There is a tendency to see comedians are endlessly, blissfully happy people, full to the brim with bonhomie and good cheer, their minds, and souls, a captivating whirl of good thoughts, humourous observations and pithy, funny oneliners.
But as Robin Williams proved all too devastatingly, that is often far from the truth; they are, after all, as human as the rest of us, using humour as a weapon against the dark arts of life, a way of keeping the monsters at bay.
As more than comedian has admitted, behind all those side-splittingly funny jokes and infectiously enthusiastic smiles, sits a broken soul looking for some kind of redemption.
That may seem a little too dramatic, and likely is – after all writers are people looking to make life ore exciting than it actually is – but as Tiffany Haddish admits in her bestselling memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, there is a great deal of truth in that observation.
“I didn’t start out with the intention of writing all about this painful stuff. I just wanted to write a funny book.
I don’t normally like getting all deep into painful shit. I like to skip across the ocean of emotion. I feel like that’s better.
But once I started working on this book, I got into all this shit. If something comes up, I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to tell you about it, and if it hurts, that’s too bad. I’m going to be like, “Yo, that shit hurt, but let me tell you though.”
That’s who I am.
I feel like, honestly, that’s the only reason I’m alive. Because I’m willing to talk about my stuff.” (P. 275)
But like many perceptions about people, particularly those in public life, it’s not the full story.
While Haddish doesn’t address this failing of celebrity, and our flawed interaction with it directly, she does set about disabusing us of the motion that her life has been one unending parade of happiness and bliss.
The thing is, scathingly honest as it resultingly is, the comedian who came to public prominence with the 2017 film, Girls Trip, it’s not some pity part, some sad, bleating acknowledgement that “I might be famous and successful but I know pain and I know sadness y’all.”
What it is, and necessarily confrontingly so at times, is a recounting of life that has had more than its fair share of setbacks, and broken moments, such that you wonder how Haddish has emerged even remotely intact on the other side.
She doesn’t attempt to gloss over this either, portraying herself as some inspiring survivor who witnessed the darkest parts of the human experience and is still walking, talking, breathing and alive.
As that quote illustrates all too well, she is neither an ambulant festival of woes nor a gutsy survivor with a winner’s trophy held aloft; she simply someone who went through a whole lot of shit, and yes that word is accurate for much of her memoir which is punctuated with the basest of peoples’ thoughts and actions, and came through because she wasn’t done with life yet.
The thing is, as you read this book, which is way more serious than funny – though there is a glint of gutsy good humour and amusing self-aware self-deprecation in most chapters – you come to appreciate just how close she came to not making it through.
That success was not guaranteed, that her declaration in her teenage years that she would make it big as a comedian was fraught with all kinds of impossibilities, stark realities and obstacles, and the real sense that everything could, and at times did, fall apart quite spectacularly.
Haddish recounts how she made it through the foster system, the result of her mother sustaining life-changing brain trauma in a near-fatal car accident when her five children were quite young – Haddish is the oldest of her siblings, the products of two separate relationships, neither successful or emotionally-nurturing – through an abusive, controlling marriage, and through the misogyny of the stand-up comedy scene, by sheer force of will but also luck at times, but mostly because she was willing to address and talk about “that shit”, because she refused to sweep all that stuff under the carpet, and see life as an opportunity to win, not to lose, despite everything.
“I know life is no laughing matter, but having experiences can be. They can be the best learning lessons—just fuckups but still lessons. That’s how I think of my life, all my wins are lessons, and all my failures are lessons that will one day become wins. I decided to write this book in the hope that someone will read it and feel like, ‘If she can do it, I know I can!” (Introduction)
It’s this willingness to not be defeated by life, when she could so easily have been, that percolates through every last word in The Last Black Unicorn (the title comes both from a physical reality of her youth but also the overcoming mindset it engendered).
Haddish is refreshingly neither a victim nor a nauseating victor; simply someone who made it through the hellfires of life, bearing scars and emotional loss, but not down, and as she at pains to point out with her irrepressible wit and chutzpah, most definitely not out.
And for all those gritty, in-your-face memories, there is a lot of good too, as there always if you care to look for it; Haddish doesn’t pretend she didn’t have good moments too the better to burnish her tales of life gone scarringly wrong.
But she’s also honest enough, and it’s her honesty that endears you to her, her willingness to call a spade a spade and dig something new rather than whack someone over the head with it (though she does that too, of course) that makes you love her for more than her very funny observations of this messy, sometimes horrible thing called life.
Even more than this, it’s her willingness to admit to her mistakes, to be honest about her poor decisions and her emotional brokenness and stuntedness than makes The Last Black Unicorn inspiring in the most grounded and real of ways.
It’s not some clarion call to best life at its own nasty game; simply the tale of one person, one now very successful, very visible and very funny person, who went through a whole of shit and came out the other side, able to tell the tale, which as it turns out, is the very thing that saved her.