The Life and Death of Humor

To John: After writing the essay, I had to have an illustrator colleague bring my image to life - or death!  -Mark
To John: After writing the essay, I had to have an illustrator colleague bring my image to life – or death! -Mark

By Mark E. Smith

Among my all-time favorite people is Callahan – John Callahan. He’s been dead now for going on 6 years, and I’m sure there’s still a hilarious punchline to that waiting to be told… maybe a cartoon of two grave diggers with shovels standing over a grave dug in the silhouette of a wheelchair?

See, Callahan was abused as a child, an alcoholic by his teens, and a high-level quadriplegic by 21 from a drunk-driving accident. There’s nothing funny about any of that – except to Callahan and his millions of readers who understood through his twisted but totally candid cartoons that humor can be among the truest healing forces. I mean, his most famous cartoon was where cowboys on horses in the desert surrounded an empty wheelchair, noting, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot,” exemplifies where tragedy evolved into humor in Callahan’s life. Many were mortified by the tasteless cartoon; but for those of us who live with disability, it was hilarious.

I’ve seen it so many times, where our pain, when addressed with humor, can become joy. And, making that transition is life-changing. If you can genuinely laugh at something, you’ve survived it. You’d be hard pressed to find a successful comedian who hasn’t experienced trauma, but through that has somehow found humor.

For me, humor has always kept me from the dark sides of life. If you ask me about cigarette smoking, I’ll tell you to go for it. After all, my mother smoked throughout her pregnancy with me, and I was born just fine, right? …The whole cerebral palsy thing was just an uncanny coincidence.

I likewise grew up with alcoholic parents, and they died from it at young ages. Along the way, I spent time accompanying my drunk mom to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as a teenager – because when you’re 16, with cerebral palsy, it’s the one place your slurred speech and uncoordinated body gestures fit in. At times, I wanted to truly participate: “I’m Mark, and I’m not an alcoholic, but I sound like one and sometimes I pee my pants – where’s my AA coin!”

No, there was nothing funny about being born with cerebral palsy or having drunks for parents – it was all tough stuff. Yet, I survived it all, and I can’t help but see humor in most of it now. Humor, in so many ways, is the power to rise above pain, to take back our joy, our spirit.

As they say, that which does not kill us – or does! – only makes for a hilarious punchline. And, as Callahan taught us all so well with his work, if you’re not at the point yet where you can laugh at your own pain, you don’t need to worry – there are plenty of us who will do it for you!


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

2 thoughts on “The Life and Death of Humor”

  1. Humor is absolutely necessary. Not only for the disabled, but to ease the tension between the A.B. and someone in a chair. ‘Gotta keep your sense of humor’, told to me by a dear friend has served me well.

  2. How interesting…I have only just this week come across that guy’s autobiography. I think a friend may have given me the book, but I’ve no idea really how I came by it. Looks like it’s going to be an interesting read indeed! I agree with you that humour is one of life’s greatest weapons against misery. Good friends would have to be the other – you can never have too many of those! But usually it’s hard to find more than a handful. Thanks for your posts!

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