It sucks, and it will always suck

Tragedy plus time doesn’t always equal comedy

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Adam Cayton-Holland — note the lack of the letter 'L' in Cayton.
Ryan Brackin

In 2012, Adam Cayton-Holland was hitting his stride. After eight years of work building up cred on the comedy circuit, the Denver native got accepted into the New Faces showcase at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival, the world’s largest gathering of the who’s who of comedy. He was chitchatting with agents, partying until dawn in hotel lobbies with some of his favorite comics and, in his words, thoroughly soaking up the “schmoozy LA bullshitery.”

Finally, after a summer of record-breaking heat, rampant wildfires and a mass shooting, something good was happening.

Then it was over.

His little sister Lydia — his best friend and biggest fan — killed herself. She was 28.

“As soon as this happened, I was obviously devastated,” Cayton-Holland says. “I’m a comic and I didn’t feel funny, nor did I feel the desire to be funny. Life was not fun.

“But my livelihood was tied to this; I don’t have other skills,” he says with a laugh. “So I was like, shit, this is what I’m doing.”

Like they say, time marches on. Today, Cayton-Holland is about to start production on season three of his TruTV show Those Who Can’t, a slightly dark, absurdist sitcom about three highly dysfunctional high school teachers. Through the show he’s worked with Patton Oswalt and Bobcat Goldthwait, who Cayton-Holland calls a friend now. He’s got three comedy albums and a slew of late-night show credits, including one with his hero, Conan O’Brien.

On Aug. 21, he released his first book, Tragedy + Time, a tender memoir about his beautiful, smart, productive, neurotic family and their journey to acceptance in the wake of Lydia’s death.

The three Cayton-Holland children — Anna, Adam and Lydia — were sensitive children, raised by “politically active hippies,” their father a civil rights lawyer, their mother an investigative journalist. They were sensitive people, Cayton-Holland says of his parents, and they “begat even more sensitive children.”

The Cayton-Holland children attacked the world’s problems in their own ways: Anna became a lawyer, Adam a writer and comic, but Lydia — charming, lovely and brilliant — struggled to find her place.

“I don’t know what to tell people about coping because the hurt is never gone,” Cayton-Holland writes in the book. “I never tell them there’s hope or a timeline for overcoming such deep sorrow. I tell them matter-of-factly that it sucks, and it will always suck, and that the sooner you recognize that as the new reality, the sooner you’ll adapt to it, whatever that looks like for you. Whatever defeated new landscape your life takes on. It’s all very Russian.”

As clichéd as it is, we’re all drawn to the tortured artist, a fact that doesn’t escape Cayton-Holland. He’s no different, someone who loves Van Gogh and Elliott Smith precisely because they towed the razor’s edge of mental illness. Their pain was so visible in their art, their art so rich because of the pain.

But things look different now.

“We think that artists tap into some sort of truth that also taps into this dark black hole that sucks them away from us,” he says, “but that’s just an appreciation of art. We’re kind of wired that way to romanticize and fetishize. Myself, my sisters — Lydia and Anna — are no different. Once you go through it you realize what a privileged place that is to appreciate the tortured artist.”

The narrative of the tragic comedian runs deep. Cayton-Holland says that prior to Lydia’s death, a journalist once asked him how, as a middle class white man from a loving family, could he be so funny.

“I feel like good humor, good art, comes from sensitivity, just a wallflower quality where you observe people and notice things,” he says. “Whether you achieve that because you were trying to stick it to your dad who left when you were 4 or you achieved that because you were an awkward kid in middle school who didn’t fit in, it doesn’t make one person’s jokes funnier than the others — not really. So I don’t necessarily believe tragedy plus time equals comedy. I think comedy comes from a lot of different places. I think it’s important to take tragic things and try to make light of them so we can all just laugh it off and then talk about it.” 

On the Bill: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, Boulder Book Store, 107 Pearl St., Boulder.

7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, Newman Center for the Performing Arts, 2344 E. Illiff Ave., Denver.