Laughing Through Hell

The funniest people are usually the darkest you’ll ever bump into. Well okay, there are those Goth kids who have their faces painted stark white and lips painted black. They sit in dark rooms listening to Morrissey and reading Poe by candlelight. Sure, their souls are a little cloudy. But not dark, the kind of dark people can sense but can’t quite see.

John Belushi.  Chris Farley.  Phil Hartman.

These three comedians lit up Saturday Night Live with their comedic antics in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Their untimely deaths have left a gulf that no one can fill.  Darrell Hammond could easily have been another comedian whose demons left him as a footnote in the history of comedy. He clawed his way back into life after emotional and physical upheaval. Most people would have given up the ghost, lied down and died. But Darrell Hammond decided that he wasn’t ready to give up. The only way out was through.

In his autobiography God, If You’re Not Up There,  I’m $%^&,  Hammond comes clean about his history of drug abuse and mental illness. One thing he doesn’t do is take comfort in being a celebrity. In fact, he seems to cringe when anyone recognizes him. He recounts being in rehab and being recognized by another patient. A mental patient coming down from a crack binge scared him by screaming “Do that guy!  Do that guy you do!”

“That guy” Darrell impersonates is former President Clinton. He tweaked his act, adding the famous lip bite and thumbs up gesture. Anytime afterward when he portrayed Clinton his script would include a note: “Does the thumb and lip thing.” He later went on to portray Chris Matthews, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, and Senator John McCain.

As a child Darrell Hammond was mentally and physically abused by his mother:

…And you’ve been cursed with a progressive fatal illness you didn’t ask for, you brain starts searching for a way to explain it. Most of the time your brain says, ‘It’s because of you. That’s why your mother hit you, cut you, slammed your hands in the door’.’ You think you’re sh*t, you think you’re worthless, you think you’re unlovable, you think you can’t do this, can’t do that. Life is always bad.

His father was a veteran of two wars and was living with PTSD  but the one thing Darrell had in common with him was a love of baseball. Hammond wanted to be a professional baseball player until a career in drinking derailed him.

He decided people thought he was funny (both ha-ha funny and weird funny) so he began the usual routine of hitting up every comedy club, trying out his material. Some nights he’d get laughs. Other nights all he’d hear were crickets chirping.

And then Lorne Michaels, creator and director of Saturday Night Live for the last million years, gave him a chance to audition. Hammond decided he would impersonate Phil Donahue. A Spanish Phil Donahue. He got the job.

Hammond speaks candidly (and humorously) about going to doctors and getting every diagnosis in the book: schizophrenia, bipolar, depression (well, duh), manic depression, multiple personality disorder. He found out that being a celebrity didn’t keep the pain away. It didn’t magically erase the frayed wiring in his brain that caused him to have vivid flashbacks. Flashbacks so vivid that he came to one night trying to cut off his own arm.

This is a not a book for people looking for something funny to read to while away the hours. Hammond delves into his darkness and he does it well. He turns words inside out, never hiding behind beautiful (but deflective) sentences. This autobiography is for people who want to see behind the comedy, who want to see who is in there when the lights go out and the laughs fade.


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