Tragicomedia with stand-up comedian Rev. Susan Sparks about Divorce, 9/11 & Breast Cancer

stand-up comedian Rev. Susan SparksWhen there’s a death but no body, is it ok for a 9/11 widow to crack up laughing about the pig-and-palm tree tie her husband wore that day? This and more when Tragicomedia’s Nancy Gershman sits down with trial lawyer turned pastor turned stand-up comedian, Rev. Susan Sparks, Senior Pastor of NYC’s historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church. Watch for Susan as she travels with a Rabbi and a Muslim comic in The Laugh in Peace Tour. Read her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace and visit her on



It’s ok if you find healing in humor before you find it in God
Sometimes humor is all you have left when there’s a death but no body
It helps to have a naughty mind …
Some people need time in a place of pain, anger and emptiness
Crying through laughter is how the body shows we’re not numb yet
Plug into the deceased by eating junk food in their Safe Place 
For a centerpiece, pick the photo where they’re exploding with joy
Your To Do List

It’s ok if you find healing in humor … before you find it in God

“My reconnection to God and the sacred happened when I fled to the wilderness. I was healing from my divorce. After holding God at arms length for so many years -the church seemed so judgmental to me as a child – the wilderness felt like a really safe place.  (And after divorce, there are very few safe places.) So there I was, fly fishing with trout jumping out of the stream and I got this feeling that there’s something greater than us out there in the world.  I saw that the face of God was no longer just Church.

The comedy came later, when I was practicing law. Juries just respond better to a punch line versus 500 hours of explanation. It requires some pithy editing but generally it works quite well.

Still later, when I was writing a thesis on humor and religion, I met Rabbi Bob Alper. We hit it off immediately, and I started to open for him as a comedian. Then 9/11 hit. Bob’s agent told him that he should pull a Muslim into the act and he did and we began to travel around as The Laugh In Peace Comedy Tour, pulling in Muslim comedians like Mo Amer, Ahmed Ahmed and Azhar Usman.”

Sometimes humor is all you have left when there’s a death but no body

“After 9/11, I volunteered to answer phones for Red Cross Search and Rescue, and this woman dials my line. She starts describing her husband who worked in the Twin Towers and the suit he wore that day. And when she gets to the point where she’s describing the tie he had on that morning she starts laughing hysterically and  telling me that it “was one of the worst ties ever, with pigs and palm trees.” She’s crying and laughing, crying and laughing and then there’s this long pause in the conversation. I sit on the other end just listening and finally she says, “Wow.  Humor probably sounds inappropriate to you at this moment. But that’s all my family has left.”

In that space you saw this momentary pause in the pain. Humor just lifted her up.”

It helps to have a naughty mind …

“Now juxtapose my divorce and 9/11 with the third piece of my life which is that I’m also a breast cancer survivor. The very same thing applies, that there’s this link between healing and humor. I speak about it to cancer survivor groups and hospitals all over the country.

When you go through breast cancer, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own pain. The woe is me lamentations. For a couple of weeks after my diagnosis I was just surly and nasty.  I didn’t see anything but the negativity of the situation. But by listening to the stuff happening around me – the negativity began to lift. Like when I went for a liver scan and told the technician “I had a couple of beers going into it.” He’s staring at the floor like he’s about to deliver bad news, and then says with a straight face:  “You have the early signs of Bud Light Syndrome.”

Some people need time in a place of pain, anger and emptiness

“In my work, I can smile, I can tell a funny story – even on a deathbed. But I have to be careful. In pastoral counseling and on the phone, not every person wants humor. Some patients will want to stay in that place of pain, anger, emptiness – and you have to respect that. My job is to open the door.”

Crying through laughter is how the body shows we’re not numb yet

“I did a funeral for a woman in our church who was 95. She had a reputation for never leaving the house unless her clothes were perfect. So I’m there at the funeral, with one arm around her daughter and my other hand touching her arm in the casket. But I’m feeling something square in that arm and my expression must be giving me away. So I blurt out: “Your mother’s arm is square.” Well, the two of them start laughing. And they explain that “Mama was scared they wouldn’t have her hair color on The Other Side so she made sure the funeral parlor buried her with Miss Clairol Auburn/Brown #5!”

Their laughing morphed into tears of sadness because they lost her but all that sadness morphed right back into more laughter because it helps through the stages of grief. It’s a way for our body to say: I’m still alive, I’m still breathing.

The American Medical Association talks about the intake of oxygen from laughter; that it increases endorphins, heart and lung function and burns calories. It’s not just for funerals.”

Plug into the person you’re grieving for by eating junk food in their Safe Place

“When my father died, that was one of the most poignant times of my life. Going through all the states of grief where it’s hard to laugh and you’re feeling alone and angry.  It was especially gut-wrenching losing that second parent. The foundation is gone; nothing is there to hold the family together anymore. And there you are, next in line.  The one thing that I kept coming back to was Dad’s great love for Planters peanuts.  Somehow mainlining peanuts during the early weeks after his death made me feel a little better – maybe because it made me feel closer to him in a way.

The same thing happened when Mom died in Sept. 2009. My book Laugh Your Way to Grace was due at the publisher and I found I couldn’t write. Or rather what I was writing was the most morose, heavy and dark stuff. For a book on laughter this was not a good thing. So I pulled away from writing and once again went to spend time in the wilderness – this time in Utah for some hiking. While the canyons were definitely healing, the most restorative part of the trip was consuming the fifteen Snicker bars I brought on the plane -one for each day of the trip- to honor Mom’s addiction to chocolate.  When I got back, I finished the book.

For a memorial centerpiece, pick the photo where they’re exploding with joy

“Sometimes it’s good to find the photo that captures the person you’ve lost at their greatest point of joy.  For example, I keep a picture of my Dad at 86 years old, sitting in my red Jeep Wrangler.  In the late 90s, before I went to seminary and after I practiced law for ten years I traveled solo around the world.  And during that time Dad babysat my Jeep like grandparents who keep your kids while you go on vacation. He was a huge car fanatic and he loved Jeeps.  I took a photo of Dad sitting inside the Jeep before I left –and the look on his face is pure, unadulterated joy.  It says it all.

There’s a lot of storytelling at the funerals or memorials I conduct. We’re always inviting people to come forward and tell their stories about the person who died. You get such a rich tapestry of stories: some really embarrassing; some very serious. Sometimes there will be a photo poster propped up. One gentleman, Charlie McCarthy, he was 101 when he died and the family chose a photo of him from the war.

Charlie was still chasing women until he was 100 years old. He calmed down at 100. But I remember how hard of hearing he was. During quiet prayer time, you could hear him praying, “You have to help the Mets, God. They’re horrible.”  That was a side of Charlie the family just didn’t have in photo form.”

Your To Do List

1.  For a memorial centerpiece, find a photo of the deceased “exploding with joy.”  Even if smiling ear to ear was not their thing, make sure that there is consensus that the expression the deceased is wearing – and their body language too – is plenty authentic.

2. If no photo exists that conveys their expression of joy or bliss, hire a digital artist to create the effect. A good digital artist can plant your loved one in a favorite vacation spot or surround them with the things that do (or would) bring them joy like a brand new grandchild; a pet or even their treasured toothpick collection!  It’s all a matter of expert cutting and pasting, and adding in light and shadow to make the effect look very, very real.