The Healing Power of Comedy
“In our politically correct world, the comedy stage is still a place for free speech and free expression,” explains Robin Hetro. “Even in medieval times, it was only the jester who could speak the truth to the king and live.”
Robin should know. She plays the jester and speaks the truth many nights a week as a stand-up comic in the west-central Florida area. Usually she opens her routine with this joke: “For those of you prone to motion sickness please don’t make my microphone your focal point. My hands are about as steady as a caffeine junkie’s.”
Sometimes she worries that her hands are not shaking enough to pull off the joke, but, according to Robin, the audience really cannot miss her reference. Openly addressing her shaking hands provides Robin an opportunity to tell the audience she is not nervous, not anxious, not withdrawing from alcohol but has a medical condition called essential tremor (ET).
Acknowledging ET allows her to calm down and concentrate on doing what she loves most: making people laugh. Robin has dreamed about making people laugh since she was a child watching her idols on television.
“I loved watching Carol Burnett. She was very real and genuine with the audience. I would love to have the ease that she conveyed on stage,” says Robin. “I also loved Gilda Radner. I can remember laughing until I couldn’t breathe when she did Rosanne Rosanna Danna on Saturday Night Live.”
During the 1980s, Robin looked to women stand-up comics for inspiration, including Elaine Boosler, Rita Rudner, and Ellen DeGeneres. “They all had offbeat comedy. It wasn’t aggressive like some of the men comics at the time. Their material was clever, and the punch lines were never obvious.”
As a mature professional, Robins says her favorite comic today is Chris Rock. “Chris’s comedy is about his world and his take on it. That is what good comedy does. It tells your story and lets the audience see the world through your eyes,” she says.
But Robin almost passed up the opportunity to tell her story and share her world with audiences. According to Robin, for years she was concerned that people would focus on her shaking hands instead of her comedy, and they would make those dreaded assumptions. Her fear was not based upon unproven and unrealistic expectations; it was based on difficult personal experiences.
According to Robin, she can always remember having tremor, and from the beginning, people made jokes and comments about her shaking hands. This caused a great deal of anxiety for her, and she dreaded the typical grammar school experiences of giving presentations while holding a shaking piece of paper in her hand or writing on the chalkboard. It was particularly embarrassing when adults would order her to hold out her hands so they could see her shaking. “The last thing I wanted to do as a kid was to put my differences on display!” says Robin.
Working as a corporate trainer, Robin’s shaking hands attracted a more serious and hurtful kind of attention than jokes, comments, and insensitive demands. One whole class went to human resources to complain about her.
“They felt my shaking was a sign of my insecurity. They requested a new trainer who was more comfortable in her position.”
Human Resources contacted her supervisor who told Robin she had to address the issue with the class. From then on, according to Robin, she told every class on the first day about her ET. “It made me angry at first, but I realized that once I addressed the tremor, it became a non-issue.”
Another time Robin was in a college interview when the frightened-looking recruiter interrupted her, asking why she was shaking. When she explained she had ET, he did not believe her and ended the interview. “It was the weirdest feeling,” she says. “I felt obligated to prove I wasn’t weird or frightening, but the more I tried, the more frightened he became.”
Another concern Robin had as a young, single, dating adult was what a man would think when first seeing her shaking hands, but eventually one of those first dates led to a wedding. “When I got married, my dress was making noise because I was shaking so hard, and I faked lighting my side of the unity candle, my hands were so bad,” remembers Robin.
Soon she became a full-time, work-at-home mother, and her dream of being a stand-up comic faded. But during this time of limited social contact she began to wonder if the time to follow her childhood dream had passed.
One day Robin saw an advertisement in the local newspaper for comedy classes and decided it was time to put up or shut up. She enrolled. After several weeks, Robin went for her first open-mic night, a time when a comedy club literally opens its microphone to anyone brave enough to come up on stage.
According to Robin, this first experience as a comic was “horrible!” No one laughed. This would probably be enough to discourage most people from going on stage again, but Robin took it as a challenge and refused to quit until she got at least one laugh. In a couple of months, she got her first real laughs. Then she was addicted.
All artists struggle to find their authentic voices. But this struggle was intensified by Robin early on because she was trying to hide her ET. She used a number of techniques from holding the microphone in both hands to holding on to the microphone stand, but nothing hid her tremor. Eventually, with encouragement from other comics, she decided to incorporate her ET into her material, but she was soon discouraged by the awkwardness she felt and by the fact that no one laughed.
“I felt uncomfortable making light of it,” says Robin. “It’s so hard to find great humor in something that has caused so much embarrassment!”
Then, says Robin, “Something amazing happened!” Other comics and club owners who had seen her material and didn’t laugh kept telling her to return to her tremor jokes. So, Robin retooled them. This time they worked. They got laughs. But this was not the amazing part.
“I have other comics calling my shaking ‘essential tremor.’ Not my ‘nervousness,’ not my ‘shaking,’ but ‘essential tremor,'” says Robin. “I am quite proud that people are starting to call it by its name. If nothing else, I am making it a part of the vocabulary in my little corner of the world in west-central Florida.”
Since first taking the stage, Robin has met other comics and musicians who have ET. “They usually approach me after my set and tell me that ET is something they deal with as well,” says Robin. “I met an incredible guitar player who has ET. He really struggles after he has played a while. It’s hard for him to do much until he gives his hands a rest.”
When Robin realized the educational value of telling the truth of living with shaking hands, she researched ET on the Internet and found the IETF. Like most people, she assumed the foundation was huge.
“It had all the earmarks of a large organization, including an informative website and a newsletter I always found interesting,” says Robin.
But Robin took her research one step farther than most people. When visiting relatives in the Kansas City area, she called and made an appointment to visit the IETF. When she arrived, she was surprised to find four people, all women, working in a small, no-frills office. After visiting with the staff for a little while, Robin was impressed.
“The IETF epitomizes the analogy of a pretty duck,” says Robin. “They look sleek and graceful on top of the water, but underneath they are paddling their scrawny little legs off!”
According to Robin, the IETF helped her realize that she is not alone. It opened her eyes to the ET community as a whole, including the medical community.
The IETF was impressed with Robin too, and offered her one of the first Community Ambassadorships. But she felt she could serve the ET community from the stage through her brand of education: comedy.
And Robin has a message to share with everyone with ET. “I want people to know that they should live their dreams and be who they are supposed to be, regardless of their condition. It took me 36 years to muster up the courage to get on a comedy stage. Once I set foot on it, I realized that is where I was meant to be, tremor be damned.”