Planting Funny Seeds

A stand-up comedian from the age of ten, Leighann Lord has traveled the world with her comedic routines and appeared on Lifetime, VH-1, Comedy Central, and HBO. Lord is the author of Dict Jokes: ALTernate DEFinitions for Words You’ve Probably Never Heard of But Will Definitely Never Forget (Volumes 1 & 2) and Real Women Do It Standing Up: Stories from the Career of a Very Funny Lady.

Lord graduated magna cum laude from Baruch College, City University of New York, with a degree in journalism and creative writing. She was the New York City face of the African Americans for Humanism outreach campaign sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and has spoken at the annual conferences of American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, and Center for Inquiry, as well as at DragonCon (Skeptrack), The Freethought Society, NECSS: the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, and PASHTACon! Lord is also a certified secular celebrant who officiates milestone life events with nonreligious celebrations and ceremonies.

Leighann Lord accepted the 2019 Humanist Arts Award at the AHA Annual Conference at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, on June 8. The following has been adapted from her remarks with her permission.

THANK YOU to the American Humanist Association for this wonderful and unexpected honor of receiving the Humanist Arts Award. In the interests of full transparency, when I was notified about the award, my imposter syndrome was thoroughly activated and I thought, “No, no, no. There must be some mistake.” My ego was thinking, “What took you so long?” and my vanity said, “Just put on a pretty dress and let’s do this.”

When I first shared the news I got a lot of very sincere well wishes. The funniest one was: “Congratulations, Leighann. I didn’t know you were a humanitarian.” Neither did I.

Honestly, it’s not easy being a humanist, because—let’s face it—human beings are a hard species to love. So I guess that makes me more of a dogist. I say all the time that life is better with fur in it and that the world would be a better place if we all treated each other half as good as we treated our pets. Seriously, I would love it if everyday somebody rubbed me on my tummy and said: “Who’s the best girl in the whole world?!” (Actually, I probably shouldn’t say that, because there’s a guy on Twitter who keeps offering. #CarefulWhatYouWishFor.)

Another good friend said to me, “Leighann, don’t take this the wrong way like Mr. Spock did when either Captain Kirk or Doctor McCoy said he was the ‘most human soul’ they knew.” With that disclaimer out of the way my friend went on to say:

Leighann, you embody “Christian values” more than any Christian I know. Your ability to see and recognize love, to do for others, to be kind, generous, supportive, thoughtful, inclusive…everything too many “Christians” in this country are not.

How often does an atheist get called a good Christian? I bet it’s more often than a Christian gets called a good Christian.

A little background on me, in case you didn’t know: I went to Catholic school and I was raised Catholic (my parents converted to get a break on tuition). But I didn’t start Catholic school until the third grade, so I went in already skeptical. I knew that Santa Claus wasn’t real so Jesus didn’t stand a chance.

I remember having a hard time in religion class. I kept thinking that Mary kinda messed it up for women. How many times can a young, single girl come home pregnant and say, “God did it”? I thought, if she can be the virgin mother of God… I could be the virgin mother of Tyrone.

So, I’m not Catholic anymore. I unfriended the pope on Facebook. But the bottom line is: I can’t be religious. I have a vagina. With the right pH balance it’s like a built-in bullshit detector. Maybe things would be different if, in the book of Genesis, Adam had been made from Eve’s rib. And if Mary Magdalene’s letter to the Ephesians said, “Husbands be submissive to your wives.” And then we’d have to believe it because it would be right there in the Queen Elizabeth version of the Bible.

It’s challenging to joke about religion because everybody believes different things. I have a friend who believes in aliens. He says, “We really don’t know who built the pyramids, so aliens must have done it.” To which I reply, “Dude, I don’t know who put the shingles on the roof on my house, that doesn’t mean Klingons did it.”

