“Too soon!” is a refrain popularized by and among stand-up comedians for not letting enough time to pass for tragedy to become comedy.
But what happens when terrorism and the national spotlight literally visits your doorstep and is happening right outside your home? Do you make jokes then? Wait until the coast is clear? Both?
At least two Boston-area comedians lived through this experience most dramatically over the past 24 hours, as the manhunt for the suspected Boston Marathon bombers escalated Thursday night following the killing of an MIT officer and a police chase into a residential neighborhood in Watertown, Mass. There, the suspects engaged law enforcement in a shootout and threw a bomb at officers on the street. One suspect ended up dead. The other sped away and hid, discovered and arrested Friday evening under the tarp of a boat parked in a driveway less than a mile away.
Overnight from Thursday into Friday, however, Evan O’Sullivan, who performs comedic dialogues with a pre-recorded version of himself as Evan O’Television, saw police cars, officers, SWAT teams and more lining up outside his window. “I was freaked out,” Sullivan told The Comic’s Comic in a phone interview once the ordeal was over Friday night. “Between cars going by and the shoot-out — I heard it like a doppler. I heard it go by. I heard it go away. And then I heard sirens.” Between 1:30 and 3:30 a.m. Friday, he spent most of it “hiding far away from the window as possible.”
A neighbor did poke a camera out the window to catch a law-enforcement robot inspecting a potential bomb in the street.
O’Sullivan drew up the photographic evidence (shown above) while stuck inside during the mandated lockdown on Friday.
“That is 100 percent funny because it’s true,” O’Sullivan said of the graphics he superimposed over the breaking news coverage outside his home. “I was brushing my teeth at 12:45 a.m. and thought, ‘It’s Patriots’ Day week, so recycling and trash is on a different day,’ then I thought ‘nah,’ and 10 minutes later, sirens down my street.”
Despite having TV in both his stage name and his day job in freelance video production and television, O’Sullivan said he didn’t have a TV in his home to keep track. Instead, he streamed local TV and online news coverage on his computer. Even so: “I was muting a lot, going through Reddit, keeping track of people on Facebook. I was chatting with a lot of people, but remembered, Kelly is right around the corner!”
So O’Sullivan also commiserated with stand-up comedian Kelly MacFarland, overnight into Friday morning. “She and I would always run into each other in Watertown and say, ‘Hey, we should hang out!'” but never really did. A national manhunt in their neighborhood helped bring them together, at least online.
When news broke Thursday about the shooting death of an MIT officer, MacFarland went online to type, “Can we turn the crazy off for just one night?”
Little did she know life would get even crazier for her less than a couple of hours later. To the point where she didn’t want to hear any jokes, telling people on Twitter: “Please be sensitive to what’s happening right now. Trying to get actual news.”
Seventeen hours later, she noted: “Just as they lift the lockdown we hear more gunfire. Suspect in a boat half a mile from my place.”
When all really was clear, MacFarland thanked friends for their moral support over the past day and joined her neighbors outside “clapping for all the people that worked to keep us safe over the past 24 hours.”
A third comedian, Paul Day, lives even closer to where the second suspect was hiding and apprehended. But Day (who performs also as Billy Bob Neck) was on Cape Cod at the time this all went down. He could joke about it from a safer distance, saying Friday afternoon: “It’s about time the Watertown Mall was useful for something.” He also noted that in an eerie coincidence, the man who tried to explode a bomb in Times Square in 2010 also had ties to Watertown.
O’Sullivan said he used humor to balance out his mood and let friends and family know “you can be in the center of the shit but be all right.”
“I did find I had to retreat to the solace of shtick,” he said. “Then i was a little more conscious of the fact that I have a lot of friends around the country, family. How do you reassure people that the worst-case scenario is in play but you’re still safe? How do I reassure people?”
For one Facebook post, O’Sullivan shared a video link to The Young Ones episode, “Bomb,” from 1982, in which the flatmates find an unexploded atom bomb landed in their kitchen. O’Sullivan’s caption for sharing the video: “Let it never be said that I could not find the pop-culture analog for the most dramatic moments of my life.”
“That’s one of my favorite bits ever on The Young Ones, and working with media, I thought it was a perfect illustration” of the situation, he told The Comic’s Comic. “I always loved that bit, but I never thought I’d be in a situation where it was relevant.”
O’Sullivan said while his information-gathering over the past day and night was on a need-to-know basis, he didn’t mind if others joked about the manhunt or anything else during it.
“No, no, this is the culture. This is coping. This is a great coping mechanism for anybody I know. Anybody I know in TV production has gallows humor. Anybody I know who has served in the miltary has gallows humor. For comedians to have it? Of course. I have to say I was so shocked and shook up by everything happening out my door for three hours…I didn’t know (what jokes were made). All I knew was this police presence and the bomb detonation and the guy with guns in his face.”
“Whereas earlier in the week I was fascinated” by talk and jokes about the marathon bombers, by Friday morning: “It all came down to survival proximity. All I need to know is, how close are these fuckers?”
At that point, with SWAT teams making door-to-door visits and searches, and helicopters flying overhead, O’Sullivan and limited the flow of information even further. “I couldn’t even put it all in context,” he said. “I wasn’t really watching the comedy commentary. I was just following my own (Facebook) threads. There were comedians making comments, but they were friends. (Like) The Walsh Brothers. Erin Judge. But I love them. They’re friends. They were kind and generous. Once there’s some funny people in your thread, you can get the ball rolling. That can be where making light of the situation, that can be happening.”
To one Facebook wall posting from comedian Chris Walsh from The Walsh Brothers, O’Sullivan replied: “I’m laying low. TV Evan is making out with a Youtube video of Connie Britton.”
To The Comic’s Comic, he said later: “I was just keeping up with the Facebook and then turning away from the computer for a little while and trying to determine if I could sleep, and I couldn’t really. I wasn’t paying attention to people’s Facebook or Twitter like I would usually, on an election night for instance. You kind of hunker down.”
Using social media, O’Sullivan could control the information he received as well as with whom he shared his own updates. The life-and-death shootout and manhunt outside his home, meanwhile, forced him to confront his own mortality in a more serious way than he ever had.
Now that that’s over, O’Sullivan remembered how he makes light of the mortality that faces him every time he leaves his home — with six funeral homes nearby; two right across the street from one of the police showdowns on Friday.
“I always liked calling it Funeral Row because it was gangsta,” O’Sullivan said, adding that, for Watertown, he modified it to FuneralRowH2O. “It hasn’t caught on. Because I’m the only one saying it. Maybe it will now.”