Atomic Comics

Humor from the heart to melt our nuclear numbness

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 49
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Fran Peavey is a teacher, comedian and social change catalyst. This article is excerpted from her wonderful new book, Heart Politics, available from New Society Publishers, 4722 Baltimore Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19143 for $9.95 plus $1.50 for shipping. Fran can be reached via 84 Anderson St, San Francisco, CA 94110.

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO I realized that the way I was reading the newspaper wasn’t working. I really wanted to know what was going on in the world, but all the stories about horrors and disasters only left me feeling numb and helpless. Watching the news on TV was an even more passive, disempowering experience. It almost seemed as though the newspaper publishers and TV broadcasters were programming us to look to the ads for relief from their news, to buoy up the consumer world. "The world may be falling apart, but you can fix yourself up at Macy’s."

I started experimenting with less passive ways of absorbing the news. I talked back to the television set, ripped up the newspaper, and finally began to develop a comedy act about the news. Comedy seemed a natural medium for me. I had grown up in a pre-TV family; we spent many nights laughing together at the absurdities of life and at each other’s funniness. I have always enjoyed telling stories and laughing.

So I got up on stage at a coffeehouse in San Francisco and began to explore current events with the audience. I read choice items from the San Francisco Chronicle, personalizing the news.

One of my big shows, planned well in advance, occurred a few days after the People’s Temple mass suicide in Guyana. I didn’t know how I could do the show with my heart so heavy and my mind so confused about the tragedy. So I mixed a little reality in with the comedy, and people seemed relieved to have that balance. I started wondering whether there could be a social form, a niche in our community life, called "realedy" – neither comedy nor tragedy but a lively mix of the two. I envisioned a forum where we could talk about our lives, share the absurdities we saw around us. Realedy would serve as a vehicle to help us come out of the closet with what was really happening in our world and in our hearts.

The idea of doing a ventriloquist act with the American flag occurred to me one day while I was preparing for a show. I had already experimented with standing the flag next to me onstage; I would nudge it and talk to it as I read the newspaper. Now I wanted it to have a voice of its own. Since I wasn’t a ventriloquist, I asked my good friend Charlie Varon to play the voice of the flag. I bought a small flag and sewed an extra layer of cloth on the back of the stars. I would put my hand inside and move the flag’s "mouth" while Charlie spoke his lines offstage.

The character we began to develop was a crotchety guy with a lot of problems. Memory problems (he couldn’t remember whether the mission to rescue U.S. hostages from Iran had succeeded or failed), hearing problems (he heard "erection" for "election"), ego problems (he worried that the Soviet Union had bigger missiles than he did). He was not a malevolent guy, not inherently evil. But he did make mistakes and often failed to comprehend the pain his mistakes caused. He was upset that upstart countries like Iran were giving him a hard time, confounded that the rest of the world wouldn’t always cooperate with his plans. When it came right down to it, he wasn’t afraid to push to get his way.

Meanwhile, my explorations with the nuclear study group had begun to show me the comic possibilities tied up in the nuclear threat. After being overwhelmed by despair during a weekend retreat, we had inexplicably started laughing. And the laughter had released a tremendous amount of energy. After that experience I told Charlie, "We’ve got to start doing nuclear comedy." I could see that comedy would be needed to help fight the sadness and despair that people faced as they grappled with the nuclear threat. It would be a ministry to hold up the absurdity of the situation without belittling the problems posed by the bomb. So we made an intuitive leap and started calling ourselves "nuclear comedians."

One of the first nuclear comedy sketches we developed was called "What About the Russians?" Charlie plays an on-the-street radio interviewer who accosts passerby Patricia May Nicholson with the question: "What should we do about the Russians?" Patricia May responds: "Oh, you’ll have to ask my husband that question." The more insistent the interviewer becomes, trying to whip her into an anti- Soviet frenzy, the kinder and more genteel Patricia May becomes. Finally, when asked to imagine what she’d do if the Russians landed in her home town, she says: "Have they had dinner? If they like American food, we could have them up to the church for supper. After all, they’ve come all this way."

One day Charlie arrived for rehearsal just as Alex, a realtor friend of mine, was leaving. Charlie and I tried to interest Alex in the nuclear issue. He didn’t seem responsive, so we began to tell him what nuclear war would do to the real estate market. Thus our "Realtors for Social Responsibility" sketch was born. I play RSR founder Hermione Pledge; Charlie is again an earnest interviewer.

