Tragicomedia with improv artist Marc Hershon on vision quests for mourners

Improv artist, Marc HershonFasting on water, chanting his heart out and beating a drum for 4 solitary days in a pine valley opened a door to the afterlife for Marc Hershon. This and more when memory artist, Nancy Gershman talks with Hershon; a Renaissance man who performs and teaches improv; hosts and produces Succotash, the Comedy Podcast; draws an award-winning, weekly cartoon for California’s Half Moon Bay Review and names ubiquitous products (like Swiffer, Dasani and BlackBerry) as Creative Director for Lexicon Branding.

The show must go on (then off)
Conversations with fathers, now dead, are less awkward
No one calls you by your given name in the afterlife
Beating a drum goes well with confessing as loud as you can
Make friends with the friends of your deceased parents
Stand up comedians make the best personal historians
Have more compassion when friends try to say the right thing
Travel back in time to learn the beginning of things
Your To Do List


The show must go on (then off)

“When my father, Norm Hershon, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 72, it came as quite a surprise. Turns out he wasn’t in the best of health; Dad never regularly saw a physician. I guess I was prepared for the long illness but not his death, which came out of the blue. In some ways, though, decades of improv training enabled me to deal with this right away. In improv, you’re given an offer by a fellow actor and you make a return offer, finishing what they started. In my case, the return offer was to take care of everything and everybody during the services and memorial. That way my mom, brother and sister, especially, would be ok. But the end result of keeping everything else on track was that I took a back seat to my own grief.

You could say I was adhering to the old show business maxim: The show must go on.“


Conversations with fathers, now dead, are less awkward

“By coincidence, not by design, just a month after my father died I went on a vision quest with some Native American friends of mine who are from the central California Esselen tribe. I had been going off on these quests in the springtime, once a year for a number of years. Unlike the San Francisco bedroom community where I live across from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pine Valley above Carmel and Monterey is all pine-studded mountains with nothing else around. You hike 7 miles in from the trailhead, which is itself about 7 miles from the nearest town, and you’re completely unplugged – with no cell service, no connection to the outside world, completely separated from your “real life.”

Generally I go on a quest with a small group – usually no more than a dozen people. One person guides the group through the traditional ceremonies, like the sweat lodge ceremony, which is a kind of rebirth in a lightless hut. Enough hot rocks are brought in from the outside to last through four rounds of intense sweating and prayer. After that you take this long hike together and then separate to look for places to set up camp and sleep under the stars.

What happens next is that you lose all idea of where you are. That’s ok though, because you make arrangements that in 4 days you’ll all meet again. For four days and three nights you’re completely by yourself. Just fasting – that’s the way my group does it, nothing but water – although some other groups use mind-altering drugs like peyote. You’re just there by yourself, alone with your thoughts. In my case, it was the death of my father I brought into the wilderness with me. The whole experience of mourning my dad became very intense. I found myself praying and talking to my father. No George Lucas-y special effect visions but he and I had a genuine conversation just like the kind we used to have, only these conversations were happening in my mind.

Dad hadn’t been what I’d call a particularly spiritual man, which is why I was surprised when these conversations became focused on where is he now? What is he experiencing? Initially, I thought I’d be receiving worldly advice, but it ended up being information about the afterlife from a dead guy who avoided the subject of death all his life!”


No one calls you by your given name in the afterlife

“I recall one conversation with Dad about not feeling connected to his name any longer. Wherever he was, names were not important. Dad’s name was just an artificial construct given to him in his former physical life so these other beings around him would identify Dad by who he was “on a soul level.” And you know who the beings were? Family! His mother, father, sister: everyone who passed away before him, including an uncle I’d never met. They were all in the same place, in a very non-physical way.

I also got the sense aging didn’t exist in the afterlife. What I understood was that no matter how old you are when you die, you won’t feel elderly in the afterlife.”


Beating a drum goes well with confessing as loud as you can

“Beyond the conversations we had together, I was also able to explain things to my dad that I don’t think he fully understood when he was alive. Choices I’d made. Decisions. The honesty just came poring out of me. Could someone have heard me? I don’t know. I kept singing as loud as I could while playing a drum. The spiritual venting taught me something about myself. I tend to suppress a lot of things. There are a few people in my life I can be honest with, and when I do, it’s always in irreverent tones when we talk about death — the gallows humor that comedians share whenever “heavy” topics get discussed. Hearing from another person platitudes like Everything will be ok was not going to help me.  What I needed was to acknowledge the grief I held inside myself.

