Tanzina: 2020 hasn't given us a whole lot to feel good about, but even in the darkest of times, sometimes it can really help to have a sense of humor. Consider these two pandemic related jokes. When does season two of 2020 start, because I do not like season one? Or, I never thought the comment, I wouldn't touch him or her with a six-foot pole would become national policy, but here we are.
My next guest, Jo Firestone, understands the power of humor in dark times and she's been on a ton of shows like Broad City and Joe Pera Talks with You, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Right before New York City went into lockdown in March, she started teaching a comedy class for seniors in lower Manhattan. Like many events this year, the class had to move online where it continued throughout the pandemic, allowing a group that would otherwise be pretty isolated connect through joke-telling. Today, we decided to get Jo on the line for some advice on using humor to cope in the coming months. Jo, thanks so much for being here.
Jo: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: And for indulging the cheesy jokes that I just told.
Jo: Now listen, I love them.
Tanzina: You're teaching seniors right now and you've also taught comedy to teens in the past. Why is comedy such an important skill for people to have generally?
Jo: It's like writing or being able to drink water. It's like a way of coping and living. If you're really serious and frustrated all the time, you're going to get really high blood pressure. I'm not a medical professional, but it seems like it helps to have a sense of humor about things, especially when things are very stressful.
Tanzina: In March, when New York City went into lockdown, what was it that made you say in that moment, "Hey, let's have a comedy class online."?
Jo: We met for two or three weeks before. If you hear three week's worth of jokes out of a group of seniors, you'll want to hear a few more weeks. It was supposed to only meet for 12 weeks, but we just keep going. We're meeting today, we're going to meet next week. We've been going for about seven or eight months now.
Tanzina: As the pandemic evolved and the tone and the feeling in New York City became very, very dark particularly at the peak here in the spring, how did you maintain a class that was supposed to be about humor?
Jo: Everybody that came to the class, you have to get up Monday at 10:00 AM, so you have to be up and ready to start your week with something other than, no offense, like the news. I think that the people that came and came regularly wanted to find an outlet and wanted to find a way to make jokes with each other and bring lightness to this horrible situation. It was like a self-selecting group. I didn't really have to do much. I just provide the activities and press start on the Zoom, but really, it's the people that want to be there. That's the driving force.
Tanzina: What prompts do you use to get people started?
Jo: For this class, in particular, it's a really political class and it's a really raunchy class, so anything to do with intercourse or the president really gets them going. Any prompts like that like what would we find in Trump's White House after he leaves? Or what's the dirtiest Halloween costume you can think of? Then people go on a roll. It's 10:00 in the morning and they're saying just filthy things.
Tanzina: Now, these are of course politically active raunchy, seniors that are telling all types of jokes, Jo, that's got to relieve some tension in the room, but it also, I think gives a lot of folks a different picture of what we think about when we think about senior elders in this community.
Jo: When I first started teaching, I was really hesitant to mention anything political and then I let something slip and they were all like, "We hate him, we hate him," and get so amped and excited and they're so active. Everyone was telling each other to vote. It's a pretty active group and they're all doing what they can. There's a man who sings out his window. There's a woman who takes pictures. These are pretty active people. They figured out Zoom, which I still struggle with, when I'm muted, I don't know.
Tanzina: Jo, can anyone tell a joke or does it take a special kind of person to have a certain kind of delivery?
Jo: I think anybody can be funny. I think if you can get comfortable, you can be funny. I think that's the thing. Maybe not a joke, maybe you say-- maybe you have a funny face when you walk down the street. There's something that you can make funny about yourself. It's not necessarily a joke-writing skill, it's more just a different approach to life.
Tanzina: Let's talk about how that different approach is playing out now because we are in the middle of a devastating pandemic and we've been talking here on the show about ways to cope, everything from cooking to asking for help, to reaching out to friends virtually and family virtually, but what role does humor play in a moment like this? One of the jokes you would say, is it too soon? Is it too soon to start making jokes about the pandemic?
Jo: We had a discussion about that and we figured out the line in our class was not to make jokes about the pandemic but make jokes about the circumstances we're in. Like, make jokes about being in your house. What's your house look like? What's your apartment feel like at this point? What's in your house at this point? What's a mask feel like? Jokes about masks, jokes about staying safe, social distancing, things that are not necessarily making fun of the illness itself or the condition a lot of people are in, but more making fun of the circumstances and that part that we can control.
Tanzina: Jo, what is the importance for you in terms of getting the senior community engaged in laughing? This is a community-- and telling jokes and in touch with their comedic parts of themselves, because this is a community that has really borne the brunt of a lot of the coronavirus pandemic from people who they've lost a loved ones or friends, nursing homes have been ravaged by this and with the social isolation on top of it, it can't have been easy. How are your students using this moment to really tap into that sense of humor despite everything that's happening around them? Is it a survival mechanism?
Jo: I don't know. I think that it's a really hard time. We've lost people in the class. They've lost friends. It's really hard and some weeks are easier than others.
Tanzina: Some people in the class have gotten the coronavirus and have passed away?
Jo: Someone passed away, yes.
Tanzina: I'm sorry to hear that.
Jo: It's really hard. I think that sometimes-- I talked to one of the gentlemen in the class, Al, and he was having a really hard time because a close friend of his passed and then he found out and then went to the class. I think that he wasn't in the mood to laugh, but having 25 other faces looking at you and laughing and making jokes, just by being there, you get yourself in the mood to be in a lighter space and just surrounding yourself with your peers that are trying to make the best of a situation, I think encourages a different outlook and it's a reminder to try to make jokes.
There's so many different styles. Some people do dance comedy. You could just work on drinking a glass of water pretty funny. Maybe you're a riff person. There's all kinds of ways. I wouldn't say everybody's a one-liner person, but there's many ways to be funny and there's many ways to laugh. I just think about all the reasons you would laugh in the course of a day. There's that many ways to be funny.
Tanzina: Jo Firestone is a comedian and a co-star of Cartoon Networks, Joe Pera Talks with You, which is a big favorite of our director. Jo, thanks so much for joking around with us.
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