Cory Kahaney and on-stage co-host Ben Freeberg talk about The Joke That Saved My Life, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019
Ben Freeberg: Welcome. I’m one of the on-stage hosts of TEDxAsburyPark. Today I’m here with Cory Kahaney, who will be a speaker and a co-host at this year's TEDxAsburyPark Conference on May 18, 2019. Welcome, Cory.
Cory Kahaney: Thank you so much, Ben, for having me.
Ben Freeberg: We are excited for you to be a speaker and also that you’ll help bring a little bit of fun into the afternoon as a co-host.
Cory Kahaney: That is what I'm planning to do, copious amounts of fun is my plan.Ben Freeberg: Great. To start off, do you mind telling the audience a little bit about yourself?
Cory Kahaney: I’m a veteran comedian, I think I can say that without any apology. I've been doing stand-up comedy for 26 years. I'm pretty pleased with my career because I hit every milestone that I had intended to. Some of the highlights for me ? I did Stephen Colbert, I did Letterman. I did a special on Comedy Central, and many other things. It has paid for me to live in New York City, to put one kid through college, and then a second kid through private school. So, I suppose I fit into a very small category of comedians. I'm sort of a middle-class comic.
Ben Freeberg: I'll take it.
Cory Kahaney: Yeah. You know, there are a lot of very famous comedians who make a buttload of money, and then there are people like me...we're just very reliable, we get the job done, and we make a good living. I couldn't have hoped for any more out of my career. So, I'm very pleased.
Ben Freeberg: That’s great. So, we're excited to have you also give a talk, which, from what I understand, is going to be a little bit of a mix between something that was pretty serious and a pretty big moment of your life, coupled with how you were able to use comedy to get through it. Do you mind sharing a little bit about what this talk is going to be about and why you're excited to share the story?
Cory Kahaney: I am excited to share the story, and, actually, I think it makes a lot of sense if you know anything about comedy because all comedy, or the best comedy comes from tragedy. And there's a formula, tragedy plus time equals comedy. And I would have to say that I discovered my secret power was comedy at a very, very crucial moment in my life. I was sadly in a very unhappy marriage for a long time, and I'm a domestic violence survivor. Domestic violence has a pattern, the person who is being abused does everything they can to avoid abuse and the person who abuses is like a powder keg. This pattern goes on and on for years and years, and one day it got really bad; I would have to say the stakes were very, very high. My husband was so angry that he had a jagged piece of wood in his hand, and he was holding it over my face. And I'll go into the story a lot more on how it sort of built to that.It was a moment where I sort of saw the world very clearly. I was going to have a gash across my face for life if I let this continue. I had this moment where I saw how ludicrous and hilarious it was at the same time, because it was going to ruin his life as much as it was going to ruin my life, you know? And I looked up at him and I said, "Okay, go ahead. Carve up my face, but good luck getting laid after that."
Ben Freeberg: (laughing)
Cory Kahaney: Yeah, exactly. I'm glad you're laughing. It wasn't a particularly funny joke, but it very much ... it interrupted the mindset of what was happening. He kind of looked at me. I don't think that he laughed or chuckled, but he immediately dropped the jagged piece of wood that he had ripped out of the wall. It was, in many ways, a perfect joke because I tapped into his male sexuality and what was at stake. And at the same time, I saved my face. At the same time, I actually changed the paradigm and the dynamic in that moment.
And I realized that we all have that power. It's not that I'm a professional comedian, although, granted, this led me to be a professional comedian, but almost everyone that you talk to who has gone through trauma or really scary moments or chaotic moments has been able to see something ironic, something that is ridiculous. And if you can go there with your mind, you can survive it. That is really the core of my talk, that if we look for comedy, if we're aware of it and we zero in on it, we are no longer trapped.
Ben Freeberg: That's… it's an incredible story. So, what do you attribute it to, was it more just taking both of you out of the moment and realizing that ‘this isn't just what's going to happen between the two of us here,’ and you get your anger out or whatever it is, it's that this is going to affect both of you for the rest of your life and you hit him where it hurts? Or was it just trying to find humor in the situation, or a little bit of a mix?
Cory Kahaney: Probably a little bit of a mix. I think I also had very little choice, if you know what I'm saying. I could have just begged and pleaded and cried, but we were at a point where he was going to really cut my face badly, and the only thing I could do was sort of just become in the moment. In that moment, I was able to see that if it was going to happen, it was going to happen, meaning if he was going to go through with it. But the only thing I had at my disposal were words and thoughts, and they happened to be funny at that time because it was ridiculous. I attribute that to just always being a person who looked for the funny.
Ben Freeberg: I agree. And I think we talked about this last time we met, but I used a similar idea to help me fight cancer, where if you find the funny in being told that as a young, healthy 25 year-old man I had to eat like a pregnant woman, I mean, if you can't find humor in that, then the whole thing's going to be pretty tough.
Cory Kahaney: Yes, and I remember when you were telling me the story because there were aspects to the story that were funny. It made me relax into the story and really be able to hear your journey without being so afraid for you. Does that make sense?
I was able to take in the information and ride the story with you because you showed me the parts of the story that were actually ironic and silly and absurd. That is, I think, what I strive for in my life and what has allowed me to do all kinds of scary things. You see, at the core of my story, that joke allowed me to leave that marriage. Do you know what I'm saying?
Ben Freeberg: Exactly.
