Punch Line

Molly Tolsky

cw: suicide

I want to write a funny story about suicide.

I want to write a funny story about suicide because the person dear to me who died by suicide was a very funny person.

The person dear to me who died by suicide took comedy classes at an establishment called Improv Olympics, which sounds exactly like the kind of establishment that this person would despise. A lot of people might despise an establishment called Improv Olympics because a lot of people despise improv.

I know I do.

When we met, the person dear to me who died by suicide—that phrase is rather clunky so I’m going to call him K—was taking a class at Improv Olympics about writing two-liners. Two-liners are just like one-liners except they have two lines. They are the kind of jokes that people like David Letterman and Jay Leno say during the opening monologues of their evening shows. Those are dated references because this is a dated story.

Time is a funny thing.

K died by suicide eight years ago. At the time of his suicide I was twenty four and he was thirty two. Now I am thirty two and that is kind of funny.

Not funny like ha-ha but funny like weird.

The root of the word weird comes from the root of the word fate. A different dear person told me that, a person whom I was romantically involved with, and after we broke up I used that fact as interesting banter on several dates.

Now here I am, using it on you.

K sent me a suicide note that wasn’t funny at all. It was the first non-funny email he’d ever sent to me. I described it to friends as “weird” before I knew for sure it was a suicide note, even though I sort of knew it was a suicide note right away. But it would be two days before I knew for sure, and in those days I read the note over and over again, looking for the joke.

It began with, “Well Molly, I love you,” which is not something we had ever said to each other before.

Love is a funny word because it has so many interpretations and I didn’t know which interpretation K was using in his suicide note. In the course of my life I’ve proclaimed love for water and books and cookies and family members and water parks and television shows and boyfriends and brothers and Sundays and sunflowers and a bowling alley.

I didn’t know if K was saying he loved me like a boyfriend or a bowling alley, so I didn’t say I love you back when I responded to his note. I said, “Are you okay? Please call.”

In retrospect, that was kind of a funny response. I don’t think we ever talked on the phone.

Once K wrote a joke for a stand-up routine that I really loved. In the joke, he talked about doing sexy role-play with his girlfriend. They’d go into separate rooms of their apartment and call each other up on the phone. He’d say, “Pretend I’m on a business trip, and I know exactly what I’m doing with my life.” The joke was that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing with his life. The not-joke was that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing with his life. To be clear, that joke wasn’t about me, because I was never his girlfriend. We slept together for a year but never called each other anything other than our first names, or sometimes, “Little One.” I don’t remember when I started calling him Little One, but I know it started out as a joke because it wasn’t like me to come up with a pet name so sincere.

When I was younger, like twenty four, I had a hard time being sincere. One boyfriend I had would get frustrated with me because every time he wanted to have a serious conversation, I responded with a joke. At that time I thought being funny was the best thing I had going for me. Being serious would wipe off the sheen of my personality. I wouldn’t be able to see myself anymore. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t know what I would be.

Now, at thirty two, I talk about this with my therapist and we think it has to do with my fear of vulnerability, my fear of rejection, my bottomless well of fear. I cry in therapy every week, even when I’m making jokes because I like to make my therapist laugh. Sometimes I get there early and I can hear her laughing with a different patient and I get jealous. I want to be the only funny patient. I want to be a relief.

Some science: There’s evidence that the part of the brain that causes us to laugh also causes us to cry. This is why sometimes you laugh so hard you cry, and sometimes you cry so hard you laugh.

Laughter and crying have some other things in common, too. They both release endorphins, which are supposed to make us feel better after an experience of high emotion. Also, laughter enhances our cardiovascular function while crying lowers our blood pressure, both of which sound like nice, healthy things to me, but I am not a doctor. I just read this on the internet.

I also read an article on the internet called “The Top 10 Comedians Who Committed Suicide.” From the headline it is unclear whether the comedians listed are being rated by their success at comedy or their success at suicide. The introduction to the list makes me laugh because it is very, very bad. It includes the line, “No one never lacks a good reason for suicide,” which I can’t comprehend no matter how many times I read it. There’s a widget in the right hand rail of the website that directs you to related content, including “The Top 10 Race Horses of All Time.”

Another article I read on the internet asks, like Seinfeld, “What’s the Deal with Comedians and Depression?” It was published the day after Robin Williams died by suicide. The main takeaway from this article is that being funny is not the same thing as being happy.

