Q&A: Using humor to get through difficult times
April 29, 2013
Loyola magazine invited humor writer and stand-up comic Michele Wojciechowski, ’90, to share her thoughts on finding humor even during life’s most challenging moments.
How does someone get to where you are, with a career as a writer—and particularly as a humor writer?
Persistence. Don’t get me wrong, you have to possess skill and talent to write well and to make a living from it, but there is a lot of rejection in this business. No matter what, you have to be like the Energizer Bunny and just keep going and going and going…
To make it as a humor writer, well, you need to be funny. But more so, you have to be able to be funny on paper. I may talk about the same topic when I write a humor column as when I do stand-up, but I present them in different ways. I make sure that what I’m writing on the page will translate to the reader. If you get them to laugh out loud while they read, that’s the best. That’s what you’re going for.
How did your Loyola experience help you develop your sense of humor—or figure out how to use your talents to entertain others?
I’ve always been funny—I come from a very funny family. But one particular class at Loyola that influenced my sense of humor was one about E.B. White. Folks know him for Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but he was a great humorist and wrote so many funny things for The New Yorker. I fell in love with his work and began collecting it. While my humor has my own voice, as opposed to White’s, it did have a strong effect on me.
Before I came to Loyola, I performed my first stand-up comedy routine. I continued writing and performing comedy while at Loyola in talent and variety shows. Although I did lose first place in the talent show to classmate Tony Lardieri, who sang Billy Joel’s “Baby Grand.” Fr. Tim Brown cast the deciding vote—yet, I’m still his friend to this day!
Who was the funniest person you met at Loyola?
There are two: my husband, Brad Borowy, ’90, whom I met on the first day of school (and he’s kept me laughing for the two decades we’ve been together), and our mutual friend, Kevin Sheridan, ’90. Kevin and his brother Jim introduced me to Monty Python, and senior year, Kevin did a rap version of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” with Tony Sacco and me at the English department’s Christmas party. It’s the perfect poem for rapping—seriously!
Just remembering this makes me want to rap that poem with Kevin again. Loyola doesn’t, by chance, have a Crazed Alumni Talent Show, does it?
Can you share a funny memory from your time at Loyola?
There are so many that, once again, it’s hard to pick just one.
During my senior year, I was on the yearbook staff, and I was also one of a dying breed—the commuter student. I took photos for the Commuter spread and made my likewise commuting friends illustrate hilarious things that we pretended commuters needed to do. I had Greg Schlimm, ’90, lie down in an empty parking spot to show what we would be willing to do to save a space. Mary Zajac, ’90, actually got into the truck of my ’86 Nova with a pillow and blanket to pretend that she was taking a nap between classes. We probably looked nuts doing this stuff, but we had a lot of fun.
Another time, my friend, Claudia Foster, ’90, had a crush on Mike Smith, ’89. She wanted to ask him out to a talk on campus. We knew that he was a commuter and parked his car at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, and Loyola had shuttle buses that would take students from outside of Maryland Hall up to their cars.
I sat there that day in the freezing cold rain on a stone bench under the Maryland Hall bridge. “Clump, clump, clump,” we heard as Mike ran down the steps in his combat boots. He stopped when he saw us and said, “Hi ladies.” Just then, the shuttle bus pulled up, and Mike said, “Gotta catch that.” And he ran down the rest of the steps and hopped aboard.
I was freezing and wet and not happy. But I sat out there the next day with Claudia again. Mike came down the steps, and I said to her, “You had better ask him this time because I’m not sitting out here in the cold one more day.” She did. They began dating and got married. To this day, Mike tells their daughter, Maddie, that she needs to thank me for being here because I got them together. And lived to tell about it.
Can you find humor in any situation?
I can find humor in a lot, but not in every situation. When I held my mom’s hand while she died, while it was powerful and emotional, I’ll never find humor in it. There are just some things that aren’t funny. And they shouldn’t be.
Explain how humor helped you get through a particularly difficult time.