The drumming kind of primed the pump and got my motor going. I felt a mix of emotions, especially anger and frustration at my dad for leaving a bit of a mess behind.  The solitude gave me the unique chance to pore out my feelings and cry.

You can be just as verbal in a drumming ceremony. Drumming frees you to open yourself up to the other drummers. But here on the mountaintop, I felt everybody could hear my pain and anguish while, at the same time, nobody could hear me. It was actually ok that I had no governor over how I was feeling, or behaving. Back when my father’s death was a month old and I didn’t know how much I would miss him, I had no such outlet.

There are ways available to people back home to get pent up feelings out. If you want to clap your hands, play a flute, beat a drum, you can always shut yourself up in your car and try it. The internal conversations with my father were great, but there was something greatly healing about hearing my own voice expressing what I was feeling to the world at large but from a private place. Words are probably the weakest instrument we have to express ourselves. They’re the best tool we’re given, but humans are incredibly clumsy with it.”


Make friends with the friends of your deceased parents

“At my Dad’s memorial, a handful of friends – almost 20 years younger than me – showed up to support me and my family. I was very touched by that.  It helped me because I didn’t expect the connection they would have to my other family members who they’d never met would be that deep. I had no expectation that they would even be there, so I was especially touched by it. It showed me that the level of friendship I have with people runs deeper than I thought.

So here were all these “almost strangers.” Somebody who had something in common with the deceased, they’ll tell you some story. Like the death of Robin Williams. I knew him for 30 years, off and on. We were acquainted and would perform together occasionally. I remember one gathering shortly after he passed. There were a number of folks from the San Francisco comedy community and as we shared our stories and memories of him, it was creating an almost holographic remembrance of Robin from the people who knew him – some not even that well.”


Stand up comedians make the best personal historians

“I’ll run into a comedian friend I haven’t seen for 30 years, and they’ll remind me of when we used to hang out and do the things we’d do. Obviously whatever it was made an impression on them because they had full recall and I didn’t. For me, it was totally improvisational in the moment.

I’m not a stand-up comedian myself; I perform improvisational comedy. But I’ve always noticed that most stand-ups seem to have this amazing facility to recall the minutiae of life. Maybe it’s the function of observational comedy. Stand-ups train themselves to remember the most obscure moments so they can derive comedy out of the details. So naturally, my stand-up friends will always be saying, ‘Remember when we did this and we did that?’ and I’ll often have no recollection of it whatsoever.”


Have more compassion when friends try to say the right thing

“Of course, you have to take what’s said at a funeral or after a funeral with a grain of salt. Sometimes even your funniest, most diplomatic friend may try out things they never said before. My feeling is that you need to let people express themselves, even when you feel yourself reacting strongly. You may even think to yourself what an asshole! But don’t forget that this is your best friend talking. Even if you’re grieving, you need to have a certain amount of compassion towards people trying to say the right thing.”


Travel back in time to learn the beginning of things

“Photographs for me are the best way to remember someone. In a chronological photographic record, you can see all the phases of your life. A single photo of myself as a kid conjures up a movie in my mind. It’s like I go back into a whole scene, which is very cinematic for me. I see when I’m starting to lose friends from high school.  Returning to my photo albums helps me remember the times when my friends were first connected to me, without my knowing who else they knew.”


Your To Do List

Sometimes it takes a death to make us pull out pictures, and really examine the face of people we’ve posed with who are no more for signs of true happiness, or a lack of it.  Life charges along at such a speed that we don’t always see the beginning of nice things, or conversely, the aggregate result of hard things until it’s history.

So if you look at this kind of detective work as an opportunity to study the people to the left and right of you in a picture, there’s rewards in store. Is their expression gleeful? Mischievous? Do you see hints of tightness around the mouth, or do their eyes look sad? Examine the hands gripping baseball bats, walking canes or purses. Can you see signs of manual labor in their fingers, even as other parts of the body appear ageless?

This kind of detective work most likely will need a magnifying glass – virtual or otherwise. And you might want to follow up your observations with a well-timed but gentle question or two to the people who were alive at the time, and knew your subject well.