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

That was a joke coined by Richard Jeni, who, following a conversation with his girlfriend about his next career move, shot himself in the face. The comedian Freddie Prinze, following a phone conversation with his estranged wife, shot himself in the head. Doodles Weaver was a comedian in the 1950s who shot himself at the age of seventy one. Charles Rocket played the bad guy in Dumb and Dumber and then slit his throat in a field near his home. Paul McCullough was a comedian who, upon release from a sanitarium, went into a barber shop for a shave, grabbed the barber’s razor, and cut his wrists and neck.

Did you know there is an entire page on Wikipedia dedicated to “Clowns who committed suicide”? There are only three listed, but still.

“I’ve thought about becoming a cop, as some sort of elaborate suicide attempt,” K once chatted to me, online. “But I’d probably just become a hero. Which would suck.”

Sometimes when I find something really funny I fall down to the floor and declare myself dead. This is common parlance these days, I’m sure you’ve heard it before. When something is funny, you are dying. When it’s really funny, you are dead.

When a comedian does well on stage, we say they killed. The more the audience laughs, the more the comedian has killed.

The comedian kills. The audience is dead. These are just some observations about the way we talk.

When you meet someone who shares a similar sense of humor to you, you might say you really click. This is because you will laugh at the same things and the sounds of your laughter will come together in clicks.

When I’m really laughing my voice goes high and I try to talk through it but the words become more and more like squealing, like one long wheeeeeeee.

When K was really laughing, he wouldn’t make a sound at all. His eyes would squint and his whole body would heave forward and if he was wearing the sweater he always wore, he would push up both sleeves like a sitcom dad. The sweater was brown. His eyes were, too.

Any good comedian knows that the structure of a joke is very important. Most agree all jokes follow a three-part structure: the framing; the telling; the payoff. The funny part needs to come at the end. It’s called the punch line. That’s Comedy 101.

Victor Raskin’s “Script-based Semantic Theory of Humor” posits that for a joke to be successful—success being defined by an audience finding it funny—two conditions must be met: “(1) The text is compatible, fully or in part, with two different scripts and (2) The two scripts with which the text is compatible are opposite […]. The two scripts with which the text is compatible are said to overlap fully or in part on this text.” Something is funny when the punch line causes the audience to abruptly shift its understanding from the primary, more obvious script to the secondary, opposing script.

It’s about shifting perspectives, subverting expectations. It’s leading people to believe you’re telling one kind of story, when in reality you are telling a different kind of story. This is what I’ve learned from the Wikipedia page on humor. You can find almost anything there.

Let’s go back to Improv Olympics.

A few hours before our first date, K sent me his two-liner homework in an email. It was a list of ten two-liners and I thought most of them were pretty good. My favorite one went like this:

I was watching my flat-screen at my condo recently, and the economy isn’t looking too hot. When I say condo, I mean the YMCA. And when I say flat-screen, I mean the shadow of myself eating a Danish.

If we put this through the Raskin theory, script one would lead you to believe the speaker is doing well enough, despite the poor economy, to own a flat screen TV and a condominium. Script two tells us otherwise. It’s funny because it’s sad.

After I found out that K had died by suicide I didn’t know when I would laugh again. That sounds like a cliché but it’s true. Turns out I would laugh the very next day. I discovered the hard part was not laughing again, but not having K around to tell him why I was laughing.

Laughing is objectively better when done with someone else. You feed off each other and you laugh even more. You laugh because the other person is laughing, because the sound of laughter is funny, because laughing is contagious, because it would be really odd to sit there in silence while someone else is laughing out loud.

Have you ever seen somebody laugh out loud to themselves in public? Did you think they were crazy? It’s okay if you thought they were crazy. This is why we need somebody to laugh with.

This is why it’s hard.

Eight years ago, when I was twenty four, I woke up on a Monday morning feeling irrationally happy and then I checked my email and found a suicide note from K. I didn’t know it was a suicide note but I didn’t not know it was a suicide note. I went to work that day, thinking about the email. I called him every hour on the hour until his phone went straight to voicemail. I told my friends I was worried about him, but that I was sure it was nothing. I was sure it wasn’t nothing. I responded to the email, “Are you okay? Please call” instead of writing, “I love you, too.” Even if I wrote, “I love you, too” it wouldn’t have made a difference. K was already dead. But in a funny way, it would have made me feel better.

Not funny like ha-ha but funny like wheeeeeeee.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, check out the resources below. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can also text HOME to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line, for 24/7, anonymous, free counseling.

International helplines can be found at International Association for Suicide Prevention.

Molly Tolsky is a writer and editor originally from Chicago, currently based in New York. She’s the founder and editor of Alma (heyalma.com) and senior editor of No Tokens. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature online, Modern Loss, and elsewhere. You can visit her website at mollytolsky.com.