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Author: Alexi Pappas



   By Maya Rudolph


I have spent the majority of my life making people laugh. Well, at least trying to. I remember when I was around seven years old, I was playing with a friend when she got hurt and started to cry. I felt so uncomfortable in that moment of seeing her in pain that I immediately thought of the quickest route to avoidance: laughter. I proceeded to do a goofy voice and threw in a pratfall for good measure—and lo and behold, it worked. She forgot her pain, and I didn’t have to deal with what pain feels like. Avoiding feelings like pain and sadness came naturally to me.

   If I had to guess, I would probably attribute this to my own childhood trauma, having lost my mother to breast cancer right before my seventh birthday. Just a hunch. It’s safe to say most comedians share this wildly attractive trait. You know that old chestnut about how comedians all have the same black hole in their hearts due to sadness? It’s probably true.

   Comedy is a wonderful avoidance tool that I would highly recommend if you’re not up for feeling your feelings. It’s a mask you can wear, a suit of armor you can don to protect the very mushy parts of your insides too fragile to embrace. But I think the most interesting part about comedy is that it is a manipulation. A sleight of hand to distract you from the dark, ugly stuff. This tool has served me well over the years, but there are just some things in life you can’t throw a joke at. You have to face them head on.

       During what felt like a particularly low point in my adult life, when I had to make a tough decision, a good friend asked me, “You know the definition of brave, right?” And she went on to say, “It’s facing your fears,” or maybe she said, “Being strong even though you’re scared,” or…wait a minute, I think I wrote down what she said so that I wouldn’t forget it…aaaand I can’t find it. So I looked up the definition of brave in the dictionary and it reads as follows:

        Brave—ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.


   Courage, huh? Hmm, interesting. Then I figured I would look up the true meaning of courage, which is, after all, at the root of bravery:

        Courage—the ability to do something that frightens one; strength in the face of pain or grief.


   And if we wanted to get really deep, the root of the word courage comes from the Latin root word, cor, which then became the French word coeur, meaning “heart.”

   Courage makes me think of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Over years of watching this movie many times, I realized he was my least favorite of the new friends Dorothy met along the yellow brick road. And honestly, I think it was because he was such a wuss. Scarecrow’s lack of intellect was charming next to some incredible dance moves, and who couldn’t fall for a guy made out of tin who just wanted to feel love with a real heart? But when I got to the Lion I thought, God, this guy’s a real crybaby. But here’s the thing: He was really funny.

       I would only find out years later, from experience, that the funny guy was actually the guy you wanted to be in the movie. Sure, the Scarecrow danced pretty and the Tin Man was a charmer but the Lion was the one who got to be big and vulnerable, and those are the juiciest roles to play because they are grounded in reality, which can ultimately be so deeply painful. Not only did the Lion really have the courage he was seeking all along, his courage was deeply rooted in heart. He had no idea his courage was always there, he just didn’t see it. Because he told himself it wasn’t there.

   So why do we do this to ourselves? Why don’t we see ourselves the way others do? It is so much easier to name greatness outside of ourselves. This is true of my first impressions of Alexi Pappas. Encountering an Olympian is an otherworldly experience in and of itself. It feels like the closest thing to standing next to a superhero. There is, of course, the obvious physical difference between us—her body can do things we mere mortals are not capable of—but it is also my belief that her greatness doesn’t just manifest in her physical form, you also witness it at the mental level.

   Over the years working at Saturday Night Live, people often asked me who my favorite hosts were and without hesitation I’ve always said the professional athletes. (Derek Jeter to name one.) And I think it is because of the incredibly calm, almost blissfully sedated ease that they carry themselves with. It’s a sort of “I can do anything” demeanor. Hosting a live television show isn’t scary to Derek Jeter because hitting a home run to left field in front of a crowd of 50,000 people is just a day at work for him.

       I assume this superhuman level of nirvana-like steadiness can be attributed to the body’s release of dopamine and endorphins as a result of regular exercise that makes athletes just feel happy—or, in Jeter’s case, cool and super-smooth. I wouldn’t know, considering during my time at SNL I was happily doing just the opposite: putting in fourteen-hour days and pulling all-nighters writing at 30 Rock, then doing a weekly live television show that didn’t start until 11:30 P.M., didn’t end until 1:00 A.M., and then there was the after-party that started at 1:30, which meant Sundays were shot, and sometimes I would only get out of bed as the sun was going down just to order Chinese food and then get back into bed. Not exactly the profile of a professional athlete.

   So this brings me back to Alexi. My initial assumption was that this superior being in human form somehow possessed all of life’s answers because of her (what I believed to be) superhuman prowess. But this was just something I created as a justification for my own self-consciousness. This isn’t to say that Alexi isn’t remarkable; in fact, she is. But the pedestal that I created for her is really just a smokescreen for the truth: That underneath it all, all human beings are vulnerable at our core. And that it is in the power of the individual to create one’s own destiny.

   Children of trauma know this all too well. We go through life thinking everyone else has it better than us until we grow up and realize we’re all in our own tiny boats of self-doubt and second-guessing. (This is probably why puberty was invented. To humiliate us all and bring us all down to the same level so that we’d just grow the fuck up. The great equalizer!) My dad loved to share the adage that if you got everyone in the world together to put all their problems into one giant pot, everyone would just end up taking their own problems back. But what about the smaller percentage of us who lost parents and felt like we weren’t “normal”? The weirdos who desperately just wanted to have straight hair and tiny noses so we could skate through life unnoticed because we were so tired of “And how old were you when your mother died? Oh, that must have been so hard for you.” Or was that just me?

       But then as we grow up something interesting happens. Somehow we manage to find each other. To connect and actually become the new normal: broken but not defeated, and glued back together again and again and again. I think this is such a clear testament to the human spirit. We have an endless capacity to grow and surprise ourselves, and it is amazing what we can accomplish, from little things we never thought we could do on upward.

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