How Laughter Can Heal–A Mennonite Actor's Journey after a Tragic Suicide

I love when comedy arises out of tragedy. So I loved Ted Swartz’s memoir. Here’s how he starts the book:

My review of  Laughter Is Sacred Space: The Not-so-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor
appeared in the October 15 issue of Mennonite World Review. Read it by going directly to the link or by continuing below.

 

It’s been more than five years since the death of comic actor Lee Eshleman rocked the Mennonite world. That death transformed in an instant Ted Swartz, Lee’s acting partner, the other half of the team of Ted & Lee, who performed together to great applause at many youth conventions, churches, camps and retreat centers.

What could be more tragic than the death of a comedy team as a result of depression leading to suicide? What could be more incomprehensible, unimaginable?

Nothing.

As Ted Swartz tells the story, however, neither Lee Eshleman nor he were strangers to the incomprehensible and improbable. Actors come as close as they can to the edge without going over it. Those who were close to Eshleman knew that he struggled with depression. On stage, however, no one knew.

Ted & Lee were, after all, the first really funny, really good, really famous (in Mennonite and other Christian circles) Mennonite actors. No, they weren’t as famous as The Simpsons, whose creator had a Mennonite father and a grandfather who taught at Tabor College. But when media-savvy teens watched Ted & Lee perform at Mennonite youth conventions, they might well have thought, “These guys could be on TV!” Sometimes the highest praise came as a backhanded jab to them and others working in the church. Many talented Mennonites have heard the question: “What are you doing here?”

Swartz’s book, Laughter Is Sacred Space, attempts to answer that question and a few others as well: How did you get here? What are you trying to do? And where do you go now, after Lee?

The answers to these questions are supplied by the same comic voice (enriched by spiritual over- and undertones) that has delighted audiences on stage for decades. As a memoirist, Swartz brings his knowledge of dramatic structure and makes it visible. He divides the book into a prologue and five “acts” instead of chapters, with “scenes” in each of four acts and a short “denouement” as Act 5.

The memoir itself innovates by using a collage technique familiar to those who enjoy postmodern novels. The use of photos, drawings, excerpts from scripts and footnotes create on the page the feel, and even the look, of staged drama. I was reminded more than once of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996), wherein a complex narrative with many subplots is supplemented by lengthy endnotes almost as entertaining as the body of the text. (The analogy is all the more poignant because David Foster Wallace, also a victim of depression, took his own life at age 46 in 2008.)

Swartz doesn’t just call jest infinite. He goes even further; he calls it sacred. He doesn’t spell out an elaborate philosophy or theology of laughter. He just makes you laugh. And then think. And sometimes cry. Rather like God does with such characters as Noah and Sarah and Jacob and Thomas. The closest Swartz comes to explaining is this: “Sometimes the best kind of God-work happens when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Swartz’s life story reminds me of the best features of the Mennonite community. Swartz describes the reason he married young and is still exuberantly married as “naïve persistence.” When someone asks what he does for a living, he says, “Overcome obstacles.” Under all the risk and edginess of being one of the first Mennonites to venture into the treacherous world of live theater while remaining in the church and not just of it, there’s a young meat cutter still working in his father’s business, still wanting to give the customer a side of laughter with a slab of beef.

Readers will love that boy. They will enjoy seeing him change and grow, and as he grieves his great loss, the death of his acting partner, honestly, openly and inclusively, readers will join him. That’s what good memoir does; it binds us together in one human family. We are able to step outside our own skin into someone else’s for a few hours.

Brian McClaren declares in the foreword that “turning the last page [of the book] will be like walking across the parking lot after the final curtain and getting in your car… . You’ll just want to sit there for a while.”

Joseph Campbell once said, “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.” If that is true, then Swartz’s sacred space truly is the stage. This memoir will help the literal-minded learn the meaning of metaphor and the metaphorical-minded appreciate the ground of all comic being — slipping on a literal banana peel.

James Thurber once defined humor as “emotional turmoil recollected in tranquility.” If this is true, then Swartz’s best years as a comic actor lie ahead of him. The story of a courageous journey told humbly without holding back anger is not only what the author needs. It’s what we all need as individuals. It’s what we all need as a church. It’s the way we are created to be: storytellers designed by a story-loving, story-redeeming God.

For those who didn’t know Ted & Lee: has there been a tragedy in your life? Have you been able to find the healing balm of laughter?

For those of you who heard Ted & Lee or who have read the book what are your favorite memories/passages? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shirley Showalter

15 Comments

  1. Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg on October 29, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Shirley, this post makes me want to read “Laughter is a Sacred Space,” and I will download it to my iPad when I finish this comment. Coincidentally, I wrote of my brother’s suicide in my latest blog post on my website. I am also a person who loves to make others laugh, and I love to laugh myself. My entire family is like that. I just spent a week with a cousin I haven’t seen in 50 years and the first thing I noticed was that he had the “family” sense of humor. He was the writer of the Ninja Turtle Cartoons as well as X-Men, Shira, Ghostbusters, and others. Thank you Shirley. I am looking forward to this read!

