Opinion | The importance of being funny

By Paige Wasserman, Senior Staff Columnist

Last year, I was walking down Semple Street with my best friend Delaney. We were on our way to a theater party. I was wearing a pink tutu, a silver sparkly top and my trusty pink Heelys. Once we got to an intersection, I floated across the street, spewing a shimmering high C.

A girl across the street in a black bodysuit and light wash jeans glared at me, turned to her friend and said, “What the fuck?”

A few years ago, hearing a perfect stranger accost my whimsy would’ve sent me into a shame spiral. In fact, when I was at my previous school, Northwestern University, I took myself a lot more seriously. 

To put it plainly, I was really in the pits. In my first five trimesters there, I didn’t make it into a single student group and I didn’t perform in a single play or musical, and I can attribute that to the fact that I was sick the entire time. Right before the pandemic hit and everything fell apart, I had an audition I really, really wanted. It was to workshop a new musical and do a reading of it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. But, surprise surprise, I was horrifically ill.

Maybe it was COVID-19? I don’t know. What I do know is my throat was on fire, I was lethargic and I could barely speak. I would show up to class and my professors would say “Paige, go home. I don’t want you getting anyone sick.” 

I went into the audition room to sing two songs — “The Party Goes With You,” and “Calm.” The first song had a full voiced high E flat at the end. The first part of the song was lovely. Once I got to the climax of the song, I opened my mouth, and nothing came out, just a creak followed by what I could only compare to TV static in my vocal cords.

Then, for my cut of “Calm,” it miraculously sounded fine. But my pianist royally screwed up my tempo. It was a snappy patter song, and he played it like a fucking ballad. 

They asked me, ”So, you’re from New Jersey right?” I said, “Yes, and I will defend New Jersey to the death. It’s my favorite place.” It came out of my throat weird. I was cracking and stumbling over my words. I don’t remember anything after that. I think I said “thank you” before leaving the room. Maybe I didn’t.

I booked it home, put on my bathrobe and sobbed in my dorm bathroom for hours. I spent a lot of hours crying on that bathroom floor. More nights than not. 

It’s hard to mess up. It’s even harder to royally embarrass yourself, especially if everything in your life is massively high-stakes — and it was. I had virtually no friends, no community, no purpose. Then the pandemic hit, and I decided it wasn’t worth it to wallow forever.

I felt worthless at Northwestern, but the one compliment I remember was from my voice teacher, John Haas. He said to me, “You’re funny, Paige, and that’s a gift. You can’t teach funny.”

I knew I was funny. I just didn’t have a brave space to be funny, so all my quips about the idiots I saw on the internet and all my ridiculous party trick celebrity impressions just stayed bottled up. And sure, they tell you that you shouldn’t seek external validation from anyone, that it should come from within, but can I be perfectly honest? I think that’s bullshit.

There is a power in making people laugh. There’s a pride in providing amusement. Everything is so droll, so mundane. We’re on these tedious 9-5 schedules backdropped by 24-hour news cycles sending out reverberations of mass shootings, civil unrest and unfathomable degrees of suffering. Our family members get sick and dogs die and friends move away and parents divorce — it never ends, either. It’s one stupid, awful thing after another. 

As a person with a sense of humor, I had two options — I could either allow myself to become a powder keg of self-inflicted violence and pressure cook myself into oblivion, or I could become a silly little guy. A rapscallion. A court jester. I realized that maybe it’s fun to make people laugh, even if it’s at my expense. 

Life is more fun if you look at it as a long-form sketch. You tumble down the stairs and bruise your ass? And you were watching a Mitchel Musso thirst cam edit? Incredible. You say, with full confidence, that J.D. Salinger wrote “The Great Gatsby,” and your professor corrects you, and you feel a hole of shame burning in your intestines? Blurt out, “Yeah, I learned that from Sylvia Plath, the author of “The Fault in our Stars.” Things are funny if you let them be, OK? OK.

My doomscrolling during the pandemic was what inspired my byline at The Pitt News in the first place. The internet is a sordid place, a sewer teeming with all kinds of water-borne illnesses and moldy garbage. It’s full of hate, racism, misogyny, ableism and ageism, but, as you could imagine, the people spewing disgustingness and toxicity are consistently gigantic weirdos. And they’re really fun to clown on.

I started my work with TPN goofing on complete strangers who eulogize celebrities in really weird ways online — and I cracked myself up the whole time I wrote it. That was new to me. Acting and singing felt like a slog a lot of the time — I seldom thought I did a great job. But when I wrote, I was hilarious, witty, succinct and eloquent. I wasn’t just a silly goose, but an incredibly intelligent goose who was also pretty decent at embedding research into my honking — because geese, you know. Side note: fuck geese. I’m pretty against animal cruelty — I don’t think we should mistreat animals — but geese are local terrorists, and they don’t deserve my respect. To all the geese in southwestern PA, just know that it’s on sight.

I finally thought I wasn’t just good at something the way I was with performing. No, I was, dare I say, an excellent writer. I didn’t hate myself when I wrote — if anything, I was more brilliant than I ever thought I could be. It was a complete 180 from the worthlessness that marred the first act of my collegiate experience. I was dropped from a sorority at Northwestern rush for being “too opinionated,” but now I make about $20 a week, give or take, from being opinionated. Plus, I don’t have to pay for friends!

The public responded to my writing, too! A man who we’ll call Joe, because that’s his name, tried to convert me, a Jewish woman, to Christianity. This was before he did the same to multiple of my co-columnists. HAHA! Weird guy! I received hate from a foaming-at-the-mouth homophobe who misread my ‘Don’t Say Gay’ satire as a report, to which I responded, “I hope you’re having a gay morning.” 

The one time I actually wrote something serious — my piece about white male entitlement and gun violence — it ended up in the reading materials for Pitt’s “Sociology of Gender” class. That was monumental to me. I was more than a silly goose — I could produce serious sociopolitical commentary that was well written enough for an academic setting! 

My work with TPN has given me so much. It’s given me new friends to go to concerts with, it’s given me almost weekly compliments from peers and professors and it’s even given me work as a freelancer. Most of all, it completely restored my faith in myself and reminded me that there is power in what I have to offer the world. 

Humor is not a frill. Jokes are not distractions. We need levity to keep us alive –– without it, everything is awful. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a social worker or a humanitarian aid or Miss America building a house in a hurricane-struck city. Still, I hope that if people read my jokes, it’ll help them look at our garbage hellscape with kinder, more lighthearted eyes. That’s where the healing lies, not in juice cleanses or hot yoga or vagina steaming, but in laughing at ourselves and each other. Maybe it’s just a Band-Aid for a bullet hole. But still, it’s more than nothing. It’s better than nothing. 

Paige Wasserman (she/her) writes about the arts, pop culture, campus culture and things that make her want to scream. You can reach her at [email protected].