On Being with Krista Tippett
On Being takes up the big questions of meaning with scientists and theologians, artists and teachers — some you know and others you'll love to meet. Each week a new discovery about the immensity of our lives — updated every Thursday. Hosted by Krista Tippett. Discover more at onbeing.org. On Being Studios is the producer of On Being, Becoming Wise, Creating Our Own Lives, and more to come.
The renowned actor as you’ve never heard him before. He has appeared in over 100 films, including Apocalypse Now. He’s best known on television as President Bartlet in The West Wing. But Martin Sheen, born and still legally named Ramón Estévez, has had another lesser-known life as a spiritual seeker and activist. He returned to a deep and joyful Catholic faith after a crisis at the height of his fame in mid-life. He’s been arrested over 60 times in vigils and protests. “Piety is something you do alone,” he says. “True freedom, spirituality, can only be achieved in community.”
A philosopher’s questioning and a scientist’s eye shape Enrique Martínez Celaya’s original approach to art and to life. A world-renowned painter who trained as a physicist, he’s fascinated by the deeper order that “whispers” beneath the surface of things. Works of art that endure, he says, possess their own form of consciousness. And a quiet life of purpose is a particular form of prophecy.
Humor lifts us up but it also underscores what’s already great; it connects us with others and also brings us home to ourselves. And like everything meaningful, it’s complex and nuanced — it can be fortifying or damaging, depending on how we wield it. But as a tool for survival, humor is elemental. We explore this idea with a rabbi who started out in drag, comedians, an NPR host, writers of sci-fi/fantasy, social commentary, and the TV show Veep.
“My mom has a very dark sense of humor. I think that's how I learned how to recycle pain.”
Hari Kondabolu is not your average stand-up comedian. He has a Masters in Human Rights and worked as an immigrants rights organizer — all of which you hear in his writing. His jokes simultaneously bring about discomfort and a nod of the head, without sounding preachy. He uses comedy as a coping mechanism for addressing complex issues of race, identity, and ethnicity post 9/11.
“I cannot tell you how many times laughter has connected me with all different kinds of people throughout the country, of all kinds of political persuasions.”
When politics and comedy mix they can become mean, sarcastic, and divisive. Reporter and NPR Politics Podcast co-host Sam Sanders thoughtfully avoids this. As an African American and Pentecostal growing up near a military base in San Antonio, he was surrounded by people from different class, political, and cultural backgrounds. This helped him develop his thoughtful voice, his objectivity, and his ability to connect to others through jokes and laughter.
“I don't think that humor is evasive at all. It’s how we protect our hearts from just bleeding to death.”
Bestselling author Terry McMillan knows how to write funny yet complex female characters: Savannah in Waiting to Exhale, Stella in Stella’s Got Her Groove Back, and Georgia in her latest novel, I Almost Forgot About You. Whether they’re wrestling with heartbreak, grief, or loneliness, these women use humor to face whatever life throws at them. But these characters are simply taking the lead from their creator, who sees humor as a way of “protect[ing] our hearts from just bleeding to death.”
“Humor is always about ‘as if.’ And it just relaxes everybody. We're going to laugh.”
Transparent creator Jill Soloway describes Amichai Lau-Lavie as “a God-optional, patriarchy-toppling, Jewish modern mind.” He uses humor to connect — to himself and others, his family, his sexual identity, and his spiritual life. The rabbi says the Jewish people have endured because of their ability to laugh at themselves and, in this way, laugh at the world.
“What makes humor is pattern recognition. Finance is very helpful on that front because there are a lot of patterns that keep repeating themselves.”
Heidi N. Moore uses humor as a tool for understanding the world of finance. She tells stories about the people behind the money — why they do what they do and how they do it, and has done so for many years as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Marketplace. By humanizing something as intimidating as finance, she helps people actually understand it.
“Humor reminds me a lot of magic, in that there's no way to quite replicate it. There’s a power to that”
The humor in Daniel José Older’s writing makes his characters come alive. Whether in the playful banter of books like Shadowshaper, in his spiritual practice of Lucumí, or alchemizing tragedy into comedy as a paramedic in New York City, he sees humor as key to finding a storytelling voice.
“Humor gives me release. Sometimes there's just too much tension and you have to let it go. Laughter is such a great natural physical response to do that.”
Humor has been a tool for success for Alexis Wilkinson, and not just a tool for survival. She writes for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and previously wrote for VEEP, a job that she got right out of college, at the age of 22. And, before that, she made headlines as the first African-American woman to be president of Harvard Lampoon magazine.
“Humor establishes new ground for parents and kids to relate on that isn't just parent-kid.”
For Maureen Craig, humor is central to how she understands and relates to her family. As a parent, a wife, a daughter, and a brand strategy executive, she believes that there’s always something you can make a joke about.
“I use humor as a way to let our community know that we're not invisible, at least not to us.”
Chicano cartoonist and writer Lalo Alcaraz explores his dual identity by creating characters and places where he can be seen. He’s known as a writer for the Fox sitcom Bordertown and for La Cucaracha, the first nationally syndicated, politically themed, Latino daily comic strip. Humor as a tool for survival is embodied in his very being.