Switching gears just a bit, let me tell you about how, when I first learned the AHA was giving me the Humanist Arts Award, it didn’t really register because at the exact moment I saw the email I was sitting at the hospital bedside of my best friend who was dying from cancer. I was getting an up close and personal crash course in how you do “The End.” What’s more foundational to the human experience then saying goodbye to someone you love?

I don’t know if this was right, but when everyone else showed up to the hospital with balloons and flowers, I came with shot glasses and a bottle of Jack Daniels. She couldn’t drink it. But it was her favorite, and it made her smile, and that’s all that mattered. (I drank it later for both of us.) I wish she was still alive.

When I spoke at her service I chose to share not what I had lost but what I gained by knowing her. Most importantly, she taught me never to order a mimosa at brunch. “Why would you ruin a perfectly good glass of champagne?” she always said.

These days, I’m dealing with the challenge of being a new mom; I have a seventy-seven- and an eighty-four-year-old. I’m parenting my parents. It came out of nowhere too—one day I had parents, the next day I’m thinking, what are Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis doing in my house? If you’re thinking I look too young to have parents that old, you’re absolutely right and thank you. My parents had me late in life, so apparently I’m their retirement plan. I’m the cutest 401(k) you’ll ever see. So, I’m spending a lot of time with my parents because I’m trying to stay in the will. I’m not their only child, but I am the only one they like. #Winning.

Being a caregiver to sick and elderly people has put me deeply in touch with my humanity and my humor. For example, my dad had an accident, and I was on the phone with the EMT who said: “Your dad is ok, but we’re gonna take him to the hospital because he seems really confused. He thinks it’s 1950.”

And I said: “1950? Well then make him sit in the back of the ambulance and take him to the colored-only hospital.” [Spoiler alert: dark humor!]

I took my mom to the dentist. She was complaining, dragging her feet, and didn’t want to get in the chair, and I heard myself say, “If you behave yourself I’ll take you to the liquor store.” Now, I was already going for me, but she didn’t need to know that.

There’s a name for all this. It’s called role-reversal. I remember when I was growing up my parents did not want to have the “sex” talk with me. And now I don’t want to have the “death” talk with them. I found out from my friends. I’m hoping they find out from theirs.

Now, when this Humanist Arts Award was announced, someone messaged me and said:

Congrats! It’s not about your level of funny. It’s about being an activist and normalizing atheism. You definitely have accomplished both making people laugh and showing believers in superstitious tales that we are not the devil.

No, I’m not the devil… at least not until we’ve dated for a while. I don’t think “emotional succubus” is a term of endearment. Of course, your mileage may vary. But the search for love is the most human thing we do and, coincidentally, also one of the funniest. I’m dating now because while my last relationship was pretty serious, he didn’t pop the question. Instead, he asked me how I felt about having an open marriage. And I said, “Well, that depends on how you feel about having an open casket.” Good communication is key.

A study found out that married women who force themselves to stay quiet during arguments are four times more likely to die early. That’s how I know I’m gonna live forever. (I even argue in my sleep: “And another thing…”)

And now, I think it’s important for me to clear up some misconceptions. While I thank you so much for this award, I have to tell you: I am not an activist. I’m not arguing. I’m not fighting. I’m not marching. I’m living. I’m from the George Carlin
school of comedy. I process and share my life through my art. I do my best to offer enlightenment through laughter. And some people dig it, especially now. Because the number-one killer in the United States right now is stress.

A survey found that 46 percent of Americans are stressed out about their debt. The other 54 percent are at peace with it because they have no intention of paying that money back. With so many people drowning in college debt, how come there’s never a sale on education? Buy a bachelor’s degree, get a PhD at half price?

Someone suggested that I get a financial advisor. Yeah, no. In case you’ve forgotten, the experts are the ones who said that the housing crisis was caused by people who couldn’t pay their mortgage. That’s like saying slavery was caused by people who couldn’t run fast enough not to be caught.