Cory Kahaney: If I could save myself from that, there really wasn't anything I wasn't going to try or face. In a sense, it broke the pattern that we had been in for a long time. I'm not going to say he never lost his temper again, but I also knew that I could hang up the phone all of a sudden, like when he was being abusive in a phone call. I didn't know I could do that. It was like, wait a second. He's being ridiculous, I'm hanging up the phone. And yes, he would call back, but each time he would call back, it might be a little bit less abusive.
Ben Freeberg: I'm so glad you did. So, if there are people in our audience who may unfortunately be in similar situations, either in your exact situation or something similar they're struggling with, what advice do you have for them to ... how can you as someone who has gone through a really tough time, how do you find the humor in it in the moment, or how do you create that escape?
Cory Kahaney: I think it's become aware of your situation, look for it, look around.. I'm not telling anyone else who is in a violent relationship to use a joke to try and save themselves, because it has to come from a place where you feel like you can do it or you really have nothing else to lose. But if you're in a difficult situation, start joking about it with your friends.
I'll give an example. I had a friend that was going through a terrible custody battle, and I was sitting there with her and these vicious and venomous texts were going back and forth. Finally, the husband wrote, "What are you going to do when this is settled, Marie?" And I grabbed her phone, and I typed in, "Kickboxing." There was silence for about three minutes, and he texted back, "I will have half the money for you on Friday."
Ben Freeberg: Wow.
Cory Kahaney: It was like what we're looking for from the president right now, just come a little bit over the line towards our side. (This interview was recorded as the U.S. was in the middle of a government shutdown and Congress was trying to negotiate some kind of an impasse.)
So I interrupted the fight with humor. It's also how I cope with any difficulties I have in my marriage today. I mean, if my husband and I are really fighting, if one of us can get to something funny, we look at each other, we smile, we laugh, and we know we're going to be okay, and it's ... I'm not saying that the issue is resolved, but as long as you can find some sort of a mutual humor there, there's humanity. If there's humanity, I still love him, he still loves me.
Ben Freeberg: That's pretty powerful. So, have you shared this ... with women or other people who fight domestic abuse?
You know, I didn't feel comfortable enough until now to talk about it. I used to do fundraisers for women’s shelters and for organizations that helped women who were in dire circumstances. I would often privately share with one of them or one of the leaders that this was something I went through and I had a tremendous affinity for them. But this is the first time that I felt like I could start talking about it. That happened because my daughter, who was part of that marriage, is now a grown-up and has moved on. She's actually married and has a life, and I don't feel like there's anything to lose now. I also feel very calm and able to discuss it.
I will say this, that for anyone who is doing comedy, there is a certain amount of time you have to wait before you can do material about painful circumstances because what happens is, as long as you're still affected by the issue, be it anger or sadness or feeling betrayed, whatever, it comes out in the comedy. So you need a certain amount of time to heal before you can actually start joking about it on stage. I think that the same holds true for a talk, and I needed the time to heal. Now I can talk about it with a certain amount of humor, irony, etc.
Ben Freeberg: And we really appreciate that you are, because I really do feel that this is going to be quite helpful and impactful for a number of folks in different situations.
Changing gears, I want to know if you have any advice for folks who want to get started or continue their career in comedy or become a TEDx speaker. I mean, you've had quite a bit of experience from cruises to clubs all over the country. Where should people get started or how should they do it?
Cory Kahaney: Everybody gets started in their own way. There are a lot of people who get told on Thanksgiving, "Oh my God, you're so funny, you should be a comedian." And that’s not a good enough reason to be a comedian. It is one of the hardest and most gut-wrenching fields you can go into. Oftentimes, particularly female comics, young ones, will come up to me, and they'll tell me something that was horrible or unfair that happened, and I always say to them, "Well, just take it to human resources and they'll handle it." And they look at me, and I'm like, "Yeah because that's our business. There is no human resources. There's no rhyme or reason."
Ben Freeberg: Right.
Cory Kahaney: Oftentimes, it never makes sense why this one gets ahead and that one doesn't. It's a calling, and I know that sounds so corny, but you do stand-up because you are drawn to do stand-up and you feel that's the best way to express yourself. You get the most gratification out of doing stand-up. If you have other things that fulfill you, I highly recommend going in that direction. But if you feel the calling and stand-up is the only thing that really floats your boat, then you just have to do it.
There are many ways you can start. You can take a class, you can go to an open mic, and, actually, I would suggest doing both of those things--and do it as young as you possibly can. It's not something I recommend starting at too late an age because it's a ... we all agree, it's 10 years before you really can call yourself a comedian, I think. And I encourage people who feel the calling to carpe diem; start now.
I‘m teaching a class for people who have been going at it for a little while on how to work on your first TV set. There are always mentors out there that you can find who will take you to the next level, if you are looking.
Ben Freeberg: I agree with that. If members of our audience want to further develop their relationship with you or the idea of this talk in general, what do you recommend they do?
Cory Kahaney: Well, you can reach me on Twitter @CoryCajones (if you knew my act, that user name would make more sense). But you can also just search Twitter for 'Cory Kahaney' and it will take you right to me. There aren’t many Cory Kahaneys. And I have a website, and on there is a button there that says Contact Cory. I’m very visible on the New York City club scene, particularly at Gotham Comedy Club, the Comic Strip, and the West Side Comedy Club. Those are the places that you can always find me.
Ben Freeberg: That's great. Well, Cory, thank you so much for the time.
Cory Kahaney: Thank you.
Ben Freeberg: This is a reminder to get your tickets for the largest and highest rated TEDx Conference on the east coast, TEDxAsburyPark on May 18th, 2019 where you will get to hear Cory talk for a decent amount on both this incredible topic we just shared and to also help introduce some of our other terrific speakers.