"Mrs. Pledge, what is the basic concern of your group?"

"Nuclear war would take property off the market. A nuclear explosion sucks up pieces of real estate into a mushroom cloud. That’s what a mushroom cloud is! It’s pieces of property that have been sucked up and made radioactive; then they fall down on other pieces of property – what you might call ‘hot property’. And that’s not to mention that in the same mushroom cloud, neighborhoods would mix!"

We continued performing in San Francisco, trying out our sketches for audiences at nuclear freeze petition parties. And then we set out on two tours in February of 1982: one to the East Coast and one to Colorado. Everywhere we went there were small but enthusiastic audiences. After the shows, people often came up to thank us for helping them laugh at the nuclear threat. We balanced our comedy shows with a few minutes of serious talking from the stage, and with workshops on the psychological toll of the arms race. We called the program "Living and Laughing in the Nuclear Age."

Our Colorado tour organizer, Carol Rothman, showed us a piece of "indigenous nuclear comedy": a government booklet entitled "Crisis Relocation: Guidance for Residents of the Denver Metropolitan Area." It was all about leaving the "risk area" and relocating to an outlying "host area" in the event of a threatened nuclear attack. At one show at a nightclub in Denver, we tried out some of the "material" that had been written by the government:

"Before you leave home, close all curtains and drapes and turn all home heating and appliance thermostats to lowest settings . . . Be advised that your pet may be placed in a temporary pet shelter . . . You are NOT encouraged to take firearms to the Host Area . . . What to take with you: Prepare to take those things that you would take on a two-week vacation trip, plus . . . " Then there is a checklist that includes such items as work gloves, work clothes, shovels, axes, picks – it’s going to be a hell of a vacation! – as well as deeds, insurance policies, stocks and bonds.

The Denver audience was howling at all this, but they absolutely exploded when we read: "What to expect on the road: Traffic will probably be heavy. . . " We’ve kept the Denver "Crisis Relocation" pamphlet in the show; it’s one of our funniest sketches. We can’t write material as good as that.

On another tour that took us to Wisconsin, Charlie and I toured the American Breeders Service plant, the world’s largest producer, or rather collector, of bull semen. Through scientific breeding and artificial insemination, dairy cattle in the United States now produce much more milk per capita than they used to. And, we found out, the Soviet Union recently purchased millions of dollars of bull semen from ABS to improve Soviet dairy cattle. This means that there are now hundreds of thousands of Soviet-American cows running around the USSR. Would we have the heart to bomb cattle that are part of the family?

I often feel comedy bombs going off inside me when we generate material. One afternoon Charlie and I were working on our sketch about Colonel Curtis Catapult, a twenty-one-year veteran of the U.S. Airborne who was recently traded to the Soviet Army. We had already established his fondness for Russian Vodka and his professionalism – being traded didn’t affect his love for "the game." But the sketch hadn’t taken off. Then it happened. Colonel Catapult started spinning out a plan to retrofit Soviet nuclear missiles with motorcycle seats, handlebars, and maps with little arrows, so his Airborners could ride them down. Why sit on the sidelines in a nuclear war? Naturally, the boys in the Soviet Airborne had never seen the United States, and they wanted to, and a nuclear war might be their only chance. So Colonel Catapult decided to circle some tourist spots on the maps, like the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge, so the boys could enjoy some sightseeing before continuing on to their targets.

Sometimes I feel as though there are two realities separated by a curtain. One reality is our daily lives; we see people scurrying around, doing their work, living their lives. But every now and then we peek behind the curtain, and see a second reality: the world as a whole, poised on the brink of several disasters at once, our planet befouled, starvation, oppression, war, invasion, fifty thousand nuclear weapons . . . "Hey, there is a world out there, and the situation is really absurd! Oh my heavens, is this us? How embarrassing!" The two realities collide for a moment: I feel like a hostage on a planet of fundamentally crazy people, and I suspect I may be one of them.

Then I recoil for a while at the insanity of it all, and close the curtain. A wave of sadness, anger, or fear passes through me. Then something starts to go off inside me again. I peek through the curtain once more, and through the terror and insanity, a roar from deep inside comes up and out. It is a cosmic roar, a roar of survival, a burst of true energy that relieves just enough of my suffering to unleash the fury to heal and work even harder.