I love when comedy arises out of tragedy. So I loved Ted Swartz’s memoir. Here’s how he starts the book:
My review of Laughter Is Sacred Space: The Not-so-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor
appeared in the October 15 issue of Mennonite World Review. Read it by going directly to the link or by continuing below.
It’s been more than five years since the death of comic actor Lee Eshleman rocked the Mennonite world. That death transformed in an instant Ted Swartz, Lee’s acting partner, the other half of the team of Ted & Lee, who performed together to great applause at many youth conventions, churches, camps and retreat centers.
What could be more tragic than the death of a comedy team as a result of depression leading to suicide? What could be more incomprehensible, unimaginable?
As Ted Swartz tells the story, however, neither Lee Eshleman nor he were strangers to the incomprehensible and improbable. Actors come as close as they can to the edge without going over it. Those who were close to Eshleman knew that he struggled with depression. On stage, however, no one knew.
Ted & Lee were, after all, the first really funny, really good, really famous (in Mennonite and other Christian circles) Mennonite actors. No, they weren’t as famous as The Simpsons, whose creator had a Mennonite father and a grandfather who taught at Tabor College. But when media-savvy teens watched Ted & Lee perform at Mennonite youth conventions, they might well have thought, “These guys could be on TV!” Sometimes the highest praise came as a backhanded jab to them and others working in the church. Many talented Mennonites have heard the question: “What are you doing here?”
Swartz’s book, Laughter Is Sacred Space, attempts to answer that question and a few others as well: How did you get here? What are you trying to do? And where do you go now, after Lee?
The answers to these questions are supplied by the same comic voice (enriched by spiritual over- and undertones) that has delighted audiences on stage for decades. As a memoirist, Swartz brings his knowledge of dramatic structure and makes it visible. He divides the book into a prologue and five “acts” instead of chapters, with “scenes” in each of four acts and a short “denouement” as Act 5.
The memoir itself innovates by using a collage technique familiar to those who enjoy postmodern novels. The use of photos, drawings, excerpts from scripts and footnotes create on the page the feel, and even the look, of staged drama. I was reminded more than once of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996), wherein a complex narrative with many subplots is supplemented by lengthy endnotes almost as entertaining as the body of the text. (The analogy is all the more poignant because David Foster Wallace, also a victim of depression, took his own life at age 46 in 2008.)
Swartz doesn’t just call jest infinite. He goes even further; he calls it sacred. He doesn’t spell out an elaborate philosophy or theology of laughter. He just makes you laugh. And then think. And sometimes cry. Rather like God does with such characters as Noah and Sarah and Jacob and Thomas. The closest Swartz comes to explaining is this: “Sometimes the best kind of God-work happens when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Swartz’s life story reminds me of the best features of the Mennonite community. Swartz describes the reason he married young and is still exuberantly married as “naïve persistence.” When someone asks what he does for a living, he says, “Overcome obstacles.” Under all the risk and edginess of being one of the first Mennonites to venture into the treacherous world of live theater while remaining in the church and not just of it, there’s a young meat cutter still working in his father’s business, still wanting to give the customer a side of laughter with a slab of beef.
Readers will love that boy. They will enjoy seeing him change and grow, and as he grieves his great loss, the death of his acting partner, honestly, openly and inclusively, readers will join him. That’s what good memoir does; it binds us together in one human family. We are able to step outside our own skin into someone else’s for a few hours.
Brian McClaren declares in the foreword that “turning the last page [of the book] will be like walking across the parking lot after the final curtain and getting in your car… . You’ll just want to sit there for a while.”
Joseph Campbell once said, “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.” If that is true, then Swartz’s sacred space truly is the stage. This memoir will help the literal-minded learn the meaning of metaphor and the metaphorical-minded appreciate the ground of all comic being — slipping on a literal banana peel.
James Thurber once defined humor as “emotional turmoil recollected in tranquility.” If this is true, then Swartz’s best years as a comic actor lie ahead of him. The story of a courageous journey told humbly without holding back anger is not only what the author needs. It’s what we all need as individuals. It’s what we all need as a church. It’s the way we are created to be: storytellers designed by a story-loving, story-redeeming God.
For those who didn’t know Ted & Lee: has there been a tragedy in your life? Have you been able to find the healing balm of laughter?
For those of you who heard Ted & Lee or who have read the book what are your favorite memories/passages?