alone from Illinois to Texas to be at his funeral. My parents separated not too long after I was born for a number of reasons I will save for my memoir. The biggest issue is that my dad hadn’t exactly told people about me. It was the ’90s, and secret families were still possible.

The thing is, usually when secret families come up, you’re not the secret family. That wasn’t the case with me. My dad, his wife, and the rest of his immediate family all knew about me, but that was about it. His church and community? Not so much. So, at the funeral when the pastor asked everyone to pray for all of his children and listed everyone by name except for me, what could I do but laugh? My grandma shouted, “And Ashley!” in the middle of the sermon which, honestly, only made it funnier. It is, perhaps, still the greatest snub of my career.

The moment she said my name out loud, I went from invisible to a weighty presence in the room. It was attention, but it was not at all the kind I liked. I wanted to shrink and disappear. As people made their way to give condolences, every person commented on my name being forgotten. They’d apologize or say it was a shame. But I wasn’t going to tell the truth and say it hurt. I made jokes! I put my improv skills to work!

“I’m so sorry he didn’t say your name.”

“Well, I’ve been left off of lists at finer establishments!”

“So sorry we’re meeting for the first time under such sad circumstances.”

“Could be worse; we could be the circumstances.”

I didn’t say any of the clever jokes I used with a line of strangers at my dad’s funeral were actually good. But, if I could play it off, I could get their attention off of me. For the first time, I was using comedy and performance for my own benefit. I was distancing myself from my own story to make everyone else feel better about a weird situation.

At the end of the day, that’s mostly what I thought standup comedy was about. That’s a pretty childish understanding of what comedy is for, though. Like a kid performing for their parents in a talent show, it was more about making them happy. Using comedy to deflect was a great way to get attention without being the center of attention.

I never thought a career as a standup comic and TV writer was actually possible. It seemed like an industry that required Ivy League or fraternity credentials I simply didn’t have. But by the time I started performing regularly in Chicago in 2016, when I was 25, the usual audience at a comedy show had shifted. If my experiences seemed niche in one place, there were now a dozen other showcases or spaces that could help you find an audience.

I love touring and doing the same set from South Bend, Indiana, to Los Angeles. I like seeing what different people relate to in my jokes. I put myself on the line in my routines, and I think that encourages the audience to take that trip with me and open up, too. I was doing comedy to work out my own shit and maybe, if I was lucky, I’d make some people laugh or relate. I realized that’s how you find yourself at your funniest, or at least maybe that’s how you know you’re funny: when you’re trying to laugh even when no one else is around, even at your lowest. At the very least, this points to a sense of humor, and you can run a Twitter account on that alone.

Three weeks after my dad’s funeral, I was at camp, and somehow, I couldn’t stop laughing. During yet another oversharing theater game, I stayed with the group instead of letting a counselor take me to the side. When it was my turn, I talked about my dad dying. I talked about going to his funeral and being a love child who got announced like my life was a Tyler Perry movie. I talked about telling awkward jokes at the reception just to keep people from asking me if I was okay. And I talked about how fucking stupid it felt being at theater camp after all I’d been through; this moment was meant to call out the camp for not refunding my mom, and I’m sure it cut to the administration’s core. After that, I stopped performing other people’s jokes and poems. I started focusing on being my own kind of funny.

For the rest of the summer, and maybe forever after that, I was just processing my own grief in some badly written monologue. I couldn’t tell you if anyone in the room during those camp games laughed or felt anything at all. It didn’t matter. I was performing for myself. I don’t know if that’s a great tip for being a comic or being funny in general, but taking a look at myself helped me find my sense of humor. Sometimes you really just have to laugh.

Ashley Ray is a comedian and writer who has been on Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, HBO Max’s Queer Comics to Watch, and Adult Swim’s Alabama Jackson. Her podcast, TV I Say, has been featured in Vogue and the New York Times.

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