I’m trying to do better. I downloaded that money management app called Mint. I put in all my financial information, and it said my lifestyle was “unsustainable.” So, I deleted the app and bought a new phone. Because I felt like I needed a fresh start.

A fresh start is what I wish we had time for. I wish we had time to press the pause button domestically and globally, because right now it feels very vulnerable to be the other. For example, American politicians are making laws that discriminate against gay and transgender people, which is confusing to me; if you don’t agree with someone’s way of life, don’t refuse them service—charge them double. That’s the American way. Can I get an “amen”? Just kidding.

I believe that humor makes people happy; happiness gives us hope and my hope is that if we can laugh together, we can live together.

When my niece was five years old she said to me, “Auntie, do you know what lesbians are?” The way she asked me I was like, “Do you?”

She said, “Uh huh, lesbians are two women who love each other. We love each other don’t we, Auntie?”

“Yeah, we do, baby,” I said. “What time is the Pride parade?”

Now, I apologize ahead of time if I don’t get the terminology or the pronouns right in what I’m about to say. (In my defense, I’m Gen X; our parents and society didn’t expect much from us and neither should you.) I am in awe of transgender people—to be born one way and feel another. I was born a black woman but I feel human. It takes a lot of courage to follow your feelings and change your gender—I still haven’t told my parents I changed my major.

It was fascinating to watch Bruce Jenner transition to Caitlyn Jenner. Now, if she wanted a real challenge, she would’ve become a black woman. You can do that now—thank you, Rachel Dolezal. Do you remember her? She was born white but identified as black, which is very confusing for black people because we don’t usually get volunteers.

On the topic of women, it’s crazy that women are 52 percent of the population, but we only make eighty-five cents on the dollar. That’s why I don’t feel bad about shoplifting. I’m just trying to break even. Actually, black women only make sixty-five cents on the dollar. That’s why I wasn’t mad when Omarosa got fired from her job at the White House making $197,000–I was mad she wasn’t fired from a job making $241,000 a year. And if you don’t find that joke funny, that’s because I only wrote 65 percent of it.

I’m having a hard time keeping up with all the news these days. I watch both FOX and CNN so I can be equally misinformed. Years ago I fell asleep one night watching Anderson Cooper. I woke up and it was Larry King and I thought, “How long have I been out?” I miss the days when I didn’t know who the White House press secretary was. (For the record, my favorite was Melissa McCarthy.)

The lying, the name-calling, the bullying…it’s embarrassing to have a pre­sident who failed kindergarten. It’s like watching a never-ending episode of Orange is the New Sad. Some people want “He Who Must Not Be Named” to be impeached. I do not, because I understand the line of succession: after Mike Pence comes Vladimir Putin. Sometimes I think maybe this is what happened to the dinosaurs. They elected a Racist-Saurus.

I guess I don’t think of myself as an activist because my focus isn’t always on the big picture. It’s on the day-to-day, in-the-moment interactions we have with each other. Anton Chekhov said, “Any fool can survive a crisis. It’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.”

I’ve travelled all over the world doing standup comedy. I’ve performed for the troops in the Middle East. I’ve been to all fifty states. I went to Mexico and I saw the strangest thing there: Mexicans. I was surprised because according to conservative media, they’re all here. They come to take our jobs, which is weird because our jobs are in India.

Even with traveling and laughing around the world it still comes down to the day to day. The other day, a gentleman said to me, “You have a beautiful smile.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I try to smile as often as I can because there are times when I can’t.”

“When you can’t smile, just think of him,” he said, and he pointed upwards.

And I said, “Thor?”

Because let’s be clear, I’m almost always thinking about Thor. And when I’m not thinking about Thor, I’m thinking about Aqua Man. The point is: the man I was talking to laughed. Bonus. And with humor I planted a seed. Double Bonus. Now, let’s see what grows. Because, naive though it may be, I believe that humor makes people happy; happiness gives us hope and my hope is that if we can laugh together, we can live together.