My mom was diagnosed with cancer in December 2004, and she passed away seven months later. While I didn’t find humor in her actual passing, we did use humor to get us through it all.
One day, my mom’s oncologist came in and asked how she was doing. She answered, “I’m sassy!” We all laughed. So he wrote in her chart, “Patient is responsive, alert, and sassy!” For the rest of the day, each time a new health care worker came in, they checked her chart. You could see them start to smile, and then try to hide it. I would say, “Yeah, we know she’s sassy today!” and that made them laugh and got them to relax a bit.
How did finding humor in that situation help your mom?
I know now that, on some level, my mom knew she was going to die. At the time, I didn’t. And there were many times when I would cry. I tried not to let my mom see it. So with situations like the one I described, my mom was being funny to make us laugh. My husband, my stepdad (my dad passed when I was 10 years old), and I would make jokes and do funny things to make her laugh. Laughter didn’t keep her here, but it made her final months much better.
How did it help other family members and friends?
When my mom passed away, Fr. Tim Brown performed the wake. We decided that he would ask people present to share funny stories about my mom. I had written a list of “momisms”—things that my mom always said. I read those, and people cracked up because, as many said, it was like they could hear her saying it. Other friends told stories, some of which I hadn’t heard before. Everyone in the room was laughing.
Just then, the priest walked in who was going to perform my mom’s funeral Mass. “I’ve never walked into a funeral home and heard laughter like this,” he said. “This is how it should be. We should celebrate life.”
Don’t get me wrong; my mom was my best friend, and there were many other times for tears. But for that moment we celebrated the wonderful woman who was my mom—we celebrated her life. And it helped all of us.
Were there people who didn’t understand how you could find humor at that time? How did they respond—and how did you respond to them?
It happened more with people I told about it afterwards—sometimes, they didn’t “get” how we could be making jokes and telling funny stories at my mom’s wake. I explained that my mom lived her life finding the funny in it and doing hilarious things to make others laugh. If we hadn’t honored her with laughter, I think she would have come back to haunt me—but in a funny way.
What tips would you offer to someone who is trying to get through a difficult time—and struggling to find anything to smile about?
The Bible says that there’s a time for laughter and time for tears. If tears suit you better in a difficult time, use them. But know that you can use humor too. Think about what makes you laugh—a certain standup comic? A movie? A YouTube video? My award-winning humor book, Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box? Seriously, though, find what makes you laugh and use it.
Sometimes things get so absurd in life—especially in tough times—that all you can do is laugh. And that’s okay. In fact, it will help relieve some of your stress. Trust me on this one.
Where do you find your inspiration for your humor writing?
I find it in my daily life. My friends often say that funny things happen to me so that I have something to write about in my column. But I think that it’s more about me noticing when something is funny and writing it down.
My book is all about what Brad and I went through when we found our dream home when we weren’t looking, put our home on the market in just over a week, and then had to sell that home in one of the worst markets to date. We did many things that other people do when they move—like keep the house immaculately clean at all times. Then we did some things that no one does—like we held eight open houses in 10 weeks in an effort to sell our home. A lot of what we went through was funny. A lot was stressful. But even stressful times can be really funny—after you’re over them, of course.
What’s the best joke you’ve heard lately?
As a writer, this is one of my favorite jokes to tell:
A writer dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets her at the pearly gates and says that before she decides where she wants to spend eternity, he will take her on a tour of heaven and hell.
They go to hell first.
She sees a room full of writers in sweatshop conditions slaving over old, manual typewriters, being whipped as they write.
She shudders and says that she’d like to see where writers go in heaven.
St. Peter opens the door in heaven. The writer is shocked because again, she sees a room full of writers in sweatshop conditions slaving over old, manual typewriters, being whipped as they write.
“St. Peter, I don’t get it,” she says. “Heaven and hell are exactly the same.”
“That, my dear, is where you are wrong,“ says St. Peter. “In heaven, you get published!”
Michele Wojciechowski, ’90, is author of Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box, which won the 2013 Outstanding Book Award from the American Society of Journalists. Read more of her work here.