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Arts & Culture

Comic relief: coping with tragedy in a one-woman show


Marilyn Pittman is one of San Francisco's first openly gay comics. She rose to fame during the AIDS crisis, and became known for bringing hilarity through her blunt tell-it-like-it-is comedy. But in 1997, tragedy struck, when her father murdered her mother, and then committed suicide. After that, Pittman went through her mother's journals, and her father's love letters, seeking answers as to why it happened. Pittman turned their tragedy into a one-woman show at San Francisco’s Marsh Theater. KALW’s Hana Baba sat down with Pittman to talk about "It's All the Rage.”

MARILYN PITTMAN: It's the story of my parents' murder-suicide in 1997. And it's also the story of my survival of that, from that, and how I've survived and coped through the eyes of a comic. Being a comic and having this happen, the last thing I really want to do is bum people out when they come to a show of mine. I'm usually pretty good at making them fall off their chair and choke and cough and spit and get endorphin releases from laughing. That's been my history, my desire, all my life is to do that. And so this was a very difficult show for me to approach.

HANA BABA: This is heavy material.

PITTMAN: It's heavy, but it's really hilarious. That's the other thing is that I start the show talking about road rage. Then I talk about this pedestrian that beat me up when I had a road rage moment with her.

CLIP "It's all the Rage," PITTMAN: In 2000, just three years after it happened, I honked at a pedestrian in a crosswalk at California and Polk – it was my green light – and she threw her latte all over my windshield, blinding me. I managed to pull the car over and I got out of the car and I came storming at her. She got so freaked out, she started beating me up. And then she dropped her keys! And I got her keys and I got in the car and I locked the door. I'm gonna give 'em back. I was raised right, despite what happened.

PITTMAN: Then there are moments of hilarity throughout. The girlfriend I was with at the time – who was channeling Mary and Jesus – when I was needing her at the most important moment of my like, she was off falling in love with her ex-therapist. So there are lots of funny stories to tell about the 13 years of coping with it, including funny stories about my family. One of the hardest parts of this has been that my family was really funny. There's all these big personalities. My parents were educated. They were upstanding members of the community in Durango, Colorado. And I grew up in the 50s as a kid, and 60s, and came of age in the 70s and my family was always really funny and fun. We loved hanging out together and playing cards and going fishing and all these kinds of things. And so, this experience of their deaths has just sort of changed my sense of what my family was. Why did this happen? How does this happen? What was going on? Of course, my mother had filed for divorce three weeks before her death. And she had moved out. And my father was addicted to pain killers and quite delusional and psychotic. And there had been a history of sort of passive-aggressive victim-hood from my mother and this sort of aggressive, rage personality of my father – and it combusted.

BABA: So you took a tragedy like that and you turned it into a show. You put some humor into it – you're a comedian. What role did humor play in you dealing with this?

PITTMAN: Fortunately, I had done a lot of therapy. And part of the show talks about that therapy and understanding therapeutic language – words, techniques that have helped me cope with coming from this very dysfunctional family. It wasn't like my family was perfect; they were dysfunctional. And so I came from this and I did a lot of work on it. I've always found in my comedy act, when I first started in the early 90s, I put a lot of humor about the new-age movement and therapy and meditation. I had all this… making fun of this because it was sort of what I was going through. So I knew that there would be stories to tell about that in the show. And, I mean, I'm trying to laugh at myself, and how crazy I've been sometimes. So that's a lot of the humor in the show is how I get... how I drive down I-5 on the anniversary of their deaths and I think I'm just looking for a warm day in a pool, but really I'm just kind of nuts and I'm fleeing everything.

CLIP "It's All the Rage," PITTMAN: And I drive and I drive about 100 miles down I-5, through the farmland. And I get tired finally and I go and I check myself into a Holiday Inn Express. I take a swim and then I lay by the pool in the sun with my iPod on, crying. And I'm like, "I can't stay here." So I call my wife. "I'm coming back." She's been waiting, hoping to see me again. On the Altamont Pass I call her and have her talk with me through it, because I'm so fatigued. She's the only one with the guts to see me through this, no matter how crazy I've gotten. She says, "You're worth it." And I am. Well, that sounds like a L'Oreal commercial.

BABA: Marilyn, what are your thoughts on what we just heard?

PITTMAN: The humor is just there because I think that's life. Life, if the worst happens, it's gallows humor. You need a way to stay sane and humor is that way to stay sane. It's nerve-wracking because I think, you know, there's... I predict that there will be a portion of the public that hears this and will be like, "Oh, another solo show about their dysfunctional family and their tragedy... Oh please." And I think that, because, I know that's probably going to be an attitude because I have that attitude. I danced around this for 13 years, partly because I was ambivalent about solo performance and all its "let me get up on stage and bleed about my problems." There's still some degree of ambivalence about it for me, but at the same time I see that there is an audience that's looking for how other people are living through crisis and opportunity.

Audio for this interview available after 5pm P.S.T. on March 8, 2012.