    • Shirley on October 29, 2012 at 8:54 pm

      Linda, so glad to meet you. I’m sorry for the terrible loss of your brother to suicide. I invite other readers to click on your icon and go to your blog to read your story. What terrible grief you must have. I’m so glad to know that you have the blessing of laughter in your life too.

      Your memoir must be amazing, just like Ted’s.

  2. Janet Oberholtzer on October 29, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    As you know, I grew up Mennonite and I live in southeast PA, but I never heard of that comedy team, but the book sure intrigues me… will be putting it on my list.

    • Shirley on October 29, 2012 at 9:04 pm

      Hi, Janet, if you want to see Ted and Lee in action,you can still do so by buying a DVD at the website. There are also some free videos online. I should have included the URL above, but thanks for this comment which prompted me to help you experience a little of their genius. Video can’t compare to live theatre, of course, but you get the flavor of their irreverent reverence. Each of the live shows has a short preview. http://www.tedandcompany.com/live-shows/

      Always love to see your comments. Thanks!

  3. Henry Hershey on October 29, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    Shirley

    The healing power of laughter reminded me of Eutychus and of children’s theater, long ago.

    HHH
    http://www.jcfumc.org/docs/sermons/2010/August15.pdf

  4. shirleyhs on October 30, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Henry, you made a perfect memoir connection. This moment of acting out the Eutychus story in front of our father, who was prone to sleep in church, was so memorable because it made our parents laugh, something every child wants to do. It didn’t happen often, especially with Daddy, but when it did, we were blessed by healing power.

    Fine acting on that window sill, by the way. 🙂

    Loved the sermon. Thanks!!

  5. Darrelyn Saloom on October 30, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Perfect timing (as usual) Shirley. I’m in the hospital with my mother who had a stroke on Sunday. She has lost much of her speech but not her sense of humor. We’ve had more laughs than tears the past few days.

  6. shirleyhs on October 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Oh, Darrelyn, I’m so sorry to hear that your mother had a stroke. But I am not at all surprised to know that the two of you are finding ways to laugh. It truly is a sacred, healing trust. Blessings and prayers for you this night.

  7. dw on October 31, 2012 at 9:02 am

    At my dad’s funeral (he died unexpectedly at 59), I said something true, and irreverent, when I stood up to give his eulogy. “It’s a good thing my father’s not here,” I said. “He hated funerals.” Everyone in the funeral parlor, it was packed, took in a breath. Then, my mother laughed, and so did my sister. And then everyone else. It was true though. My dad hated funerals and could never stand to face death. So we were left facing it without him. We had to laugh to get started on that journey.

  8. shirleyhs on October 31, 2012 at 9:20 am

    What a wonderful moment of grace, David. Thanks for sharing it with us here. This story illustrates how humor can unlock hope and help with grief. In this case, the sacredness came from naming a truth contradictory to the tone of the event and therefore allowing all to face their own fears and to remember the real man, not one constructed by the occasion. You made your father alive for me, who didn’t know him.

  9. April Yamasaki on November 1, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Shirley, thanks for your great review. I have enjoyed seeing Ted & Lee on stage and video and am looking forward to reading Ted’s book.

  10. shirleyhs on November 1, 2012 at 10:28 am

    April, I think you will love it — and I trust you will recognize the spiritual power of laughter as a reality in your own life.

  11. Sue Wang, @Connect2Self on November 1, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Hi Shirley,

    I have never heard of Ted and Lee…though now I want to read Ted’s book. Putting it on my wishlist. I love satire, irony, Loretta LaRoche, Queen Shenequa on SNL. If I don’t find external funny, I crack myself up. I also love Sedaris and Augusten Burrough. Humor in the midst of pain, something I wish to apply some more to my own tragedy of losing a newborn years ago. Sending Love.

  12. shirleyhs on November 1, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Sue, Thanks so much for adding your voice here. It has been great getting to know you on Twitter also. I think you will really enjoy this book. And my heart aches knowing that you lost a newborn. One of the most profound moments of my childhood, included in my memoir, is of my mother’s scream when my 39-day-old sister died.

    It took a long time to laugh after that. But oh it felt good.

  13. shirleyhs on November 1, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Thought I’d add this quote because of its relevance:

    “Humor. Irony. Pathos. I had always thought these were qualities we humans developed to cope with this so often painful and unfair world. And they are. But in addition to being consolations, these qualities are recognitions — brief, flashing, but all-important — of the fact that whatever our struggles and sufferings in the present world are,
    they can’t touch the larger, eternal beings we in truth are. Laughter and irony are at heart reminders that we are not prisoners of this world, but voyagers through it.”

    Dr. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven

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