Laughter is Sacred Space: Memoir of an Anabaptist comedian

Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled

This is the funniest book about the pain of suicide you’ll ever read. It may also be the most profound. By diving deep into what it means to lose your comedy partner, Ted Swartz squeezes us through windows of surprising grace, lubricated by laughter.

Scene 2 of the book tells the tragic story of how Lee Eshleman “succumbed to a fatal illness known as depression” in 2007, as Ted puts it. Lee was the other half of Ted and Lee, the only full-time professional Mennonite comedy company that I’ve ever known. His death sent Ted into a spiral of anger, guilt, debt, depression and holey underwear as his business collapsed, and he got into debt.

But that’s not where Ted’s story begins. It begins, where mine did, in a little Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. Although 30 years apart, the familiar Swiss German Mennonite markers are all there: footwashing, no dancing, no television, no alcohol and, of course, the guilty Mennonite love affair with The Sound of Music. The similarities were uncanny at points. Like me, his diversionary entertainment during the church was limited to two Scotty dog magnets, one black and one white. There must have been some secret Mennonite how-to-manage-your-kid-in-church book that both our parents read.

We also both grew up in communities that were gradually leaving their cape dresses, plain suits and coverings behind them. It seems that Franconia Mennonite Conference must have been a few decades ahead of Lancaster (Pa.) County Mennonites. When Ted’s father abandoned the plain suit (as mine did), he was told by a fellow church member, “You are going down.” Ted’s wry comment on the incident speaks to the way Mennonites of that time and place used the threat of hellfire as a means for passive aggressive social control:

We were pretty sure he wasn’t going to deck Dad. Good Mennonites didn’t hit anyone. Damning them to hell was much cleaner, and somehow sanctified.

After an early career as a butcher (with only one dramatic accident), Ted was asked by members of his congregation to go to seminary, all expenses paid, in order to become their pastor. After five years in seminary, he realized his real calling was acting. A central thread in the book is Ted’s struggle to prove that comedy was as worthy a vocation as preacher.

Ted’s stories also speak to the use of humor in every day peacemaking, including one incident after he, Lee and their fellow company member Ingrid De Sanctis had been arguing ferociously:

Ingrid’s sister, Kathy, is a close confidante of Ing’s, and they talk often. After leaving the Books-A-Million, while the air was still crackling with tension, Lee pulled out his phone and whispered urgently, his voice filled with horror, “Kath, it’s Lee … They’re fighting again, Ted and Ingrid. What should I do? … No, no, I tried that … I tried that … I tried that. Do you think I should let either one drive? … Okay. Do you think they’ll try to kill each other? … No, no, I took Ingrid’s gun earlier today; she was shooting out the window.”

But the peacemaking work that has most impressed me is Ted’s “I’d like to Buy an Enemy” show. During the course of 2012, I worked with Ted & Company on the conception, organizing and production of “Peace, Pies and Prophets,” which combined the show with a improv comedy pie auction to benefit Christian Peacemaker Teams. I’ve watched the show eight times and I still haven’t gotten tired of watching the way Ted and Tim Ruebke satirize our military machine and the cult of death that supports it.

If you live in Seattle, Portland, Oakland, Los Angeles, southern Ontario or Henderson, Neb., you can see the “Peace, Pies and Prophets” yourself this winter. We also have a likely show in McPherson, Kan. Show dates are here. Here’s a little glimpse into the spirit of the show. It opens with Ted driving to the first show of the tour in Akron, Pa.:

I’ve spent many a mile in the front seat with Ted driving between shows. The man I’ve gotten to know is the same person so honestly and openly revealed in this book. That’s because Ted’s art is not one of masks. In the trailer for the book, he says, “Acting is not putting something on so no one can see you. Acting is taking things off so everyone can see you. You’re stripping yourself naked so people can peek inside.” That openness is at the center of this book: from moments of utter failure to the pinnacle of artistic success and celebrity (as conflicting as that is for a good Mennonite). And everywhere in between.

Acting has been an anathema for Mennonites for 400 years, but Ted practices it in a way that embodies the best of Anabaptism. That is: vulnerability as the glue of our community. It’s not about how we dress or whether or not we wear makeup. It’s not even about our committee meetings and our service projects. Anabaptism is about coming together in our shared brokenness. After all, that’s what sharing time is all about.*

You can get a hardback or ebook of Laughter is Sacred Space from MennoMedia here.

*I didn’t realize until this year that not all protestant churches have a time for anyone in the congregation to stand up and share. Todd Davis writes beautifully about this space here.

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